Lately I’ve been too busy to make bread. Last week, if any week can be described as typical, was typical. On Monday, the 25-year-old fridge which was in our house when we bought it, gave up the ghost. On Tuesday I sent off a manuscript. On Thursday I started teaching a yoga class. Add to that our dog has caught a nasty parasite requiring daily treatment. Then there is my 10-year-old computer, in the process of conking out, which refuses to send email. And two weeks ago, my daughter turned 21. All normal, everyday things which don’t allow much time for breadmaking.
Yesterday morning, as a form of therapy, I made myself make bread. Not because I felt like it. I never feel like making bread until after I start making it. But because it was Saturday, and Saturday, until recently, has always been my breadmaking day.
First, I poured out some starter from the pot which I refreshed and returned to the bar fridge that we borrowed from a friend. Next, I boiled the kettle and dissolved a teaspoon of sea salt and a halfish cup of linseed (I never measure) in a large bowl. After that, it was time to mix the dough. When I finished mixing, concentrating on the bowl that was balanced on a stool in front of me, I glanced up at the table and spied a glass jug full of starter which I’d clean forgotten to add, which required extra flour to get the dough to bind. Pant. This I did.
I never mix bread dough with my fingers. I use two plastic scrapers to mix the flour mixture until the dough comes together into a fat but flat ball. Before this point, the dough just sticks to my fingers and between my fingers in an annoying, hard- to-clean-off way.
For the rest of yesterday, the bowl of dough sat on the windowsill in the kitchen. Now and again, as I passed by, I washed my hands in the sink before kneading the dough, spraying the bottom of the bowl with water to keep the dough from sticking.
On entering the kitchen this morning, I noticed that the teatowel draped over the bowl was puffed up with the dough underneath, like a mushroom cloud. Surprising even me.
Making bread isn’t easy. If friends tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. Nothing important is easy. Nor is there a right time in the day or week in which to bake. When it comes to breadmaking, as with other important things in life, you have to make time for it, carving it out almost forcibly until it becomes habit.
I trick myself into baking by doing it step by unthreatening step. After breakfast on Saturday, I get the bread starter from the fridge. I do this because it’s Saturday morning, and not because I feel like baking. (When would that be?) I don’t let on, to my unconscious or to my ego, that I am making bread. Because my unconscious doesn’t think that I can make bread. And my ego insists that I haven’t time for it.
I make bread to prove to myself that I can. I make it to fill the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. I never make enough bread to last a family of four for a week. Still, as a gesture, it’s important to me. And the reward – of cutting off a crusty end of bread before plying it with butter and putting it in my mouth – is, well, like other important things in life, amazing.
My dog is recovering from canine coronavirus. A year ago, this would have been unremarkable. Pre-covid 19, canine coronavirus was one of a handful of viruses that young dogs were liable to pick up playing in the park or on the beach. Especially when that dog is a Labrador puppy who eats everything his nose tells him might be worth gobbling, in the hope that it tastes good.
As that Labrador puppy’s owner, I cheat. Twice a week, Digger lets off steam with 20 other dogs at kennels in the country, a 20-minute drive from my home. This is by far the most exciting part of Digger’s week. And, if I’m honest, it comes pretty close to mine too. Like dropping off a toddler at daycare, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t have to think about my dog between 8am until 5pm. I can go to a yoga class, put compost on the garden, and work in my study in peace.
But not at the moment. A month ago, Digger started having poo explosions outside his crate in the morning. I would be half way down the stairs, rushing to get us both in the car to arrive at the kennels by 8am, and I’d smell that smell. And my heart would sink at having to pay the price of owning a dog who, though we love him to bits, eats, well, pretty much anything. And I mean anything.
After the third explosion within a month, Amanda, who runs the country kennels, pushed me to have Digger checked out by her vet. ‘He’s great’, she said. ‘If anyone can sort out Digger’s gut, it’s Dr R’.
A week later, I was working at a picnic bench, with Digger waiting for a walk in the car, when Dr R called me. ‘The poo sample came up with canine coronavirus in your dog’s DNA’, he said.
‘Oh’, I said, wanting not to hear what he’d just said. ‘Is that bad?’
‘It’s actually pretty common right now’, said the vet. ‘And it would probably be more common if more dogs were tested for it. But it does mean that Digger will need to stay away from kennels for a while’.
‘Oh’, I said, ‘of course’.
‘And then, in two to four weeks, you can bring in another poo sample for testing, and we can go from there’, he said.
‘Sure’, I said. I thanked him and we ended the call. I stared out at the sea, over the top of my computer screen. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘I have Digger at home for a month. Just like at Christmas time.’ Then I got cross with myself. ‘What a stupid middle class problem to have’, I said to myself. ‘Every day there are 10,000 new covid cases across France, and here I am worrying about how to get my work done with my boisterous puppy alongside’.
It took me a good 10 minutes to look on the bright side. ‘At least the poo test didn’t turn up some hard to treat parasite’, I told myself. ‘I should be glad about that’. And I was.
Right now, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m writing this in a local café. My kids are away this weekend, and my husband is working in his ‘office’, a wooden shed at the bottom of our garden. Digger is at home alone, extracting his kibble out of his red plastic Kong, a feeding toy with a hole in the side. Across the hole of his red plastic Kong, through which the kibble spills when he pushes it across the courtyard bricks with his nose, I have stuck a bandaid. Why so? Well, the bandaid reduces the size of the hole of the Kong, and stretches the time that Digger takes to extract the kibble to a good half hour. Then, when he is done, Digger will nudge the back door open, which I left ajar, come inside and sit on his chair in my study until I reappear. How do I know this? I know it because I have set up this routine with him over the last year or so, to buy me time to work in the morning – my favourite time to write.
Some people, a lot of people, have dogs who they leave at home for most of the day while they’re at work. They have no choice about this, and their dog accepts it. And they don’t bother with bandaids to reduce the hole of their dog’s feeding toy.
‘You treat that dog like he’s your third child’, my son tells me, not for the first time. There may be some truth in this. I really do care about Digger’s well being. I treat him as if he has a soul. Without saying it aloud, I think that he depends on me to create the conditions in which he can thrive in the short time he spends on this earth. As I say, I don’t say this to other people. Digger is a dog, after all. But I do feel it.
But it’s not just altruism. I also fear the havoc that Digger could wreak in my life – he’s a large dog – if I don’t treat him well. At any time, he could start barking and annoy the neighbours with his booming bark. He could get bored and find compost or other inedibles to eat – leading to big vet bills. Or he could become withdrawn and lose his sociability with young and old – which would be sad for us all.
So you see, I’m not a relaxed dog owner. I know what can go wrong, having had to put our last rescue dog down after she became reactive and threatened to bite people. In part, this is why we got a Labrador, to reduce the risks of this happening again.
However, a Labrador puppy is not a King Charles Spaniel. A Labrador puppy is not a West Highland Terrier. It is not a poodle. A Labrador puppy has buckets of energy – ‘buzz’, we call it – which he needs to release every day in order for him to relax later. When Digger and I are on the beach in the morning, and he is trotting along off lead, he’ll stop trotting and do these huge wheeling circles around other dogs, whether in excitement or in fear even he may not know.
When Digger looks at me in the morning after breakfast, with his ‘Is it time for the beach now?’ expression, I find it impossible to ignore him and to put my own work first. Instead, bar Tuesdays and Thursdays, I arrange my morning work routine around him. After a burst of housekeeping, the two of us head for our local beach.
Even in winter, even when it’s raining, this is a lovely time of day for me. Every time, as we walk back to the car, I silently thank Digger for making me take him to the beach. How lucky am I, I think to myself, to start my day this way? After our walk, Digger will snooze in the car while I write at my computer at a picnic table or, if the weather’s bad, in a cafe. Then we have a second walk before coming back home for the afternoon, during which Digger lies on the back doorstep doing nothing very much while I do my thing inside. Digger can hear me cooking in the kitchen, or tapping the keys in my study. I can hear him shuffling around next door, finding a comfortable spot in the sun to plonk down himself down in. This is our unspoken agreement, our understanding about how our day together works best. And mostly, it does work.
This morning on the beach, Digger and I are rewarded with perfect spring weather. Cold and sunny. Good to be alive sort of weather. When we get to our destination, a pebbly beach, an older man is already on there with two black Labradors. He introduces his dogs as Gus, the elder dog, and Blue, the younger. Digger plays with Blue in the water until, tiring of each other, Digger wanders off, nose the ground, sniffing.
John, the dogs’ owner, is keen to describe to me the white house that he lives in, overlooking the beach I’ve just walked along. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I know it. I park my car near there most days’. Our conversation meanders on, and John tells me about his grandchildren, and the fact that he’s been unable to see them since January. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘that must be hard for you all’.
There’s a pause as John throws a stick into the water for Blue, the younger dog. John turns to me. ‘And you’, he asks, ‘do you have any grandchildren?’ My hand freezes on the stick I’m about to throw. ‘I beg your pardon?’, I want to ask. But I don’t ask this. I instead I laugh, as if it’s a completely normal thing for me to be asked whether I have grandchildren, rather than the gaping existential hole that it feels like from my side of the conversation. ‘Er, no’, I say, ‘my kids are still in their early 20s’.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, it’s the hat and sunglasses that I’m wearing. But no, of course it’s not the hat and sunglasses. This man throwing sticks to his dogs really does think that I could have grandchildren. Just like him.
Walking back along the beach in the sun, nodding to people as I pass, and stopping to let a little boy pat Digger, I consider John’s question. Technically, he is right. I am an age at which, had I had my children younger, I could have grandchildren. From John’s point of view, he was asking a friendly question. In a slightly clumsy way, he was reaching out.
I walk on, drinking in the sun and the breeze. Until this morning, I’d managed to get the world to play into my fantasy that I wasn’t growing older. I was going to stay in my 50s for ever. My kids may leave home, as they’ve both done. But they would keep coming back, as they’ve done. For ever and ever.
However, the man on the pebbly beach with his dogs made it clear that one day, sooner than my fantasy allowed, I might be holding the hand of a grandchild on the beach. If I got lucky, and if life was kind, just like this man, I’d be a grandparent. I too would be chiding a toddler to put a hat back on their head. Or zooming on birthdays during lockdown.
I’m no exception. Like everyone else, I’m on the conveyor belt of life. It doesn’t matter how much flaxseed and kale I eat. Because I’m still wrinkly enough to be mistaken for a grandparent on the beach.
And there I was, worried about some virus that Digger picked up, sniffing around on the beach or the park.
Not everyone feels a need to get away – from home, the people they love, housekeeping, work. I need it the same way I need food and sleep. When I don’t get it, I suffer, which is why I do just about anything to get it.
I am thin-skinned, and long since stopped wishing I was otherwise. For me, it’s like having brown eyes and a love of being outdoors. Sometimes I think that I started writing in order to secure time alone, to guarantee that at last some of my day would be given over to spinning out the thoughts inside my head.
This part of myself, that needs time alone to focus on the things I find important, hasn’t minded the recent social distancing measures. Not having to socialise, not being allowed to socialise, has been, yes, a relief.
I have a family at home, I am not alone. Perhaps I would tell a different story if I were. If anything, adjusting to the presence of four adults at home has heightened my need for time alone. Especially as one of them is currently at a loose end with her foot in a boot from an ankle injury.
I’ve liked knowing that I’m not missing out on anything, that there isn’t a party on around the corner to which I wasn’t invited. I’ve liked knowing that every night, after dinner, the four of us will play a game of some kind. This, more than anything, has helped hugely in the project of putting up with each other and bringing us out of ourselves for another night, rounding off the evening before we go our own ways.
I don’t want social distancing to last forever. It’s too queer for that. But it’s been interesting to notice what goes on being important even when so much has been put on hold. Trips to the beach with our dog. Surprise texts from friends. Good food at night. Piles of raked up leaves.
Will the changes I’ve made to adapt to this situation last? The blocked news sites on my computer, the radio that stays in the cupboard in the kitchen, the podcasts that go unlistened to?
What about all the things I promised myself that I would find time for during social distancing? The musical notes on the piano that I was determined to learn. The drawings that I promised myself I’d do every night before bed. The piecrust that I was keen to perfect. But then again, I haven’t caught up with all the movies I’ve missed on Netflix either, which must count for something.
I’ve enjoyed going to bed to read that much earlier than I ever did before. Each night I feel weirdly privileged to be able to do this. I like getting up in the morning, doing a bit of yoga, and taking our dog to the local beach. I’ve found real focus working at a picnic table at the local reservoir – sitting at tables that were there way before any pandemic but that I’d never thought to use. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my kids as adults – when they’re not teasing me, that is. Although, even this I know I’ll one day miss. It seems a blessing to have had this extra time with them.
When I was growing up, I was encouraged to choose a career that would lead me to be of service to others. And, for periods of my life I have done just that. However, these last few months have been a reminder of just how inessential the writing I currently do is to others. Society can get on quite well without me. I am not at the front line of anything. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.
Three months ago, social distancing felt like a game. I didn’t like the rules of this game, but nor did I feel that it was my right to argue against them. Now that time has gone by and I’ve accepted the rules, I struggle to imagine my life without them. Have I grown used to the bars of my cage?
But I don’t think it’s that. It’s something very simple. I have enjoyed feeling less stressed these last few months. I like wearing fewer hats. I have just as much to do – I’ve never done more cooking, housekeeping and home psychotherapy – but I’ve had more time to do it in. The simplicity of paring things down suits me. Raking up piles of leaves because it’s autumn. Making chicken soup because it’s cold and wet. Hanging up washing because it’s sunny outside.
I feel nervous of returning to so-called normal life. I fear the return of things that I feel certain I should be doing. The emails I need to send, there are many of these. The people I imagine I owe something to. The work plans I need to make. The whole head trip, as one of my yoga teachers calls it.
I didn’t experience an enforced lockdown. I’ll be terrible at this, if I ever have to. Yet I have got something from this shake up. A feeling that perhaps what I have is enough. And this feels like a good thing to have realised.
Ted, the course coordinator, wore a white linen shirt over blue jeans. Fifteen prospective students, including myself, stood in a loose group in the drawing studio, one floor up from the footpath. ‘This course’, said Ted, ‘is going to change your life. By the end of the first semester, you’ll be looking at the world differently. Even looking out the window, you’ll be looking through it as an artist. But don’t come expecting a holiday. Don’t come treating it as a break from work. You’ll be working harder here than you’ve ever worked before. And it won’t just be drawing, in the way you’ve done up till now. You’ll be taking photos. You’ll be going to exhibitions and reporting critically on them after. You’ll be completing assignments late at night, or on Sundays when you’d rather be at the beach. And in this way, week after week, you’ll be training your eye to see the world as it really is, and not as you want it to be.’
I stared out the arched window at the footpath below, and then back at the group. ‘I can guess what you’re thinking’, said Ted said. ‘How can a three-day-a-week course in drawing take over your life?’ He looked across at Julie, the other teacher on the course. Julie laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘this course used to be run as your typical adult education course. Classes were held mainly at night. There was no formal assessment. There was no expectation that students would return for a second year. But we’ve changed all that. These days, unless you’re in the running to become an artist, you won’t get a place on this course. Your place will go to someone who is ready to make a move into the art world. There just isn’t enough room, on this course, for hobby artists. This course is about training your eye in a way of looking at the world that will make everything in your life, so far, fall into place’. His blue eyes darting, Ted looked from one applicant to another, making sure of our attention.
‘Any questions?’ he asked. One woman asked a question about the portfolio required for the interviews, to be held over the next few days. Another asked about fees, and another about electives. I asked whether it was possible to do the course over two days, rather than three, and Ted frowned his reply. Then he clapped his hands to signal the end of the meeting. ‘See you at your interview’, said Ted, and left the studio with Julie.
Two days later, at my interview, Ted flipped through my sketchbook. ‘And did you do all these drawings at the same time?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘The main ones were done over a couple of years, with the bulk done during my recovery from illness in my late 20s’. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Who is this?’ he asked, stopping at a line portrait drawn from a photo. ‘That’s Robert Lowell, an American poet’.
Ted snapped the sketchbook shut. ‘Look’, he said. ‘Your drawing is fine. It’s your dedication to the course that I’m worried about. You asked, at the end of the introductory meeting, about doing the course over two days a week. What’s all that about?’ ‘Well’, I said. ‘I was hoping to keep my writing projects alive, alongside the drawing course’. ‘Oh’, interrupted Ted. ‘That’s not going to work. We need total loyalty here, total commitment’. He tapped the table with his finger of his left hand and jotted a note on his pad with his right. ‘This course runs over three days. But really it’s a full-time commitment. Otherwise’, he repeated, drumming his long fingers on the table, ‘it’s just not going to work’.
‘Ok’, I said, ‘I hear you. I’m willing to commit. I do see your point. I’ll have to make arrangements for my puppy, but I can do the three days. The writing can wait. I’ve always wanted to draw properly and now, with my daughter away, I can do it’. ‘Right oh’, said Ted, ‘we’ll be in touch with an answer by the end of this week’.
The street looked different to the street that I’d left an hour before, as I rushed into the art school for my interview. If I got a place on the course, I thought to myself, there’d be no more morning yoga and there’d be less time for housekeeping. If I was organised before, now I’d have to be super organised. But it would be worth it. I would be doing what I’d always secretly wanted to do. Only now it wouldn’t be secret.
When I got home, I went straight into the garden and started cutting back plants. When it started spitting with rain, even the dog took refuge inside. ‘Are you sure you should be cutting those plants back as hard as that?’ asked my daughter, appearing at the back door with a worried look. ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I asked a gardening friend, who said that these respond well to being cut back’. By the time I’d finished gardening, the bricks below the side bed were carpeted with green. I was wet with sweat and rain.
My world was about to change and I felt free. I was reinventing myself, following my own lead. My daughter was leaving home for college. But I wouldn’t miss her because my days would be busy just keeping up with my commitments, and seeing the world through artist’s eyes.
‘Dear Helen’, the email began. It was a no from Ted, the course coordinator. The course, he explained, was oversubscribed and they were unable to offer me a place. Would I like to apply again the following year, once I’d spent more time drawing and was ready to commit fully to the course?
I knew, from the email in front of me, that two-thirds of the applicants for the course hadn’t got a place. But in my heart the rejection felt personal. I had paid a price for being cocky. I’d mentioned my PhD and three books. ‘Big deal’, the rejection email said to me. ‘We don’t care about any of that.’ I felt clumsy, naïve. I had misjudged. I was keen to work in a drawing studio. I dearly wanted some instruction. But I’d been vain in thinking that Ted and Julie would want me over other applicants. I had other opportunities, as the rejection letter politely suggested. Why should an oversubscribed art department offer me another?
I looked up from the computer, away from the unwelcome email. I’d been shown up as the self-centred dilletante that I really was. I’d been seen through. The side garden that, five days before, I’d tamed in the rain, now looked hacked at, messed about with. Why couldn’t I do anything properly? Why was I forever making things up as I went along? Would it always be this way?
My daughter, already practised in missing out on things, having recently left school, gave me a hug. ‘It’s nothing to do with you’, she said. ‘You’re just a name on a list’. Perhaps she was right, I thought. But in the days after I made up my own story. I’d been passed over because I wasn’t serious about art. And possibly for another reason. The course coordinator, on hearing me say that I wanted to write about my experience of being a student again, had arched ever so slightly. Why, I imagined him asking himself, would he want to be described in his crisp white shirt by a middle-aged female student keen to reinvent herself through art?
Then again, from Ted’s point of view, I could be seen as a financial risk. Perhaps the government would give his department a smaller subsidy for my place, than if they gave a place to someone on a welfare benefit. Perhaps my daughter was right. I was just a name on a list and it was a numbers game.
For a few weeks I didn’t pick up a pencil to draw. It wasn’t a decision that I made. I just didn’t get round to it. Was I proving Ted right, that I wasn’t dedicated to art? Perhaps. But the conflict felt bigger, and possibly simpler, than this. I had applied to the drawing course to take my drawing to the next level, not to become an artist. I was fine with my identity as it was. I didn’t want my view of the world transformed. I didn’t want to take on the mantle of the artist. Writing was hard enough, why choose something even harder? I didn’t draw because I was cross with Ted for telling me that I had to become an artist if I wanted to learn to draw.
Until one morning I visited the local art shop and sketched my story about the drawing course to the woman at the till, who was supporting her own creative practice by working weekends at the art shop. ‘I wouldn’t worry’, she said. ‘That course has changed a lot. Just get back to your own drawing’. ‘I was thinking’, I said, ‘of doing a drawing a day, and of going from there. Only I don’t want to make it into a chore, into something I have to do, to tick off a list’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘of course you don’t. What about if you take a small pad? That way you can do a drawing most nights, as a way of unwinding, and look forward to it during the day’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘that sounds good. What about if, in a couple of months, I come back and show you what I’ve done?’ ‘I would like that’, said the woman, smiling.
It was a hot day and I was glad to leave my dog in the car in the garage next to the art shop. An hour and a half later, I returned to the car to find the garage door pulled down. Knowing that my dog was locked in the car in a garage which wouldn’t open until Monday morning, I panicked. As I was speaking to the after-hours security, agreeing a sizeable call-out fee, the woman who’d served me in the art shop appeared jangling a set of keys. Her face was red. ‘I only stayed back’, she said, with quiet fury, ‘because I saw a dog in the car’. ‘I’m really sorry’, I said. But it made no difference. The woman was fuming. ‘There are so many things that I have to do this afternoon’, the woman said, fumbling with the keys in the roller door. I said nothing in my defence. I had no defence. I had used the art shop car park while I went to a shoe shop – I had a shoe box under my arm – and then to a bookshop. ‘Oh God, I do apologise’, I said, trying a second time. ‘And you were so kind to me this morning’. But it was no good, the woman still frowned. And so I jumped into my car and drove away, as if from the scene of a crime.
After a week or so, I took the small drawing pad out of the cupboard. My daughter was away and there was a gap to fill, which was just the right size for drawing in. I lit an oil burner and dimmed the lights. But no music. The quiet was better for drawing. I put the flowers that I’d picked out walking the dog before dinner under the arc table lamp of the kitchen table.
It was the same the next night. I waited until after dinner and the house was quiet. I put whatever I was going to draw – usually flowers, but not always – under the lamp that pooled light on the table. Then I’d just look at the plant, fiercely at first, until I decided which part of the plant – or object – to draw. Sitting there, in the quiet, it became obvious which part of the plant I’d focus on. Like cropping a photo, I left out most of what I could see and focused on just a small area.
Once I started drawing, that small cropped area came alive. Details of foliage and shadow, of colour and depth, that I spent my days brushing past, as I headed for the fridge, now spoke to me. Head down, a clutch of coloured pencils in my left hand as I drew with my right, I let the drawing become my world. I focused on the plant, not on the page. As I drew, I was struck by the strangeness of nature, the peculiar shape of a flower, in a more concentrated way than was possible when I brushed past the plant out walking my dog. I never looked at my watch when I drew, so I don’t know how much time went by. I tried not to stop drawing to look at my drawing critically. And I was always glad that my pad was small so that I could finish my drawing in one go.
Every time I started drawing it was the same. There was a hump that I had to get over before I got into it. I never started out feeling confident. It was more curiosity that drew me in. Curiosity for the plant I was drawing, which I’d never looked at properly, and for the drawing that might come out of my staring at the plant hard enough. And though I never truly captured what was in front of me, I did capture something else, a glancing likeness that satisfied me.
On Monday afternoon, a public holiday, I made a swoop on my wardrobe, removed eight unsuspecting garments and took them straight out to my car where I laid them on the back seat. Perhaps I’d have worn these clothes again. Perhaps I’ll regret my impulse. However having wriggle room in my wardrobe seemed worth the risk of any future regret. Having enough space between the hangers to be able to push clothes across the bar to slot in a jacket without squashing flat the clothes either side of it, seemed a privilege.
Someone else might not care about an overfilled wardrobe. Personally, I’d like to be the kind of person who is above caring about such things. The kind of person who doesn’t notice when their barbecue stops working. The kind of person who shoves overdue library books to the back of a cupboard, and who keeps on using their dishwasher even after noticing that the catch is missing on the arm on the floor of the machine. Instead, I am the kind of person who is unable to receive email on her phone because, on New Year’s morning, I removed the email app from my phone to free up space in my mind. Which was all very well, until yesterday, when I realised that without email on my phone boarding a plane this weekend would prove tricky.
We’re supposed not to care about the little things, the trivial things which stop us from concentrating on more important things. My husband is particularly good at this, at compartmentalising. He can shut out everything from his mind, bar toothache, in order to focus on a work deadline. Sadly this skill eludes me.
Whenever I edit a manuscript, I use an orange pen to make corrections. I find the orange colour satisfying against the black typeface, and enjoy making messy notes in the margins. When I work in a cafe, which I often do in the morning, I’ve learned to keep my diary in my bag so that I can jot down things that I need to do once I get home – emails, errands, chores. Writing these things down really works for me. I can note them down, knowing they are safe in my diary, and then return my thoughts to work. However, lately my resolve has loosened. There are just too many orange notes in my diary. And so, instead of concentrating on work, my mind strays to the plants I’ve left to dry out in their pots, the household budget I’ve promised myself to start, the barbecue that isn’t working properly and the broken dishwasher arm that needs replacing.
Try as I might, I’ve never managed to get interested in the workings of our domestic appliances. I know how to unclog the drains of our dishwasher and washing machines, simply because I find it agony waiting for a technician to come and fix them for me. However my relation to our barbecue has always been fraught. I love it when I can put kebabs on its hotplate and go off for a walk and return home to a cool kitchen. But I hate cleaning the hotplate and find the gas canister annoying. Is it about to run out? Why is it so hard to connect?
I know it’s ridiculous to be complaining about domestic appliances. It isn’t a serious problem. (Australia is burning, I know.) My barbecue problem is a first world hassle. Except, what if my reluctance to get our barbecue and dishwasher fixed is in some way linked to society’s neglect of the planet? What if I’m among a whole generation of people who would prefer to chuck their broken barbecue, or go without one, rather than drive to an out-of-town outdoors store to get it fixed? What if I’m one of many who doesn’t want the hassle of taking a photo of their offending dishwasher part before contacting the distributor to replace it? What if I choose not to care?
On Monday afternoon, after putting in my car the clothes that I didn’t want because I wanted space in my wardrobe more, I disconnected the barbecue and put it and the empty gas canister into the boot. Then I gathered a stack of library books and put them in a bag on the front seat. Next it was a bag of glass bottles and jars to take to the health-food shop for reuse, and a third bag of clean plastics for recycling. I even got the mascara wand that MAC cosmetics claims to recycle, and slipped it in my yoga bag, so that, after class the next morning, I could visit the department store to exchange my mascara wand for a new one, and then on to the phone shop to reinstall the email app on my phone.
These things are trivial. Of course they are. Ultimately I don’t give a damn about any of them. And yet things like these prey on me. Because if I don’t care about recycling beauty products, I say to myself, why should anyone else care about them either? And since I don’t want to live in a world in which no-one cares about the life cycle of plastics, the next morning I take my mascara wand back to the cosmetics lady who gives me a stamp on a card which – after five more stamps – will result in a free mascara wand. Oh joy. And the barbecue, I find out after driving out of town and returning home again, requires no more than a $3 cap – plus two 40-minute return trips to drop it off yesterday and pick it up today.
‘Good’, I read somewhere last week, ‘is the overcoming of inertia’. This seems right to me. Goodness isn’t about not sinning. It’s about getting over the hump of my own reluctance to do those things that make a difference to my life, and that of others. It’s about having the kind of energy that allows me to tick off tasks that unconsciously I don’t care about but consciously do care about – damn it.
Now all I have to do is attach the gas canister to the barbecue and put six sausages and three potatoes, cut into wedges, on to the hotplate before walking the dog before dinner. No worries!
I thought I knew myself pretty well. But then, three months ago, my daughter went overseas and I discovered that I didn’t. Having spent 22 years being an active mother, I knew myself mainly in relation to family. Writing and teaching took me away from family. But never very far. As soon as the school phoned up, or one of my kids were sick, there I was, on call. There was a comfortable familiarity that went with this. I liked knowing that I was needed, that I was making a difference to the family I loved. I didn’t mind my day being structured around the needs of others. There were times when I moaned about this. But I liked the way it took me outside myself and into the world of others.
I’d known for a while that my daughter wanted to travel. I knew that she needed to prove her independence. I wanted this for her too. But until farewelling her at the airport, I didn’t believe that she could leave without a backward glance. My son had travelled for three years, so I understood what her absence would mean intellectually. My husband traveled regularly too, something I’d accepted as part of the order of things. But the absence of my daughter, with whom I’d spent way more time than I had my husband or son, was harder to absorb.
I thought I would hate the late afternoons, when my daughter and I normally walked the dog. But within a few days of her being gone, I realised that it was something else I felt. It was a kind of wonder. Now it was just my husband and dog who needed me. However their need for me felt less continuous than my daughter’s had felt. My husband and my dog weren’t emotionally present to me when they were elsewhere, as my daughter until that point had been. I didn’t feel beholden to them in the same way. Besides, my husband worked insanely hard and my dog was a puppy with needs I’d long known I couldn’t meet.
Feeling off the hook, as a mother, was another thing entirely. It took me a few weeks to register the difference. For the first time I could remember, there seemed enough hours in the day. I still ran out of time. I still had the feeling that I couldn’t fit everything in. Supper was inevitably late. However I had an increasing sense that things were, to a greater extent than before, up to me. I could now do things that just hadn’t been possible when family concerns had washed through my mind, like the extended drying cycle on the clothes drier.
I thought I’d feel adrift, lonely. Actually, at certain points I did feel lonely, achingly so. But I also felt moments of exhilarating freedom. The flip side of loneliness, I discovered, was freedom. And I could only access the freedom that I’d been longing for without knowing I’d been longing for it, by enduring some loneliness. This loneliness didn’t hurt. It wasn’t painful. But it did feel strange, to be on my own without a child to look after. It was almost unearthly, the way loneliness sprang on me when I least expected it, and left no mark.
Eventually I realised that loneliness had something to teach me. Either I could babysit myself, by filling up the windy spaces with podcasts, on-line news and trips to the cinema. Or I could flick shut my laptop and work out what I really wanted to do with the new bits of time that life had afforded me. If I so chose, I could pick up interests that were but faint memories, glowing embers. Initially this was uncomfortable. I’d sit at the piano and feel like a 7-year-old practicing my scales before dinner. I’d do a drawing and become self-critical of my efforts. I spend time in the garden, distracted by all the other things I should be doing.
After a few weeks I relaxed, realising that I had two and a half months of aloneness ahead of me. My daughter wasn’t gone for good, this time at least. Yet I knew that one day, any day, her absence would be permanent. On that day my daughter would move out of home and into her own orbit. These three months, then, were my trial run. A chance to be the centre of my own universe. What was I to do with it? Would it be an opportunity or a curse? Was it the beginning of the end, of everything-is-downhill-from-here? Or was it the beginning of something that as yet I had no words for, something that I’d been longing for without knowing it?
I tell you what I did. I went to the newsagent and bought an A2 sheet of cardboard and a packet of star stickers in five colours. On the cardboard I drew, in pencil without a ruler, a 6-week calendar – which I’d read somewhere is the length of time needed to create a new habit. In each square of the calendar, at the end of each day, I stuck a star for each time I did morning yoga, practised sight reading at the piano, and did a drawing after dinner. It sounds childish. It is childish. But mostly it worked. I needed an external marker for my efforts, to help me over the hump I had to overcome when faced with activities that I wanted to do, but didn’t have to do. Easing into a distraction was eternally easier than getting myself to play the piano, or to sew. Who would have thought that it could be so hard to sit down on a piano stool or to take out a pad of paper and pencils after dinner? Doing yoga, thankfully, was a little easier, perhaps because I’d been doing this for longer and so resisted it less.
My daughter has been back for five days now, and the squares on my star chart for these five days are empty. She, of course, laughs at my star chart. In the most natural way, she plonks her I-am-the-centre-of-the-universe way of being into the middle of my mind. I can no more ignore her presence than the surf wax, leg ropes, wet suits and shells that are strewn through my previously tidy house. Meanwhile my husband goes about his work, barely affected by her return. And the dog accepts her back as if she left the house the day before yesterday. I, meanwhile, am no longer lonely. But I’m not free either. Time I got back to putting some stars on that chart.
The front door clicked shut. Standing in front of my laptop at the kitchen table, a new habit of mine, I sank into a piece of writing.
Ten minutes later, my phone rang.
‘Did you get cheese for tonight?’ Paul asked. To anyone else, this question would be innocent. Only Paul and I had been together for 30 years, and we left innocence behind long ago.
‘Actually’, I said, ‘I thought I’d serve dessert instead of cheese this time.’
‘Couldn’t we have both?’ Paul asked, with annoyance in his voice. ‘Or would that cause too much pleasure?’
For a few seconds neither of us spoke.
‘Tell me’, asked Paul, ‘what exactly is the problem with having cheese?’
‘Well’, I said, sounding defensive, ‘I was trying to keep the food simple. You know me.’ I waited for Paul to reply. When he didn’t, I tried again. ‘I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough plates and cutlery and would rather not have to wash up between courses. Besides I’ve already got dessert, won’t that be enough?’
The phone went dead.
I gazed out the kitchen window, shrugged inwardly, and tried to get back to my work.
* * *
‘I just want to make myself some lunch’, said Paul, coming into the kitchen 15 minutes later. ‘Of course’, I said, moving my papers off the kitchen table. But even in my study I couldn’t think straight, and went back into the kitchen.
‘I guess’, I said. ‘I guess I’d hoped that the counselling we’re doing might help us see tensions like these differently. Rather than fatal, perhaps they’re inevitable. I don’t know’, I said, waiting for a response, ‘they might even be interesting.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding’, said Paul, on the edge of shouting. ‘I have zero interest in conflicts like these. Look’, he said, exasperated. ‘It’s my birthday. I just want to have a nice day and get some work done before tonight.’
‘I know’, I said. ‘Of course. Except it’s on your birthday that this often comes up. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about it now, than risk it blowing up just before friends arrive tonight?’
‘I’m really not interested in discussing it’, said Paul, shouting now. ‘I feel like you’re setting me up to look bad. And it’s only with you that I’m like this.’
‘I’m sorry’, said, trying not to frown. ‘But we’re married and we just do impact on each other in ways we can’t fix’.
‘Oh, this is so boring!’ exploded Paul, peering into the saucepan to check if the water was boiling.
I left the room. Five minutes later I returned. Paul was eating large pockets of ravioli, smearing them with butter as he ate. I felt hungry. Had I come back, his glance asked, to spoil his lunch? I opened the door to go out and then closed it again.
‘Can’t we do better than this?’ I asked. ‘We only have one life and I don’t care if you hate me sometimes. I know I can be annoying. I know you think that I spoil your pleasure and make you feel complicated about yourself. But can’t we get beyond that? I know you think I don’t do indulgence very well. That I care too much about health. But so what? We already know this. Is this what really matters? Can’t it be something that we accept and move on from? I can’t make that part of myself go away, any more than you can make the pleasure loving part of yourself go away.’
There was a brief silence.
‘Maybe we’re not very well suited’, suggested Paul flatly.
‘But we already know that’, I said, impatient. ‘Of course it would be good to be better suited. But I don’t care that much that we’re not. Isn’t our life together more important than our differences? For me, our efforts to get on with each other are valuable because it’s so not easy’.
Paul put his plate in the sink.
‘Perhaps we’re both nervous’, I offered.
‘I’m not’, he said. ‘I’m excited about tonight. At least, I was until 30 minutes ago’.
‘Ok’, I said, looking at my watch, ‘good for you’, and grabbed my car keys and headed out the front door.
* * *
The dinner went well. None of the friends who came would have guessed that Paul and I had shouted at each other in the kitchen earlier that day. One friend arrived early to help in the kitchen, which meant that I could leave the pans on the hob and change my clothes, without burning the food. By the time I got the main course on the table, the food was a little cold, because I couldn’t think of a way of keeping the meal hot until we were ready to eat it, without turning off the oven. But no-one seemed to mind. John served a cheese course. A friend insisted on lighting candles with dessert and singing happy birthday. The conversation round the table broke up into groups and everyone seemed to have their say. I cleaned up in the kitchen as the dinner went along, with intermittent breaks in the kitchen with the dog, which meant I didn’t feel overwhelmed by mess when the front door closed for the last time. Paul drank too much but not too too much and was genuinely funny, in a way he loves to be, towards midnight. And this morning we got some genuinely appreciative texts from friends.
Early evening, when I have nothing else on and have housekeeping to do, I’ll click on The Guardian and The New York Times websites. I’ll just read a few stories, I tell myself, before getting on with emails, housework and cooking – and whatever else I should be doing. I deserve a break, I tell myself. And I’m curious at what has happened outside my tiny bubble during the day. I might stop scrolling for a moment, to drain overcooked rice, or to feed the dog. But for up to an hour, most evenings, I’ll stand at the kitchen bench, clicking on news stories. It’s my new bad habit.
I know that it’s impossible to get enough of something that’s not quite enough. I know this because last night I read Tristan Harris’s talk about tech addiction. However, early evening, night after night, I act as if I don’t know this. My addiction isn’t a vice, I say to myself. It doesn’t harm any organ of my body. Unless, that is, my soul is an organ.
Initially, scrolling through news sites, I feel pure escape. What, I wonder, has the rest of the world been up to, while I’ve been writing and housekeeping and walking the dog? Within seconds, I’m immersed in stories about people I’ll never meet, in places I’m unlikely to visit. Yet this scrolling, reading, and scrolling some more, is oddly stressful. It’s not one bit relaxing. Last night, I oggled at the fleshy chins on Prince Andrew, pondering all that privilege gone wrong. I asked myself what the Hong Kong riots were really, deeply, about. I ached at climate events – at the description of a man who, facing a galloping bushfire, threw himself on the ground in the dirt until it passed.
After ten minutes, which feel like three, of reading in this way, I could feel myself wearying of a world that was so messed up that even the headlines made my stomach churn. However beautifully the NYTimes journalists wrote, ultimately they, and I, were part of the same problem. We were all part of the spider’s web that had me scrolling at the kitchen table, rather gardening or housekeeping or walking the dog. We were all part of a problem which appeals to a baseness in our nature. The websites were designed to encourage me to click on stories despite myself, and then come back for more, never quite satisfied. Stories that made me feel grubby, scratching me in ways that left me thinking less of myself for engaging with them.
But the real question was more confronting, more intimate. If I didn’t give away this hour, early evening, to engrossing journalism, what else might I do with it? With both of my kids away, I face a strange, new vacuum at the end of my day. After 22 years of juggling homework, activities and the prepping of food, now there’s a lull early evening.
I deserve this time, I tell myself. I’ve worked hard for it. I’ve longed for it. And there are nights when do I love it, relish it. But other nights it comes on me unawares, stalking me into darkness. It leaves me at a loose end. It feels all wrong. Where, I ask the dog, is everyone? Why is it so quiet?
Last night, by the time night fell, inky black staring through the windows where the garden had just been, I’d given up trying to make something of the hour before dinner. I may as well read a few more stories, I told myself, before walking the dog round the block. Just one more story, I said to myself. ‘Oh yeah’, I heard my soul reply.
As if under a spell, I leaned on the kitchen table, reading beautifully edited, often thoughtful news stories. As I read, the world around me expanded and shrank. I didn’t sit down. Because this would mean admitting an intention which I wouldn’t allow myself. For I knew that I had better – or just other – things to be doing. Just as I knew, deep in myself, that I could never get enough of something that wasn’t quite enough. But, then again, nor did I feel lonely.
The dog settled patiently on the rug, waiting, as he does every night, for my daughter’s return from Africa. Until, hearing him sigh, I clapped the laptop shut. I felt cross with myself at having thrown away an hour of my life to on-line what ifs. Poof! Gone, just like that. In 15 minutes’ time, my husband would come into the kitchen expecting dinner – thankfully I’d cooked the rice and prepped the meat. Still, I’d done it again.
The dog looked up, hopeful. He didn’t mind walking around the block in the dark, rather than taking a bush track at dusk. He knew no better. But I did. I knew that I wanted more than I ever got from reading news stories on-line. I knew that clicking and scrolling left me feeling dissatisfied, fed up with my will-lessness and powerlessness to change anything in the world a meaningful way.
Perhaps tonight will be different. Except I know myself well enough to know that hoping my tech problem will just go away won’t work. However, blocking The Guardian website from my desktop, just might.
‘So’, asked a friend, ‘now that you’ve finished your project on domestic life, what have you found out about it?’
‘Well’, I said, ‘It doesn’t fit on the back of an envelope. But I’m getting closer. When I started thinking about domestic life, five years ago now, it was because I was in two minds about whether the time I spent looking after myself and my family was time well spent, or time wasted. I couldn’t work out if the benefits of a well-run home outweighed the effort of keeping it that way. And it was this uncertainty, this doubt, that drove me to asking other people how they felt about their housekeeping story’
‘What do you mean by their housekeeping story?’ asked Tina.
‘Oh’, I said, ‘that’s shorthand for everything we do to keep our home life ticking over so that we can thrive in the world. It’s everything from washing bedlinen to food shopping to celebrating a family birthday. It’s the big and little things we do to show ourselves, and the people we’re close to, that we’re worth looking after, that we belong on this patch of earth and are loved no matter what. This sounds completely obvious. Of course we’re worth looking after. But what I’ve discovered is that, in our unconscious, there’s a bit of confusion around this. It’s not that we secretly think we’re bad, and so undeserving of being well looked after. It’s more that even when we’re doing pretty well, day to day, our experience of life is of constant, just-beneath-the-surface struggle. And this is why we thrive on being given plenty of signs that we’re loved and wanted. We show this in the simplest of ways, by spicing up a pumpkin soup, or icing a cake for a friend. In our distracted and overfilled world, love is something that we do, and make time for, as much as something that we feel’.
‘And what else have you found out?’
‘I used to think that it was just me that got easily stressed at home. Other people, I thought, didn’t need to feel on top of their home life in order to feel good about opening their front door late afternoon. I was the only one who felt overwhelmed when I had no idea what to cook for dinner and hungry faces kept appearing at the kitchen door. Whereas, I now know lots of people feel this. We like to have some control over the day-to-day running of our homes. Given how much of our life is outside our control, we like to keep a hold over the bits that we can.
In the old days, housekeeping was about meeting social expectations, maintaining hygiene standards and observing nutritional guidelines. It was about satisfying the needs of a household’s inhabitants and keeping dust and roaches at bay. Housekeeping still involves these things. But nowadays it’s expanded to include our well-being. We’re less concerned about rodents in the flour sack, than in achieving peace of mind in the hour before sleep.
‘Why do you think people find domestic life stressful these days?’ asked Tina.
‘Hmmm’, I replied. ‘Five years ago I thought it was just me who avoided spending long periods at home, for fear of the demands that my home made on me when I did. But as it turns out, lots of us feel this. I think this is because until we sort out our housekeeping story – until we reconcile ourselves with how much of our life is given over to looking after ourselves – we’re likely to feel stressed at home. Everyone multitasks, of course. And everyone refuses to accept that household tasks take 50% more time than we think they will. And then there’s the puppy problem.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Tina.
‘We all loves puppies’, I said. ‘Yet every adult knows that giving in to the desire for a puppy puts in train a string of demands that the child in us shrinks from. And it’s the same with everything that comes through our front door, from a must-have household gadget to a new baby. We want to have it. Reality conspires and gives it to us. And before we know it, hey presto, we’re responsible for looking after it. This is the puppy problem. It explains why minimalism, living clutter free and not having children are all so appealing. Because choosing to live with less means there are fewer people and things in our life to demand our attention and make us do their bidding.
‘Yeah’, said Tina, ‘I get that. But I still don’t quite get the housekeeping story’.
‘Sure’, I said. ‘It took me ages to wrap my head around the idea that our thoughts shape our feelings – that thinking makes it so. It seems counter-intuitive that we create our world twice, first in thought and then in reality. But now I think that this is at the core of every housekeeping story. If we choose to act in a nurturing way, it’s because, given our understanding of the struggles of life, value looking after ourselves and others in loving ways. Believing in practical loving, nurture and creativity leads us to create a home life based on these values’.
‘Okay’, said my friend. ‘But are you at risk of being taken for granted by people close to you, if you look after them lovingly and they don’t reciprocate?’
‘I don’t think this is something that you can be right or wrong about’, I replied. ‘It’s like proving pacifism or vegetarianism. It’s stems from personal belief, not facts. It’s a decision that you arrive at from within, not without. Whether acting in a loving way adds or subtracts from your life can only be answered from within. For me, it’s worth the risk. Because even if I get taken advantage of – which is anyway a matter of interpretation – my life is richer for living it in line with a belief in practical loving.’
‘Oh’, said Tina. ‘I think I see’.
‘There’s one last bit to the housekeeping story. Which is that before we can tell it, before it can hang together as a story, we have to know who we’re housekeeping for. Am I looking after myself and others to please a Big Other – a partner, social convention or some nameless fear of sliding into chaos? Or am I looking after myself and others, as well as I can, in order to uphold a personal ideal, never quite attained, of a life that I feel good about living? When we’re housekeeping for ourselves, our acts of loving spring from a desire to live our best possible life. We’re inspired not by fear of a disapproving other, but by a desire for something closer to Keats’ ‘beauty, goodness and truth’. For me, today, there’s no question that the benefits of living in a well-run home outweigh the effort of keeping it that way. Having spoken to scores of people on this subject – and interviewed 50 – I know that many others think this too’.
Shortly after my family and I moved from London to Melbourne, my son started at a new Kinder. The staff at the Kinder were friendly. The atmosphere was warm. The other kids seemed friendly. But Alex wasn’t so sure. Actually, he was sure. He quickly decided that he hated going to Kinder. It was a very bad idea. Each morning he was due to go, it was a minor psychological battle to get him out of the car and through the Kinder gates.
I nearly always won this battle. Except that I never really won it. I just got him through the Kinder gates. Because Alex’s upset, at doing this strange new scary thing, was always going to be stronger than my reassurances, my ‘come on then, it’ll be fine’ cajoling. It soon became clear that Alex’s unconscious was frightened as Hell of going to Kinder. He was frightened of what felt like the scattershot demands that rained down on him the moment he arrived. He wasn’t one bit fobbed off with his father and me telling him of all the fun he was soon to have, or the nice things I’d put in his lunch box. From his point of view, once I’d dropped him at the classroom door, there was nothing to shield him from his fear. He felt naked. How was he to know that some of the kids in the sandpit, with their funny accents and brash confidence, who knew each other far better than he knew them, might one day be his friends? And so, day after agonising day, he hung back at the Kinder gates. Or he refused point blank to get out of the car. Meanwhile, safe at home, he regressed to soiling his underpants.
As I write this, Alex will be coming off a 6-hour watch on a 30-metre boat, somewhere in the ocean off Alaska, en route to Antarctica. He’ll be taking the wheel from a fellow sailor, who’ll be tired and cold and in need of a warm bunk. Perhaps Alex would clobber me for telling you this story about him regressing at Kinder, years ago now. But I tell it not to embarrass him, or anyone else. I tell it because I think it illustrates something important about parenthood, and especially motherhood. This story, and others like it, highlights something that gets lost when we generalise our experience of family life, or collapse our stories into anecdotes.
The laundry problem that I’m describing is more closely bound up with the experience of parenthood, than it is with childhood. Alex, for his part, has forgotten all about this episode. He forgot about it the minute he found his own way to grow up and separate from home and family. I, however, haven’t forgotten. The reason I haven’t forgotten is because I had to work hard emotionally to make sense of my son’s behaviour. I had to work hard to make peace with behaviour that, deep within, I found unacceptable.
By the time Alex was old enough for Kinder, I felt I knew him pretty well. This may, of course, have been part of the problem. I knew that he was frightened of change. I knew that he hated starting new things. I knew that he struggled to make new friends. And yet I also knew that he seemed happy in himself at home. And that he played the same, looked the same and acted the same as he always had. So why had he gone back to being a toddler and soiling his pants? Why now? And why me?
Perhaps, I thought, scratching my head and trying not to lose it, soiling his pants was Alex’s way of refusing to grow up. Perhaps he’d seen through the story of maturity that the grownups around him were telling him, the progress myth in which things always get better as you get bigger. Or perhaps he was expressing an unconscious instinct that got secret pleasure from flouting the rules. Was he saying, without using words, that he didn’t accept the law of cause and effect? Could soiling his underpants be his way of saying bugger off to the world? Was he flagging that he wanted to get off the bus, by pressing the button for the driver to let him off at the next stop? Was his behaviour a plea for mercy? Or a shout of protest?
One hot Sunday, we went for lunch with new friends (all our friends, at this stage, were new). He was a GP with a weekly radio program, and she was a psychologist working with children. Together this couple had three kids a few years older than Alex and Emma. They seemed like a groovy family, more groovy than I felt mine to be. During lunch, the psychologist mother told us about her son’s recent birthday party, during which the 8-year olds played a game in which they got to throw tomatoes at each other. After lunch, the five kids left the wooden table we were sitting at, to play in the sprinkler. Before long, the conversation round the table strayed into the issue that my husband and I were having with Alex starting Kinder, with a hint at his regressive behaviour. ‘Hah!’, said the GP father, waving his long hands in the air. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that. It will sort itself out in time. I wouldn’t make a fuss about it and make it into a thing. When you sit back and think about it, it’s really no more than a laundry problem’.
Sitting at the wooden table, cold barbecue mess in front of us, I laughed. So did Paul. But inside, I felt furious. What did the GP mean, that the issue with Alex that was driving me nuts, and pressing all my buttons, was nothing more than a laundry problem? Obviously, I fumed, he didn’t do the laundry himself. Because, if he did, he’d know that a kid who soils his pants isn’t easy to do laundry for. I felt powerless, wanting to answer the GP back, but not feeling that I could, even if I had the right words. Instead I sat at the table, smiling politely, feeling that what was a big problem for me had been made small by this medical man who knew better. I was, apparently, making a fuss about something that would go away by itself. At the end of the day, that hateful phrase, I was overreacting. The laundry problem was mine, more than it was my son’s.
Every parent has a story like this. You may be reading this now, and thinking about your own laundry problem. Problems like these are our war wounds, as parents, proof of combat. Eventually they do heal up. Yet a scar remains. This scar never completely fades because these problems pierce our unconscious. And this is why parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is such a powerful and lasting experience.
The emotions that are unleashed from the unconscious, by family life, are incredibly strong. Often they’re untamed. They’re only loosely attached to the words that communicate them. This is why our words rarely do them justice. Our words may stand about and snigger. But they exaggerate more than capture the experiences that drive us nuts as parents. They never really pin them down. I’ll never be able to describe the rage and powerlessness that my son’s laundry problem triggered in me. I may capture enough of it to gain your sympathy, as a fellow traveller. But it will always be the tip of the iceberg that I describe, not the ice below. And yet – and here’s the thing – it’s the ice below the surface that unites us, as parents, even as we struggle to describe our helplessness before it, from our separate boats.
The usual story, the conscious story, the happy-ever-after, things-will-get-better story, is the tip of the iceberg that we so want to believe in. When our child is six months, five years, 12 years or 20, when their dependent ties are cast off and we are free again – these are the hopes that get us up in the morning and keep us going. And they’re sort of true. They true enough to keep us going until next school holidays, next Christmas, next school year. But it’s only ever half the story that we tell. Possibly not even that. Because the rest of the story, the under the surface of the ocean story, doesn’t give a damn about progress or linear development. Or any of that stuff. And it’s this unconscious story that tests us, challenges us, and at times dements us.
When our buttons are pushed by our kids’ outrageous behaviour, by whatever they do that we find unacceptable, we know it quicker than anyone. Our reaction to our kid’s unacceptable behaviour may even frighten us. The howl of rage we feel, when our buttons are pushed, is enough to blow the roof off the three little pigs’ house. Except, of course, we’re grownups. And grownups don’t blow the roof off the house, not least because this would mean organising and paying for the repairs. Likewise, because we’re grownups, we do the laundry without a fuss.
It seems important to add that I did my best not to get cross with Alex when he soiled his underpants, however much I sometimes wanted to. Not because I was a self-effacing martyr. But because I knew that his behaviour was a phase, and that he didn’t do it to drive me crazy. Except I didn’t always feel this. At certain points I felt complete despair, no matter how reassuring my thoughts. I also felt lonely. And it was at these points that I reached out for support. To buoy me up when things felt grim. I reached out to close friends, during the day. Late at night, when I should have been asleep but wasn’t, books and websites about parenting reassured me that I wasn’t going mad. They told me that my despair at my laundry problem was real, but that it would pass. They whispered that I wasn’t on my own. That other people had been there too. And that one day, maybe not yet, but one day, I would look back, smile, and see Alex’s button-pressing behaviour as nothing more than a laundry problem.
One night, a year later, I had a dream. On waking from it, I had a vivid memory in which I soiled my pyjamas as a girl. In my memory I took my pyjamas down to the laundry, around dawn, and tried to wash them clean in the sink. So that my mother, who I felt sure would be angry with me, would never know. Perhaps I was five years old at the time, possibly older. Old enough to know that soiling my pyjamas wasn’t a good thing to do, was a shameful and embarrassing thing. And it was the morning when I awoke and remembered soiling my pyjamas, that I understood why Alex’s laundry problem had upset me so much. The GP, damn it, had been right. Alex’s problem was a problem because once it had been mine too.
Parenting, and especially mothering, is difficult, because it means holding two contrary things in mind. Our immediate response to our kids’ behaviour. And our more considered, heartfelt response. Keeping both these responses alive, not giving in to knee-jerk reactions when our buttons are pushed, requires nerves of steel. We don’t always win. Sometimes we slip up and say more than we should. Sometimes our kids’ unconscious receives the punishment that it has been compelled to seek. But mostly we hang on in there, waiting for the phase to pass, doing our best to be interested in a problem that tests us, challenges us, and brings out our best and our worst. Until one day, and I can say this with conviction, our kids will find a way to thank us for surviving their outrageous behaviour. For not taking it personally, however personal it felt at the time. They’ll thank us for taking the longer view, and for staying on for the ride.