Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The air is thinner here

Yesterday I swam amongst people — women —
Who earn more than £500 an hour, whose word is law.

I felt their equal (they did not think me theirs, but no matter).
Once upon a time, I was not only their equal, I was more,
Better qualified, quite literally entitled:
When I changed my name, it was from Ms to Dr.
My law was words.

Today, I had to argue with the school receptionist
To go and fetch my son's inhaler when he needed it,
Because he could not breathe.
I had to promise to bring it back.
I had to apologise, because she had not had personal sight
Of the inhaler when it was brought into the school.
I had to apologise, because she was too busy, really, the school receptionist,
To attend to my needs.
And my son was upstairs and could not breathe.

I am the same person.
Am I the same person?

I did not know what I had until I lost it,
Because when I had it,
It was buried under an avalanche of work,
And I was alone, exhausted, goaded.

I thought it would be better to look for balance.

Now I am a fish in a net,
Crowded, exhausted, breathless.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dressmaking in the Dordogne

I was beyond thrilled the other day, when a woman came up to me in the playground, and said, "Your blog about going away for a month to write inspired me! I decided to ask for something at work, and now it's going to happen".

It transpired that she runs a dressmaking business, and an opportunity came up to run a dressmaking retreat in the south of France. Until now she would have longed wistfully to run it, then turned away to her domestic duties. This time she jumped at it.

"What was I worrying about? It's just a week!" she said. "But somehow I felt that if I wasn't there to do every single ballet class and school run…". She didn't even finish her sentence. She just mimicked rolling her eyes and pursing her lips in disapproving judgement.

I knew exactly what she meant – it's that continuous fear that we will be judged and found wanting by other women. That if we are not doing things 'perfectly', then we must be castigated, shunned, vilified. The trouble is that this 'perfection' is something cooked up by marinading age-old prejudices in a new jus of 'female emancipation', in which if woman want to have it all, they are expected to do it all, and do it without support. Even if you can see it for what it is, it is as hard to escape its clutches as it used to be to escape the wandering boss's hand in the office.

We looked at each other and laughed — for that moment, the demons of bullying social judgement fled to the corners of our self-perception. We both knew that this new corsetry is ridiculous. We both knew that this invisible but ever-present risk of judgement exists. We both knew that in order to live our lives, we have to fight to face it down. We both commiserated with each other at how hard that seemingly simple act is.

And then we were interrupted by another mother rushing up, wanting to ask about kittens, because this is the school playground, and we have all forgotten our social skills, and we leap upon one another shouting requests, reminders, tasks, advice, boasts, complaints, and all the rest of it, while small people at knee level clamour for snacks and attention.

But I was warmed to my very cockles by the thought of another mother doing what she needs to do to be happy.

Don't take your dry cleaning when you go for a run

I had a wonderful coffee this morning with a friend. She told me a great Motherload story, and I wanted to share it.

Before Easter she wound up a teaching job, and then went straight into the Easter holidays. On the first day after the holidays, her three children went back to school, and she was free for the first time. She decided to go for a run. She thought, "I'll just take the dry cleaning with me, and I can do my warmup walk, then go on and do my run".

It didn't work out that way. She did drop off the cleaning, then set off to run. But she didn't finish it. All the time, her mind was skittering from task to unfinished task. She didn't enjoy her run, and she felt dissatisfied at the end of it. She hadn't achieved it — completed it, finished it, won it, done it.

She was laughing at herself over coffee, but at the same time, she was angry with herself. "I should have laid down firmer boundaries," she scolded herself. "When I was working, I would never have fudged like that, and done another job while I was trying to exercise. My whole mindset has changed because I'm not going out the door to work."

So apparently she feels that, if she is not performing a paid job, she is no longer entitled to look after herself, and must justify time for herself by multi-tasking. Yet it's simultaneously clear to her that this is an unsatisfactory solution, because she isn't then satisfied with what she achieves. On top of all that, she beats herself up.

Multi-tasking is a lie. It is a convenient lie for anyone who is the beneficiary of multi-tasking. But it is a lie. Women are no better at thinking about and doing multiple jobs simultaneously than are men. But they are conditioned into thinking that, not only are they better at it, but that they must multi-task in order to be real women, or in order to be socially acceptable. If they do not multi-task, they are punished, through social disapproval. Yet multi-tasking leaves, not a sense of fulfilment and achievement, but that lingering sense of doing nothing very well, of leaving everything unfinished and disorganised.

Frankly I would love to have the time to do nothing, very well.

To do things well, you have to do fewer of them. You have to focus and prioritise. You also have to put yourself first. That is obvious. But women who become mothers find themselves in a social situation in which this perfectly obvious truth is no longer permissible. This loss boils down to a two-step process. What happens first of all is that their labour as mothers is disregarded to the point of invisibility, disavowed as though it does not exist, because it is unpaid. Then mothers are expected to pile on top of that multiple further roles, economic, sexual, social, communitarian. And carry them out without complaint or respite.

So in the face of that kind of ideological bullying, here's my advice.

Don't take your dry cleaning when you go for a run.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

We are all cyborgs now

I have been searching for a word that is analogous to 'anthropomorphism' but accounts for the attempt to describe humans in terms of machines or technology.

Mechanomorphism and technomorphism seem to do the job. I also thought about the Cyborg.

I think it is a fascinating development in humanism: for centuries, the unit of measurement was the human — feet and inches for example. We were anthropocentric, animating our universe through our self-understanding.

At the end of the 18th century, with the rise of Romanticism, writers focused on the awe-inspiring spectacle of Nature, which put man in his proper place and proportion.

With the Industrial Revolution, we saw language that pitted man against machine, and decried the mechanisation of our lives.

With the technological revolution of the 21st century, we have become enamoured of our machines, as Narcissus was enamoured of his reflection — we see ourselves reflected back, not in mirrors but in screen-based devices, and we are starting to conceive of human functioning, particularly mental functioning, which we still understand so little, as, firstly, disconnected from the bodily, and secondly, explicable through the 'explanatory' power of metaphors drawn from technology.

It's a fascinating reciprocity to do with man's ambition to know everything, be everything — after all it is our understanding of quantum physics which has enabled these devices to become possible.

As a female, however, I find it deeply troubling to conceive of myself as analogous to a machine, since it's no better a metaphor than was the old zoomorphism, which would happily conceptualise women as 'breeding animals'. To be a breeding MACHINE seems hardly better. It's as though the human linguistic capacity for self-description and understanding is undergoing a fresh transvaluation into the atomic and the energetic, still leaving out 50% of lived experience.

Or more frightening still, leaving women who choose to have children behind to be, perhaps, mutely farmed. Not sure anything about pregnancy, childbirth or parenting can be described technomorphically....