Sunday, 28 June 2015

Knausgaard on the pram in the hallway

So here is how Knausgaard names my particular Motherload:
'I had nothing but contempt for precise plans to pinpoint the most suitable time, both as far as our own lives were concerned and which ages went best together. After all this was not a business we were running. I wanted to let chance decide, let what happened happen, and then deal with the consequences as they emerged. Wasn't that what life was about? So when I walked down the streets with Vanja, when I fed and changed her, with these wild longings for a different life hammering away in my chest, this was the consequence of a decision and I had to live with it. There was no way out, other than the old well-travelled route: endurance. The fact that I cast a pall over the lives of those around me in doing do, well, that was just another consequence which had to be endured. If we had another child, and we would, regardless of whether Linda was pregnant now or not, and then another which was equally inevitable, surely this would transcend duty, transcend my longings and end up as something wild and free in its own right? If not, what would I do then?
Be there, do what I had to do. In my life this was the only thing I had to hold on to, my sole fixed point, and it was carved in stone.
Or was it?
A few weeks ago Jeppe had phoned me, he was in town […]. I told him what my life was like now. He looked at me and said with that natural authority which was typical of him, "But you must write, Karl Ove!"
And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.
But why?
Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?' 

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: 2: A Man in Love
trans. by Don Bartlett (Vintage, 2013), p. 334.

There it is, the thing I struggle with:
'Children were life, and who would turn their back on life?
And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?' 
I set this out at length, because I'm willing to bet money that, had I written this under my own name, I would have set off a chain of vitriol directed at my person as a woman and mother – who does she think she is, putting writing before her beloved children? No, her job is to darn their tights, run their cake sales, concoct delicious and nutritious suppers with the right balance of Omega 3s and A, B, C, D and E vitamins, go to every single one of their concerts and assemblies, and ensure that she has done their homework properly! She must also have a marvellous career and figure, a pristine and airbrushed home, a loving man and yahdiyahdiyahda. Then, and only then, is she in her proper place, in order to be criticised for not fulfilling those functions perfectly.

Which should come first, the mother, the child or the writing? There are no right answers, only, often, self-righteous judgements, which cause pain and fall short, and cauterise lives, and send people into hiding.

Perhaps that's just my paranoia. And probably Knausgaard has had equal amounts of vitriol directed his way. But what do you expect? He's a selfish bloke. Women aren't, mustn't be like that.

All he's trying to express, and all I am ever trying to express, is that this paradox between living and writing is irreducible. It is irreducible, but it is expressible. Whatever your gender.

And that is why Knausgaard puts a question mark at the end of the last two sentences. It's not that he doesn't love his child. It's that he is in love with the 'what else' that writing is, if it's not death.

Writing marks endings, every time; and every time, writing is also the weary and hilarious realisation that nothing has ended at all, that life goes on despite all attempts to record it and pin it down.

Mindful as I like and try to be, it is the irreducibility of things that finally fulfils me.

Not the letting go, but the hanging on, the trying and trying to understand.

The comforting knowledge, in the end, that it is all beyond me. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


I'm not given to advertising, nor am I much of a cook, so this is hardly a major endorsement. But I am sitting on a secret, soon to be a secret no longer.

This man's cooking is breathtaking. I've been sitting in his cafe, pretending to write, but actually eating cake, drinking great coffee, scoffing extraordinary flavour combinations in salads, and munching on bread selections, for the last two years. I've been greedily keeping him to myself (although everyone in Muswell Hill now knows about him). He's opening a new place in Hoxton, I think, and I'm already bracing myself for the day when boring old Muswell Hill is left behind in his wake.

The point about Chris is that he is Australian, and has worked all over the world. He feels the magic of herbs and spices, nuts and seeds. He understands that you need to keep things fresh and simple, but also put them together to make the tongue tingle. He serves pieces of cake as big and generous as his heart.

ChrisKitch has reminded me of all the things I miss about Australia and its foodie adventurousness.

We bought his cookbook the other day. Loving it. Big Flavours from a Small Kitchen.

Grudgingly, I'm going to share the location. But it's mine, all mine.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The many meanings of altruism

A friend of mine recently decided she was going to look for ways to get her kids involved in volunteering, as she was finding it really difficult to show them altruism in action. Sounded like a really good idea, and I promised to join in.

An opportunity duly arose to pick up litter after a local festival, so I got my daughter to come with me at 6pm, reassuring her it was just a few minutes of her time.

We walked around a park on a warm sunny evening, the longest day of the year, in orange hi-vis vests with pink gloves and litter-pickers (which have a surprisingly accurate and satisfying grip) for under half an hour, collecting bits of nougat, cigarette butts and plastic bags. 

As we went, we discussed the philosophy of altruism. 

AKA, she was furious with me. She really could not accept that doing something to help the community without a direct return to herself was reasonable, worthwhile or anything except a punishment (welcome to my world, darling). She was angry with me for inflicting it on her, and with her younger brother for somehow 'getting out of it' (he had been invited to a party, and I felt it was somewhat mean to a nine year old to say he couldn't go in order to litter pick…). She was incensed at the amount of stuff 'people' throw unthinkingly on the floor (take a look at your floor, love), and didn't see why it was her job to clear it up (it wasn't, but it has to get done – sound familiar?). She wouldn't accept that the local park was even part of her community, despite the fact that we have been to this particular festival several times, and it's a mile away from where we live (too close to home?). 

To me this is actually a signal that my lovely daughter should do a lot MORE of this kind of stuff. How is she going to find out that she IS part of a community otherwise? How else is she going to understand that her own actions have consequences?

On the other hand, I myself came home from the experience tired and depressed by having to fight her selfishness, and wondering which one of us was mad. It didn't help that my husband also thought it was 'too hard' on her. 

And there is a part of me that agrees – the feminist part – which looks at who was volunteering and notes that it was all women

A man 'jokingly' commented, "That's right, get on with it!" to us. I could not prevent myself immediately retorting, "I don't see you doing anything". I said it 'jokingly' too. He was not impressed, and stalked off. What possessed me? Perhaps it was the molten fury of hearing my female child spoken to, in this faux-sexist (which is, in reality, sexist) way. 

I struggle with this all the time – I want my daughter to help out at home, because we are a family, plus she helps make the mess. At the same time I don't want her to grow up a household servant. I call this my Cinderella complex: who is the Cinderella in the modern household? I seem to be playing the part both of the ugly stepmother and of Cinders. 

The message has to be that everyone chips in to get the work done. I get our son to put out the recycling and lay the table, and we've tried to say that their pocket money is in return for certain chores, but it is a CONSTANT fight – which I lose easily, simply because I get ground down. 

I really want to keep going with the initiative to find ways to show the children they are part of a whole community, not islands separate from it, and that giving back or paying forward is at least one route to true fulfilment. 

Yet at the same time I feel so utterly exploited myself, in that the role I have taken on is pure 'giving back' and 'paying forward', but there seems to be so little direct reward for doing it, and indeed so much active criticism of it (global over-population, narcissism, pushiness), that I'm not clear whether I or my kids are in bad faith. 

It is, potentially, explosive to articulate this, but I, personally, don't feel personally fulfilled by raising children. I am a manager and an administrator, accountable to the whole of society, without any benchmarks or performance measurement, and no possible career progression. Or indeed financial recompense. Raising the next generation is all voluntary. 

I actively look for ways to feel happy with the role I willingly took on, yet over the years the feeling of alienation has actually grown despite my best efforts. However much I try to cut corners, do less, be in the moment, there simply isn't any time left over, after all the things that are expected of me and of them, just to love them

I don't quite know at this stage what it would take to enjoy being a mother. 

1. Mindfulness? I couldn't even get to yoga this morning I was so tired. 

2. Letting go completely? Anarchy and chaos.

3. Shouting at all the people I feel criticise me? A likely violent response.

4. Not bothering to try and get our son to do the 11+? Hmmmm.

5. Leave? Of course not. 

6. Spend yet more time with the children? Are you kidding me? Do you know how present I am in their lives? They're sick of the sight of me.

No, the answer is that I should do something completely different with some of my time, something that is only for myself, so that 'being a mother' can be confined to a role, and not spill over so constantly into my identity. Motherhood turns out to be separation anxiety from yourself

The way for me to remember what altruism means, probably, is to be more selfish. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Parenting for a Digital Future

I was interviewed recently for a wonderful and very important research project being run at LSE, entitled Parenting for a Digital Future.

The interview pulled me up short, because it made me realise that I am hostile to my adolescent daughter's entry onto the digital scene, for reasons that surprised me.

1. I'm very ignorant about WHAT she looks at and WHY.
2. I know far less than she does about what's hot and what's not online.
3. I feel deeply threatened by her desire to vlog, although all she is doing is learning from online celebrities like Zoella.
4. I don't want my little girl to grow up.
5. I am terrified that she will be attacked or stalked online, even though all she is doing is learning how to use email, text and WhatsApp. I won't let her have an Instagram account, and certainly not Facebook.
6. I am terrified her love of reading, drawing, thinking and playing is being crushed by an addiction to spending time playing Sims.
7. Yet.... I write a blog, and use a computer all day every day.
8. I had never asked her whether she had ever looked for my blog. She has.
9. I use the internet all the time for research and writing purposes, and not just wasting time — why don't I want her to do the same? Why don't I trust her?

She wants to show me what she is doing.

I am the one pushing her away about her relationship with digital media.

I am the one who has things to learn.

I'm not wrong about addiction, but that's because I have spent years monitoring it in myself.

The only way to get through the next few years is going to be through conversation, staying in contact, staying open. Sometimes it is actually more wonderful to send texts to each other than it is to try to talk face to face. It doesn't necessarily mean that she is disappearing into virtual reality.

Yesterday we argued about spending a day off screens because the sun was shining. I'm not proud of the things I said. It burst a nasty pustule of tension between us. She cried and asked me why she no longer wanted to read. It's not because of the internet, darling, it's because you are growing up and grieving your childhood self. I cried too.

Phillip Lopate - Montaigne's descendent

I had the pleasure of meeting Phillip Lopate recently, to interview him about the personal essay, a form he has made his own.

Here's what happened.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The easter egg hunt. By the children.

We decided to have an Easter egg hunt. Despite the  predojuce prediguice bias that is an egg hunt, we did it anyway. We thought about having it in a nearby park. But I had a concern. Five year olds. Picture the scene...
"come on Timmy, we are going to be late!"
''but mummy, its easter! we can't go to the park on easter!''
"we can and we will. pack your bags, we're going in the car..."
*at the park*
"mummy, i'll meet you at the playground!''
"ok, dear."
*Timmy stops abruptly at a large pile of chocolate.*
"errrr... i'll catch you up!"
*moments later. all the eggs are gone and Timmy's mouth is covered in a brown, sweet substance*
us: "get him!!!!!!"
that is why we decided on an 'at home'. thank you for reading and happy easter from the family. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Porn, Sex, A* grades, Body Image, Selfies, Self-Harm, Sexting, Popularity Contests, Self-Worth, oh and Feminism

Apparently the heading tells you everything you need to be frightened of, and talking about, with your daughters.

This was a two-page listicle in The Times, in the Body + Soul section, written by parenting expert Tanith Carey, who has just written and is promoting a book called Girls Uninterrupted.

Actually, Ms Carey is not an expert in parenting, and, to her credit, does not call herself one on her own site. She is a journalist, with a degree in English and French, who has carved out a career in health, wellbeing, and the parenting markets. That does not constitute expertise, it constitutes being a journalist for a living. Writing a book does not make you an expert in a subject (I know, because I've done it, and know how much I don't know about my area of expertise).

My mother sent me this article, because she regularly sends me clippings of the dire things that are going to happen to me and my children if I don't (a) save more, (b) worry more, (c) enjoy life even less than I do now. I don't mind. It's because of my loving mum's repeated warnings that I have eventually managed to start my own SIPP, and have a will.

I read the article with horror, and felt shattered for several days afterwards, unable to collect my thoughts. I felt powerless, grief-stricken. That my child is going to be unable to sidestep the degradation of women, unwanted rough sex, low selfie-esteem, online pageants, cutting clubs, the bullying of the cool crowd, or feminism, filled me with hopelessness.

It seems I have accomplished nothing in my life. I have not been able, singlehandedly, to get rid of these scourges, around me, inside me, and will not be able to see them off for my beautiful child (obviously she's not just pretty, she's, like, really clever too!).

It's not that Carey's list or her advice is not sensible. She advocates conversation with your girls, not as a way to prevent things going wrong, but as a way to transmit tools to daughters that might help them prepare for the Sex Tsunami you know is coming their way. And as a way to build a bridge back if your daughter starts going the wrong way. What price jeunes filles en fleurs? Budding, blossoming, non — our girls are getting ready for the meat market.

Obviously, you should be having the same conversations with your sons, right? It's not in Carey's piece, but I fervently hope it's what she believes.

Because boys, too, should know that pornography doesn't reflect what happens in most people's bedrooms, and is made by an exploitative industry.

Boys should know that they will be unable to resist passing on saucy pics they have asked their girlfriends to send them, since boys, it seems, have no self-control and are just animals without hair.

Boys should probably know about the self-harm their female friends are inflicting on themselves. And that boys do it too.

Because otherwise, what you are doing, when you talk to your daughter about sex, is telling her that she alone is responsible for the penetrating male gaze, desire and actions. And it was ever thus.

He cannot, apparently, help himself.

Back in 1813, the same kind of parental horror was reserved for Lydia Bennett, who elopes with George Wickham and shows no remorse. How could a girl sully herself so, and throw away her chances of a good marriage, and hence, salvation? Today women are 'allowed', under the New Puritanism, to have relationships with men before marriage, but the anxiety about where women must draw the line has moved to scour their very flesh. The discourse is still all about patrolling what you look like and what you do with your sexual organs. Nothing in Carey's article mentions that young women might have desires of their own.

I was surprised not to see anorexia or bulimia (or indeed suicide, oh, and drugs) on the list. Hmmm. Perhaps these have had their journalistic day, now that Much More Sensational ideas of self-harm can pop up, like Teen Horror flicks, to bewilder parents.

It's funny, because when I was in my mid-teens, and developing an eating disorder as a response to the extreme pressure I put myself under to be perfect, to be the best, to come first, while remaining gracious at all times (yeah, right), I was surrounded by, shot through with, scare stories about the 'hidden scourge' of anorexia, the disorder that was invisibly plaguing our young girls. We hadn't heard of self-harm then.

The way anorexia was talked about (secret horror! Right under our noses!) made it much more attractive as a possible misery pathway to girls like me — over-achieving, anxious girls who thought they were ugly because they were nerds. Who thought they should be thin, even though they knew it was all rubbish. There was no internet, but if I wanted to see the degradation of women, all I needed to do was head into a newsagent, and look up at the top shelf. What's changed?

When I was an undergraduate, back in the late 1980s, still battling to overcome bulimia (I used to think of myself as a failed anorexic, because basically I liked food too much to starve myself), I once heard Susie Orbach talking about Fat is a Feminist Issue, and asked her whether she thought that eating disorders were romanticised by the media. She looked at me as if I'd pooped on the floor. She assumed I was making light of the situation. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

So-called 'parenting experts', who are essentially making a living out of frightening parents, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Carey is not absolutely wrong to name ten issues in pubescent girls' lives. And her solution — to be open about the unpleasant parts of modern British and Western society — is not completely wrong either. I think it might have helped had I been able to talk to my mother more openly about sex. I think.

What is wrong is that newspapers think it's ok to package these issues up as a handy takeaway list, as though these ten items actually constitute reality for our girls, as if girls are responsible for male desire, as if girls will have no desires of their own, and as if there is literally nothing else in the female universe but a preoccupation with bodies, hardcore porn and self-worth.

What saved me in the end was falling in love with a kind boy at university, and learning to enjoy sex. There it is. Thank you, that boy.