To come away from my everyday life for a whole, fire-filled, walk-soaked, wind-wakened month, to be able to write exactly what I wanted and have been trying to write for so very long — the release from a bottle I have to stuff myself inside most of the time — has been… calm.
The whole point about being here has been its understatement. To be able to escape the hysteria of exams, schools, Forest School clothes, what Doris Lessing calls 'the housewife's disease' through her character Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook:
The tension in me, so that peace has already gone away from me, is because the current has been switched on: I-must-dress-Janet-get-her-breakfast-send-her-off-to-school-get-Michael's-breakfast-don't-forget-I'm-out-of-tea.-etc.Each morning I have been able to wake when I need to, lie in bed and start to think about… anything, my dreams, where I left the writing the day before, the themes that might come up today; not grappling with problems that are barking right in front of my face, but able to use the reflective, intuitive part of my mental apparatus that works without our struggling with it. That can only work when we are not struggling and stressed.
The anger I feel at the way mothers are laughed at for losing their memories — no other role in the social order requires as much use of working, short and long-term memory as motherhood.
Why should motherhood automatically mean being utterly exhausted? Why should that be its badge of honour? Exhaustion causes ill-health. Do we want mothers to be essentially ill most of the time? I look at the Lessing quotation above and think, "Anna Wulf had it easy back in bra-burning 1962 — she could send her primary age child to school. We are forced by busy roads and social fears to walk or drive or cycle our children to school — not to do so is seen as irresponsible, negligent, abusive — and we are told (through looks and tuts) that we must like our freshly imposed maternal chores, regardless of what else we need to be doing with our time."
The extension of the duties of the mother in the postmodern age is in direct proportion to the emergence of females into public life. The more we come out, the more is asked of us at every age — our daughters are to be brilliant, beautiful, feminine, (and self-destructive cutters and anorexics with sexual and substance issues — that side well-hidden, and so sad, of course). We, the mothers, are expected to be Working All Hours, Successful, Competent, and simultaneously at home doing everything else. I don't know why: we earn no respect whether we do or we don't fulfil this role perfectly. Our own mothers (older, and so, of course, invisible) look at us in bewilderment, telling us "it wasn't like that in their day". We look at our mothers and wonder why we have tried so very hard to succeed, wonder whether our success has not turned around to bite its own tail.
Coming home from being a mother in the country, I am not at the end of a month of freedom, returning to prison.
This, for me, is the beginning of a new life, in which I practise what I preach. My children will do more for themselves. I will not help them in every little matter. I will not intervene as soon as they struggle. I will let them make some mistakes. I will turn the control and discipline that I have internalised as a mother into the control and discipline I need to keep writing once I'm back in the saddle. I will be present in one place, and will not split myself into my mothering self, and some separate identity called my working self. They are continuous with each other.
I am, whether I thought that's what I was choosing or not, the core of the family —and that is not the same as inequality. I want true equality, but for me that means nothing less than the liberation of all men and women from the tired mantra of "work harder, be more productive, spend more, look more successful!" It's nonsense, it doesn't work.
Men and women need to work shorter hours, share jobs, work closer to home, have access to great, cheap childcare. The government needs to fund that childcare. It doesn't last for ever, but many people will need it in their lifetimes, like pensions. Raising a child is not a 'lifestyle choice'. Employers need to move their attitudes out of the 1950s, and accept that flexible working is the way forward. Schools need to offer wraparound care, and stop training days in term time. There needs to be less playground presenteeism – stop guilt-tripping parents into coming to every single performance — have fewer of them! Spend the time reading and writing! And for pity's sake, stop testing the children to extinction. It's not as though there aren't models for this all over the world. The real solution to many of the social problems we are facing is the housing market. Equalise the housing market between North and South, stop the rhetoric of home ownership, cap rents, and you will eradicate the kind of housing hysteria that also adds to the motherload. Keep pleasures simple, and they will remain pleasurable, rather than turning into decadence. Listen more, stay off screens. It's not difficult.
I'm coming home.