Thursday, 9 October 2014

Chore Wars II: and another thing....

Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford was making depressing and familiar points on Woman’s Hour this week (‘Chore Wars’). Women have been completely done over in the modern world, he said. Because women cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), they'd better keep earning, plus they can still expect to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 

This isn't news to me, but it's depressing to hear a Professor say it. I found it a little simplistic: what about how women cop the unpaid work at work as well? All those emotional dynamics, the presenteeism, the bringing in of fattening cakes, and, frankly, the menial paid parts of jobs. 

Be that as it may, Professor Gershuny's argument was that domestic labour has been progressively 'feminised', through labour-saving devices like boilers, dishwashers and hoovers. He argues that men used to lay the fires in the average home. Domestic jobs for the boys have been replaced by machines. Men at home are, in this account, and rather oddly, the Romantic victims of the Industrial Revolution. He also didn’t comment on the class issues involved in domestic labour — in fact it seems to have become taboo to mention class in relation to motherhood or the family. I don’t think upper class men laid their own fires, and even very average families often had a maid. The issue of who does what in the home is at least as much a class as a feminist issue. 

When I was growing up, my older father had already retired. I remember him doing masses around the house, as well as the DIY. My mother did not go out to work. Picture the one-time mechanical engineer mending the toilet flush in his pants. My mother quietly devoted her time to us and to cooking, gardening and weaving. I inherited the double expectation that partners in a marriage share domestic labour, and that mothers are there for their children. I wish I had understood how lucky I was as a child, how impossible it would be to provide the same kind of attention to my own children, and just how bad I was going to feel about this. 

I got my husband to do the Mumsnet Chores Surveyand by and large he was realistic. He only over-estimated his contribution a little — and in fact, at the moment, he is doing the lion's share, because I'm the one working, so we take turns. Domestic drudgery goes in waves and phases for us. Yet when you look at the results of the Mumsnet survey, the way we share just isn't representative of what's going on in the British home. I would gladly relinquish all housework — I really don't care about it — if I thought that I wasn't going to be judged and forced to justify myself about it

I find it impossible not to care (even though I don't care) what people think of my mothering/domestic actions, because the dominant assumptions are so… dominant. It's the lack of alternative models for living that I find truly suffocating. In my own life, my husband and I have abandoned mainstream ways of doing pretty much everything, because we thought a lot of those assumptions were marriage-endingly unfair on me. But we feel in a minority for doing so. 

I still iron his shirts, and love baking (I have won prizes for my cakes!), but I want to do it on my terms. The trouble is that there seems so little room for this at the moment. There's no space in which to iron your man's shirt out of love, or practicality, without being judged a feeble stay-at-home, and no space in which to refuse to iron your man's shirt without being judged a hard-faced cow. But why should this be, when women are supposed to have been liberated from all these stereotypes? The answer, of course, is that they have not liberated themselves or each other. We are afraid to let go of the stereotypes, because we don't know who we would be without them. 

My husband still does the irritating deferral of every domestic decision to me, and I have to train him constantly to think for himself, but he thinks he's just practising 'good communication' (by asking me 'whether or not son needs a packed lunch'). So sweet. I've accepted the idea that I'm the family leader, which has its pros and cons — essentially the family is much happier when I'm in charge of absolutely everything (and so am I). 

BUT. It is also my job to delegate well so that I don't fall over with the stress of it all, and so that my son grows up to pull his weight, and my daughter grows up to know she's entitled to live a balanced life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mumsnet: The Chore Wars

Yesterday, Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post for them on their current Chores Survey. You can read the post here, and I've added it for convenience below. Enjoy!


"On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch. 

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley. 

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show. 

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners. 

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 
There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.

Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing. 

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success. 

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure. 

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too."

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Studio Mothers: The Sugar Log

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to write a guest post for a blog I follow, on combining creativity and motherhood.

The blog is called Studio Mothers: enjoy!



The Sugar Log

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why phonics is nonsense

As my son 'revised key words for year 4', it became clear that his list of spellings this week contained all the proof you need to refute the teaching of reading and spelling through phonics. 

I present… five ways to pronounce '-ough' in English:

English is not a phonetic language

In the last couple of years in the UK, the methodology of phonics has, delightfully, been converted into a government-devised and compulsory 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1. 

Kids who know how to read can fail this check, if they baulk at pronouncing made-up words using the rules of phonics. 

They are then given remedial attention — to get better at phonics. 

Which is then abandoned as children move through primary education… because it stops working once you are writing anything beyond 'cat'. For example, 'Kate'. Or 'Keith'. Or 'knight'.

I know, I know, the 'phonics method' is really about helping children put together sounds and letters as they begin to decode, but it's so limited, and seems, for all the hype and testing that surrounds it, to be valid only for a matter of months in a child's life, before being shrugged off and forgotten. 

If you want to teach phonics, go to Holland. At least Dutch actually is a (relatively) phonetic language. 

All the '-ough' words above come from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, Old Dutch or Old Danish roots, and all have come to be pronounced differently in modern English. I always remember a French pen friend despairing about learning English, when reading Black Beauty, and finding it impossible to know how to say 'ploughed fields'. 'Pluffed fields', and the subsequent giggling, will always live in my memory as a joyous linguistic moment. To say nothing of homophones (bough and… bow) and homonyms (bow(tie) and… bow (down)). 

Stop plaguing our children with this narrow phonics ideology, which isn't historically or linguistically accurate, and tell them something about how language really works, and the amazing places it comes from. Which, along the way, might teach them something a bit more accurate about what 'Britishness' is — a composite of invading cultures, rather than Morris dancing, Wimbledon and St George and the Dragon (George was Palestinian anyway). While you help them learn to read, then spell, with all the methods that have been developed to do so. One of which is... pleasure. 

Wait, just clambering off my soapbox.

PS. there's a 6th way to say '-ough': 'thorough' (-uh). And I have been. My pedantometer is all the way over at HIGH.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Complex Medea: Medea complex

Thank goodness I saw Helen McCrory's sublime Medea courtesy of National Theatre Live last week.

Otherwise I might find myself becoming complacent about being happy in motherhood.

Yup, I am that age. I cannot go out to the theatre any more, because of young children, recession (don't tell me it's over), and exorbitant ticket and babysitting fees. But I CAN go to the local cinema with a friend and some popcorn, and sit amongst a throng of grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, all pretending we are what we once were, and down on the South Bank.

It is a strange experience to hear big-voiced theatrical projection and see facial expressions meant for the back of a proscenium theatre, brought to you in close up on a cinema screen. An old friend of mine was also in the production, and frankly, looked as if he was gurning. Others have assured me that from the stalls, he was excellent.

So it is not a perfect transmission of the theatrical experience, but it would not have mattered whether Helen McCrory were on film, TV, stage or at a bus stop. She possessed and was possessed by the ghost of Medea like nothing I have ever seen before.

This is Euripides reworked by Ben Power, but so brilliantly written that, although we have the sense of being in the twenty-first century, with a posh wedding, a Chorus dressed in Desperate Housewives chic, Medea's boys watching TV lying on sleeping bags, and Medea herself wearing her husband Jason's trousers, we are simultaneously in fifth-century BC Corinth. It is also the National Theatre's first ever Medea. Could it be that both the taboo of the subject matter and the purity of the tragedy are just too difficult for modern theatregoers? All the more important in these days of working mothers, recomposed families, single mothers — families and the women in them under such pressure — that we see representations of what they might be going through inside.

Because that's what Medea is — she is nothing but her internal white-hot pain and rage, jealousy of her man Jason's new wife, fury at his abandonment and betrayal of her and their sons. This furnace of passions leads her, step by awful step, towards the mental readiness to murder what he and she hold most dear, in order to avenge herself. We are powerless to prevent it, relegated to the sidelines with the nurse and the Chorus. All we can do is sit in the dark and bear witness to what will inevitably happen.

All the power of the tragedy is in its inexorable progress from 'what is she capable of?' to 'what has she done?' In most tragedy, the wheel of fortune turns, and a fatal flaw in the protagonist plays its part in his downfall — there are extenuating circumstances. In Medea, the wheel of fortune is in the hands, not of the gods, but of her self-interested husband, prepared to drop her for a shot at personal power, and content to justify this as done in the name of his real (but abandoned) family. The wheel has turned before the play even starts, it is not part of the plot machinery. When we are introduced to Medea, she is already alone, back against the wall, to be ousted with her sons from Corinth, while her ex stays to marry into the royal family. Yet for Jason's sake, she has already murdered a member of her own family, her brother, and betrayed her father. It might make one ask whether Jason has it coming?

The real question at the heart of the plot is whether or not Medea is mad. The question subtending that one is whether all women are potentially capable of murdering their children. Is she the exception or a possible, utterly terrifying rule, the deepest fear in all of us, that our mothers might kill us?

For McCrory, playing this exhausting role in 2014, it is vital to assert that Medea is not mad. She is simply refusing the fate, the betrayal, the excommunication, that has been meted out to her, by exacting the ultimate revenge. This interpretation is not about excusing Medea, but explaining her, in order to activate the pity and awe the audience must feel. McCrory, I think, plays Medea as warning. The fact that there is precedent, that she has killed before, tells the nurse (although Jason is too blinded by his self-justifications) what she is likely to move towards.

McCrory's performance makes very clear that Medea never denies that killing her own children will also destroy her capacity for normal wellbeing. She knows very well that what she is about to do is both morally wrong, and that she will find it unbearable to live with her own action — and that she will going on living. In that sense she is Beckettian. It is impossible that she should live with her crime, but she does. The strength that Medea presents at the end of the NT production, as she heaves the boys' bodies, encased in blood-soaked sleeping bags, onto each shoulder, and labours, step by excruciating step, off stage towards Aegeus and Athens, is desolating to behold. She has her single moment of revenge — she sees the look on Jason's face — and then she faces the rest of her life, accompanied only by the knowledge of what she has done.

Is she evil? It is certainly premeditated, if only for a day, the space of the play: she has to talk herself into killing the boys, and her courage fails her many times. Nothing can justify the boys' murder, which is precisely why she does it. She believes that nothing justifies what Jason has done to her. Simply killing Jason's new wife, Glauce, daughter of King Creon, and Creon himself, with a poisoned robe, is not enough of a revenge. The only way to transmit fully to Jason what he has done to her, is to do something still more unjustifiable.

The act is evil, it speaks of evil, but she is a vehicle of the causes of evil — indifference, exploitation, the desire for power at any price. Those qualities are present in Jason, not Medea — she cares too much, loves Jason crazily, has been too completely crushed in love, is utterly bereft of power. Jason does not deserve to have his sons die, nothing redeems their death, they are crushed by her fury and thirst for revenge. At the point of committing the act, those passions have consumed her and transmuted into commitment. After the act, she returns to herself. The act itself has to remain beyond our — even her — understanding, in order to carry the power it does. This is why it takes place off stage (it must not be seen, it is literally obscene, ob-scaena). She herself is not mad as she does it, although her determination looks identical to madness.

Euripides' Medea seems to me a near-perfect example of the rules and machinery of Greek tragedy, wrought through innovations to that form (the protagonist is female, she is alone, there are no Gods, she is part Goddess).

Roald Dahl/Tim Minchin's Matilda is the index of pushy parenting for our times. Medea takes the temperature of the desperate pressure women are under to have it all by doing it all, without any guarantee of personal fulfilment or security, and shows the ultimate price.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Dealing with strong-willed parents

In the wake of what I now call the Cardiff fandango, I have been having a summer of hardline parenting, research into Manipulative and Strong-Willed Children, and experimentation.

Here's what happened and what I learnt:

1. Getting the kids to do chores I don't want to do, but need to get done (aka washing the car, weeding the path), and paying them for it, can be incredibly good fun.

Learning: if it costs a bob or two, don't sweat it. They did the work, they earnt it.

2. Always seize the opportunity to pick blackberries when out and about. A sure sign that the summer holidays are coming to an end, and absolutely free.

Learning: take a hat, you never know when you'll need extra storage.

3. Put up a tent in the garden, and let the children stay out overnight. The first night son was back in twenty minutes, afraid of foxes. But once daughter had made it, he screwed his courage to his sticking plaster, and stayed put, even in the rain.

Learning: sibling rivalry ensures progress.

4. Visit cats you have catsat. Introduce your children to friend who does not have children, via peace dove of their mutual love of the cats. Strategically whisk children away before they can inflict any damage on friend's possessions. Thusly delude friend into thinking that your children are well-behaved. Build bridge to further sightings of friend in park, while children knock unripe conkers off trees, and argue about who needs to push whom on the swing, in the background. Thank lucky stars it's not raining. Laugh at shared knowledge that cat is now so overweight (thanks to combined feeding) that he is, and I quote, "too fat for his harness". Go home feeling guilty about cat.

Learning: don't express your love through overfeeding cats.

5. Buy boring mince. Make burgers, fries and milkshakes and eat them in front of Pitch Perfect with children, while husband away in untimely fashion. Try not to explain the rude words to eight-year-old son, who is very keen to know what a 'dickhead' is.

Learning: Film Nights are fantastic for defusing the tension and reminding you that you once had a life.

6. Force your mother to babysit while you go out and do back to back dance classes. Return home in very good mood to find children at each other's throats and your mother under a heap of your ironing.  Reactivate no. 2.

Learning: Blackberries need a lot of sugar.

7. Have a mother who loves you enough to want to take you out for sushi.

Learning: I am blessed.

8. Go for a run with a much fitter friend, in the absolute pouring rain, then have a raucous coffee at local favourite cafe. Talk about the floodgates opening. Best conversation I've had in years. I was just explaining in a stage whisper how I felt about my husband's newly sprouted handlebar moustache, when the man at the next table turned around, sporting a beard and 'tache so bushy that he looked like a illustration of an Edward Lear poem. Strengthened by Iron Mother run in wet woods, I was utterly unrepentant. He looked like a throttled spider by the end of the conversation. Arrived home to find husband shaving off moustache. Feel the Karma.

Learning: don't hold back when you feel strongly about something.

9. Ask mother to sew on cloth name labels to daughter's school uniform, cloth name labels you bought when daughter was born, and which you have never used. Spend delightful afternoon repairing second-hand uniform skirts, squabbling over the scissors, and teaching daughter to sew. Everybody happy.

Learning: tempus fugit. But even though the cloth name label company has now gone out of business, it has brought pleasure to three generations.

10. Go out for drink with husband. Sit head in hands wondering how we are going to pay the school fees. Go home after one hour. Feel marginally better.

Learning: even if all you've got to talk about is how expensive life is going to be for the next decade, it's really nice to go out with your partner.

11. Get husband to look after children for the day while you go into town and interview people for Motherload, bump into old friend and have long coffee, then have more sushi with another old friend, and talk loudly about the decline of standards at Oxbridge, just to annoy the people either side of you.

Learning: being a dirty stopout is absolutely compulsory.

12. Take children into central London to see Horrible Histories. Accidentally arrive with too much time to spare and force children to walk to Trafalgar Square. Horrible Histories, meh, Trafalgar Square, brilliant:

The force is just to the right of him

The blue cock
Learning: I think it speaks for itself.

13. Have several days where you work, and do absolutely nothing to entertain the children. Well, ok, husband took them to the park, and son had a friend round.

Learning: it's crucial to your mental health to get the chance to do your own work in the summer holidays.

14. Insist that eleven-year-old takes bus home by herself. She will start secondary school in under 3 weeks, and will be travelling to and from school on her own. Resist all her attempts to get out of travelling on her own. Watch child succeed.

Learning: tough it out.

15. Make daughter chop potatoes into fries. Soak chicken in buttermilk all day then shallow fry in breadcrumbs, and finish in the oven with the fries. Sit back and watch children scrape plates.

Learning: tough it out, but in the name of yumminess.

16. Melt two Snickers bars with some butter and milk. Pour over vanilla ice-cream and chopped bananas. Sit back and watch children scrape plates. See 5. above.

Learning: cook fast food at home and add a salad. Your children will eat. 

17. Buy books about manipulative and strong-willed children off 'tinternet. Read them in bed and feel rising anger at yourself and your sloppy parenting methods. Ask son to wash his hands after doing a wee. Do not give in when he whines, throws himself on the floor, shouts at you, hits you.

Learning: I'm not sure what to say. 

18. Go downstairs and have argument with husband about going on a Family Outing to the National Gallery. Husband's POV: it'll be a fibrous muesli-eating nightmare and isn't worth it. Personal POV: husband is lazy and this is why son is a pain in the backside. Husband's rhetorical strategy: tell wife she's dogmatic, bossy, and "strong-willed". Wife's strategy: agree with everything, and then point out that husband is completely irrational. Walk out and make coffee without resolving argument.

Learning: coffee is more important than the National Gallery.

19. Go upstairs and make son get up and survey the three mouldering apple cores you found behind the radiator last night. Tell him you're taking away his new Lego sticker book for the weekend, bought with his own money, unless he clears up and apologises. Sit back with husband and watch for ten minutes as son blows raspberries, refuses to do anything, screams, swears, hits. Up the withdrawal of the new book to a week. Watch as child scrapes apples into recycling.

Learning: coldly hold the line.

20. Use Talking Spoon to reiterate your view that an educational family trip to the National Gallery, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is better than sitting around, which we've already done for the last few days anyway. Plus if it doesn't work, you can go outside and look at the blue cock again. Be astonished as husband agrees with you, daughter agrees with you, and son doesn't put up much resistance. Be even more astonished when husband hangs up washing, and repairs shed window, a job you have been looking at for about six months.

Learning: say what you have to say and stick to it.

21. Feel faintly smug for two minutes, until the next behaviour crisis. Keep tight hold of parenting book on strong-willed children, with sweaty palms. 

Learning: dealing with strong wills starts at home. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Chopping and changing

We came home from abortive trip to Cardiff yesterday, where I discovered son's new vocation as a hairdresser:
Fringe drama
Today we got up, and I promptly missed an early morning yoga class, because, despite all my good intentions (my plans to get up at 6am, my plans to re-read my manuscript, get close to my material, find points to integrate other voices), I feel keel-hauled every matins by the shenanigans of the day before. Luckily my husband was there to wake up son, before leaving for work and then a trip to watch cricket in Manchester for a couple of days, an event I have studiously failed to understand was on the horizon.

After yelling at the children to get dressed, put their stuff away, do their teeth, and stop making me say the SAME THINGS EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I am going completely bananas, I heard myself say to my son, "If you wash the car, I'll pay you £6."

Once this job had been handed out, my daughter wanted to earn some cash too, so I set her to work on de-mossing our garden path. Son needs the cash because he will need to pay for his next haircut, buy his sister the scrapbook he cut up (it's all about scissors at the moment, search me why), and buy my mum replacements for the thread he wound all round her guest room.

He's a little short on cash: the last time he had any money was after his school report, and that had to be spent on buying back the expensive, full bottle of shampoo he decided to empty into his bath.

Cleaning up our act
The sun was shining, we drove, in the car, to Halfords to buy a bucket, sponge and shampoo, to clean the car — an irony not lost on bright spark son.

Cleaning the car doesn't happen very often in this household. In fact moss grows not only on our garden path, but in the crevices of the car's window frames. Last time I saw moss on a car was on the wooden chassis of an ancient Morris Minor, beloved vehicle of my first boyfriend.

De-mosstified 
Out we all trooped, daughter to sit on a gardening pad and pick at the path with a fork, Kindle Fire blaring out the Grease soundtrack; son completely soaked after about two minutes, brandishing large yellow sponge, and occasionally touching the car with it, chatting to all the neighbours and making friends with the postman.

Once I'd finished washing the vehicle, he vacuumed the whole thing, sitting in the boot to do the awkward bits. I am minded to send him into the weaving mills — he's the right size. We washed the dashboard, polished the windows, and the dreadful old boat looks positively spiffing now.

The kids are quietly playing, one in the garden with a spider and a Scooby doo van, one in her room, endlessly drawing what she fondly imagines to be high fashion. I am sitting writing, cup of tea to hand, feeling on top of the world.

I even made a batch of flapjack while the car was being washed, thinking that low GI food would help us all along. Used all my husband's oats.

Sadly I burnt it. Still can't multitask.