I was in my late twenties by the time I got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the kind of book – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace – that were it not for its doorstop thickness I might have read already. Somehow it had never been the right time: never rainy enough, never sick enough, never curious enough. Until one September I began post-graduate study and went into therapy in the same month. My therapist lived in North London and I lived in South London, involving a long Tube trip twice a week, and it was during this commute that I picked up The Second Sex.
Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book confirmed every misgiving I’d ever had about the pitfalls of domestic life. The timing of my reading, in the arc of my life, was impeccable. On the one hand I was entertaining the idea of having a baby. On the other I feared the snare that might drop on my head if I gave in to this wish. ‘Washing, ironing, sweeping out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper’. It was hard enough keeping my life afloat even without a baby in the mix. What would it be like if I started a family and my ambitions were reduced to ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes?
Around this time I attended a friend’s wedding, thrown by her father and new stepmother. On arriving at the reception my friend’s stepmother opened the front door, greeted my partner and me, and immediately bent down to pick some confetti off the carpet. This was a tiny thing. Yet for me it captured why my slightly messy friend might be struggling to get on with her neat-loving stepmother.
At the time I felt critical of my friend’s stepmother, caring about confetti on the carpet when a marriage was happening around her. But the next day I realised that my criticism of my friend’s stepmother was really self criticism. Because I knew that, in terms of domestic affinities, I was closer to my friend’s stepmother than to my messy friend. I knew if ever I entered family life there was a high chance that I would join my friend’s stepmother and women like her in their preoccupation with Things That Don’t Matter. I knew that if I had a family of my own I may well spend my best energies, my most fertile years, in the business of eradicating mess, and so fail to create anything substantial to show for my time on this earth. I knew that if I joined the company of housekeepers, ‘who wage their furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails’, there was a good chance that I would end up in the company of women who picked confetti off carpet at weddings.
* * *
It was a hot summer evening and my partner and I had met up with my mother and her friend in the French town of Uzes. My mother’s friend led gardening tours around Europe, and together they were doing a reconnaissance of gardens in the area. After catching up over drinks and dinner my partner and I went up to our room, where my partner fell into reading a novel. Too hot to sleep, I found my way on to the roof of the hotel, where the air was cooler and my thoughts could roam. Sipping a cup of tea I heard women’s voices on the adjoining roof. Only after a minute or two did I realise that my mother’s voice was one of them. It was another voice I heard – softer and more modulated – than the one I remembered from childhood. Then I heard the clink of a bottle in ice and, as I looked up, two plumes of cigarette smoke rose into the sky.
Sitting cross-legged on the rooftop, trying not to eavesdrop more than a few words, it struck me how happy my mother sounded. Now that she no longer had to care about a whole host of domestic things that had dictated much of her life as a mother, she sounded lighter, more playful. She sounded like someone else.
For thirty years my mother had put family and home first. However now that she had flown the nest and was experiencing life first hand she sounded quite different. Free of housekeeping, of shopping lists and baskets of wet washing and trips into town for new school shoes, she could speak her mind and let her voice sing.
Delving into myself I realised the magnitude of my mistake. For years I had claimed breezily that I didn’t want to turn into my mother, an assertion that was followed by a subsequent sweep of years during which I insisted that I didn’t want to have children. Sitting on the rooftop I realised that it wasn’t my mother any more than it was children that I didn’t want. It was the housekeeping that seemed to accompany family life that I was afraid of. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s maniacal dirt avenger who brandished her household schedule like a sword as if to ward off the meaningless of her existence.
I was shy of starting a family because I was afraid of taking on domestic responsibilities that would leave me stressed and harried, as my mother had often seemed when I was growing up. I was afraid that if I went on and had a baby with my partner that I’d end up caring about a host of domestic things which in my heart I didn’t give a damn about.
I already felt that I didn’t deal well with domestic stress. I often felt that I should be more on top of the day-to-day running of my life; that I should be doing something more important than whatever domestic task I happened to be doing; that I should be doing that task more quickly; that other people dealt with domesticity more easily than I did; that more of these tasks fell to me than to my partner simply because my resistance to doing them was slightly lower than his; and that the only thing worse than spending however many hours housekeeping each week was having to live in a dirty flat.
Sitting on that rooftop I had reason to worry. Even without a family to look after I cared about All The Wrong Things. I already did the washing up before going to bed after friends came round for dinner. I already scanned the household tips section of magazines. I already admired people with smoothly-running homes. I already knew that, in my mind, so-called trivial things had a way of becoming big powerful things.
As I sat into the night I wondered about my life to come. Would I, should my partner and I go on to have a child, pride myself in staying on top of housekeeping? Would I, like my messy friend’s stepmother, pick confetti off the carpet the second after shaking a guest’s hand? Would I, in identifying with a well-kept home, leave behind a misspent life?
Or was there another way? Was it possible to take on domestic responsibility for the well-being of loved ones without it leading to stress and strain? Might Simone de Beauvoir have been wrong? Might it be possible to run a lovely home without sacrificing my further ambitions? Looking around at the rooftops of Uzes, the house lights blinking off, it didn’t seem too much to ask.