Much of my childhood was spent lying in a rectangle of sun, near our front door, resting on my elbows reading. My mother would rustle by, bringing in the post or padding up the stairs, arms heavy with folded washing. These days it’s the other way around. Now my children lie on the floor reading as I rustle past. I’ve swapped places with the girl who lay on the carpet reading with the mother who pads up the stairs, unable to see the steps for folded washing. Even though in important ways I’m still that girl.
Over the last twenty five years I’ve looked after three homes, a first-floor flat in London, a Victorian house in Melbourne, and an old house in Hobart. Their solidity, beauty and infernal cobwebs have framed my love for family. Their warmth and security have given me enormous support as a woman, mother, writer and wife. And yet even though I’ve poured a huge amount of energy and time into these homes, I rarely talk about this side of myself. Creating and caring for my home, while deeply informing the woman I’ve become, is something I keep to myself.
Perhaps the reason I never recognised my love for home, when I was younger, is that for as long as I lived a simple life, without a family and house that is, caring for my home was no big deal. I could fit everything in. It wasn’t a struggle. It never asked too much of me to be a burden.
But I want to tread carefully. I don’t want to join the all too familiar ‘housework is drudgery’ chorus. Because what I’ve discovered, over the years, is that done in the right spirit housekeeping can be just as uplifting as any other activity. Besides, I’ll think to myself, as I put our house to rights, surely life is long enough to allow for a period of domesticity while my children are growing up? Railing against our mushrooming laundry basket gets me nowhere. Accepting it, knowing that in a few years time it will have shrunk to its natural size, is instantly calming.
Housekeeping, note, isn’t the same as housework. Housekeeping includes cooking, organising, playing, cleaning, nursing, gardening, airing bedding and changing the battery in the smoke alarm. It’s a far larger animal, consuming more time and energy, than the relatively tame housework animal.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to open the blinds all over the house. Often I don’t have time to do this. I should be in the shower, or corralling Alex and Emma into the kitchen. But for me the day only really begins when there is light streaming through the windows. Likewise when breakfast is over, instead of flushing us out the door, I’ll wipe the kitchen table and rinse the chopping board. Even when I’m rushing I’ll do this. It’s a favour that I do myself. So that, when I return home later in the day, I’m not met by kitchen mess.
Even so there are times when the child is sufficiently alive in me to feel quiet outrage at the parade of tasks that my family’s upkeep requires. One morning, feeling domestic madness about to envelope me, I sat down and wrote a list of all the tasks that, joined together, explain why I run late for everything. This is what I regularly spend my time doing, when I really should be doing other more important things, housekeeping being closer to an obstacle course than real work. My list starts with the obvious, before spiraling to smaller tasks that explain housekeeping’s accordion-like stretch. Here goes: clearing up the kitchen, putting away dishes, making beds, opening windows, cleaning up the bathroom, deciding what’s for supper, putting clothes away, scooping up pyjamas, sweeping the kitchen floor, putting out the rubbish, keeping on top of laundry, ironing, vacuuming, changing sheets, picking up shoes, opening mail, dusting, cleaning the hob, sorting the freezer, switching off appliances, writing lists, hunting for library books, rinsing the water filter, checking the milk is in date, soaking clothes, clearing fluff from the dryer, refilling a vase, sorting underwear, using the cobweb brush, cleaning the kettle, and watering the garden.
Please don’t mistake my list. Reading it back, it looks like a list that a character from The Magic Faraway Tree might come up with. Besides I never actually do all these things. I can’t remember when I last peered into the kettle with cleaning it in mind, refilled a vase, or for that matter changed the battery in the smoke alarm. However when I’m in housekeeping mode it crosses my mind that I really should do these things. Also note the lack of order in my list, which is how I go about working through it. I’ve never thought ahead, ‘I really must change the vacuum cleaner bag this morning’. Instead I’ll get out the vacuum cleaner, dust comes through, and I’ll think, ‘Bother, the bag needs changing’.
Thankfully there is a flip side to housekeeping. Which is that there is something rather wonderful about being on top of it. It doesn’t happen often, no more than once a week, but it does happen. My children think that it’s normal for them to come home after school, drop their bags in the hall, and be welcomed into a well-run home. Only I know what a daily miracle it really is.
During my first ten years of motherhood I simply couldn’t imagine there would ever come a day when Alex and Emma wouldn’t need me. But then Alex turned ten and I changed my mind. It wasn’t a light-bulb moment. It was more a dawning awareness that, because his childhood was more than half over, my days of looking after them were numbered.
This is why I’ve wanted to make this period, my domestic period, as rich as possible. For my sake as much as theirs. Perhaps I’d grown less sophisticated with age. Perhaps I’ve been derailed by family life. But I prefer to think that on entering middle age, with deeper responsibilities and more constraints on my time, I’m now clearer about what I find satisfying. The world has changed by the day, yet I still derive real satisfaction from a homemade pie, parsley grown from seed, and a hand-drawn card.
This is the nub of it. Having a family has forced me to slow down. It has given me time to think about how I want to live. All those hours kicking leaves in local parks has helped me to think through what matters, and what I care about most. And having identified these things, it’s now impossible for me not to care about them. I’m always going to prefer a home-cooked meal over a takeaway one. I’m always going to admire a homely garden over a manicured one. And I’m always going to prefer a Sunday afternoon spent dressmaking at the kitchen table, over attending a blousy public event.
These days I work physically harder than I ever did before I had children and had only a flat to care for. And yet I’m happier in myself. I’m less neurotic. I wouldn’t want to housekeep as intently as I do forever, but I’m proud of the way I run our home. Scrubbing the bath and writing a blog post, cooking a roast and doing a drawing, these seem like good things to spend the middle part of my life doing.
Before having a family I was a bit vague about what I believed in. Fortunately life was kind enough for this not to matter too much. However now that my family and home are what I care about most, and now that life has been a bit less kind, my beliefs about the value of home life have become central.
Women have been associated with the home for hundreds of years. Keeping the home fires burning and darning the holes in Johnny’s socks have been women’s tasks for centuries. But no longer. My generation has taken its collective apron off. The microwave has replaced the wood-burning oven, and the nylon in Johnny’s cheap socks has ruled out the need to sit by the fire and mend them. And yet what I’ve come to realise is that it’s the domestic arts that give rhythm, depth and style to family life. And that when I expend with them, when I can’t be bothered baking bread or picking herbs or lighting the fire or playing the piano, I lose things of real value. Because once I take these things out of family life there isn’t much left. At the end of the day these are still the things – bowls of steaming soup, piles of folded washing, seeds germinating in pots, music practice in the next room – that make our home a rich and rewarding place to be.