fear of being at home

by haywardhelen


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.