Friday, 2 February 2018

The Sewing Machine

The Bernina 730

While my mother lay dying of a brain tumour last summer, in a secluded Norfolk nursing home, hidden away in a suburb of Norwich, I would drive blindly up and down the M11 each week to be with her.

On each trip, I would return down the motorway with things hopelessly ransacked from a home no longer occupied, cold and still. I brought her jewellery back for safekeeping, and some of her scarves to tuck in a bottom drawer. Later I brought thick blue wineglasses from Teheran, tea towels, handkerchieves, her pots and pans, even the cutlery I had grown up using, nearly five decades earlier, much to my children's annoyance.

On one of these return trips, I don't remember when, I brought her Bernina sewing machine back to our home in London. For some months, the machine sat, squat in a pristine cream box, on top of her previous machine, which was in its own worn but sturdy green case, a clamp for its slide-on sewing table attached to the inside of the case, and a compartment for the electric foot-operated pedal. This older machine was also a Bernina, a 730. My mother had given me this model quite some years earlier, when she splashed out on her spanking new bells and whistles model in its cream plastic box.

The elderly Bernina 730 was manufactured in Switzerland, somewhere between 1963 and 1986. I do not know when my mother became its proud owner, but I can picture it sitting on a white desk, in front of a window with net curtains, in the room she used as a guest room, in the house she bought when we moved from Iran to Norwich in 1974. On it she sewed my A-line above-the-knee flowery dresses, worn with long white socks and sandals. Later it churned out khaki Clothkits dungarees, and eventually a spangled midnight blue skating skirt, worn with breathless trepidation and stomach held in, to a school disco in Cringleford church hall.

I remember turning perfectly serviceable skirts into baggy trousers on this machine, after a university-era trip to Turkey, with single lopsided seams and very poor hemming.

After my mum passed it to me, I would occasionally haul the machine out and set it up to make botched and impatient repairs, the needle thrumming madly up and down as I yanked material through. My mother would sigh at my carelessness, and say nothing.

After I had children, the machine came back into play to try to make our son's scuffed trousers last a little bit longer. On her other, newer machine, my mother turned out broderie anglaise-trimmed smocks and culottes for our baby daughter, who proudly paraded them as she waddled about on a Cambridge lawn, stuffing strawberries into my undergraduates' mouths, one summer's day after exams.

But now, here I was with two bulky machines, in a small house, rapidly filling with all the books, photo albums, silver, paintings and weaving of my mother's that I could not bear to let go. I knew I had to draw a line. A non-sewer did not, for heaven's sake, need two electric sewing machines.

I mentioned it to a local friend, a vintage and mid-century textiles designer, herself originally from Norfolk, wondering if she might know of anyone in need of a machine some five decades old but still going strong. She smiled, came and tried out the machine herself, bit her lip, but knew that, like me, she did not have the room. She put the word out.

Barely a day later, someone had written to her — a seamstress from Staffordshire. She was asking would I be prepared to courier it, and how much it would cost. My friend did some online ferreting, and came up with a price for me. The seamstress and I were duly put in touch by mobile. That evening I received my first text:
Hello Ingrid, I hope it's ok for me to contact you at this time. I work as a seamstress on industrial machines, but need a domestic for buttonholes and for sewing in my home when it's too late to be in my workshop!
The next day, sitting in a cafe, I sent her back a text with a price for the machine and for the courier.

To my dismay a message flashed up immediately:
Hello Ingrid and thank you so much for getting back to me. Had I seen the machine last week it would by now have been on way to me! however, poor weather conditions have taken their toll on my conservatory roof, and yesterday I had a roofer over to assess damage. I'm afraid that due to the fact that it's going to cost in excess of £900 I'm no longer in a position to purchase the machine. I'm so sorry as it would've been treasured here. I hope you manage to re home it to someone who will love and appreciate it.
Gutted, I texted back:
If you would really like the machine, I'd be happy to drop the price, and wait until you felt in a position to take it.
Minutes later came her reply:
Ah Ingrid that's so kind of you to offer to wait for me. The problem is that that would probably bother me more than the roof issues! I'm not sure when I would be able to afford to buy it as I'm on my own with my children and although I work very long hours my spare cash doesn't mount up very quickly!
I read the text. A minute passed. I thought, but it was not thought. There was no time to think. I typed:
I'd just like to give it to you if you would be able to use it. If you would be happy to pay for the courier cost, it's yours. 
Seconds later, a text pinged back:
Oh Ingrid I'm crying! This is so very kind of you I can't believe it but I'm feeling uncomfortable about not being able to pay for it. xx
I sat stunned in the cafe, surrounded by chinking coffee cups and chatting people, tears running down my face. The whole drama had played out in a matter of minutes. We had never spoken, never met each other, and now here I was, pressurising a complete stranger in another city to take my mother's old sewing machine. She must think I was mad.

I tried to reassure her, telling her I understood, to take her time, to sit with the idea for a bit. I tried, somehow to explain:
Thing is, you see, the kindness is not mine, it's my lovely mum's. She loved sewing, and then gradually moved to weaving and textiles. Have a think, and let's be in touch. 
Back flashed her answer, needle-quick:
What a fabulous life your mum must've enjoyed being so involved in crafting, we are very fortunate. I thank my lucky stars every day to have been blessed with this inherited gift. I'm a third generation seamstress! 
Exhausted, we took our leave of each other, the matter unsettled, broached. Later that day, I had to take my eleven-year-old son to an optician's appointment. Afterwards, we walked home hand in hand, through the cold January air. I told him the story of the sewing machine.

Before I had finished, he interrupted me. 'I hope you gave her the machine, Mum?' I said that I'd tried to offer it to her, but that she hadn't yet accepted. He was silent for a while, and then he piped up:
'You know Mum, I think you're moving on. You said you'd always know what to do because of your mum, and now you're just doing it, without asking her.'

The following day there was a new text:
Well last night I told my daughter our story. There were inevitable tears from us both but her words to me were... firstly, you are so blessed, this kind of thing doesn't happen to other people and secondly, on the day that I'm in Ingrid's position I would hope to find someone like you to gift your machines to. So, on the basis that I will respect, cherish and of course use your mums machine for the rest of my life I now feel comfortable in accepting it if you would still like me to have it. 
There followed several days in which, via a comedy of errors, the machine was taken to the courier, left behind, in an agony of nerves, to be packed and shipped, and the seamstress tried to use mobile banking to pay the charge. Text followed text between us, as we tried to understand why the money was popping up and pending, not deliverable, what was mobile, what was online. My heart was constantly in my mouth, fearing that the highwire of goodwill we had so improbably strung between us was going to come crashing and tangling down. Were we each who we said we were? Neither of us picked up the phone, all was recorded in the back and forth of blue and grey speech bubbles of text appearing on our phone screens. She could not see me, and I could not see her. We were both blind, feeling our way. In the end she had to post a cheque.

On the third day, I got the news: 'SHES ARRIVED!!!!!!! xxx'

For the seamstress, my mum's Bernina was female:
She's a real lady 😊what a beauty I'm absolutely over the moon. All polished up, test run done I just need to check out oiling points as I'm not used to that as my industrial machines sit in a bath of oil which is majorly different! I'll never forget you nor your mother for this Ingrid because this is very very special indeed xx
Oiling points! Suddenly it came back to me — my mother had shown me the little red-painted dots all over the machine, and given me a yellowing plastic bottle of oil with a long stem, many years before. She had warned me to watch out if I was sewing white fabric, as sometimes the oil could leak out, and stain. Proudly, I passed on my technical knowledge. Back came the response:
Well, I've given this very robust little lady a spring clean, she's been oiled, dressed up, had such a lot of praise already and she's even worked a little bit! She's much more forgiving than my usual work mates, that's for sure. They're definitely male, very hench and not at all sympathetic. I've many a needle up the side of my nail bed I can tell you that! None of that with my Bernina. I've a table in my garage that I need to renovate, I'll be putting her on it for when I need to work when it's dark. 
I told her how much I loved her description of my mother's machine, holding her own like a lady against the rough old male industrial machines. She laughed:
Haha she'll do that alright she's a little tank! Aside from my family I absolutely live for my work and all my aids are loved, looked after and cherished because they pay the bills and keep us in our home. Now all I need to do is find time to renovate the table!! xx


Whenever I find that I am missing my mother, which is more often than I care to admit, I take out my phone, and I scroll through this thread of messages. I think about the third-generation seamstress in Staffordshire I have never spoken to, with my mother's sewing machine on a table in her garage, oiling it, dressing it up, and talking to it, fashioning buttonholes late at night, loving her work and thanking her lucky stars for her inherited gift.

Her name was Julie Spendlove.

I look at my own life and wonder why I make such a meal of it.

My mother's final words to me were: 'Do what you have to do, Ingrid'.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

On grief

The writer Matthew Parris wrote in August 2009 about the grief of losing his father several years on, and I so wish I could send him a letter. If I could, this is what I would say.

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your wonderful essay about losing your father. I think what I was so grateful for was the permission your piece gave to feel exactly as I do feel about my own mother's death – that there really isn't a single right way to feel or to grieve. I know that rationally of course, and tell others this all the time. I was surprised to read your piece and realise how easy it is to feel that one's own way of grieving is somehow wrong, or 'not good enough'.

Your writing about what it is like, five years after losing your father, and your memories of what it was like straight after he died, gave me the space to feel my own feelings, some two months after losing my mother, and offered me the huge consolation that I do not need to worry about forgetting, or feel guilty about what might have been (or no more than one's unconscious mind already beats one into feeling). There is no need to beat oneself up, or experience certain things, and feel that one has failed if one does not...

I find that I feel 'wobbly' in myself a lot of the time – it's almost physical – and as though slightly removed from the world. I go about my daily business, I nod, and smile and talk to others, and do my work, and life looks from the outside as if everything is back to normal.

It's just that it's not – everything, for me, has changed. It's like the magician's sleight of hand – the frame has moved slightly to the left, and so what I see through the frame looks like a completely different thing now. Mum was my frame, and now she both is and is not my frame. She still is, because she always was, but now it is I who have to go on adding little bits and pieces to that frame, I have to go on building it by myself, because I am the frame for my children.

I accept it, I had the time to accept that things would change while Mum was ill, and now I live with the change, but I won't know, really, how to do it until I have come to the end of doing it. That's what is new: I have had certainty, and now I do not. Except that, of course, I have it in my memory.

I also have the certainty that this is the greatest grief of my life – and, in a very strange way, this too is a consolation, to know just how important she was, through the magnitude of the grief.

Except that this 'magnitude' doesn't translate into 'drama', not in any direct sense. It is very quiet. And it is not 'pain' in any sense that I have known it before. I understand a little now about physical pain (although still not very much, thank goodness). And I've experienced several kinds of emotional pain in my life, and assumed that grief would feel like pain. But it doesn't.

I've been overwhelmed by my feelings so often in my life, but grieving for Mum isn't overwhelming me in that sense. I'm not washed away. That's the whole point. I remain, because she built me, and made sure that I could stand on my own two feet, no matter what came at me, even losing her, even facing my own mortality. That is her legacy. She needed and needs me to pass that test, not to be washed away, in order to live on herself. If I collapse under the weight of my grief, then what will be left of Mum? The point is the continuation. She has taught me that – I didn't know it, or couldn't feel it before she became ill, perhaps because I didn't need to learn that lesson, I could still rely on her.

All my life, I have looked at life as though it were a series of exams to pass, long after I stopped actively passing exams. And each time, the exam was the end in itself, and also the end of the world. I would put everything into passing, without ever really stopping to think about what lay beyond. The end point and the goal were the same thing as the timer in the exam hall. That was my perfectionism, and it's always been my blinkers, what kept me safe, but also blinded me.

I will always have that tendency to treat life like an exam, but now I see that the point is to examine life, not to be examined. Mum judged herself by the scale and quality of what she gave to others, not by what she acquired or achieved herself. The acquisitions and the achievements came alongside her generosity to others.

I found it painful that she put others' needs before her own, even when she was very ill. I wanted her to put her own needs first, or express them more, or be demanding, when she had every right to be demanding.

But now I think that perhaps, in fact, she met her own need by putting other people first. She was happy when she did this. Her need was to be needed.

And she was needed, very much.

Now I have to face life accepting my own version of this – my own need to be needed, which I know is there, and believe in, but have always sat on, because I fear that it turns me into a doormat or a martyr. Now I see that it doesn't – that that quiet inner certainty is the prize. I have always longed to be a calm person, like Mum was – and I am not a calm person, because of course I am not my Mum, I am different, and myself. But her voice is inside me, that I know, if I can only listen to it.

So that is where I am, Matthew. Measuring the loss, knowing that it is loss, and knowing what there is to make of that loss, not haunted or beset by regret, just sad, somewhat lonely, a little worried, but knowing that my worries are minor. Afraid of being wrongfooted by things around me, and swept away, yet more certain than I have ever been of what is right, true, good, through having lost it.

Like you, I know that I will live with grief for the rest of my life, but I do not see that as a prison sentence. Grief is not something to be recovered from. It is not an illness. I'm lucky to have this grief, lucky to be able to know the quality of this feeling. I did not know that, whatever else it is, grief is what sustains us in the face of loss, and compensates us, like a comforting touch, for that loss. Loss comes, and goes, anyway. Grief remains. We go on with it.

Thank you so much for your essay, Matthew. It helps so much.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 9 September 2016


(written by Graham Lineman and Sharon Horgan)
OK, I admit it. I flew off the handle about Motherland. Or rather I flew off the handle about a a perky young male reviewer in the Guardian – one of the smug new breed of reconstructed men, who have managed to reconstruct a society around themselves in which they think they are feminists, while never actually doing anything in the family that doesn’t serve their own interests first. 

Mean, I know. Below the belt, yes, literally. Accurate? Almost certainly. I can do hard satire too. I do apologise if I hurt anyone’s feelings.

But to Motherland itself. I actually watched it last night (as opposed to writing about it first). 

On second thoughts (or first thoughts if you’re going to discount my pre-thoughts, which were, for the most part, and though I flatter myself, absolutely accurate), Motherland could be the start of something really interesting.

You see, it’s billed as a hilarious new sitcom about what it’s like for modern mums, but for more than half of its viewers it won’t be comedy, or even drama, it will just be the mumdanity of their every waking minute.

Motherland isn’t a comedy, it’s a documentary.

The Working Mother we see at the beginning, stressed to the point of screaming and crying in her car as she tries to juggle the school run, while fielding calls from work demanding her pointless presenteeism (“I don’t actually need to be there while she prints out a form… yes, two children, yes, five and nine… yes, no, I’ve just got some childcare issues, I’ll definitely be in on Thursday”)? That woman didn’t make me laugh at all. I was just watching myself.


Before managing to move our children to a primary school within walking distance of where we lived, I used to have a ‘school run’ that took maybe 45 minutes or an hour, Monday to Friday, in a car, to travel about a mile and a half. Too far to walk with very small children. Even slower by bus. No options. I would sit, stalled in traffic, having been that fraction too late to push the kids out of the front door to have beaten it, tears rolling down my cheeks as I realised that again, despite my best efforts, London was going to defeat me before 8.55am. Oh, and when our son was three, the idea was that, in order for him to attend the school's nursery, I was going to do this run THREE TIMES EACH DAY: 8-9am, 12-1pm, 3.30-4.30pm. Six times. There and back. I'm so sorry if I sound fussy – but that's insanity.

I remember sitting one day, near the end of this nightmarish period, in the playground of the school where I was later to become the chair of governors, after one of these runs. I was catatonic, unable to speak, sobbing… in front of a woman who had herself suffered so appallingly from mental illness that she had had to be sectioned. She was trying to comfort me as Samaritans and psychologists must have tried to help her – her words were those of one attempting to pull another back from suicide. I only wish I were joking.

Don’t worry reader, I did not want to commit suicide. I’d quite like to stick around and make it to old age. I just want society to WAKE UP, and see what it is doing to its women, as it demands that they hold it together for no money, no promotion, no visible source of hope, while being kicked about, put down, and stressed to the point of breakdown. Working Mother, c’est moi.


Back to the show. Motherland is a great title – as we watch, we realise that what is at stake is akin to what awaits us all post-Brexit, an island of narrowmindedness defined by what it excludes, that has been invaded and colonised and is now ruled over by Amanda the Queen Bee, and her spagbol-for-the-children hazing rituals.

The Queen Bee (or Alpha Mummy) in Motherland as in every single playground and cafe up and down this fair land at the moment, is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable motherhood, in the same way that Theresa May is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable Britishness. Anyone who won’t comply or doesn’t conform (for which read any mother poor, single, working class, male (they can be 'mothers' too), or just plain working) is brutally excluded:

“It’s wonderful how you can just… switch off from your family, and go to work. [Beat] I just couldn’t do it, I’d suffer too much, I’d die for my children.”

The Queen Bee prowls the boundaries of Motherland, driving mothers who do anything other than mothering to its margins. ‘Good mothering’, in Motherland, means sitting on the big table in a posh cafe while your children play prettily, making plans to go on holiday and talking about home extensions and mani-pedis. 

At the end of the pilot ep, we see the Working Mother, definitively rejected by the Queen, drunkenly linking arms with out-of-work Single Mum, who freezes all her food including cheese and eggs, and who has stoically taken herself to A&E in a taxi after chopping off the top of her finger, trying to make her friend a cheese sandwich – Working Mother having not eaten all day. The final sequence shows Working Mother trying to get Single Mum to take her children on Thursday, so that she herself can go into work.

Working Mother's other arm is linked to that of Stay-at-Home-Dad, utterly emasculated, utterly excluded by the Queen Bee and her servile courtiers. The only other men in (or rather not in) Motherland are: (i) the Working Mother’s husband (calming deciding what kind of coffee he’d like, and putting down the phone on his wife with a breezy “I’m right behind any decision you make, darling”); (ii) the Queen Bee’s husband, phone glued to his head, viciously barking at women and children who enter his home and dare to stray into the living room, as opposed to milling downstairs in the basement kitchen, his trophy wife’s domain.

We dimly begin to realise that the Queen Bee is stranded in the very Motherland she has been forced to create, pushed back into her designer lair by the affluent economic circumstances which allow her to preen in public in the local cafe, and pretend she is looking after her children fulltime, but which really mean she has no purpose in life other than to keep up the appearance of financial success.

The real enemy isn’t Amanda the Queen Bee, and it isn’t even the unpleasant man she married – it’s late capitalism, and its intersection with the English class-based caste system, back in full force after a few hopeful decades of progressive pruning.

A class system with some new layers: those linked arms? The Stay-at-Home-Dad, the Working Mother and the Single Mother? All of these types are outcasts from the new face of the middle class. All three types have been ousted from the class they grew up in, and have been pushed to the margins by the new divisions in our society between rich and poor. All three types thought they were choosing, but were always being chosen for, as Britain has gradually sunk beneath the waves between the Miners’ Strike, and Brexit.

The airbrushed Amanda herself, in this tottering pyramid scheme – the one currently governing our society – can only be sustained on crazy money, the kind of money that can only be earnt in the financial sector itself. Usually by a man.

The whole thing, through the Alice in Wonderland prism of Motherland, can only be sustained on the paradoxical pretence that staying at home to raise children isn’t work. And this is why Amanda and her courtiers are scandalised when Working Mother is discovered eating the children’s spag bol out of the bins, and asks the Queen Bee if she could possibly, like some perverted Oliver Twist… have something to eat.

We can only pretend that ‘looking after children’ isn’t simple unpaid labour if care is dressed up as a perma-party, and exclusively aimed at our little princes and princesses, while the women serving them pretend not to have needs of their own, pretend, essentially, not to exist at all. 

If Amanda has to prepare food for another woman in her own home, then she is no longer the Hostess, but a woman without servants – she is in fact herself the servant. When Working Mother asks for food, she rips a hole in the artifice, and the Real reveals its horrifying head.

The Queen Bee can only maintain the lie that she is in control of her reality and her destiny through intrasexual bullying and hazing. Analogously, and further down the Motherland food chain, Working Mother can only maintain the lie that she is in control when she turns up at her children’s school after the insanity of the school run – and discovers it is half term – by accusing a complete stranger’s child of bullying hers, and then, when this lie is about to be exposed, blaming her own children for manipulation and exaggeration.

All of this social comedy is well observed, as if on some checklist of clichĂ©s governing modern women’s lives. Every mother will have had at least one of the experiences documented in Motherland

The wittiest moment in the whole show, however, is when the excluded Single Mother lip synchs the conversation between Queen Bee and Stay-at-Home-Dad – she voices the subtext of their blocked and failed interaction, in which he struggles, manfully, to express solidarity about breastfeeding, and finds himself beaten back by a dominant female primate, all breasts and lips, defending her exclusion zone on the top table in the cafe. 

Single Mum is both Chorus and protagonist in this drama – revealing the workings while pinioned by its structure. I want to see more of her. She might just be the future.

What is, in the end, truly brilliant about Motherland, and gives it the potential to be a new genre of comedy, the Frankenstein offspring of Outnumbered and League of Gentlemen, is the way it veers so crazily between naturalism and the grotesque, the way 'reality' is shown to tip over at any moment from normality into psychodrama in the world of modern mothers. For so many women, that crazy veering is their reality. 

Where British culture salvages something from the wreckage of its own self-destruction is through its comic history – at last, the spirit of Monty Python is coming along to save mothers.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Groundhog Day

Well, once again, it's a delightful day here in Motherloadland. Its early September, Indian Summer, the leaves are on the turn, the tan is fading, the children have skipped off to school in their new uniform and shoes, little faces shining and upturned for new knowledge.

I feel I have been here before. It feels a lot like all the other Septembers I've had in my nearly five decades – I used to be the child skipper, now I am the adult skipper. Wait! Let me reach for an apt, Tim Minchin-flavoured metaphor – my life feels like Groundhog Day.

I myself have just returned from comparing plastic clothes airers in Tescos and John Lewis, paying over good money for the one that looks least likely to break in my hand, and for yet more socks for our son, because he seems to eat them. I've made a coffee (another one!) and I'm just sitting down to finish writing a book.

Only I can't write, because I'm SO BLOODY FURIOUS ALL THE TIME. As I seem to have been since 2003.

Let me give you a cultural flavour of why my inner Furies are off the leash. Again.

Coming soon to a screen near me is the film Captain Fantastic, by all accounts a riveting tale of Swiss Family Robinson meets Bear Grylls meets Frankenstein – a radical libertarian leftist father decides to raise his six children in the woods, to take them close to nature, to teach them to live off-grid, to learn to sustain themselves, and to read Middlemarch by candlelight in the evenings – as we all did in the Good Old Days.

Oddly enough, his muscular eco experiment (one radical step on from muscular Christianity-cum-Thoreau-cum-New World Settler-kumquat) comes a cropper when he has to return to the City, that malign purveyor of all of humanity's ills. Turns out he's forgotten to teach his children how to cooperate with others. He's un-hothoused them.

Qua film, it sounds like a great thought experiment – the perils of extreme parenting! Don't make your kids do maths GCSE aged 10! – but, as usual, the mother, who in most childrearing scenarios, whether woods or suburbs-based, is doing all the work, is silenced.

I sympathise with Viggo Mortensen. I mean, I've tried to raise my kids off-grid from my base in the woodlands of North London for the last thirteen years, but we've only got as far as me yelling at them every day for leaving the TV on standby. My biggest victory is making my son walk to school – obviously when the paedophiles aren't out to get him. Oh – and he can poach an egg.

My husband suggested, lightheartedly, that we watch Motherland on iplayer tomorrow. Poor man. Why does he do it to himself? It sounded Fun – until I read the chatty Guardian review, written, obviously (and so wittily and self-deprecatingly), by a man – a new father! – hilariously terrified by the apocalyptic vision of his wife's future stress.

How marvellous it must be to have a day job in which you review television programmes your wife is too tired to watch, because she is looking after your baby! How deftly ironic that you include this in your review! How hilarious that the 'jokes – punchlines, slapstick, blink-and-you-miss-them visual gags' that apparently feature in Motherland will constitute the actual lived experience of your spouse for the next decade! Because the 'exaggerations' of Motherland sound a lot like my daily reality used to be – until I started to say, hand on heart, and as a loving mother of two, and former management consultant, 'I don't care, do it yourself'. 

Wait until she's whey-faced with it, mate, wait until she's standing screaming on the pavement at her little sweetness, because he is being an arse, and would rather watch television and eat biscuits than walk to a piano lesson. 

Wait until she's crying every evening, wondering why her dutiful and well-executed middle-class education never prepared her to have her career stuffed, her body shafted and shamed, to have complete strangers tut, roll their eyes, or just plain tell her off in the street, to be reduced to endless cooking and tidying and decluttering the family home, frantic with deadlines for endless primary school performances, without a social life, all the while being told she is Having It All, when what it feels like is the unreconstructed 1950s. 

Then come and tell me over a quinoaccino how funny, ironic and post-postmodern Motherland is. 

(Addendum: having now watched Motherland I can vouch for my own hyperbole. Motherload is when hyperbole IS reality in a woman's life. Motherland is supposed to be a comedy, but to me it was a documentary).

Make no mistake – if we have got to the point where our culture is wall-to-wall carpeted with ironic parenting STUFF that is constantly, subtly, hilariously pointing out how hard it is to be a mother, how overlooked, how put down, how competitive, how overworked, what witches and bitches and gossips and sharp-elbows all mothers are – while simultaneously making feeble jokes about how emasculating this is for fathers (Mum on the BBC, Josh Howie's Losing It, Radio 4, How it Works – The Mum, the hilarious faux-Ladybird book lampooning maternal drudgery, Modern Family, Outnumbered)… then we are in trouble

Not to mention – but I've started so I'll finish – today's Woman's Hour offering, the erudite Professor Alison Gopnik, with her new book The Gardener and the Carpenter, informing us (again) that children are Little Scientists, that their play is about hypothesis-testing, about how we need to grow our children like plants in a garden, not put them together like wooden chairs. I know! Bad parents! Beat them with their own woodwork tools. 

Does Alison Gopnik have any idea what it costs to Raise a Child Like a Garden? I understand, exactly, what she is arguing – I used to argue idealistic things like this when I was a researcher in a university writing beautifully-phrased pieces about French literature. Play is marvellous! I still love play! Back then, I imagined myself remaking society as I raised children in a gentle aura of calm nurturing, listening and love.

That was before I became an actual modern mother. Perhaps Professor Alison Gopnik would like to come to my house and help me when I'm trying to make sure my kids play and do the moronic spelling list ready for a test on Wednesday, and focus on extra maths, and that they're off the TV/phone/social BLOODY media and that you've done the weekly shop and that they have clean clothes and enough socks, because they seem to eat them. BECAUSE NO ONE IS HELPING AND EVERYONE IS CRITICISING. Where's my play? Everything in my garden is dying, but nobody's building me any chairs. 

Nothing is changing for women – in fact discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace has actually got worse between 2005 and 2016, and now we're supposed to find it funny, too?

How many feminists does it take to change a society? It doesn't. It takes a society to accept that women are female, and not men in dresses or drudges in pinnies. Or stupid.

I think we may have been here before. We're on our second female Prime Minister, first time as tragedy, second time as farce. 

I'm exhausted. I'm furious. I'm experiencing Groundhog Day. Please wake me up when it's all over. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Waiting for...

Tomorrow it will be 6 weeks since some surgery to remove early breast cancer. All is well, I have heard from the surgeon that there is no microinvasion. Healing is progressing as it should.

Three weeks ago, my surgeon dictated a letter to another hospital, requesting a referral for radiotherapy. I was in the room when he dictated it.

Apparently NHS letters have been outsourced to somewhere in India to be typed up. I don't know what happens to them after that -- who actually prints them out, sticks them in an envelope, franks them, takes them to a post box.

All I know, and you can probably guess what's coming -- or rather not coming -- next, is that that letter never made it to the other hospital.

Day followed day, and I tried to hurry up and wait. I busied myself, knowing that there would inevitably be a delay while appointments were made, telling myself that a few days, a week, a fortnight, wouldn't matter, that I needed to trust and accept. All that mindful stuff.

Eventually I could stand it no longer, and just called the hospital myself. This is when anyone first knew that no letter had materialised. Almost immediately, via phone, text and email, an appointment was made. For a further ten days off. Nothing to be done, no clinics before this.

Radiotherapy, apparently, is set up via a consultation meeting, then a planning meeting, and finally the actual therapy. I can't speed these meetings up, or skip one, because different departments have to be aligned. I have no way of knowing what the gaps will be between the meetings, and when the therapy will finally begin.

At the end of July, we are booked to fly to Australia, to see my husband's parents. This has been booked since April, and is not changeable. It's four years since we have been able to take our children to see their grandparents. It's not just a summer holiday, it's crucial.

I know, already, that the radiotherapy I need to have is an insurance. My breast will be tattooed and will shrink and be burnt, and it's not necessary. I'm doing it because I've been advised to -- and I've been advised to, not because it's actually going to prevent cancer returning there or anywhere else, but because it reassures my surgeon that he has done everything he has at his disposal to do. And I am afraid not to go ahead... just in case. Even though I know rationally it will make virtually no difference, now or in the future.

I know that I am powerless to prevent either of two scenarios happening: either the therapy will take place right up to the wire of departure, in which case I'm likely to be exhausted and wrecked travelling round the world. Or it will be postponed until the Autumn, pushing back the reconstruction surgery, and meaning that essentially the whole of 2016 will be taken up with treatment for early breast cancer.

I feel perfectly well, apart from the fact that my mind, will, sense of humour, capacity to plan and act are gradually turning to stone, as a direct result of this situation. I feel dissolved, absent from myself, immobilised.

Having dealt with the cancer itself as if I were preparing for my A levels: reading the set texts, doing practice papers, remembering to answer the question, staying focused and holding my nerve, I am finding this sagging limbo far, far harder to deal with. Like the so-called War on Terror, the big problem is that the enemy isn't tangible or visible. Looking back, my sense of triumph at vanquishing the cancer owed a lot to sports psychology. I WON (never mind that cancer got a bit of breast). Dealing with waiting is like dealing with a cloud. What do you PUT it in?

Dr Seuss puts his sweet, avuncular finger on what is so grim about being forced to wait in Oh! The Places You'll Go!: in this classic graduation gift, he addresses the reader, pointing out the joys and perils of a life well lived. One of the darkest places is The Waiting Place:

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil,
or a Better Break
or a string of pearls,
or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls,
or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Typically, Dr Seuss manages to make The Waiting Place bearable by making it sound funny and silly. But everything is in the repetition of 'Everyone is just waiting'. Despite all the rich variety of ways to wait, they boil down to the same experience -- not being able to move forward, and being dependent on indifferent others for one's security, happiness, deliverance.

'Just waiting' is something every one of us experiences at some point in our lives. It is an experience of powerlessness, since we would not be waiting, were we able to do something to shorten the wait. Waiting implies waiting for someone or something which refuses to hurry up, refuses to grant you what you want. Waiting is passive -- I have found myself reliving experiences of waiting which go right back to my childhood -- waiting for results, for a viva, for a birth, for conveyancing, for books to be published, to get over a broken heart, to recover from grief, to grow up. Waiting is associated almost exclusively with negativity and suffering (illness, judgement, trauma), while its more optimistic cousin, Anticipation, is bound up with hope and desire (love, birthdays, holidays).

Both waiting and anticipation make time stand still, but for vastly different reasons.

Samuel Beckett mines waiting for its black comedy in Godot -- 'Nothing to be done' is done over an immensely long time by Vladimir and Estragon.

King Lear blasts 'Nothing will come of nothing' at his daughter Cordelia, who will not give him the flattery he wants, and thus lays bare his egotism and narcissism. She makes him wait for the rest of both their lives, until he finally understands that her nothing meant everything.

Waiting is infantilising, recalling a time when we were helplessly dependent, waiting for someone to rescue us, our only power our ability to cry.

Now that I am a mother, I can understand another dimension of waiting: so much of mothering or parenting is about waiting for your child to grow up -- hoping it will turn out well, trying to savour the here and now, knowing that the best you can hope for is that they successfully abandon you, waiting for them to learn the lessons you know they must learn before they go into the world without you.

Perhaps the reason why I'm so upset about that lost letter is that, cancer or no cancer, my whole existence has already been reduced to waiting.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Lawnmower

Yesterday, I came home from scotch eggs and slabs of carrot cake with the children and my husband, eaten outside at the local farmers' market, in the May sunshine, to discover that my son had chopped up the cable to the lawnmower.

I'd gone to the shed for something else, the kneeler, so that I could do the weeding. I confronted him immediately, not even entertaining the possibility that the cat, my husband or my daughter might have committed the crime.

He stood in the tall grass and weeds at the back of our garden, his mother lowering at him from the shed door, holding out flailing snakes of orange flymo cable at him with trembling hands. He looked up at me, and didn't try to deny it. 'Yes,' he said, 'I did it.'

I set off into a furious tirade, appropriate to the occasion, utterly outraged and disbelieving, aware that the neighbours would be sticky-beaking each side of our tiny garden.

In my head were mad images of corpses, severed limbs, my son the future axe murderer.

I stormed off inside. I did not know what to do, with him, with myself, with the maimed lawnmower. I rushed back outside, and manhandled the thing through the house, dumping it by the bins.

Then back inside, to shout some more at my son, by now playing lego indoors, and defiant.

'Why did you do it? What on earth possessed you? Don't you realise it's a CRIME? That if a man was caught doing that, he could go to prison?' I flung the words wildly at him.

'I did it because I was angry with you. I did it the Wednesday before last. I did it because you'd taken my pocket money away for something –'

'I don't remember anything about that – if I did, it was for some other thing you'd done WRONG. What is wrong with you?' His face was furious, closed. He stared at me.

Pokers of fury were thrumming in my head. Incandescent, I smacked him, said, 'I'm so angry I could kill you' – dimly heard myself, quoting Helen from the Archers, and forced myself to leave the room.

I snatched the computer, brushed past my daughter, who was trying to tell me she'd written the thank you cards, and pounded upstairs. Throughout my crashing anger and bellowing, another voice had been quietly saying to me, 'Ingrid, you could probably buy a new cable. Ingrid, can't you see that it's quite funny?' But I shoved that voice down. I couldn't calm down, didn't know how to – for me, my son's action was terrifying – a sign of mental disturbance – an extraordinary sin. I couldn't even summon enough rage to show him how big his misdemeanour was – I was left gulping and grasping for words vast enough to encompass the transgression and its epic consequences, like a fish flopping beside a lake brimming with crime.

I sat on the floor in our bedroom, helplessly talking to myself, tears everywhere, possessed. 'I hate you, I wish someone would take you away, I wish you were in boarding school, how could you do this to me, after everything I do for you, you appalling child, you foul creature…' I don't clearly recall what I said, but along those lines. Spitting out the words that didn't seem to belong to me, foam-flecked.

At some point, my husband came in. Sat quietly on the floor. Listened as I poured out bile and invective against our child. He didn't say a word. I gradually became aware that my head was exploding in pain, that I felt physically sick. He took me downstairs and gave me a glass of water, rubbed my back as I took paracetamol and couldn't stop crying.


Some minutes later, my son came to me, his small face full of worry and apprehension. He reached out his arms for a hug. I knelt down so that my face was level with his.

'What you did frightened me, my darling. That's why I got angry. I think you were very brave to tell me the truth, when you knew I would be angry. When you know how angry I get.' He sat down on the cool floor of our dining room, sunlight making a window-square across him. We looked at each other.

'I get scared when you're cross, Mummy. I didn't do it to get back at you. I was just doing an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen.'

We hugged. We apologised to each other, he for cable-cutting, me for fury-frightening. I explained how terribly dangerous it would be if something were plugged in and he cut the cable, that he might get an electric shock, and could even die. We agreed that he had enough money in his account to pay for a new cable. He ran to get his money from his piggy bank. I ordered the part online.

My migraine gradually subsided. All evening I felt dizzy and shattered, white and fragile. I had plugged myself back into my past, and given myself a terrible shock. When things went wrong as a child, my father was instantly, scaldingly incandescent with rage, roaring in the house, a huge foreign presence. Countless evenings ended in misery, storms, shouting. I tried so hard to be good. I wanted so much to make it better, to make him happy. Nor could I contain his misery – it would burst out of me at endless meals, when he would either eat in heavy silence, or there would be some argument, something to wreck it all. I would run away from the table, go to my room, cry and cry and cry. Much later, my mother would come up, and try to calm me down.


My father was never prouder than when he rode around the lawn on his sit-on mower. He would dress in full-length overalls, a baseball cap on his head, with one of his hankies, legionnaire-style, fluttering behind, and he would steam up and down the grass. We had a large, beautiful lawn, ringed with dwarf apple and pear trees. My mother tended to her vegetable patch, and my father mowed the lawn. The sit-on mower transcended the older petrol-driven red-hubbed push mower, which he kept in the barn, as if in a rural mower museum, using it to trim the front lawn. The retired Royal Dutch Shell engineer, with his two solitary engines, stranded in the back garden of a former farmhouse near Norwich.


Yesterday one wire was severed and another connected. I fell into my past and was electrocuted, but managed to spew up most of the pastwater, clamber out, come back. My husband, with the infinite love of husbands, saw me across the divide. My son, with the infinite love of children, welcomed me home, and I, with the infinite love of mothers, saw the funny side of what a little boy had done, just to see what would happen. I short-circuited the past, and came back to the place where I have it in me to keep things in proportion, where not every unfortunate incident requires a tribunal and an exorcism, where sometimes a cable is just a cable, and not a metaphor for a grisly crime-stained future.

I'm not sure what possessed my son – but I'm completely aware of what possessed me. Those minutes spent in our bedroom yesterday afternoon were the same attempt to purge myself of pain as the bulimia I had when I was desperate to leave home, get away from my father, and wasn't quite ready. With each day that passes, I am better dispossessed.

Thursday, 5 May 2016


In the past few days I have found myself thinking a lot about shame.

This is not a word I like to use – who does? The whole point about feeling ashamed is that we want to die inside, curl away from the world, convinced of our terrible worthlessness.

Shame refers to the painful feelings of humiliation and even distress, caused by our own perception that we have done wrong, failed, or made a fool of ourselves in some way – whether or not we have.

Brené Brown has studied the power of vulnerability, and the transformative possibilities of confronting shame head on. She also happens to be the most wonderful public speaker. That woman is fierce:

There are a number of points she makes which go straight to the heart of what shame is and why we need to deal with it.
  • 'Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behaviour.'
  • 'Shame is 'I am bad'.  Guilt is 'I did something bad'.' 
  • 'Shame drives two big tapes: 'never good enough', and if you can talk it out of that one, 'who do you think you are?''
Most upsetting of all – 'Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive. '

I have suffered from every single element on that list.

Brown believes shame to be organised by gender: for women, shame means not being able to meet the contradictory standards imposed by society – perfectly (something I long ago gave up doing). What Brown is talking about for women-with-children, I term 'Motherload'. For men, it does not mean this web of unattainable, conflicting demands. It means being weak.

It's important, however, not to leave our definitions of shame in gendered boxes, because the experience of it is universal. We have all felt the 'warm wash of shame' – the very word is onomatopoeic, referencing that sense of drowning in an endless ocean of the feeling when it happens to us. Not to be able to feel shame at all, ever, is a sign of sociopathy.

Conversely, the capacity to feel shame is linked to the capacity to feel empathy. In fact empathy is the antidote to shame. Shame, she says, needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement – it cannot survive if it's 'doused with empathy'. The two most powerful words to a struggling person are, 'Me too'.

For Brown too, the capacity to be vulnerable is profoundly linked to courage – in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, linked to 'daring greatly'.


In the wake of being treated for early cancer, and deciding to go public with the idea that I had called my little carcinoma 'Wendy', in honour of a woman who once bullied me into leaving a job, I felt a multitude of things.

For the first time since my decision to sign my name to a paper – my resignation letter – that essentially condoned her behaviour towards me, I feel no shame.

Somehow – and it is mysterious to me, but it has definitely happened – either facing the surgery, which terrified me, or making a joke of my shame, or both, ended their power over me.

In facing my fears about cancer, and therefore my own mortality, and in learning that I had it in me to comfort myself (with support – I'm not going to pretend I did it alone), but also, and crucially, in laughing at my fears, real though they were, I have, at last, been able to step out of the deep, hot pool of shame that has saturated my life for the last thirteen years – all of my daughter's life. My beloved daughter, who turned 13 today.

In the days that followed deciding to name my shame, I have had a series of epiphanies that have inverted my entire world view. Like locks opening in a canal system, I have understood, at last, that I grew up in shame – my poor, poor Dutch father's shame. I was the product of a second marriage, and my father, I have suddenly, blindingly, seen, never forgave himself for, as he saw it, failing his first family. Never forgave himself.

I was raised in shame.

My phd on self-justification in Proust, that unpronounceable word, ended with a study of vulnerability, and the astounding realisation that self-justification has to stop for anything else to happen. Doh! It never occurred to me that shame was part of my story, or the story of the research I was undertaking. What I never worked out while writing that doctorate, or had said to me by anyone commenting on that work, was that self-justification's inner lining is shame. I had got to the right answer – that vulnerability is the royal road out of self-justification. But I had never even named the problem I was trying to solve. And without naming it, I was doomed to repeat it forever.

We do not need to justify ourselves. But we will never stop unless we can face what shames us.

I am forty-eight years old, exactly the same age my father was when I was born.

I have identified my Dutch Courage. And I no longer need it.

I have named my Motherload. And I can put it down.