HelenHayward

life writing

Month: August, 2015

the domestic myth

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Most of us feel fairly secure about our working lives. We may fret about the trajectory of our career, fantasise about switching to another line of work, or dally with launching a business. But generally we don’t have a problem valuing what we do when we’re at work. Our work life gives us back to ourselves. It integrates us, reflecting back a coherent and enhanced sense of self. We may experience pressure at work, we may even come to enjoy it. However this is because we’ve learned to deal with it, recognising that it gives us an edge that drives us on.

Home life, in contrast, presents us with particular challenges. When we’re at home we feel compelled to care about things – mess, dust bunnies and use-by dates – that in the larger scheme of things we don’t care about. Safe from the pressures of the world, we confront uncomfortable feelings and unmet dreams. Such that when a friend drops in unannounced we immediately fall into apologising for our messy house, or thrown-together meal, in a way that we’d never excuse ourselves at work.

Psychological studies have shown that the experience of being at home, where no-one tells us what to do, is more emotionally demanding than the experience of being at work. This is because at work the expectations on us are relatively clear and our performance is noted. It’s at home, where no routine is binding and every task is voluntary, that we are thrown back on ourselves. If I leave wet laundry in the washing machine for thirty-six hours straight, or fail to clean the shower grouting for a year, no housekeeping inspector will come to the front door and fine me.

This looseness, this freedom to make up our own minds about what is worth doing and not worth doing at home, is oddly challenging. Are we living up to the home life that we want for ourselves, that we dreamed of when we were young? Do we have the energy, come evening, to do the things that make us feel good about being at home – preparing loving food, playing with a pet, picking up a musical instrument, inviting a friend round?

The reality is that while we have high hopes for our home lives, many of us don’t live up to them. Domestic depression is rampant, even though we rarely call it that, much less talk about it. And yet this is what leads us to avoid inviting friends over midweek, telling ourselves that we are too busy to entertain. This is what leads us to put off going through ‘that’ cupboard, half shutting our eyes when we’re forced to open it. This is what causes us to let seedlings wilt in their pots, as if something as defenceless as a plant might incriminate us. This is what turns a small paint job that would make the world of difference to our home into an insurmountable demand that we understandably duck. And we avoid all these things, not because they are beyond us – what is so hard about planting out seedlings or picking up a paint brush? – because of the emotional pressure that we imagine they’ll put us under.

What I’ve come to feel, from my conversations about domesticity so far, is that the reason we think twice before talking freely about home life is that we take it very personally. If only I were better organised, you’ll tell me with a sigh. If only I had a cleaner, another will hint. If only I didn’t have a cleaner, still another will say, eyes big. If only I wasn’t renting and could decorate in my own style, my sister will say before she rings off. If only, I’ll return, suppressing my own sigh, my husband and kids were more willing in the kitchen. If only our particular problems could be solved, in other words, our domestic life would feel the way we would like it to feel – casual, chic and smooth. Rather than the loopy chaos that we so often experience it as.

Unlike the beauty myth, which most of us have toppled to, the domestic myth lives on in the nether regions of our minds, in a place where sympathy and understanding rarely reach. This may explain why, once we do talk openly about our home life, shining a light into these nether regions, the domestic myth soon collapses. There is, we discover, no Old Testament figure with beard and pointed finger who scorns our attempts to keep our home life on track. Once this happens, once we realise that our struggle with the laundry basket is shared, we gain a valuable perspective. We stop apologising for our messy house. The overflowing laundry basket no longer sparks embarrassment. Fear of judgment loses its sting when we accept that, like everyone else, we are simply doing our best to keep the dust at bay.

Instead lightness, even laughter, accompanies our efforts to look after our homes. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. There is no woman alive who scrubs her grouting, unclutters her cupboards, weeds her garden, shines cutlery, composts waste, changes fuses and perfects shortcrust pastry. All of us have better things to do than ensure that our saucepans never ever boil dry.

Besides there is a flip side, which is that most of us feel quiet pride in some aspect of our domestic lives. I might sew a garment in a weekend. A friend might fuss over cooking for friends and be pleased when her tart is appreciated. My sister might iron pillow cases, scent them with lavender, and give thanks to a life in which she can do this. It’s these small things, so often the important things, that stand in need of celebration – and that stand to get lost when we button up about home life.

Clearly men too housekeep. They too have cause to celebrate at home. Caring about our things and our spaces, loving them enough to maintain them over time, is an impulse shared by many. However without wanting to go deeply into gender bias, it’s my observation that women experience housekeeping in a very personal way. Keeping the bathroom basin clean is on the same continuum as blowing our nose when we’ve got a cold – and ensuring there are enough tissues in the cupboard when we do. Obviously men look after themselves and buy tissues too, however women feel this connection particularly acutely, and often unconsciously. While I’m loathe to reinforce gender stereotypes, I am seeking to understand women’s experience of domesticity with enough sensitivity and understanding that this area of our lives becomes more interesting to us, more open to change – and even liberation.

There is a lot more pleasure to be had at home than many of us think. We really can dream big domestic dreams and realise them. We can stuff mushrooms, go through our cupboards and win the war on stuff. It is possible to make demands on our home life which don’t then overwhelm us. And one important way to bring this about, which has somehow got left behind with the race for career advancement at the cost of domestic resilience, is by talking about our home life more openly. We really don’t have to solve all the challenges that we meet at home. Much of the answer lies in our willingness to talk about them.

One thread that runs through the twenty-five conversations I’ve had so far, each riveting in its way, is that none of us experiences our home life in the same way. How and why we do what we do at home is deeply revealing of what we care about most in life. It reflects our soul, our heart’s desire. ‘Know me, come to my home’, may not compel as a feminist statement, but it holds true for every woman I’ve spoken with.

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yoga versus crosstraining

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I’ve been to the same yoga studio, with it’s one yellow wall and wildly disproportionate female to male ratio, since coming to Hobart five years ago. I know the Indian terms for most of the poses, I’ve heard them so many times, though I wouldn’t be able to spell them.

I go to yoga because it gets to bits of me that other things don’t reach. During school holidays, when I can’t get to class, I know it not from the tightness in my lower back but from my impatience at home. Going to yoga twice a week after school drop off isn’t a great use of my time. I should be doing proper work at this time, I tell myself, not spending precious brain time doing downward-facing dog. But the benefits are real, as much for my peace of mind as for my range of movement, and so I keep going.

A year ago a cross-training business moved into the studio across the corridor from the yoga studio, where a carpet warehouse used to be. The music started blaring immediately, a heavy thump-thump that made a joke of the dividing wall between our studio and theirs. At first the yoga teacher made light of it. Rather than being distracted by our monkey minds, we were being tested by heavy metal workouts across the way.

I did my best to stem my righteous annoyance, the opposite of the calm I was supposed to be cultivating. Then one morning after class, unable to contain myself, I went into the cross-training studio to complain about the music. I could see the frowns on their faces even as I opened the door. After a couple of civil minutes, they agreed to adjust the volume down, and I left the studio feeling mixed.

For a few weeks things were better. Hooray, I thought to myself, pushing into a pigeon pose and holding it for a few minutes. Just at that moment a woman’s shrill voice, not unlike a drill sargeant, barked orders against loud pop music. Again I held off for a couple of lessons before asking the cross-trainers to turn the volume down. Again the two owners frowned as I entered the studio and frostily agreed to ask their new teacher to tone it down a little. Again I felt mixed – vindicated yet wrong – on leaving their studio.

Months passed. We were like the Muslims and the Christians, I told myself. No amoung of negotiation could heal the divide between us, the cross-trainers and the yoga people. And yet we arrived at the same time for morning class, we left our shoes in the same corridor, and we all left our classes ready to tackle the day.

Luckily for us, the yoga people, cross-training sessions are over quicker than yoga. When we finally lie down on our mats for bridge pose and a final meditation, the cross-trainers are putting their shoes on sweaty feet and leaving. Quite possibly were it not for this difference – I find meditation challenging enough – I’d have found another yoga studio months ago.

A few weeks ago I was walking down the lane outside the yoga studio after a Friday class, wondering what my day would bring and feeling completely relaxed. At that moment one of the owners of the cross-training studio walked up the lane, barely visible beneath two jumbo packs of toilet paper. ‘I’ve read your book,’ she said. ‘I really enjoyed it. You covered lots of interesting people’. ‘Thank you’, I said. ‘You’re a great writer’, she added. ‘That’s very kind’, I replied, knowing how far from Balzac and Tolstoy I’d always be, even while I knew that her use of the word great wasn’t at all the way I’d heard it. Perhaps, I thought to myself as I came out of the lane, yoga people and cross-trainers aren’t so different after all.

to satisfy

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Years ago I read a lot of Freud in The British Library in London. Though it wasn’t easy reading I kept on with it because Freud explained things about life that no-one else had managed to explain to me. Towards the end of his career, in Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote something that I immediately copied into my notebook. He wrote that while we can’t be responsible for our happiness, it being too dependent on things outside our control, ultimately we were responsible for our experiences of satisfaction. At that time in my life, not yet thirty, Freud’s idea seemed wonderfully straightforward. Of course it was up to me to discover what I found personally satisfying, and to bring this about in my life.

But as the years passed this became less straightforward. Once I had a family it became that much harder to feel anything as simple as personal satisfaction. Much of the time I felt happy, and I often felt content, but satisfaction – that deep feeling of all being well, of a job well done, a feeling as real as sating hunger – often eluded me. There were flashes, when what I wanted and what I had came together. But not as many as I’d have liked.

Friends without children shook their heads. Why can’t you just leave your family aside, they’d say, and do your own thing once in a while? On paper the answer was yes. Of course I could do those things that I found personally satisfying, even while being bound up with family. But in practice I struggled to – even now that my kids are teenagers. And especially, if I’m really honest, on the weekend.

Why is it that I put my family’s well-being before my own? Sometimes it’s if I’m more alive to my family’s demands for satisfaction than I am to my own. When supper is late, or I forget something important, I become almost afraid of my family’s frustration with me. My own frustration I can deal with, but not theirs. Do I fear they’ll fall apart if I’m not around to catch them? Do I fear the loss of their love if it turns out they don’t need me? Will they fall into a primordial soup if I focus my attention away from them? Is my skin really so thin that I can’t focus on what makes my spirit sing without being distracted by the needs of the people I love most?

Well, yes, sheepishly yes. I do fear all these things. Like it or not, I feel that I’m the person who holds things together in my family. Besides, and here’s the paradox, I like helping make my the lives of my family more possible. I like seeing their spirits sing and feeling that I’ve played a small part in this. I like boosting their confidence enough for them to seek their own satisfactions, just as my parents once did for me.

And yet like so many mothers, I struggle to carve out time to do things – a bit of sewing here and there – that I find personally satisfying. Things that aren’t work and aren’t family either. I’ve now been a mother for so long that it can feel counter-intuitive to put myself first, to say to myself that I’ve done enough magic for others and need to keep back some for myself. Even though I also know that ultimately this is the biggest favour that I can do for the people I love most.

one lovely thing

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There are so many ways to change one’s life. I come up with them all the time. With one fell swoop a single change will iron out every wrinkle, leaving a smooth finish. But the loftier my intentions the more quickly they fall over. Whether it’s yoga before breakfast, or decluttering the house, or reading something worth reading before bed. Before a month is up my best laid plans are flotsam, stymied by school holidays, or a work deadline.

And so I have decided to come in from another angle. My aim is simple. It’s to make one lovely thing each day. Over and above those things I feel compelled to do – shopping, cooking, laundry, writing – the plan is to make something each day that feeds my soul. It might be putting a flower in a vase. It might be playing a piece on the piano. It might be a drawing or a dessert. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s more about finding time to do whatever it is that feeds me in this special way, while making sure not to turn it into a demand or chore.

I have tried meditating. I have tried being mindful. And yet what I have found is that I lose myself in a way that makes me feel most whole when I am making or doing something at home. Often it flops – my biscuits are sometimes sorry things. Rarely is what I make perfect. Nothing I sew can be mistaken for something bought in a shop. And yet everything that I make have a little bit of me in them.

This feeling that I get from making things doesn’t come naturally. Left to my own I’ll lose precious time online, or wash down cupboard doors in the kitchen. It’s a feeling that I have to set up for, it involves a bit of a chase. Which is why I’m putting time aside daily to make something lovely, for no other reason than that it gives me this feeling that I find hard to describe.

My teenage son mocks my delight in lovely things. The black bike that he leaves propped in our hall is, in his opinion, the most beautiful object in our house. The rest, he says dismissively, is just vanity. But, I think to myself, it isn’t only vanity. Seeking a little bit of loveliness every day isn’t to be laughed at. And if everyone did it, how nice would that be? Just imagine if, instead of asking what each other what we do in terms of work, we asked each other a different question. What is the last lovely thing that you made?