HelenHayward

life writing

Month: February, 2017

playing cards

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There comes a point most evenings, supper over, when my teenage daughter can’t help herself. Too tired to take herself off to bed she directs one small insult after another in the direction of her father. None of her remarks are wrong – her father needs a haircut, he eats loudly, he taps his phone – and all of them hit the mark. Even though my husband mostly agrees with them my daughter will then apologise. Until, before a minute is up, another taunt pops out of her mouth.

 

Sitting at the table my daughter props herself up on one arm and refuses to go to bed. Not because she isn’t tired but because she is too tired to drag herself up the stairs. Besides the sooner she goes to bed the sooner she’ll have to get up the next morning and face the school day all over again.

 

‘Shall we play a game?’ I ask, wanting to move things on. ‘Good idea’, says my husband, ignoring my daughter’s automatic ‘No’. My husband likes to play cards at the kitchen table however my daughter likes us to keep our dog company next door which means sitting cross-legged on a rug on the floor. But first I grumble about having to do the washing up – our dishwasher hasn’t worked for five months and my husband and daughter know that by rights they should do it, and sometimes they do.

 

After cleaning up the kitchen I cut some fruit and break off a few squares of chocolate which I put on a plate to share with my husband and daughter on the rug next door. This is when the magic happens. As we pick up our cards my daughter’s taunts stop along with my kitchen grumbles. My husband slips his phone inside his jacket pocket. Our dog walks into the middle of our card game, puts up a paw for attention, and one of us gently pushes her aside. Then we squabble about who will go first, and the game begins.

 

The game we play most is Monopoly Deal, a card version of the famous board game complete with property, chance and community chest cards. My daughter, who is shrewd and quick, nearly always wins. She’ll play to the death, squeaking and pounding her fist on the floor if her plans go awry. My husband plays his cards close to his chest with all the zeal of a merchant banker. Meanwhile I just play – at times so stupidly that my daughter claps her head in amazement.

 

In my mind it doesn’t really matter what we play. What matters is that we play a game that allows us to drop our kitchen table defences for a while – the sparring that starts the second we sit opposite or next to each other at supper each night. The mask that defines and limits who we are in relation to each other, a dynamic far more powerful than I’d have imagined possible had I not experienced it during my own childhood with my parents and sisters.

 

Playing cards in the evening helps the three of us come to terms with the oddness of our life together. It also brings my son passingly into the room – the big brother who could never bear to let his younger sister win.

 

By the time we’ve finished a second round of Monopoly Deal the fact of school the next day can no longer be ignored. My daughter grabs the cards off my husband who, she claims, can’t shuffle properly. She puts the cards face down on the rug, moves her hands through them like dry ingredients, before bringing them together into a satisfying pile which sits on the mantle piece until our next game.

stay-at-home mother

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I was sitting at my desk at an hour I should have been in bed when I spied four words tucked into the blurb for my new book, a memoir of family life. Stay-at-home mother. What, I thought, staring at the tiny print of these four words on the pdf, does my publisher mean? Hasn’t she read my manuscript? How dare she describe me as a stay-at-home mother!

It was well after midnight by the time I’d composed my tactful response to the publisher. I pointed out how important work has always been to me, alongside family, and that in my mind I’ve always worked. My book, I explained, is about the conflict between personal ambition and devotion to family. I never meant to suggest that family is more important than work.

Even as I wrote my tactful email, worrying about the sleep I wasn’t having, I knew that I was more upset than I should be. I knew that the more reasonable my sentences the more hysterical I felt. I knew I was staving off the fear that I was being written off as a tracksuit wearing, play-dough making, healthy eating, mummy blogging, stay-at-home mother.

Next morning the publisher emailed back saying that she would take in my comments and send through a revised back cover. That night, still incensed, I mentioned the exchange to my teenage daughter as we sat on the couch kicking each other’s feet after a video. ‘But’, she said, ‘you are a stay-at-home mother’. ‘But’, I replied, petulant, ‘I’m never at home when you get home from school’. At which my daughter gave me her Don’t You Know Anything look. ‘Thanks a lot’, I said, thinking that her insult was the latest in a long line of comments unconsciously aimed at pulling me down so as to make separating from me easier. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it’, said my husband, turning off the television and aiming to console. ‘It’s just one of those terms that stick the more you fight them’.

I let it slide, but those four words didn’t go away. A week went by. Wondering what my manuscript was really about, this morning I sat in a café and read it through. Forcing myself to keep my pen in my bag, knowing that I’d make changes if I had it in my hand, I read on and on – past the time I should have left the café for Yoga. Embarrassed at how long I’d sat reading, I chatted to the waitress who told me some of her complicated feelings about being a single mother of a two-year-old. ‘There’s just so much judgment around motherhood’, she said. ‘Yes’, I agreed.

That’s when it came to me – as I took in the parking ticket on my windscreen and groaned inwardly. The opening paragraph of an earlier version of my manuscript – there have been many – sailed whole into my mind. It was a paragraph that I’d thought better of and deleted. It described my mother – who had four girls in six years – hissing her displeasure whenever the subject of working mothers came up. In her view working mothers – excluding those women who absolutely had to work – were selfish. Working mothers deserved what they got if their kids went off the rails further down the line. So intent was my mother in attacking working mothers that I vowed I’d never sacrifice myself to family in the way that I felt – as a teenager – she had.

Today the boot is on the other foot – mine. Today I am the one telling myself that I haven’t sacrificed myself to family, whatever my publisher and daughter tell me. Sure, I reassure myself, I’ve surrendered to family life. But that isn’t the same as sacrifice – something I couldn’t begin to understand on overhearing my mother hissing about working mothers as a teenager. But who am I kidding? The line between sacrifice and surrender is so fine that it blurs. I have let my kids take me for granted. I have dropped everything when the school nurse called. I have put my work on the back boiler during school holidays and illness. I have let my husband’s career gallop to the slow trot of my own. I have cooked more meals than would like to count, and paired more socks than I thought it possible to pair.

Walking round the city that I moved to with my family for quality of life reasons eight years ago it came to me why I’ve been so upset at being branded a stay-at-home mother. It’s something so obvious that I hadn’t seen it, hidden in plain sight.

The world has changed so much since I grew up that my mother’s hissing at working mothers has flipped into reverse. Now the hissing goes the other way. These days I am the one who is hissed at by my publisher and daughter for being a stay-at-home mother. These days the value of my life feels under attack by a label created by all the pent-up rage of an unrest at the heart of social life that, left unexpressed, takes the form of ongoing sniping between working and stay-at-home mothers. The more rational our arguments about motherhood, the more unconscious affect bleeds into them.

In my mother’s day working mothers were in the minority and stay-at-home mothers were the norm. Now the numbers go the other way. Spending time with your children is encouraged. Staying at home with them – suggestive of passivity and defence – is not. Self-declared stay-at-home mothers use their role as a badge of self-righteous abnegating honour, irritating the pants off the majority of women who embrace the real world juggle that is working motherhood.

What does it mean that one of the most powerful ways we can undermine each other as women is via the way we mother our children? Are we really so existentially insecure that we can only feel okay about ourselves by sticking pins into other women on the basis of the so-called choices they have made about how they look after their children? What does it mean that in surrendering myself to the demands of family I end up feeling humiliated by a taunt as scorching as the names gays and foreigners were once branded with? Once upon a time, a paid-up lecturer at The University of London, I taught Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now I have my very own scarlet letter – S.

Then I remember why I wrote this memoir. I wrote it not for the media to tie me to the stake of stay-at-home motherhood and dance a jig around it. I wrote about family life over a fifteen-year span in order to make sense of an experience that was bigger and far more interesting than anything I’d been led to expect. I wrote it for another woman, equally bewildered by the pace of family life, to read in the bath after a long day. I wrote it because until I’d written about family life I couldn’t write intelligently about anything else. And I wrote it for my god-daughter who I looked after as a toddler, who tells me that she wanders around London in her lunch break noticing the baby bumps of passing women, wondering if she’ll ever have a baby who makes her want to stay at home.

painting the kitchen

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I’ve wanted to change the look of our kitchen for years now, but the expense and time involved always put me off. Just the sight of my painting overalls, rolled up and pushed to the back of the wardrobe, was enough to dispel any fantasies left over from our last renovation. Until one day two weeks ago I borrowed a design magazine from our local library with a kitchen on the cover that I liked such a lot that it overcame my reluctance to pick up a paint brush ever again.

 

Daunted by the task of renovating a big old house, seven years ago, I painted all the rooms off white. I added some deeper tones to the woodwork but otherwise kept it simple. The month I finished decorating a friend came to stay. A week later a book arrived in the post, a thank you present from my friend. It was a coffee table book of English interiors published by a high-end paint company. Many a night I stayed up late lusting after the casual elegance of the rooms in this book. Yet I didn’t trust my fancies. Was I taken by the book’s clever photography? Its artful styling?

 

Even though I sensed my friend was hinting that my house could do with a bit more colour, I put the book aside. I’d look at it now and then in the same way that I flick through favourite cookbooks standing up. However I gave up the idea of transforming our house by painting the rooms interesting colours. Until that is the day I picked up the design magazine in the local library which had on the cover a kitchen I hadn’t known I’d always wanted. The whites and greys and unpainted wood chimed with me so deeply that I determined to turn round our kitchen in the two weeks of school holidays remaining.

 

Seven years ago my husband and I made up our renovation as we went along. For six weeks everything went well – we liked the same kind of things, this we felt was our strength. But then the stress of having to replace all the electrics followed by the roof and a chimney began to show. By this point I became so desperate for a working kitchen that I agreed to a kitchen bench the same length as our old galley kitchen in London. The new kitchen was installed in an afternoon and for all the months and years after that I regretted my haste.

 

Seven years on, older but probably not wiser, I decided to try out my ideas with a professional. A local architect, stressing it wasn’t his usual practice, agreed to a one-off consult. He arrived on time carrying a notebook and wearing a black tshirt and jeans. After chatting for an hour the architect told me that given that the kitchen is the most expensive room in the house, and given the Nordic look he felt I was aspiring to, it would perhaps be easiest to rip out our existing kitchen and to start again from scratch.

 

Disheartened at the cost estimated by the architect, and by the waste of throwing out a tired but functioning kitchen, I gave up my idea of renovating the kitchen, embarrassed by the hubris of thinking that I deserved better than what I already had.

 

Late that night I picked up the design magazine lying on the stairs, leafed idly through it to the kitchen I liked, and just like that my wish came back. At first I fought it. Renovating the kitchen was a first-world problem. Caring about the look of my kitchen was vanity. The gravity of world affairs made my desire for an attractive kitchen wanton. Was I destined to live my life caring about all the wrong things? Yet still I wanted it.

 

Opening up the magazine I put the page under the bright light of the kitchen hob and looked at it long and hard. Glancing up I took in the smattering of fat on the wall above the hob, the burnt bubbles in the grey linoleum top of the kitchen bench, and the tarnished fake brass knobs of the cupboards. Then I imagined a tall kitchen table, as high as our waist-high bench, with stools and an arc floor lamp reaching from the window to the middle of the table. At that moment, well past when I should have been in bed, I decided to renovate the kitchen myself.

 

Choosing a colour for the kitchen cupboards was only slightly harder than choosing a composite stone – there were hundreds to select from – for a new kitchen bench. (Though it wasn’t quite as hard as unrolling my painting clothes and getting out the paint brushes.) I liked so many of the colours in the coffee table paint book that choosing just one felt impossible. It wasn’t just choosing the shade that foxed me. It was wondering whether I really loved the colours I was staring at. Or was I secretly envying the lives of the people who lived in the rooms painted French Grey and Boston Green?

 

My daughter meanwhile was busy in the basement making a waist-high kitchen bench from floorboards and round fence posts – not exactly Nordic but inexpensive, striking and strong. During this process we had two blow ups, each time caused by my realisation that she was making the bench that she was able to make, and not the bench I fantasied having. Both times she only slowly forgave me.

 

Unable to find the blue grey shade I wanted for the kitchen cupboards on any commercial paint chart I cut a swatch from the English paint book and asked the man at our local paint shop to match it. However the duck egg turquoise colour he matched it to had neither the depth nor subtlety of the shade in the paint book – even after living with the colour for three days and wishing myself to like it. With that I put away the paint book and decided that just having clean white walls and a new kitchen bench and new knobs would be enough of a transformation.

 

Then came three days of painting – which might have been two if I’d been able to overcome my resistance to donning my painting clothes before 11am. Listening to my daughter’s Spotify song list, and intermittent podcasts of talks, I repainted the kitchen and pantry walls off white and the cupboards a cream colour. During this time my husband – who let me have my way in the kitchen – came and went, coming in for cheese and biscuits when I allowed him access to the fridge in the pantry, and avoiding the kitchen when he sensed my Cinderella-like seething at being trapped in the kitchen for hours on end with just a paint roller for company.

 

Too often I’d lose myself in the vortex of Trump journalism on the net, stunned at the rate at which world events outpaced the time it took to paint our kitchen and pantry. Or I’d spend a precious hour searching for an arching floor lamp, in turns lost in admiration for Scandinavian design and disgusted by the inexhaustible availability of the market and its disregard of environmental impact. Or I’d chase local joiners, none of whom seemed interested in remaking a single kitchen cupboard when plenty of other customers were keen to rip out their entire kitchen to install a new one.

 

Last night I took up the dust sheets, scraped the paint blobs off the floorboards and put the paint pots away. I looked around. It wasn’t my fantasy kitchen, and my lower back ached from moving a big ladder around. Yet I felt thrilled to have done what I’d wanted to do and had been blocked from doing for so long.

 

Half an hour later my husband, daughter and I flipped over the bench my daughter had made. The moment we righted it my daughter raced upstairs to her room in disappointment at the bench not being the way she’d imagined it. For a few minutes my husband and I stood in the kitchen, amazed at the way the new bench transformed the space that has been the stage for so much of our family life, struck by how much it would shape our life to come.

 

The kitchen bench is big and dominates the room. It is dark and shiny – not light and bare like the table of the kitchen on the cover of the magazine. And yet I love it. Not just because my daughter made it – for a fee I should add – from materials from the hardware store and tip shop. But because having a tall bench in the middle of the kitchen changes the room dramatically. Having a tall bench in the kitchen tells me that I really don’t know what is coming next, that I really am making life up as I go along, and that just when I think I know what I want something else – even better – comes along to surprise me.