Sunday, 17 April 2016

I've called my cancer Wendy

Pre-op Dutch Courage

So Motherload fans, I've been quite absent from this blog for a while, and I've got an excuse.

On Thursday I had surgery to excise some very early breast cancer.

Now, this won't be a long post, because I'm still post-op and a bit tired.

But I wanted to pass on a few things that have interested me on this journey.

1. I found my lump on 22 February 2016. This also happened to be the second anniversary of the death of a wonderful friend, Jane. She was the bravest woman I have ever met. She died of ovarian cancer. We met, the day after her diagnosis, when my little girl went round to play with her little girl. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. What is the etiquette for a playdate chat about ovarian cancer with a mum you've never met before? We became firm friends. We learnt mindfulness together during six sun-filled weeks in her kitchen, as her cat strolled in and moved around us, happy and curious. Another friend I'd made through my daughter's school did the course with us, and it was run by yet another friend, who came from another of my many lives. My worlds were brought together in Jane's kitchen in the quiet and the birdsong.

2. I found the lump about two weeks after starting a new job, as a writer in residence for a divorce law firm, Vardags. I was so nervous about starting a job in the City, that I took to making the journey in a pair of pink trainers, then changing into a pair of high-heeled Shoes of Prey beauties, to pretend I was a kickass writer. What I was, was a tiny, frightened, mess of a writer.

3. I had been offered an amazing opportunity to take on some change management work for a company, just prior to starting at Vardags – I'd asked to defer it because of no. 4 below, but I was going to have to get going on it imminently. I quailed at the prospect of fitting it in.

4. I had, furthermore, issued a Facebook promise, like an idiot, that I would complete the second draft of Motherload by the end of February. Couldn't stand down. Not after six years.

5. Oh, and there was still the little matter of my tutoring eight hours a week after school, being a school governor, doing university admissions work…

6. And being a mother.

Keeping these six things in play, around supermarket trips, parkruns and yoga, turned into the framework that got me through the subsequent two months. That, and the ruthlessly and insistently appointed two-woman support group of Viking Sisters, who used Whatsapp to keep me off the ceiling, breathing, moving forward. Two months of going to the breast clinic for mammogram and biopsy, then having a second (eye-watering) biopsy, then being told by phone that there was, in fact, a minute carcinoma, but having to wait for the official confirmation, because there was a second area in doubt. There was the small matter of going on holiday with my extended family at Easter, and not being able to tell them. There was the delightful coincidence of my 48th birthday, three days ahead of the surgery.

To my immense surprise, deciding to tell no one, not even my mum (apart from my husband and my corralled Viking Sisters, who didn't have a choice in the matter), turned out to be the right move. I longed to scream the news from the rooftops, in the hope this would somehow save me from actually having cancer, but at the same time, I knew that I had to keep my head down, shuffling on, bracketing, parking, compartmentalising, prioritising. And to my second immense surprise, doing this gave me a huge boost of power and motivation.

Being, as I am, a recovering Proustian, and therefore given to telling everyone absolutely everything that happens to me, in laborious detail, using the imperfect tense, not telling people about the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me was weird. I had a secret.

Twelve years ago, when I was – as I never tire of telling people – kicked out of Cambridge for having a baby and a father dying of dementia, my head of department worked as hard and ruthlessly to push me to resign, as I worked from February to April of this year, keeping my secret.

She made damn sure that when I went to her, requesting flexible or part-time working post-birth, she left no stone unturned in humiliating me, trying to invade my personal life, and ultimately in just refusing my request. I could have done all my teaching in the time available as a part-time lecturer, and would have done it, didn't want to let my students down. Oh, she was thorough. She'd spent three years getting me ready for the final push, undermining me and provoking me. I mean, she was really very good at bullying. It's an art form.

As I went on to realise after quitting, and having to struggle without a job or a pension and two babies, I'd also been a very willing little helper. Good little girl that I was, I had willingly swallowed her hatred, and patted it into place with the rest of the things I loathed about myself. I was, it slowly dawned on me, good at being bullied.

When you find a lump, you go through a range of emotions: fear, anger, hysteria, grief are the main ones. When I found my lump, I duly went through all these things.

But something else happened too. I started to call my lump Wendy, in honour of the toxic waste I'd swallowed at the hands of my erstwhile head of department. In honour of the woman who was in a position of power over me, and saw fit to try to destroy a young woman at the start of her career. Because one thing was for sure. I was going to get rid of Wendy. My surgeon was going to help me to deal with my inner bullied once and for all.

And it was't just my surgeon. I knew I had to tell my new boss that I was going to have to slow down, maybe stop for a bit once the surgery was definitely going to happen. I dreaded telling her as much as I dreaded having surgery.

In the event, I need not have worried. Because the only thing my boss was worried about… was me. She just told me to do what I could, and not to fret about it. I went into the surgery on Thursday, safe in the knowledge that I worked for a woman who cares about her employees, who has worked out that a little trust is rewarded with a lot of loyalty, who likes herself enough to like other women.

Thank you
It's taken twelve years, but I am finally free of Wendy. She's out of my system. I wish her well, and hope she hasn't managed to destroy anyone else. Women like her are poor, sad victims of patriarchy and misogyny. I know now that she is to be pitied rather than feared. I know now that it's possible to be a feminist and to dislike women who bully other women. I should have taken her to a tribunal, and didn't have the strength. And wanted out, in the end.

Women who criticise, judge and bully other women are exactly like cancers, our own cells turning on us. If we want equality and freedom, we've got to have the courage to out them.

My daughter and I are running Race for Life on Saturday 9 July. If you would like to support us, please, please do. You can make a donation by following the link.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Caitlin Moran's next minute

I found Caitlin Moran's heartfelt open letter to her teenage fans moving and upsetting to read.

Caitlin Moran is certainly right to point to a very unpleasant aspect of modern life: the hysteria that surrounds young girls. I think her letter is intended to defuse some of that hysteria, but I would love her to write a letter to me, because I think she should target the source of the hysteria not its object.

She's right that there are teenage girls who hate themselves, and harm and sabotage themselves, because they are trying to find ways to cope with their own overwhelming feelings. They cannot see any other outlet than to hurt themselves. And something is fuelling that.

Yes, this self-loathing exists, I can attest to the fact myself – not in my own girl, I hope, but certainly in my own memories.

And I do love Moran's promise to our girls, that we only ever have to face the next minute. This is wonderful advice, and probably shows that Moran has done a Mindfulness course. Because this message about the moment is the message of the moment. I wish someone had told me I only had to face the next moment back in the 1980s.

It seems to me that we are currently clinging to Mindfulness, because we have lost any sense of Stoicism in our public and private culture. We are trying to re-mind ourselves that, by simply existing in the here and now, in this minute, we are fully able to face the entry to the next minute. This message carries immense power – and a whiff of despair. Although the advice has been around for thousands of years, it is currently being liberally sprinkled on everything that moves, as the only seasoning any of us can think of to combat the intense multiplication of stressors in contemporary life.

Again, I can attest to the fact myself, because I, too, have clambered on that bandwagon. I'm forever telling my daughter and son to breathe. Usually when the only person in the situation who needs to do so is me.

I also appreciate Moran doing that other, very fashionable, thing – basing her thinking on current neuroscientific research. In the absence of a soul, we now have flooding hormones and over-active neurotransmitters. She tells girls about the heightened levels of adrenalin and cortisol, which are what are provoking the panic in their brains: 'That panic and anxiety will lie to you – they are gonzo, malign commentators on the events of your life. Their counsel is wrong. You are as high, wired and badly advised by adrenaline as you would be by cocaine.' She's not wrong – but nor is it the only explanation for why girls internalise anxiety. It's coming at them from somewhere.

When finally, Moran alludes darkly to the reasons why so many young girls seem to turn their anxiety in on themselves: 'Things have been done', I want to know more. But she does not go into those reasons, because it is not the purpose of this particular letter to go into what, exactly, has been done.

What has been done is what has been going on for centuries. Girls of twelve to sixteen are the most beautiful they will ever be, but they are not ready for the desire of others, and their own desires. Not ready, simply because it takes a long time to learn about one's own desires, and young girls are constantly being targeted and thrown off course by the leering glances of middle-aged men, and the predations of the beauty industry. They are constantly fed an ambivalent line about doing their best, when what is meant is 'be perfect'. The 'selfie' culture is a manifestation of what it is like to be twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… any age of transition when one is desperate for a reflection of what one is, anything that will stabilise the madness. A girl of that age is changing more rapidly and absolutely than at any time since she learnt to walk. It is dizzying, and she has to do it all under a lascivious spotlight. It makes me feel ill. When I was 17, it literally made me sick.

At the Bat Mitzvah party my twelve-year-old girl went to last night, I watched in fascination, pride… and terror, as a group of young girls danced like fluttering frangipani blossom under a twirling discoball in a dazzlingly white disco. They were unutterably, unbearably beautiful. They were girl-women, safe and protected from unsavoury gazes, loving themselves, happy and delighting in themselves.

It was I, and the other mothers, the dark duennas ranged along the wall, in our black faux-fur-trimmed winter coats, who gripped our arms tightly across our chests, and bit our bottom lips as we looked on. We want too much for our daughters. We don't know what we want for them. We are potentially, if not actually, the problem. We are the Motherloaders. As it was done to us, so we feel we cannot help but do unto our girls. Pull your skirt down. Be good. You're beautiful. Try harder.

I want someone to help me not to pass my worries for my glorious girl-child onto that glorious girl-child.

But the only person who can do that is me.

Minute by minute. Breathing when it gets too much, and her growingness overwhelms me. Keeping my own feet glued to the earth, to try to steady myself as I watch her teeter away. Aching as she separates from me, goes towards her own life.

Moran says a beautiful thing when she suggests that girls can be their own mothers: 'Pretend you are your own baby. You would never cut that baby, or starve it, or overfeed it until it cried in pain, or tell it it was worthless. Sometimes, girls have to be mothers to themselves. Your body wants to live – that’s all and everything it was born to do. […] Protect it.'

When my daughter read her piece, however, what stood out for her was, 'You were not born scared and self-loathing and overwhelmed'. That's what she holds onto, as her teeming emotions buck her every which way, and she hunches her shoulders, and feels scared to stand tall.

Perhaps it's a stretch too far for a twelve-year-old to imagine herself as her own baby, when she has never had a baby. My open letter to my daughter reads: 'I promise you that I will help you to be able to deal with worry and anxiety. It does not have to harm you'.

Friday, 18 March 2016

How a pair of pink trainers helped me deal with ontology

When I was working for Cambridge, I could not envisage working for myself (although oddly you are like a barrister and you do work largely for yourself). I had a monolithic and binary view of working/not working, being/not being. I existed through my achievements.

As things went wrong and went on, though, I went through a long (l-o-n-g – a positively Proustian) process of change. 

Over time, I have stopped working overtime. I’ve completely revised the way I see myself as a working person. I now think of myself as a Working Mother, and give both terms equal weight, because they have equal weight in my mind and life. 

I don’t apologise any more for existing, being a woman, being a mother, underachieving, trying to balance, and I don't judge myself for failing to be all things to all people.

Stopping justifying myself is the single hardest thing I have ever achieved – far harder than the Phd and two births and relocating to and from Australia, and changing careers at least three times. Those things were bloody painful, but they weren't hard like changing yourself is hard.

The thing that's been my lifeline has turned out to be not literature, as most would have predicted for me, but exercise. Everyone's lifeline is different, and I could also never have predicted that boogeying and running in the mud were what was going to help me achieve homeostasis.

Weirdly it's because I have started running again, after a thirty-year hiatus, and accepted that I can only run slowly at my age, that I am now able to approach the way I do things completely differently. It’s been a revelation to me, trying Park Run.

Another discovery is that it wasn't working for myself that meant the most to me. It was learning that happiness does exist if you give it a chance. Despite all my arguments against it, and all the disasters that are surely still to come in my life, as everyone I know ages, and Trump becomes President of the biggest army in the world... happiness exists. Hope persists.

Having a burst of 'healthy eating' coaching a few years ago gave me a powerful nudge forward. One thing it revealed to me had nothing to do with eating. Or rather, eating was my rather crap solution to a problem I seemed unable to work out any other way.

I did not break problems down into manageable, sequenced parts, and I never visualised achieving a goal.

How on earth I managed to get through school, university and the first half of my life without doing these things is beyond me. But let that pass: I know now (cue sounds of my poor mother grinding her teeth in frustration as she silently screams, 'But I told you that all the time!').

It seems a little prosaic to call it an 'epiphany'. Perhaps an app-iphany would be closer to the mark. I started to use things like... Excel spreadsheets to help me log my writing progress. I sort of released my inner nerd, instead of pretending I didn’t have one. I'm currently in love with

I came to realise that I had hyper-developed my Critical Thinking skills, but that I’d allowed my Problem-Solving skills to wither away. 

I worked out that critical thinking was linked to my creative, analytical, comedic and sexual drive, and to my personal taste in things like art, clothes, films, books, furniture, food etc. But without any problem-solving stuff going on, the critical thinking skills had become monstrous, and were eating me up. The result was that I thought I hated what I loved.

I needed to relearn (if I had ever known) how to work slowly, how to break things into sequences – I once saw how children with autism are helped through patient, persistent Applied Behaviour Analysis at TreeHouse School in Muswell Hill, and it blew my mind. 

I needed consciously to use 'if X, then Y' logic, and binary logic, in my dealings with external reality, not because my critical thinking was wrong per se, but because without any balancing mathematical or logical thinking, it was becoming magical, catastrophising, absolutist, avoidant, hypervigilant. It wasn't 'thought' any longer; it was mindstuff overflowing and leaking into my behaviour, like the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I now know that Descartes, locked alone in a room, and deciding that Cogito ergo sum, is wrong. 

A Proustian would say I exist in multiple, simultaneous, instantaneous and longitudinal, retrospectively recalled and revised, hopefully forward-projected relational networks across time, and therefore I am. The Proustian would be technically correct, but probably not a busy working mother. 

A Buddhist would say I am. Nice, like it. Difficult to pull off. Trying to get there. Still too embodied. 

These days I like to wear a pair of pink trainers on my journey to work. I take with me a pair of black, high-heeled shoes, which I designed myself, with naughty red velvet slashes down the side, on the 'Shoes of Prey' website. That's another thing to thank my husband for – Christmas generosity. The pink trainers express my grounded, bodily self. They take me there step by step. They are my problem-solvers. The Shoes of Prey express my critical thinking: up high, slightly painful, pretty and exciting, but a little bit dangerous. Together they bring me flow.

I no longer overthink and therefore I am.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

'If Moms were treated like Dads'

My daughter sent me the following link yesterday, and I watched it with growing confusion: see what you think:

'If Moms were treated like Dads' is the title – so, let me think, what was I expecting? A few witty comments about American women taking it easy as men don't do enough around the house; feigned incompetence – suddenly becoming unable to do the washing; never taking responsibility for parenting decisions? A teasing interlude of reverse sexism?

If I'm honest, yes, that's what I was expecting – a Buzzfeed moment I could laugh ruefully at, but privately deconstruct. Or publicly deconstruct, pointing out the basic stereotyping of men and women alike, and bemoaning the paucity of representation of middle class lives etc etc.

Instead what I watched illustrated what I mean by 'Motherload' perfectly.

In the video we watch a teacher tell a mother to ask her husband's permission before their child can enter a gifted reading programme. We see a man put down a woman, calling what she's doing 'being stuck with the weekend babysitting'. We watch a man say to a woman, 'Bet you can't wait to get back to work, eh?' as they watch their children run amok. We see a women tell another woman, who is roughhousing with her children, 'Don't let your girlfriends see you doing that!'. And we watch a pair of men muscle up to a woman they are not used to seeing at the playground (presumably because she's usually at work and has a stay-at-home husband).

What took me by surprise is that (perhaps unintentionally), all of these vignettes can be read in multiple ways. It's hard to see clearly what they illustrate, and where the comedy gold resides.

I think the 'permission-seeking' is intended to moan – I mean mean – that 'mothers have all the power in parenting decisions these days'. But it's only a few decades since seeking your husband's position in all matters was the norm. 'Equality between the sexes' is a very new and fragile thing.

A man belittling a woman's activity, and another woman warning a woman not to be 'unladylike' are straightforwardly sexist, and have little to do with imagining what would happen if a woman were treated as a man is.

The comment about longing to get back to work, because it's easier to be in the office than to parent, is one regularly exchanged between working mothers.

And working mothers find it difficult to gain access to the stay-at-home tribe, as both 'types' are so anxiously segregated under the current ideology of compulsory anxiety about parenting.

This isn't about 'men' and 'women' at all. This is about (1) power relations, (2) shifting roles, (3) the anxiety we are all experiencing trying to pigeonhole the meaning of being a 'woman' or a 'man' and being a 'mother', 'father' or 'parent' in the twenty-first century.

What the Buzzfeed comedy video inadvertently does is show up the massive confusion currently playing itself out in Western, affluent, educated societies about what a woman is and does, or should be and do, once she becomes a mother. The same issues beset fathers, but the spotlight is currently on women, because the jockeying for position between women about what their real role should be is so inflamed and furious at the moment.

It's not that women are 'colonising men's ground' (it wasn't men's in the first place); and it's not that women are trying to 'have it all' (they just want access to the opportunities given to men as of right).

It's that if women no longer want to play the role of unpaid labour in the home, if they want fulfilment, if they nowadays need to work, whether they like it or not, simply because mortgages are so huge, if they expect to marry for love and to have equality in their relationships and public lives, then we don't know what to do with them, and we don't know who is going to change the nappies.

'Motherload' means the confusion over what a woman is for once she has children.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry', Deborah Levy redux

I asked myself another question. Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.
She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929). 

Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know (2013)

I have gone on loving Deborah Levy's essays on why she writes, although 'loving' seems hardly the word for the world of pain she is illuminating in each essay. 

Without ever saying so directly (because 'a female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly'), it becomes clear through the essays that she writes because she had to find a voice to speak about a world that she experiences as cruel and depraved. 

Things happened to Levy and her family when she was a child, because they were trying to answer the question: 'If a white man sets his dog on a black child and everyone says that's okay, if the neighbours and and police and judges and teachers say, 'that's fine by me', is life worth living?' (p. 99). For them, life was not worth living if it was unjust for half the population, and this extends, for Levy, in her adult life, to other disenfranchised halves, like women and children.

However, she cannot write directly about the fear, misery and incomprehension she experienced as she was growing up, because if she does, she 'will write in a rage when she should write calmly', and be 'at war with her lot'. So part of the spinning out of Levy's thought is always a teasing out of her fury, a way of blending it with the gathered wool of the everyday, the tiny details that fashion her life, and the lives of people she observes, an ongoing attempt to detach herself from her rage:
'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the Societal System in the first place.' (p. 26)
Levy's words are a silent, unvoiced answer to a Chinese man who says to her, in a bar, in a snowstorm, in Majorca, 'You're a writer, aren't you?' The question is not a question at all, it is a statement, a rhetorical question, which therefore does not invite an answer, but announces a piece of knowledge, for which the speaker demands a kind of prize. She knows he knows that she is a writer, because she has seen him reading one of her books. She gives voice to her answer in her head, and for our benefit, within quotation marks. It is Levy's literary theory.

I love this quotation, because it reminds me of what it is to write a story – you walk a character into a question, or a setting, and let her walk around inside that question. It reminds me that the writing down of what happens next is a process of finding a language for something purely imaginary. Each sentence brings the subject of the story (and perhaps, partially, the subjectivity of the writer) into being on the page. And each sentence also unravels and unpicks the way the subjectivity of the writer (and perhaps, partially, the story) has been compressed, and manhandled, and sewn together, and discarded, in the world at large.

The imprisonment and torture of her father in South Africa, because of his ANC membership under Apartheid, his five-year absence, and the family's subsequent move to England – and disintegration, are the reasons why Levy writes. She writes as an adult because she cannot undo what was done to her, has had to find a way to articulate it, and her 'political purpose', her 'historical impulse', her 'sheer egoism' and her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' – the terms she is taking from Orwell's Why I Write essay – are all bound up with what formed her. 

Her 'political purpose' – the way she identifies women's lives as being lived under Neo-patriarchy – is an adult version of her father's purpose, to help to end Apartheid. 

Her 'historical impulse' is a sense that we cannot get away from the historical moment in which we are born, and must seek to understand it. 

Her 'sheer egoism' is the (always doomed, comical, and narcissistic) attempt to escape that historical moment.

And her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' is her boundless capacity to see beauty even at the heart of misery, and thus, possibly, to redeem it.

Although Levy's writing is unquestionably hard to read – not because of the style, which is crystalline, but because of the subject matter – what I take from her is that the whole point of writing is never to stop, never to give up, reculer pour mieux sauter, but never, never to give up. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Open letter to my dance teacher

Dear Dance Teacher,

I was planning to come to pilates, but our washing machine is on the blink and had to give hubby moral support!

My third Parkrun today was 30:34, so 40 secs faster than last week. Managed to run 2 out of 3 laps, and walked twice in the final lap, but came in with a sprint, so inching closer to actually running the whole distance. Sorry to keep boring on with these times, but wanted to tell you! I am determined to keep going – it’s hard and painful, but I let myself walk when I really have to, and then find I can get started again. Doing it in honour of that seventeen-year-old girl who hurt herself so much. Now I can look after her better.

Thank you for the lovely, lovely, thoughtful, kind messages you have sent me this week. It’s actually been a very strange and rather horrible week, that includes the way the Mumsnet commentariat reacted to my story about letting our son keep walking to school, even though he was approached by a weirdo. 

Do you know, I found myself standing at the end of the road that leads up to son's school yesterday, clutching some fondant fancies, lurking for all the world like a weirdo myself, other parents walking past, eyeing me and wondering what I was doing, waiting for our boy, to surprise him (but there, in reality, because the Mumsnet comments made me feel so shit). 

When you think about it, the word ‘paedophile’ actually just means ‘lover of children’. So, by that definition, we are all paedophiles. We all love our kids and try to do the very best for them. 

I wouldn't like to be in the mind of a paedophile, who doesn't know when to stop.

We talked a lot about my father last week, you and I, but I know that my mother is in there too. She finds my 'search for happiness' difficult to cope with (too self-indulgent for her liking). When I finished my doctorate, I was just exhausted, and so much did not want to become an academic. I was in tears, and she told me I was having a 'nervous breakdown'. I wasn’t, I was just too tired not to get sucked into a career pathway I passionately knew was the wrong one for me. I allowed myself to be sucked in, because I just didn’t know how not to keep pleasing others, and I kept winning post-doctoral research funding, which is like gold dust. So I took the wise and sensible option, while dying inside. 

Plus I did need a job – let's not be too romantic here. How could I refuse to apply for and take a post at Cambridge, even though I felt terribly ambivalent, and mistrustful of the place, when everyone else thought it was the best thing for me? In the end, I went because you 'don’t turn Cambridge down', but I was right, it was a miserable experience. And so crushing, because it was the exact opposite of being an undergraduate there, which had been the happiest, most intense years of my life. Someone should do some change management in Cambridge – it's supposed to be the best university in the world, but there are an awful lot of very unhappy academics. Maybe they're just the ones I met. Maybe that's what I wanted to see. So I could let myself leave.

I had to go that way, the hard way. Doing the hardest qualification, a Phd, on the most difficult author in the French language, Marcel Proust, at the hardest university, Oxford, would prove to me whether I was a writer or not. And it did: even after all of that I still wanted to write. I just didn’t have the confidence or the strength or the income to keep going at the end of the Phd. 

I don’t actually regret leaving Cambridge and academia after the birth of my baby. I only regret not taking my bullying head of department to a tribunal. No one in a position of authority should get away with what she was doing. I only didn't because we were moving to Australia, and I wanted to write, and thought I might as well get on with it.

I didn't realise that her bullying was like a tapeworm that fed itself on the fact that I hated myself. 

When I was achieving academic success, it never meant anything to me, except insofar as it involved being out ahead on my own, where I couldn't be caught and hurt any more. Being kicked out of Cambridge really hurt, but now I know I can cope with being criticised.

That I could survive criticism (rather than suffer from it) was not something I learnt through being a critic.

I once saw a poster at our kids' school that terrified me. I felt it had looked into my very soul and seen my evil. It said, ‘Character is what you do when you think no one is watching’. 

I knew that a lot of my so-called 'brilliance' was actually a performance of deeply-held anger in sublimated form. Actually, anyone with an ounce of intuition who saw my acting back in the day could have told me what it's taken me thirty years to tell myself. But I digress. I think I was held together by anger. Controlled anger was key to my success as an academic, it was my body armour. 

After I had children, anger started to come out as what it is – uncontrolled reaction – and my god, how I hated myself then. I was no better than anyone else under pressure, despite all those fine exam results. No better than my enraged father. It turned out that I could only cope with one kind of pressure, and life, apparently, wasn't just a set of exams. But I had learnt no way to measure what was reasonable and what was not, where to draw the line – that a little anger, or angry thoughts, are perfectly acceptable if your kids are acting up, but that you are the adult and they are tiny, and you can terrify them with anger, unless you find a better way to express it than just yelling or spanking. 

Because I saw such a lot of anger (both expressed and repressed, both physical and verbal) growing up, it was so, so upsetting to see that coming out, helplessly, in me, in the next generation. I felt I had not been able to outrun my father. There he was, lurking inside me, waiting for his chance to come out in me. 

But. I have made many, many changes to how I live. The whole point in life, it seems to me, is the idea of both setting an intention, but going easy if you can’t match that intention at first. I have learnt this, very, very slowly, through the dance and then through pilates, then yoga, and now running – the running which takes me back to when it all went wrong, and I split myself in two, all those years ago, when I was trying to get into Cambridge. I have accepted that there are things I cannot do, as well as started to celebrate the things I know I can do well. I have accepted that there are limits to what I should expect myself to do, and that modelling this is the best gift I could give my kids (apart from loving them). I have come to love those limits, and see how they could work for me.

I think there are some lovely ways I am like my father. At his very best he had a quirky sense of humour. He adored Sinterklaas, and was always thinking up new ways for Sint to deliver the gifts. He was very intelligent, very good at systems, very loyal to my mother, and remarkably unprejudiced, given his life story. He walked around in his pants and didn't care, and he loved cats. The only time I ever saw him cry was when our cat Jackanory was hit by a car. I know that he loved me, I just wish he could have found it easier to express. 

My favourite memory of both my parents is the day I got into Cambridge, and we danced together round the sitting room. 

We danced.

With much love, and without any Dutch Courage,

Ingrid xx

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy

Sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose are George Orwell's four motivations for writing, as he articulates them in Why I Write.

In Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy takes these four apocalyptic horsemen and reorders them, tossing them about like pizza dough, as she offers her own, uncompromisingly female, version of why she writes.

In the first essay, 'Political Purpose', she reopens a notebook she has held on to, but not written in since 1988, when she went to Poland to write about an avant-garde actress. Irresistibly we are reminded of Doris Lessing's four notebooks, and wonder which one this is most like – black, red, yellow or blue (old depression, Communism, new depression, dreams)?

The title of that first essay might draw us towards Orwell or Lessing's Communism, particularly as Levy's own father was a member of the ANC, and particularly as she explicitly calls this her 'Polish notebook' and talks of Gdansk shipyards.

Yet the essay seems at first sight apolitical. It recounts a trip made to Majorca to try to come to terms with a personal crisis, and makes forays into motherhood, not politics:
I found myself thinking about some of the women, the mothers who had waited with me in the school playground while we collected our children. Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children (p. 14).
It is impossible, says Levy, to explain to these pursuing younger selves, these Furies, that we, we mothers, have metamorphosed 'into someone we did not entirely understand'.

In agreement with Kristeva, the Franco-Bulgarian literary critic, linguist and psychoanalyst, she speculates that the idea of 'the Mother' is a version of the Woman that 'the whole world had imagined to death'. It is well-nigh impossible, Levy feels, to get around this fantasy, and tell the truth about what it is to be a mother, because 'The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother' (p. 15).

Part of the mystery of this deluded fantasy, for mothers themselves, is the feeling that 'the male world and its political arrangements […] was actually jealous of the passion we felt for our babies'. For this, it seems, women are to be punished: 'our children made us happy beyond measure – and unhappy too – but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel'.

Ah..... here's the 'political purpose': Neo-Patriarchy – gosh! what a term, so lightly and casually thrown away, so brilliant in its coinage, with its dark threat that patriarchy simply cannot be done away with, that it will always manage to give birth to itself again, a sinister parthenogenesis like Frankenstein's monster made of body parts – the eternal return. Neo-Patriarchy, argues Levy, 'required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled'. This sentence, when I read it, made me feel physically sick. It named, acutely, the paradox facing 'Strong Modern Women' – the impossible struggle to achieve your personal happiness while attending to the needs and happiness of others as though it were your only purpose.

How else could a paradox be formulated except acutely? I used to enjoy naming paradoxes, and did it all the time. Before children. Nothing seems to get to the heart of a matter better than pithy paradoxes. Paradoxes name contradictions and conflicts. They name madness – the impossible possibility of holding two opposing thoughts in our minds – think of Medea, killing her children, but not mad. They are the very structure of tragedy, the flaw that will flip the hero into the victim. They foreclose debate, and invoke the gods of Pity and Awe, Fear and Retribution. They dominate political discourse triumphantly – Anti-Austerity Measures! Quantitative Easing! They define what it is to be alive and simultaneously to know that you will die. Paradoxes name that human pain of longing for freedom and… yet… craving security, all at once. Paradoxes conquer time itself, allowing us neither to have our cake, nor to eat it, but still to see it through the window and slaver for it.

And Levy's paradoxes, her poetic contradictions, reinforced by quotations exclusively from French female writers and intellectuals, that most self-riven of types (Duras, Kristeva, de Beauvoir), name over and over again what I feel every single day.

These women, these writers, are not wrong. They put their finger on the painful wound that is becoming a mother under Neo-Patriarchy. I have experienced, every day since giving birth, how impossible it is to be a Good Girl once you have a baby. It is no longer possible to hide in plain sight, to escape censure by doing everything society asks of you perfectly. You are caught out constantly, by having to infringe rules, codes, norms, conventions, boundaries, as your child screams lustily for its needs to be met, and you run before those screams, running from the equally outraged screams of your employer, your children's school, your doctor, your cafe owner, your handyman, your dentist… Oh – not loud screams (we're adults), but screams of disapproval, nonetheless, taking the form of averted eyes, curt emails, pursed lips, blocked promotions, social blanking, overly loud comments, trolling.

I read Deborah Levy's few pages and put down the slim volume, thinking in despair that I will never write about motherhood again.

And yet I must go on. I cannot give up the idea that mothers can find happiness, despite the impossible paradoxes they are asked to swaddle, clean, feed and nurture, without ever having signed a contract or receiving a pay cheque for the work they did not know was going to be asked of them – the work of looking after everybody's needs, not just the baby's.

Just as I was supposed to be grateful to Cambridge for allowing me a place and later a job – I was a supplicant and not an applicant – I was supposed to be Grateful to have a baby, because somehow, this was my greatest symbol of becoming, the most visible sign that I had been properly tamed, my impregnation by society itself. In fact, the almost exclusively male Fellowship at my former Cambridge college were pleased as punch when I and two other colleagues became pregnant at the same time. You'd have thought they were all responsible. It didn't stop them kicking one of those women out of her college rooms, even though she had nowhere else to live once her baby was born (because her partner taught at a boarding school the other side of London). Meanwhile, I was being done over by a female emissary of my Alma Mater. The third was abandoned by her husband, and left academia because she couldn't afford to raise two children, alone, on a college lecturer's salary. One way or another, they got rid of all three of us. No way of being a Fellow if you're a Mother.

Yet I will go on. Here is my own paradox: although it is, in theory, impossible to be happy as a mother, I will be happy, in practice, as a mother. How will I do it? Through dancing, listening, learning to love myself, doing what I want (I might as well be a bad girl), and cheering on others to do the same.