helen hayward

life writing

Month: May, 2016

domesticity and me


‘A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life’. Growing up I never questioned these words by English writer Rose Macauley. Like all my girlfriends I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive, unfulfilling tasks that full-time work was designed to release women from – this much we knew. There was nothing actually wrong with housekeeping and cooking and growing things. They were just much less important than staying abreast of work demands, travelling to far-flung places and having a five-year plan.


And so began my secret life. Even as a teenager, making my bedroom attractive gave me especial pleasure. However this pleasure was tinged with the fear that it was the wrong kind of thing to be keen on. Shouldn’t I be more interested in politics, business and my own career, than in painting my bedroom and taking up the carpet? However clearly I wasn’t the only one. Even in the eighties the world was awash with how-to books on domesticity, magazines boasting stunningly svelte homes, and home management experts who got something over and above money from clearing out clients’ cupboards.


But then I moved overseas and began what I thought of as my real life. Moving through my twenties, each year more focused on a career in publishing and higher education, I was giving over a chunk of each day to cooking, organising, errands and shopping – to housekeeping in fact. This involved time, imagination and effort. But it was time, imagination and effort that I wouldn’t credit. Something in me refused to recognise all my big and small efforts to keep my home life pleasant, as at all related to the kind of work that I did in an office.


In those days I never imagined that bringing back a gleaming kitchen, after a long dinner, would one day give me a moment of pride. Even into my thirties I had no inkling that domestic rituals like flowers on the windowsill, a casserole simmering, would ever come to feel like an achievement. But then in my thirties I started a family, and overnight my love of domesticity was awakened. From one day to the next I stopped fantasising that someone else might look after me, and instead I got on with looking after us all. Overnight I embraced the imaginative and practical efforts that a family home demands. I no longer felt in conflict over the value of domesticity. Housekeeping no longer felt like a waste of my time. If I was to be at home with two small children, for much but not all of the time, I wanted to be able to look round our home around and feel glad to be there.


I am no domestic romantic and this was no happily ever after. I knew from the start why I found housekeeping so demanding. It was demanding to the extent that it meant caring about things which ultimately I didn’t care about. (Was that bottle of milk in the fridge still fresh? And where was my son’s other shoe?). And so I knew from the start that if I wasn’t going to fall into periodic resentments and moanings that I would have to be a bit clever.


If I was to be true to the ambitions that meant so much to me, it was in my interest to keep our home life running smoothly. Mainly because when I didn’t I had neither time nor energy left, either side of daily practicalities, to do the kind of things that made being at home feel worthwhile (playing music, planning meals, planting from seed, baking a cake, picking herbs from near the back door, yoga before breakfast). Which is a roundabout way of saying that having ambitions for my domestic life, plus the courage and energy to realise them, soon became a pressing issue once I found myself housekeeping for a family of four in an old house with a largeish garden plus an active dog.


The bottom line is that I never wanted for my home life just to work. I didn’t want just to cope domestically. I wanted a buoyancy in my home life. I wanted it to be the backbone of my life. Ultimately for it to help me feel whole. That said I’ve never expected it to be everything. I’ve been a wife, mother and ex-psychotherapist for long enough to know that focusing solely on domesticity was to be one step short of madness. (‘Every mother is mad in her own way’, wrote French writer Marguerite Duras, ‘because being a mother is a form of madness’.) Nonetheless, and I think more importantly, I now look to my home life to strengthen and ground me – a feeling confirmed by two recent deaths in my family. In my mind the paediatrician Donald Winnicott was right when he said that home is where we start from.


These days I just accept that an attractive, welcoming and well-run home is important to me. It’s no longer a debate that I feel I have to have. I don’t worry that the time and energy I spend keeping it that way is misspent. Flowers on the windowsill and stock on the stove are both things I openly value. Details, the little things, matter to me – often giving me more satisfaction than the big things. Equally the short term is also the long term – if I care about the atmosphere in my home today I feel sure I’ll care about it in ten years’ time.


I want big things as well. Now that my kids are taller than me, and my marriage is pulling at the seams, my ambitions are more worldly. Nonetheless I’m still my most grounded, at ease and free, when caught up doing things at home. I’m not set on perfection – having a family put paid to living in a magazine. And I’ll always be a good but not great cook – I cook because I love my family and want us to eat well, not because I love cooking. Even so the daily circus of housekeeping now feels like a personal accomplishment, rather than a mere competence. And no less an act of love.






fear of being at home


All week I long for the weekend. I long for the focus, the uninterrupted hours, the break from worldly demands that being at home offers. I long for the chance to do those things that I love to do rather than have to do. But then the weekend comes around and those two precious days slip clean though my fingers. One minute they are there before me, shining with possibility. And the next they are gone, a closed gate behind.


Nearly all of us have domestic longings, though we may call them by other names. We may love to bake or print or simply for a few golden minutes to coax a vine up a lattice. We may love doing these things for their own sake. But not just for their own sake. Activities like these – as tactile as kneading bread or as incidental as putting a flower in a vase – bring us back to ourselves. They give us time to pause and draw back. They make us feel real and grounded.


Everyone’s list of what they like to do at home to bring them back to themselves and make them feel real is different. For me it’s drawing a small still life with coloured pencils, as I chat on the phone. For my husband it’s designing a house that he’ll probably never build on scaled paper. For a friend it’s sewing with friends once a week. And for another it’s sorting through photos to create a family album.


So often we don’t get round to doing the things that, at the end of a long week, make our spirit sing. Instead we are waylaid by seemingly more pressing demands. We give reasons which even at the time sound like excuses for not doing those things that everything being equal – which they never are – we know we like to spend time at home doing.


Much of our social lives involve going out – to work, to events, for sport, on holidays and to see friends. In contrast much of our personal life involves going in – to talk intimately, to read, to share a meal, to stare out a window, to make things. We know how important things like these are to our sense of self – putting our home in order, inviting friends round, completing a project – and yet so often inexplicably we put them off. Instead we grab the car keys, go out for a walk or flick on a screen.


I know why I do this. The main reason I fear being at home is that so much seems up to me when I’m there. When I put my key in the front door that’s it. There are no instructions, no rules of the game, no list of priorities. There is no-one to tell me what I should do and when I should do it. Nor for that matter is there is anyone on hand to give me imaginative permission to satisfy my domestic longings, or to credit my efforts when I’m done. There is no audience to reassure me that my hundreds of tiny efforts to make my home life pleasant are worthwhile.


We laugh at fifties housewives who had nothing better to do than to shine their linoleum until it gleamed. We’d never say it out loud, but we feel sorry for women who pride themselves on grating laundry flakes from soap. We wonder at the inconvenience of this kind of domestic do-goodery, and at what it would be like to have anything resembling a household schedule of our own.


No wonder I avoid spending long periods of time at home. No wonder I find it easier to complete my writing hours in the local library, where the demands of domestic life can’t reach me. No wonder I can only get back my peace of mind, and sit clear-eyed at my desk in my study, once I’ve cleared up the kitchen and my teenagers are in bed at night.


The bottom line is that when I’m at home I’m in a fairly constant state of confusion about what I should be doing. Should I be pairing socks in the laundry or calling my lonely aunt? Should I be making school lunches or checking my diary for the next day? Should I be training the dog to welcome strangers at the front door or chopping onions for supper? Should I be coaxing my daughter out of her grump with a snack or fixing the sprinkler out the front? Should I be feeding the worms or vacuuming the stairs?


Why am I driven more by the demands of domestic life, than by my desires for it? How is it that my desire for a simple candlelit dinner with family is so often stymied by my need to vanquish my To Do list? Is it because time at home slips like sand through my fingers? Is it because, from the calm perspective of my work life, domestic demands always seem more doable than undertaking them turns out to be? Is it because I underestimate the courage I need to tackle household tasks that I instinctively avoid? Is it because I discount the emotional energy required to put supper on the table each night? Is it because I fail to realistically factor how much time various household tasks added together actually take?


All this explains why I fear being at home, even as I long for it. I long for a warm hearth on a stormy day. I long for the scent of a slow-cooked casserole wafting up the stairs. I long for shiny floors and, yes, gleaming bench-tops. I also long to sit and draw as I chat to my aunt on the phone, and hang up with the sense that all is well. And yet so often I miss out on things like these because I feel I’m not on top of the running of our home. With the result that on the weekend I spend more time catching up on domestic demands, than I do pursuing my domestic longings.


But I am learning. I now fear being at home much less. These days I give myself a certain amount of time to get on top of what needs to be done, while keeping back enough time for the things that mean so much to me. I am having piano lessons. I put flowers in vases. I cook for friends the night before they come for dinner. I am learning to spell out my domestic longings so that they stand up better against the demands that just do seem to be bound up with running a family home.


I am quietly looking forward to the day when my family won’t need me so much, and my To Do list is that much shorter. Because once the hurly burly of family life is over, apart from pride in my home, it will be the satisfaction of my longings that I’ll treasure.