HelenHayward

life writing

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.

 

your house wasn’t filthy

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Whenever I go on holiday I clean the house before we leave. Although it makes the day before we leave fretful it’s a favour that I’ve learned to do myself to make returning home a pleasure.

 

The last time I went away with my kids, and left my husband at home to work, when I opened the front door on our return I smelled a smell that turned out to be fortnight-old food scraps in the bin and dirty plates in the dishwasher. This time, knowing my husband would be focused on work while we were away, I decided to arrange for a cleaner to come before our return. I hardly ever give myself presents, but this one I felt I deserved.

 

‘Brilliant House Cleaning’, with five star reviews, topped my internet search. A bouncy lady answered my call. I explained that I was interested in a one-off clean before returning from holiday. The bouncy lady laughed. ‘I’ve just booked someone to clean my own house!’ she said. ‘I’ve been so busy this month, run off my feet, that I never seem to get round to cleaning my own place’. After another quick laugh we set about arranging a date along with a key to get into our house.

 

Two weeks later I received a text from my husband. ‘The cleaners are here!’ Two hours after that it was, ‘The cleaners have gone!’ My daughter grabbed the phone off my lap – we’d started the long drive home – and texted her father a reply. ‘Don’t get the house dirty before we get back!’

 

Three days of driving later we arrived home, tired and hungry. On putting my key in the front door and pushing it open I noticed nothing special – no smell, no mess. The house looked as I had left it. The stairs were a little cleaner and the floors looked mopped, but that was it. The house looked lovely, the garden was blessed with summer rain, I felt happy to be back, and we set about unpacking the too much stuff we’d taken away with us.

 

The cleaner had left her invoice on the kitchen table. I stared at the amount. It had taken the cleaner and her daughter two and a half hours to clean our house, amounting to a four-hour fee. I struggled to remember the last time I’d spent five hours straight cleaning our house and realised how little cleaning I usually manage to get away with.

 

A couple of days later I rang Brilliant House Cleaning to thank them for their services. Once more the bouncy lady answered the phone. When I told her how grateful I was to return to a lovely home she chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, your home wasn’t filthy’. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be pleased to hear that on the filthiness scale my house passed muster, or whether I should feel sympathy for the bouncy lady having to clean houses that really were filthy. Just for a moment, before we hung up, I felt as if we came together to acknowledge the effort that goes into keeping a home attractive. I was also struck by how much unacknowledged life this bouncy lady must see as she goes about cleaning other people’s houses.

going home for christmas

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‘Never go back to the place where you were happiest as a child’, a friend once told me. ‘The place you went on holiday to, a garden from childhood, a tree house in the woods. It’s gone, lost’, she said firmly, ‘and you can’t refind it’.

 

My friend spent her childhood in a house high up on a hill in Wales, surrounded by trunks full of her mother’s textiles upstairs and a bosomy garden below. Her children meanwhile have spent their childhood in a semi-detached house in Brighton, set affordably back from the beach. Her lawyer husband tutors their son during school holidays to keep his grades up, and her daughter’s skin condition flares whenever she eats anything sweet. Years since she visited her childhood home in Wales, my friend has a business in interiors and is a trained cook.

 

Yesterday I drove home with my daughter – a sixteen-hour drive and overnight ferry – after spending Christmas and New Year in the city I grew up in. My daughter was crewing in a sailing regatta and I wanted to catch up with my family. On my second day in Adelaide I took a walk past my childhood home. Standing in the rain opposite our old back gates I drew the attention of the owner who came out to talk with me. Not for a moment did I want to live in that house again. I didn’t want my childhood back. Yet for those five minutes I felt rooted to that spot on the pavement, the last thirty years a blur against the sight of our old back door and garage.

 

To break our drive home my daughter and I stay overnight on the coast of South Australia with my cousin Sam – a farmer who took over his family’s cattle property at the age of twenty two. Waiting for fish and chips on the main street his wife tells me jokingly that Sam never grew up and left home. I disagree. ‘Sam seems perfectly grown up to me. Perhaps’, I say, ‘it takes more maturity to grow up at home than to take yourself off to another country – as I did – to do your growing up there’. His wife smiles briefly and we chat about other things.

 

After supper five of us take a walk round limestone cliffs with their rocky shelves and sea lapping green below. A dipping sun stains the sky red, suggesting a hot day to come. My daughter and her cousin, tired from surfing, drop behind.

 

Despite the beauty around me I feel empty, melancholy even, as I remember past New Years’ Eves when I partied as a teenager on these same cliffs. Sam tells me of his decision to sell his share in his family beach house – pushed out by hefty land taxes and off-shore winds. ‘We live on a windy farm’, says his wife unsentimentally, ‘and we come on holiday to another windy place’. Sam isn’t bothered by his decision. He has grown up on these cliffs, scampering down rock faces to swim in the coves below, and doesn’t hanker for his childhood.

 

Like me Sam’s one remaining parent recently died. Yet he seems content with his life. His son will one day take over the farm from him, his second wife couldn’t be nicer, and his two daughters – one of whom is training for big things in sport – are coming up in the world. Perhaps, with the money from his share of the family beach house, and as his son takes more responsibility on the farm, he and his wife may travel.

 

My daughter and I are away for a fortnight. On returning home late yesterday my husband – who stayed home to work – says that it felt like we’d been away for five years.

 

This morning I wake up early, do some yoga, take our dog for a walk and write in a café, just as on hundreds of other mornings. A friend sends a text while I’m walking – did I enjoy being home for Christmas? I stare at the screen. Have I been home, I wonder? Certainly the twenty-three people round the table on Christmas day made me feel I was at home. Getting lost in the city that I felt I should know my way around, on the other hand, made me feel like a stray. Watching my daughter surfing with her cousin, silky white sand between my toes, wasn’t that home?

 

Standing on a beach that was considered too wild for swimming when I was a girl I watch my daughter and her cousin in the surf. Pacing up and down the beach – the eternal parent – another day fades into dusk. As light rain falls I pull a stripy red beach towel tighter round my shoulders. A kite surfer zips across the waves, back and forth, faster than I’d thought it possible to surf.

 

Eventually the kite flops and the surfer walks out of the waves, his large frame testament to his strength and speed. Standing on the beach, our backs against the dunes, we chat about kite surfing – though a fellow surfer became a parapelegic a week ago ‘doing something stupid’ the surfer insists that if you surf according to the rules kite surfing is safer than driving a car. We talk about risk taking in general and the importance of it. Then he tells me that he loves food and wine just as much as surfing. And that his daughter, a whizz at marketing, is currently writing a book about food in Tasmania – as coincidentally I too, though not a marketing whizz, have done. Water dripping off his nose, and without saying goodbye, he turns away to tend to his sodden kite.

 

Glancing at my watch I wave my hands in the air to signal to my daughter and nephew that it’s time for them to get out of the water. Just I used to do, when my mother waved to my sisters and me when it was time to get out of the water, they shake their heads in unison. Then they turn their boards out to sea and wait as if there is no tomorrow for the perfect wave to come.

on not writing christmas cards

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Every year the list of people I send Christmas cards to gets shorter. Every year I put off writing them until closer to the postal cut-off date. Writing Christmas cards has come to feel like an admission that the year is ending, a feeling of defeat that may explain why I put off writing them.

When I finally do put pen to card I know, when I take the envelopes to the post office today, that – like everyone else’s cards in the post office – mine won’t arrive in time. I know they’ll be opened as afterthoughts, as well-intentioned yet misguided gestures.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the festive season, who feels convinced that each year the rate at which the months roll speeds up. Even my kids feel this. Nor am I the only one whose heart sinks when gold tinsel goes up in the town square a full month before Christmas, who cynically thinks that buying things is a commercial sleight of hand designed to distract us from Trump’s new appointments, the crisis in Aleppo and a new coal mine in Queensland that risks bleaching what’s left of our Great Barrier Reef.

My mother used to write Christmas cards under a tree by a friend’s pool while my sisters and I mucked about in the water. Having grown up in the country my mother always insisted that she couldn’t swim. Looking back I can see that writing Christmas cards under a shady tree – engaging with absent friends and ticking names off her To Do list – gave her more satisfaction than cooling off with us in the pool. Just as she gave half a dozen bottles of beer to the postman, and a box of shortbread to her hairdresser, she knew the right thing to do at Christmas.

I am similar in age to my mother when she wrote Christmas cards by the pool. My To Do list is shorter than hers ever was and I’ve never given half a dozen beers to the postman. Moreover these days my Christmas card list has whittled down to a manageable ten.

Even so this year I struggle to write Christmas cards. Because this year my life has got the better of me. This year I’ve felt as overwhelmed by my family as I did when my children were toddlers. These days my children, now teenagers, demand things of me that I can’t give – even as they reject my efforts to provide them.

I’ve always struggled to describe an entire year in a hundred words inside a Christmas card. I find it even harder this year. Because this year it’s clear to me that my life isn’t going to plan. There is nothing wrong with my life, most of which I’m very happy with. It’s just that over the course of this year I’ve realised that the things which seem to come out of nowhere, to excite and unsettle me, are the stuff of my life. They aren’t things that I’ll ever recover and move on from. They are my life. And this awareness changes everything. It makes catchy summings in Christmas cards up impossible.

When my daughter saunters into the kitchen yesterday afternoon I moan to her that I can’t get myself to write Christmas cards. She tells me airily not to bother. ‘But I still want to’, I say, wanting to explain. ‘We could make potato print cards,’ she suggests, trying to be helpful. I roll my eyes in response, hoping that she can’t see my face – potato prints at the kitchen table being as far from what I feel like doing at that moment as a weekend in space.

Ten minutes later she brings in the mail and I open a demand to pay a water bill that I’ve overlooked in the craziness of these last few months. Trawling through paperwork in my study I discover that my car insurance is also four months late. I knew I’d been lax in keeping our accounts, I knew I’d been sticking my head in the sand. Even so I felt amazed that four whole months had slipped through my fingers leaving hardly a mark in my accounting book.

I sat up late last night. After putting all my paperwork on my study floor I forced myself to order it into piles. I attempted to make good our household accounts. I wrapped up Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I made a To Do list for today. I addressed the four most important Christmas cards that I’d already written and addressed envelopes for a few more.

In the cards that I’d written in a moment of peace in a café, earlier that day, I didn’t sum up my year. I didn’t list my kid’s achievements or my husband’s travels. I didn’t mention my writing projects. I kept it simple. I wrote about our garden made lush by spring. And the building work on our old house that is at last finished. I wrote about driving interstate for my daughter’s sailing regatta on Boxing Day in ten days’ time, and about my plan to have a Christmas picnic with my near-blind ninety-year-old aunt. And I left it at that.

It was late when I went to bed, and I lay awake for a while. It was done. I’d pulled my head from the sand and the panic that goes with keeping it there had ceased. I could feel my desire for Christmas distinct from the demands that – when I’m stressed – they so easily turn into. I could hear the wind in the trees outside the window. I had let the year come to an end – the moon outside was full – and made my peace with this my funny lovely life.

dinner for twenty

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The last time my husband had a big birthday we had a dinner at a long table on the verandah, with hired glasses and chaos in the kitchen. After the starter a friend came into the kitchen where I was washing leeks under the tap. ‘Haven’t you already washed those?’ she asked in surprise. ‘No’, I laughed. ‘My mother is a caterer’, she said, ‘and whenever she does a dinner she is always super prepared’. ‘Well’, I replied, waving a wet hand at the table of noisy guests through the window, ‘if I’d planned all this ahead of time I’d never have invited this many people’.

 

The woman at the electrical repair shop – who I’ve now spoken to numerous times about our broken dishwasher – is surprised when anger and tears creep into my voice on the phone. ‘What do you mean the pump for our dishwasher hasn’t arrived?’ I ask without disguising my exasperation. ‘It’s been five weeks and we’ve had three visits from the repair man and it’s still not fixed. I do understand that it can be hard to get parts from the mainland, but couldn’t the pump have been expressed down?’ ‘Well yes’, the woman replies, ‘but express costs $32.50 and no-one ever asks for this service’. ‘But I would have been happy to pay it to have a working dishwasher for a big dinner!’

 

I stop flicking through The Guardian Weekly sitting on the windowsill. I return to the photo on the cover. Angela Merkel is staring out, two small downward groves either side of her lips to her chin, the future of the EU weighing heavily on her. I feel shown up by my ridiculousness – worrying about a broken dishwasher when far bigger things matter further afield. At that moment my daughter walks into the kitchen, I admit my idiocy, and to cheer me up she shows me some photos on the Internet of Trump without makeup.

 

*     *     *

 

Guests stream through the door and my excitement and panic mounts. Standing at the kitchen window I count them in the courtyard below – eighteen, nineteen, that makes it twenty counting myself. There is a knock at the door and I open it too quickly to stop the words falling out of my mouth. ‘And you are twenty-one and twenty-two!’ They laugh and we joke. My daughter takes it in her stride and we shuffle round table settings and find the sewing stool upstairs. There is another knock at the front door – twenty-three! My daughter rolls her eyes at the mother who can’t count how many people she has invited for dinner. This time we resort to placing an unhinged wooden door from the basement on top of two workhorses, covering it with a rug and white tablecloth.

 

Getting guests into the sitting room, where the table is set, is like herding cats. They’d rather chat in the hall and kitchen. A few explore the garden. They don’t want to be treated like guests at a wedding. ‘But what about the asparagus?’ I ask, pushing through a clutch of people to rescue two large pots on the hob.

 

Realising we are one chair short, two men decide to take turns at the table, persuading me that they are perfectly happy helping my two teenagers in the kitchen. Together the four of them take over the serving of the meal. ‘Go away!’ they say after the first course goes out. ‘We don’t need you in here. Go away!’

 

And I do go away. I leave them to it. My otherwise shy daughter, flushed in shorts and tshirt, flies in and out of the sitting room. My son washes up at the sink in the corner of the kitchen as if in the galley of a ship. The two men rally.

 

Twice more during the evening I go into the kitchen to take over serving. And twice more I’m sent back to the table. I hope it’s because they want me to enjoy myself. But I can also see that the four of them are having a better time in the kitchen because I’m not there.

 

My husband talks to the people on either side of him as if there is no tomorrow, and declares at the end of the evening it has been his best birthday yet. No singing, no speeches, just a warm acceptance of something – friendship perhaps – that is so present in the room it doesn’t need expression. When I enter the kitchen, after dessert, my son is confident from my laugh that I’ve been drinking. ‘No, just lime juice’, I reply with a quick smile.

 

*     *     *

 

At five o’clock, two hours before guests are due to arrive, my daughter asks me a question. ‘Will you be glad when it’s over?’ I stop in my tracks and put down a box of cutlery. ‘Gosh’, I say, ‘what a good question’.

 

Now that the dinner is over I find I’m not glad. Like my husband I wish it could have gone on longer. That life itself could go on longer. Not least because this was the first dinner in my house that I’ve been able to enjoy as a guest.

 

This morning, the morning after, I am teased by my kids. ‘How can you have been so totally disorganised?’ they taunt. ‘It was easy’, I reply with a laugh. ‘Don’t you remember what you were like two weeks ago’, I say to my daughter, ‘swotting for exams and leaving it till the last minute? That’s exactly how I felt yesterday, knowing I was about to be hit but unable to do anything about it.’

 

What they don’t know, what they can’t imagine, was what really happened yesterday morning when my mind was in such a whirl that I snuck out without telling anyone for a walk on a bush track by a nearby reservoir. As I walked, on entering the cover of trees, I started crying. I cried for all the years that had passed with nothing and everything to show for it. I cried for the friends who‘d come from interstate as a surprise for my husband. I cried for my marriage which at times feels out of my hands, yet which cradles in them. I cried for my family life that at times feels so consuming, so rewarding, and so demanding that I can barely hear myself think. I cried for my childhood family who did so much for me yet half of whom are now dead. And I cried for my own children whom I am in the slow process of letting down – though we call it letting go – so that they can make lives of their own. Until, just as my tears started, they stopped. I looked up at the trees, thanked them for their shelter, and no longer felt upset.

 

After a bush walk with my daughter this evening again I am teased about my disorganisation at my husband’s birthday dinner. Sitting in our parked car in our driveway I listen silently as she lists my oversights. Then I break ranks and tell her about my tears round the reservoir. I don’t tell her to burden her. I tell her so that she can understand something of the complexity of my life. I tell her so that she can glimpse the richness and pain in store for her as she grows up. I tell her so that she may gain a perspective on her own internal goings on, which are so consuming to her yet which are passing. And I tell her so she knows that I too can feel very sad and very happy on the same day.

 

As I talk she listens quietly in the growing dark. Suddenly our dog barks loudly at a neighbour’s dog. ‘It’s time go in for dinner’, I say, putting up the car windows. And we do.

 

 

 

the ugly stepsisters

 

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When I was young reading, writing and arithmetic were subjects that I had to work hard at. But they never felt insurmountable. I could grasp them in the classroom. They were as nothing compared with the three “r’s” – resistance, reluctance and resentment – that I would meet later in my life. These ugly stepsisters have proved far harder to understand than learning the alphabet and arithmetic. And yet even as I instinctively avoided them I kept meeting resistance, reluctance and resentment on my meandering path to maturity. Until eventually I realised that although instinctively I avoided their company I needed to hear them out, because they had important things to tell me.

We talk a lot about positive psychology, as if this is all we might need when dealing with the challenges life throws at us. However we don’t talk much about negative psychology – of the way in which, left to our own, our feelings have a way of entering a downward spiral from which they don’t return until our ruminations are over. Then there is resistance, a residual unwillingness to doing something, which is another expression of a negativity that we’d like to wish away – and yet which so often defeats us. Often it isn’t until we have experienced a tidal resistance within ourselves for the simplest of tasks that we acknowledge how strong a force this negativity can take.

Nowhere is our resistance to simple tasks more rife than inside our homes – where we are master of how we spend our time, and where only we can decide whether something is worth doing. This, our resistance to household tasks, can prove so great – for me it arises around the paying of bills – that the energy we spend avoiding a task far outweighs the energy required to complete it.

Whereas resistance provides the motor, the dynamic with which we push against a repugnant task, reluctance brings a whole imaginative world in its wake. Reluctance is the carpet bag of emotions and images that flesh out our resistance to doing whatever it is. For example my reluctance to pay utility bills immediately conjures my history of past earnings, my Protestant family background, my current earnings as a writer and subsequent financial dependence on my husband, and not least my utter inability to organise a sensible routine for administrative tasks.

Lastly there is resentment – perhaps the most poisonous of the ugly stepsisters – which like a snail leaves a trail that attaches to seemingly benign tasks. Resentment puts paid to the common sense idea that daily household tasks are trivial – attached as they are by long threads to tumultuous feelings which prove that the task is anything but trivial. I am not just paying a gas bill – I am caring about the running of our home late at night when my own disorganisation forces me to care about something that no-one else in my household has to worry their pretty head about it.

When I was younger my instinct was to keep these ugly feelings together and to tip-toe around them, for fear of the havoc they might wreak should I awaken them. (I always remember my mother saying that were she ever to go into a psychotherapy session she may never come out again.) However at a certain point in my life this suppression became counter-productive. Because once my life reached a certain level of complexity – roughly when my kids became teenagers – I started needing the energy bound up in my own negativity. I needed some of its strength and verve. And this meant that I needed to hear it out, in all its banal bitterness. Because ultimately my negativity was holding hostage powers deep within myself that, if I wanted to come out on top, I couldn’t do without.

As a younger woman I had no idea how much my experience of grace would depend on my willingness to do things that I don’t like doing – and that the quality of my life is to some extent tied to my attitude to homework.

tweed jacket

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Twice a year, around about when the clocks go forward or back, I go through my wardrobe and store out of season clothes. But this makes me sound more organised than I really am. Each time the clocks change I have to prod myself into going through my clothes. Often I’ll trick myself into it – a quick whip through my summer clothes, after one a hot day after months of cold ones, will turn into a wholesale clean out.

 

One year I was lucky enough to go through my clothes with a friend on my bed, which made the process much more fun. But not just fun. It was also irksome to find out that the skirt I’d worn again and again didn’t pass muster, and that my favourite cardigan looked like just that, and nothing more. I can still remember the short silence that followed after I buttoned up my tweed jacket. Karen’s short silence, no longer than the intake of a breath, made me realise that my tweed jacket’s days were numbered. ‘But it’s so useful’, I said, springing to its defence. ‘I can dress it up and down.’ There was another tactful pause. ‘Also it’s the jacket that my daughter likes me in most.’ Karen demurred, nodded her head, and the tweed jacket stayed.

 

That was five years ago and now my tweed jacket’s days are over. Even the short leather jacket that my husband bought me to look sexy in has aged better than this tweed jacket. And yet for years I’ve loved wearing it, often done up with a scarf. I’d wear it into town or on a hike – all the while my kids wishing that I’d wear a fleece like normal mothers. I thought of my tweed jacket as smart camouflage, something that I could button up and not have to think about all day.

 

Two weeks ago, dressing in a hurry and not wanting to think about what to wear, I grabbed my tweed jacket off its hanger. However the moment I put it on I knew, despite my hurry, that I simply couldn’t wear it. My tweed jacket had died, precisely when it was hard to say, and it was useless pretending that it hadn’t.

 

My daughter despises the vanity of fashion to the inverse degree that she is influenced by it. Much as she hates admitting it, the cut of a tshirt and the fit of her jeans matter to her a whole lot more than they did five years ago, when she’d defiantly patch her clothes and wear her elder brother’s hand-me-downs.

 

I knew I’d made the right decision about my tweed jacket because the morning that I felt like mutton dressed as mutton, and said as much to my daughter, she let the comment slide. ‘It just has to go’, I said to her flatly. At that moment I could already see my tweed jacket squashed on a rack in the charity shop, hemmed in by slightly musty clothes that I’d never pick out myself. ‘Fifteen years is a good innings even for a well-made high street jacket,’ I added. Or perhaps my daughter had decided that, given how confused her opinions about her own clothes, it wasn’t her place to disagree with mine.

 

At this point I remembered a scene during a trip to the UK to see old friends. A close friend, who was quite sick at the time, asked me to spend the day with her. For someone who hadn’t lived in the country for five years it was a tricky drive, and I felt relieved to arrive safely at my friend’s house in Brighton. I can still remember the flash of disappointment that crossed her face when she opened the front door and hugged me. At first I couldn’t work it out, given that she was clearly thrilled to see me. Later that day, by which time I plucked up courage to ask, she explained. ‘It was because I thought you would have changed in five years’, she said. ‘But instead when I opened the front door you look exactly the same’. What I think she meant was that I’d gone all the way to Australia, and was living a completely different life, and yet I was still wearing the kind of jacket that I could pick up any day in Oxford Street or Paddington.

 

I don’t know the direction my life will take from here on, not really. However I do know how I feel when I put on my clothes each morning. Going forward, that terrible phrase, will I wear more of the same, or will I strike out in a new direction? Perhaps this is what my clothes are nudging me towards.

resentment and gratitude

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We talk about gratitude a lot. We know it’s what we are supposed to feel when we reflect on our life. I know it’s what I’d like my kids to express more of. We imagine it as a pure well of feeling, the milk of human kindness. However we don’t talk about gratitude’s ugly step-sister very much, even though most of us receive regular visits from her. Resentment, the uncomfortable feeling of hugging bitterness for others to ourselves, is not something that we keep a journal about. We don’t record or treasure our bitter feelings. We shrug them off, hoping they’ll stay that way. We don’t sit down late at night with a cup of hot something and write down the five things that made us feel resentful that day.

 

Resentment is the cup of poison that you pour for another and then drink yourself. This is why it can’t be shrugged off. Because once we’ve taken it in to ourselves it becomes part of us. Even if we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve had bad thoughts, and so at some level are guilty of them.

 

Lately my teenage daughter has taken to resenting her elder brother. She resents that he has finished school and is doing what he supposedly wants to do. She resents his freedom and even his fitness. After a long illness that has left her feeling weaker, she wishes that she had more of what he seems to have – life force or whatever you want to call it. Even though, from my point of view, my daughter has no cause to resent her brother. Can’t she see the strengths in herself that everyone else can plainly see?

 

Over the years I too have had my resentments. For a long time I resented my more successful, better educated, better travelled husband. Just as I resented certain more worldly, more self-assured and go-ahead friends. Of course I didn’t think a bit well of myself for feeling resentful in this way. I felt small and slightly ashamed of myself. I have so many advantages, I’d say to myself, how could I possibly resent the successes of others?

 

Just like my daughter, fearful of her looming exams, I’d negatively compare myself with my successful husband and friends to the degree that I felt insecure about my own prospects. (‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to an anchor point.) When my children were young, and my husband seemed to be galloping ahead in his career, resentment of his success seemed the rational response. It seemed common sense that I might resent his advantages – his network of mentors, his work ethic and his disregard for domestic responsibility.

 

But then something happened which, at the time, I barely noticed. My husband and I drifted into a traditional marriage and over a few years my resentments dried up. The more empowered I felt in my work and at home the less I compared myself to him. We moved into such different spheres that comparisons became irrelevant. I didn’t stop caring about what my husband thought of me. And I still reacted when he corrected me or asked for clarification on something. However my compass had moved – which meant that his opinions, or more precisely what I imagined were his opinions, were no longer the anchor point by which I measured my own worth.

 

Has this made me stronger? Perhaps. Certainly it has made me more relaxed. And I definitely feel more grateful for the life I actually live. Because just as resentment is a sign of a bruised ego, gratitude reflects a content soul. This is why I know it’s useless for me to tell my daughter to be grateful, in the ‘pull yourself together and be thankful for your blessings’ sort of way. As a loving mother I do feel this – sometimes my exasperation when she is moody for no reason is colossal. However mostly I manage to curb my exasperation. Because I know that not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful – as my own mother sometimes made me feel. I know that when your gratitude is blocked by resentment there is nothing to be done but to wait for the resentment to dissolve.

 

My daughter doesn’t need to be made to watch a documentary on orphaned children in Syria. It’s not my job to make her grateful for her materially blessed life. Because when she resents her brother’s freedoms she is talking about something more intimate than the daily conditions of her life. Rather she is saying to me, ‘Look, this is where I feel bruised. This is where I need to heal. So please don’t press on this place and make it worse’.

 

Thankfully my daughter is healing. When, before school yesterday, she spied in an email a photo of her brother jumping off a tall ship into blue Atlantic waters, it wasn’t resentment that she automatically felt. Envy perhaps, but not resentment. Because these days, whether she knows it or not, her compass is shifting. She still orients herself via fixed points – clever/stupid, strong/weak, fat/thin. However her hold on them is loosening. And as she lets them go, and mourns the certainties of childhood, the more relaxed and playful she becomes – and the more she plays the piano.

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This essay – a longish one – has been on my mind for years now, fed partly by responses to readers of this blog. It’s about why we value what we do at home. Thank you all, Helen. http://velamag.com/homework/screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-15-39-am