Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Doug Lemov and the art of gentleness

I found the BBC Radio 4 Programme broadcast yesterday ('The World's Best Teachers') captivating and inspiring. It was all about Doug Lemov's techniques for teaching, which focus on gentle, non-invasive interventions helping children and students to bring their attention back to the classroom. Teachers can stay in control of their own emotions, and children don't feel yelled at and coerced.

I found it inspiring for so many reasons.

When I was a university lecturer, we were never given any teacher training at all, which is why university lecturers are, on the whole, poor teachers. All my teaching was based on having done a load of acting and improv as an undergraduate – I acted my way through. On the whole that worked fine, unless I was in a sticky situation with one student, or wasn't as familiar with the material I was trying to teach.

I did have a year in the classroom, in France, in a Lycée Technique in the Vosges. I was 21, on a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, and really not very sure what to do. The classroom had a toilet in the corner, and one day a kid got up and used it. I think I struggled to stop myself crying in front of the others. Later on, one of the kids put a bottle through the back window of my car. I left that job and went to teach privately in Paris.

As a university teacher, I didn't have disruptive behaviour in the classroom until I was teaching in London. There the students were balancing travel, second jobs and study commitments, and were sullen, judgemental and unthinking. Or at least, that's how I found them, after the wonderland of Oxford and Cambridge.

I know now that I needed to up my game as a teacher, that I wasn't going far enough, and that I had never HAD to think about how to engage people, I'd simply relied on my own acting.

My second insight into bringing distracted students back to the fold wasn't in teaching at all, but in management consultancy. I was trained, in fact by an ex-actor, in how to facilitate. The methods he gave me weren't that different from what I'd instinctively gone for (smiling does help). But what was crucial in what he said was that everyone in the room is looking for a leader, and that it's not enough to be a passive facilitator, hoping everyone will make nice, even in a room of supposed adults. There will always be one participant trying to take over, bully others or bully you. You have to learn to address that person directly, for the sake of everyone else. You can explicitly park them and say you'll take their point later – but you have to name what they are doing, to them, in front of everyone. You cannot let the elephant remain in the room. After years and years of perfecting what I thought was a non-directive approach which would just let things happen in a natural and organic way – successful in a space in which everyone wants to play by the rules – I at last understood that you can certainly establish such a space (a performance space), but you have to do so in an active way, and sometimes name the rules out loud in the middle of the game.

My third insight has been in raising my own children. One of the tales on which Shakespeare bases The Taming of the Shrew is an old folk tale, in which a wild woman is 'tamed' by gradually learning that kindness and gentle words will win more than shouting. She defeats a goblin, by being so lovely to it that it explodes in its own frustration. Miss Honey, the improbably sweet teacher in Roald Dahl's Matilda, is another version of this.

I am more wild Katerina than sweet Miss Honey, but I understand, intellectually and emotionally, that kind words and gentleness win more than sharpness and shouting. It's just that it's VERY DIFFICULT to put into practice, perhaps especially with one's own children, when every single moment is a form of boundary-testing.

It is an inordinate challenge to remain silent under provocation, but it works.

It is exceptionally tricky not to shout when your kids get up from the table for the fifth time in a meal, but a quiet reminder will get them sitting down without even thinking about it.

It is deeply painful to be turned into a servant, and have no apparent authority, but a gentle touch and word will get those chores done. Here I was helped by How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen when Kids Talk – a wonderful book that's been on my bedside table for the past decade, like a Gideon Bible of parental encouragement.

My fourth insight comes from writing, yoga and mindfulness. As a writer, I have to tame my wild brain every time I want to write. I have to establish rituals, and banish distractions. I have to create the rules of engagement with myself, set myself goals and aim towards them. I must let my imagination go, and rein it in. Learning to sit with my feelings, and just experience them, rather than fight with them, to breathe, to hold poses longer than is comfortable, and realise I can stretch a little further, all this has taught me that I can achieve a writing frame of mind without doing violence to myself, as I learnt to do as a child and student. I do not have to force, but I do have to be actively gentle.

It is so easy to forget these methods of gentleness, pausing, silence, non-invasive intervention. They are incredibly hard to learn and deploy, but they are so powerful.

Here's to Doug Lemov, and the kid in the Vosges who peed in my classroom. Every little helps.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Paedophile

Yesterday, my son was nearly assaulted on his way home from school.

Another mother said that she'd seen him 'enthusiastically skipping' along the road after a school club. She'd thought of asking him to walk with her, but hadn't wanted to 'cramp his style'. He stopped to stroke a local cat he knows, called Ollie. He was nearly at the turn-off to our road. It was just before 5pm, on a dark December evening.

A white van pulled up beside him, and the driver leaned across. He said that he had some sweets in the van and asked if my child would like to get in and have some.

My child said, 'Um, I live round the corner, and I have an appointment at home, so, no thank you'. The man scowled at him, and drove away. Then my son ran all the way home.

When he got to the door, he came in, rattling away at me about something that had happened at school. He was wheezing, and I was concerned, told him to get his inhaler. It was only then that he told me about the man in the van.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I knew he hadn't made it up, but it was also such a cliché that my brain couldn't accept it. Here was my son, safe and well, apart from being a little out of breath. Yet he was telling me that a strange man had offered him sweets and asked him into his van. Even now, I can type the words, but I cannot believe them.

I called the police, and an hour later the tallest policewoman I have ever seen walked in. She was the best antidote to a grim scare you could wish for. She had a sister with the same name as me; her birthday was the day before my son's; she had a nearly nine-year-old son herself…we laughed and joked and drank tea. She took a statement from my son. When he got to the part about 'distinguishing features' (she was impressed when he said that), he hesitated, and then said, 'He was a large, well, fat… black man'. He looked ashamed. The policewoman, without missing a beat, said, 'Was he lighter or darker than me?' My son was ashamed to talk about skin colour to a black woman, he thought he was being racist. And he was ashamed that he had told a lie to the man – there was no appointment at home.

The policewoman made it absolutely clear to him that he had acted in exactly the right way, that he should be incredibly proud of himself for keeping his head – and that he shouldn't stop walking home from school. 'Independence goes forwards not backwards,' she said. She made my day.

I told everyone I could think of – schools, fellow parents, my daughter, also coming home from school in the dark. By this morning, everyone knew, and the word will spread.

My brain has been playing tricks on me: it immediately rationalised everything. Child safe and well, so nothing happened. We are safe at home, so nothing bad can happen. Child sometimes tells tall tales, perhaps this is a fib. It was only the reactions of other parents, and the policewoman's visit, that told me what had happened was not nothing, safe though he is.

I knew I had to call the police, to prevent the man preying on any other child. But I also felt as if I was a reluctant bit player in a soap opera. I spend so much of my time persuading myself that it is extremely unlikely that anything bad will happen, and avoiding scaremongering stories, avoiding crime drama on TV, not reading detective stories about forensic scientists in pathology labs, steering clear of both hysteria and cynicism, that it is impossible for me to think that this has happened, to my child, within weeks of him starting to walk home from school, something he was keen to do and is ready to do. He was in an area full of people he knows – he was even seen by a friendly mum just seconds before the incident happened. He lives here, this is our home. The idea that a paedophile could worm his way into a community and attack my child a street away from where we live – I can write it down, but I cannot take it in.

*

After I was forced to quit my lectureship, following the birth of my first child, there was a paedophilia scandal in my ex-department. It involved a lecturer I had played tennis with, who had won prizes for his teaching ability. He was taken to court, and let off with a suspended sentence. His college sacked him, but the department did not, on the basis that he would find it impossible to find work anywhere else, and had only distributed images, rather than acting on his desires. The decision split the department: the woman who had forced me to resign left the department. Others turned on each other.

This was another story I could not believe when I first heard it. That a man I had known and shared jokes with was distributing indecent images of babies was hard enough to bear, but that he had kept his job despite being a known paedophile, while I had lost mine, simply because I had had a baby, beggared belief. One argument I heard was that 'it was everywhere, so you just had to accept it'. It felt as if the department was engaged in a kind of philosophical doublethink.

The last thing I did before being forced to quit was design an MA module entitled 'The Faces of Compassion'. It felt as though the department was making the paedophile its limit case – at what point should compassion stop and judgement, exclusion, rejection begin? No compassion at all was shown to me by the department when I most needed it – all was silence and fear – yet he was shown compassion, retained his job and his pension. What was I supposed to conclude?

*

Part of Motherload, for me, is the constant feeling that I am being judged for being negligent, as I strive to give my children greater independence rather than over-protect them, in an era of heightened fearfulness. I make them do chores, I make them do their own homework, I make them walk to school and back, I insist on their table manners, and pull no punches in expecting decent standards, I will not let them answer back or be rude to me.

As a result, there is a lot of fighting in our house (I didn't say I was good at it, I just said I did it). I am aware that other parents are not as hardline as I am, or have gentler methods, or don't fight every battle – I feel isolated and miserable a lot of the time in my Victorian parenting methods.

I do my best to be loving and gentle, but won't put up with fussiness, rudeness or laziness. I just can't, congenitally cannot, accept being put down by my own offspring. Nor can I accept them not making an effort when they have good health, intelligence, two arms and two legs. Failure, messing up, of course I can cope with – but not bothering is verboten.

What amazes me is that it is a continual fight – that were I to give ground, they would take it. They simply cannot accept that picking up their clothes, not watching three hours of youtube, clearing away the dinner things, doing their homework, showering, is something they just need to suck up. I like to think I am preparing them for teamwork. There may be no 'I' in team, but there is most certainly an 'I' in my house, and it's me, shouting.

It is impossible for me (although I suspect I know the answer), stuck in the middle as I am, to know whether this resistance in my kids has always been true of all children, or is a new phenomenon (to be blamed on Consumerism, The Internet, Women Working or any other modern scapegoat). I know that I did not dare to answer my father back, and respected my mother too much to answer back – but that's just what I remember. The reality may have been different. The trouble is that it's so long ago, my mother can't remember either.

Last night as I stared at my child, hearing him tell me that a man had invited him into a van, I felt a creeping numbness and despair spread through me. It does not matter whether I protect him, make him follow the rules, or give him independence.

There is absolutely nothing I can do against a determined paedophile.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Tiger Child

Picture the scene: I was just getting a roast chicken and trimmings out of a hot oven, when my daughter sidled up behind me and told me she'd had a bad test score. My mother was hovering in the background, my son was creating merry hell somewhere nearby. I had five minutes between dropping him back from an activity, before I headed off to his school for a parents' evening. 

Dear Reader, what do you think my reaction was? 

Sadly, no, it wasn't the measured, calm, 'Oh dear, darling, never mind, I'm sure you'll do better next time – what do you think went wrong?'

No. I looked down, and all I could see was that the trimmings were overcooked – blackened, actually – and I lost my temper.

I stormed off out of the house, and my husband found me, fuming as I looked through son's books, predicting dire reports and spitting tacks about the National Curriculum.

WRONG.

WRONG.

WRONG. 

I emerged from son's class with a renewed respect for teachers, the sense that they understand his little ways, and that they have somehow developed that understanding within six weeks of exposure to him. Kudos. 

I went home a little calmer, and pottered about clearing up. Then just as my daughter was going to bed, she whispered from the top of the stairs that she'd had her school report, and was really pleased with it. 

All the air went out of me, standing at the foot of the stairs and looking up at her little worried face – why hadn't she said anything before? Why had she told me about some unimportant test result, when the bigger picture was actually fine? 

But I knew why. I'd blown a gasket, and she was terrified. Of me.

This morning, I was trying to talk to my mother, my long-suffering, patient mother, who does nothing but listen to my endless list of woes. As I went back over the events of the previous evening, I started to cry, realising the harm I'd done. What on earth had made me explode?

But of course, there she was, my old friend perfectionism. What had I been doing? Trying to cook a perfect chicken, while simultaneously out of the house taking son to breakdance, while reading King Lear, while rushing back to find it burnt, while beating myself for failing to cook a special meal for my mother. And what ingredient had I forgotten? Calm. Not just a sprinkling of it, but a great, saturating sauce of calm. 

Yes, my daughter probably could have chosen a better moment to tell me about the test. But she's twelve. Yes, my mother might have been able to save the potatoes. But I didn't ask her to check – no, I wanted to prove to her that I had it All Under Control. Yes, I could have chosen to cook pasta. But I wanted to Do Something Nice for Mum.

And it had all blown up in my face. I'd ruined the meal – not because it was burnt, but because I'd lost my rag and upset everyone else. 

As I talked, and my mum said nothing, and just listened, the spectres of woes past began to present themselves, like the procession of kings that appear to Macbeth, each one showing me my hand in my own destiny. 

My mother is the only real witness to the fact that she was never a Tiger mother, I was a Tiger child. I found maths difficult at secondary school, in part because we were never actually taught. The teacher, who looked like a grumpy toad with a lorgnette, sat at the front of the class, and we were expected to work through the SMP maths books, silently and alone. To go up and ask for help was quite clearly a humiliating sign of weakness. I didn't find maths as easy as the girl who sat next to me (who ended up studying maths at Oxford), so I went home and bullied myself into going over and over stuff until I cried. I ruined one Christmas holidays by trying to do Chapters 5 and 6 of one of those wretched books, in tears every day, until my father could stand it no more and shouted at me. It wasn't my parents asking me to do this – it was me. They used to try to make me stop working. 

So why, thirty plus years later, did I explode, with a steaming chicken in my hands, and my daughter's anxious words in my ears? 

Because at some level, I am so desperate to protect her from pain, yet such a relentless bully to myself, that I become her pain. I could not stand the feeling of failure in myself as a little girl, and so I whipped myself on and on until I met my own standards, regardless of the impact on those around me.

My daughter is not me, and thank goodness. She has quite normal reactions to not being particularly hot at maths – she avoids it. That's not to say, of course, that she shouldn't be trying a bit harder to work out what it is she doesn't understand so she can ask for help with it. What she doesn't need, though, is my overweening anxiety and perfectionism ripping through her quiet attempt to tell me what was happening. 

The longer I live, the more I realise that I was born with that feeling of never being good enough, that it did not originate outside me, that it WAS me. And that never feeling good enough is at the heart of all the bullying that I have experienced. It began with my relationship to myself. 

And unless I accept that I am good enough as I am, I am set fair to ruin my daughter's growing sense of self. I can put down my Motherload tomorrow if I only, only accept myself. I only hope it is not too late. 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Taming of the Shrew or The Modern Marriage

The last main speech of The Taming of the Shrew (written around 1590-94) has always confused me. 

It's the speech in which Katherina seems to prove to the assembled guests that she is entirely tamed, and obedient to her husband's wishes, even if this is at the expense of her own mind, heart and reason. 


It is a huge forty-three lines long, beating out again and again the many ways in which women are inferior to men, because a man is 'thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign'. 


Women who are 'mov'd' into being scornful, says Kate, are like 'a fountain troubled,/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty'. While men commit themselves to 'painful labour both by sea and land', women simply lie 'warm at home, secure and safe'. 

When a woman is 'froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will', she is a 'foul contending rebel,/And graceless traitor'. Because women's bodies are, supposedly, 'soft, and weak, and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world', this necessarily means, she argues, that women's 'soft conditions' should agree with their 'external parts': they should be soft, because they look soft. 

There is only one easily identifiable point at which Katherina seems to be about to renege on her newfound identity as the loving, obedient proponent of the marriage vows ('they are bound to serve, love, and obey'). She suddenly seems to switch tack, lashing out in grief at what she has lost:

My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
She seems, at first, angrily confident that her mind was once 'big', her heart 'great' and her reason greater. It is unclear, though, whom she is addressing. The first two-thirds of the speech seem to be directed solely at the other women on stage, her sulky sister Bianca, and the shrewish Widow. Yet 'yours' in line 171 is ambiguous – does she mean her mind has been as big as another woman's, or as a big as a man's? To whom is she now speaking? Perhaps to everyone in the room. Something has changed, re-directed or just crushed her self-belief, but it is not clear what. She simply says, 'But now I see'. How has she changed the way she sees, from a big mind and heart, to 'seeming to be most which we indeed least are'? Katherine's taming is completely contained in 'But now I see'. 

Shakespeare leaves the speech wide open to be interpreted either with or against its apparent grain. We are, on the face of it, supposed to celebrate Katherina's return to the fold, her understanding of what is good for her, the epiphany of good sense which has helped her recognise the 'debt' and 'duty' she owes her husband. 


Yet… yet… we are left uneasy, not least by the penultimate couplet of the speech:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot.
There is no boot, no advantage in rebelling, she says, and urges her fellow women to place their hands, in a symbolic gesture, beneath their husband's feet, in a show of submission and vulnerability. 'Boot' and 'foot', with their hard plosive 't' sounds, seem to cut off all disagreement – yet the rhyme is a poor one: the inbuilt discrepancy between the long 'o' of boot' and the short 'o' of foot carries all the uneasiness. Bringing 'boot' and 'foot' together in this rhyme also carries a play on words. The boot, the advantage, is all the husband's. Yet, the language seems to breathe, if husbands are given all the marital power in this way, woe betide a woman if she disobeys. For the boot of marriage, if it does not fit the man's foot well, is likely to irritate him, and he may take it out on her. 

The 'shoe of marriage' reminds us of the ebullient and rebellious Wife of Bath. Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, a full two hundred years before Shakespeare. The Wyf makes a typically irreverent joke at the expense of one of her (five) husbands:

For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.
She laughs at her husband moaning whenever the shoo – their marriage – was too tight for him. Obedience to the husband does not seem to be a factor here. So why is it at the end of the Elizabethan era – an era in which England was ruled by a husbandless queen?

*


It is not safe to argue about Kate's final speech, as the editor of the Arden Shakespeare does in his introduction to the 1981 edition, that 'Shakespeare cannot possibly have intended it to be spoken ironically' (p. 146). 


Brian Morris himself goes on to say, despite this confident declaration, that Petruchio's response is 'almost as if he is lost for words', and 'one of the most moving and perfect lines in the play' – 

Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. 
Quite how this unsophisticated mumble can be called 'moving and perfect' is beyond me. I can see alliteration, and a caesura after two iambs. However it's hardly the tragic lament of:
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
or the complex layering and intensity of: 
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty.
Morris's insistence that Shakespeare meant the speech to be spoken straight can, I think, be disregarded as so much bluster, undermined by the simplest textual analysis. 

That said, it remains troubling, even astonishing, to find out that Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch also sees V, ii of The Shrew as a positive statement about marriage. 


Greer suggests that what is going on in the speech is ironic, but not at the expense of men, or women. She reads it as a private message between Kate and Petruchio, a demonstration of her love for him. She is prepared to give the public what they want – obedience from women in marriage – because what is happening in private is an equal relationship, full of mutual respect, sexual satisfaction and joy. 


For Greer, Kate's speech is Shakespeare's earnest defence of marriage as a difficult mode of living, demanding mutual respect and tolerance:

Kate […] has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. […] The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality. […] Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough. There is no romanticism in Shakespeare’s view of marriage. He recognized it as a difficult state of life, requiring discipline, sexual energy, mutual respect and great forbearance; he knew there were no easy answers to marital problems, and that infatuation was no basis for continued cohabitation.
Greer believes that what the audience sees is a coded public concession to conformity and convention, within which runs a joyous private communication: 'I will tame my wild spirit if you will be my protector and friend'.  

She argues that there is no romanticism in this view of marriage, and yet it seems to me the most overtly Mills and Boon definition of the love match. 


*

I feel completely torn. On the one hand, I sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' because my own husband, who was man enough to know what he wanted and how to get it, tamed me, and is currently committing his body to painful labour in central London. On the other, the way this happened was via the demolition of my career (not at his hands, I hasten to add), and a decade of frustrating and often frustrated attempts to find another way forward towards an income and fulfilment, while we raise a family. 

My own experience of marriage is emphatically not that I have been required to be obedient by a man. It is that our marriage has been threatened by the stresses affecting both of us as both of us committed our bodies to painful labour. So often, one or other of our working lives has been assaulted by workplace schemers, global recessions and family-unfriendly hours. That, and unequal pay.


It is no longer true that women sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' in marriage. These days, we're all supposed to be out working, whether we want to or not. The modern Katherina and the modern Petruchio do not have to conform to a hierarchical model of marriage, thank goodness. In the West, we marry for love, not a dowry or land ownership, and we expect to (or have to) go on working. 


But working out how that works when you both work – and when there are children involved – I'd like to see Shakespeare have a go at that last speech. 


It's not obedience that's needed now, but respect. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Going Dutch

Someone posted this piece in the Washington Post by Mihal Greener, an Australian writer raising her family in Holland, on my Facebook page this morning.

It made me want to cry.


According to the April 2013 findings by UNICEF in their report 'Child well-being in rich countries: a comparative overview', Dutch children are the happiest in the world.


I'd heard about this report, and about Mihal Greener, a couple of years ago, when UNICEF first published this finding, but somehow it made a greater impact this morning. 


Perhaps it's because yesterday I stood in the dreary, wet playground and endured two mothers, one each side of me, making endless less-than-subtle digs about status, work and motherhood in the minutes before pickup, without ever actually asking each other a question. I'd had a very nice day, working from home, getting on with stuff. After five minutes of playground pleasantries, I felt like a collapsed balloon.


Again. 


Recently my twelve-year-old daughter realised that one of her friends is a Taker. This particular young lady takes every utterance around her, and replays it through her own self-obsession. If someone says, 'Mutual friend X is feeling sick', Trainee Taker will say either, 'Oh! I feel sick too!' or 'Eew, that makes me feel sick!'. 


Daughter and I discussed whether 'talking about yourself' is always taking. We wondered whether one should essentially be utterly self-effacing at all times. After all, this is what centuries of culture told women they should be doing. Perhaps silence and self-effacement is the only answer in a world of bitching and gossiping.


We concluded, however, that it is possible to talk about yourself and not be a Taker. If you extend your interlocutor's experience by sharing your own, develop the conversation, reassure the other person (who has, quite probably, just said something that makes them feel vulnerable), you can keep the whole circle of life moving without maiming, killing, ignoring or climbing on top of the other. 


Tell that to a bunch of mums waiting in the playground. After fully nine years of Playground Politics, I can honestly say it has become no more comfortable. It's still like walking into an office after you've been made redundant. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of mothers who consciously do not engage in the put-down games that seem to hold sway for most. That doesn't mean I don't have friends at my children's school. It just means that the playground feels like verbal trench warfare a lot of the time. But it's so completely normalised that I bet most people would be surprised that they are doing it, and probably just think it's the way of the world. 


What's it all based on? Essential insecurity about the position of mothers in contemporary British society.

How can I assert this? For one, because my life used not to feel like this before I had children. For two, in other countries, like Holland, but also Australia, mothers don't seem to be exhibiting this kind of neurotic behaviour. They seem — and it's only a generalisation of course — but they seem to like themselves, their bodies, their homes, their jobs, their bicycles, their cheese and their children. 


Their children, who are going to grow up into the tallest people on earth, despite not ruling out dairy from their diets. 


Their children, who are also going to have a life expectancy of, on average, 81.4 years, with a world life expectancy ranking of 17. 


Happiest, tallest, among the longest-lived. 


What are they doing to make that happen? 


According to Mihal Greener, they're not doing anything. 


They're not stressing, they are not overworking (themselves or their children), they don't have to pull so many late nights, they don't have to work all hours to make ends meet, they don't feel they have to one-up each other on clothes, gifts, kids' parties, food, thinness, holidays etc etc. They live calmer, more balanced lives than we do. They are valued, and they value themselves and their children. 


Meanwhile in Britain, we are currently condemning millions of women to years and years of furious drudgery, oneupmanship, workplace misery and mistrust, so-called multi-tasking, alienation, depression and lack of fulfilment. Once they become mothers. 


No mother, it goes without saying, is exempt from occasionally losing it. It's not nice, but it is a universal (because children push you to your wits' end, and because every life has stresses). I think that Mihal Greener herself would be quick to acknowledge that she's exaggerating for (comic) effect — that she, like me, is using the Dutch to hold her own culture to account. 

Having lived in Australia myself, however, I'm surprised that Greener finds such differences between herself and the Dutch. To me, Australian and Dutch women are remarkably similar. In Holland they say 'doe gewoon', and in Australia they 'just get on with it'. Either way, my personal experience of both countries is that mothers, whatever their work, are open, friendly, calm, competent, and don't exhibit the same social anxieties and insecurities that British mothers do. 

Time for a huge caveat, which also applies to Greener. I am sure that my — and her — observations originate in being the outsider. I also heard women discussing education in Australia in exactly the same competitive way I hear it all the time in the UK — it's just that *I* was relaxed about it at the time, because I wasn't in my own culture, and so wasn't targeted by the other women — quite simply, I didn't pose a threat to them, because I wasn't part of their system, fighting for the same scarce resources. I am sure that had we stayed in Oz to educate our kids, I would have found the same Motherload I do in the UK.

Call me half-Dutch, but I still idealistically think we should all be going Dutch on bicycles, eating hagelslag and kaas with a cheeseslicer for breakfast. Oh, and living in a society without a two-tier education system.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Food issues

I am seeing a herbalist occasionally at the moment, who is not remotely sympathetic about my 'issues' with food, which I find HUGELY challenging. When she asked, on my latest visit, what I had been eating and serving the kids, I found myself going blank and feeling rebellious, sulky, and cross. Even though I actually plan menus. On paper.

She has a direct and unemotional manner. She doesn't do sympathy, she does diagnosis and treatment. It seems that I wish to be treated with kid gloves, as though I might shatter if she uses the H-word (that's H for healthy).

Part of me doesn't want to go back to see her EVER AGAIN. Mean, horrible lady, who won't pander to my whims, won't be nice to me for being such a hero as to Address My Problems.

Another part of me thinks (knows) she's doing me a favour. She's assuming I am fully functional – an adult, forsooth! – and that I'm ready to hear good advice. In fact, her assumption, oddly, is that, since I'm paying her, and she is a trained expert in herbal medicine and nutrition, I must want to hear what she has to say.

She's totally professional and totally right.

On my latest visit, having become deeply irritated by a piece of unwanted advice about our son's behaviour at the dinner table ("You just need to exclude him when he acts up"), I ended up by asking her how she manages running her herbalist's business with two kids.

She softened considerably, and admitted that she also has to cox and box – she still feeds them healthy stuff, but that might default to a sweet potato if she's really busy. She plans ahead, just like I do. And the killer statement: if she's feeling ropey, she doesn't just dose herself on her own medicine, she sits down and gives herself a diagnosis, going through a full checklist, as she would with one of her patients.

Now that point really helped me. I've been trying to keep a work log for the book I'm writing, a separate spreadsheet, which tells me what I've done and what needs doing, which is totally independent of the thinking and angsting I need to do to actually WRITE.

For years I would not accept that 'writing' might benefit from planning. I totally fell for the myth of the inspired genius, essentially fuelled by pulling all-nighters at university, and getting away with them. As far as I was concerned, 'planning writing' was for administrators and plodders, whereas I, I the genius would be able to gush forth fully-composed epics sans conscious thought.

WRONG.

Even if I planned my wretched doctorate backwards, I did, eventually, very late in the day, plan it. A friendly professor suggested I 'use subheadings' and learn to 'signpost' my argument, a technical term for which I had complete contempt, until I realised that my prose style was as dense as an elephant's turd.

Since making the choice to leave academic life, and 'become a writer', a career in which I have had precisely no success (YET, goddammit), I have allowed out my inner planner, and learnt to use spreadsheets like everyone else. I have accepted that compartmentalisation is actually beneficial, rather than the work of the devil, that it doesn't actually impede the flow of free thought and emotion, or automatically result in repression and neurosis. Which is what I learnt to think about compartmentalisation as an undergraduate.

What I have learnt is that you need BOTH. You need flow, and you need to bracket. You need rules, and you need to play with the rules. If you standardise things too much (like education), you don't let anything happen, you just box ideas up, and half of them seem 'wrong and bad', just because they won't fit the standard. Yet if you let everything hang out, you might be cultivating depression, paranoia, loss of motivation, wallowing, inability to see wood for trees, etc etc.

You need to plan so that you can let go of planning.

Thus with food. For YEARS, I refused to plan what I was going to eat, believing that this would lead directly to obsession, addiction, and a resumption of bulimia. I connected Bohemianism with health, and privileged exciting spontaneity over boring preparation. I left little cul-de-sacs in which biscuits and sweets could be hidden, little dark spaces in cupboards and psyche in which to stuff the fear of bringing my addiction to sugar into the light. For fear I should have to give it up entirely.

For fear that I should discover I can actually manage without my props.

For fear I should find out that I am an adult, that there is no way back to my seventeen-year-old self, that no neural pathways or body memories actually connect me back to that earlier identity.

For fear that I would have to accept that she is dead.

That my adult competence and stoicism have killed her.

That I healed up a while ago, and that I don't have a problem with healthy eating any more (except insofar as it's a pain in the arse to plan menus, go food shopping, and then prepare meals for ungrateful children, and that it's fundamentally anti-feminist to slave over food for the family).

But I also need to accept that, these days, I Quite Like Cooking.

*

I have had to work so damn hard to overcome my pain and bitterness about the phantom limb of my amputated career. I have had to work really hard to accept that what I chose, choosing to have children, with everything that ensues, has simply been harder than anything else I have tried to do in my life.

My choice has also, however, forced me to turn and face some of my deepest problems, least likeable characteristics, and strongest, most damaging habits. Because these are the ones your children bring out in you. You can hide them from everyone else (or at least make them look interesting). You can't hide from your kids.

If I had never had children, and had simply gone on with my crippling coping mechanisms, succeeding professionally while hating myself, overworking, anxious about food, lonely, eaten up by my own competitiveness, I would be a professor by now, but I would also be a basket case.

Of course it isn't an either/or equation. I might, had the circumstances been on offer, have been enabled to keep working as a lecturer after children, and gone on juggling, found my feet and my balance, and enjoyed life.

Or… I might not have had children, and nevertheless put myself through the Change Programme I invented to get over having my props suddenly stripped away, eventually emerging as the Happy Professor.

Or… I might have got sick of academic life anyway, and left for a new career, regardless of whether or not I had children.

Or… any number of illnesses, accidents or Acts of God might have befallen me. In the end I just left my job because I had a baby, couldn't commute between Cambridge and London without support, and there was no support. Point final.

I will never know whether I would have sorted out all my neuroses had I stayed on my career track – that particular choice was taken away from me, and in the end, it was having no control over that choice that I saw as the greatest loss. With or without my career as my trusty steed, I have had to grow up.

I think perhaps I need to keep going to see the herbalist.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

'A Eulogy for Nigger', by David Bradley

David Bradley
I had the immense privilege this week of taking a turn about Hyde Park with the remarkable David Bradley.

His funny, satirical, angry essay, 'A Eulogy for Nigger', has just won the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize.

Here is what we talked about:

And this is a taster of the essay:

Monday, 28 September 2015

"What stops you from writing three hours a day?"

Dear Friend,

I went on holiday with you, to write. We had the most glorious week, sitting with computers and books out in the late summer Corfu sunshine, gin at six on the terrace, views of the cerulean Ionian Sea towards Albania, ruminating, me on Motherload, you on the Romantics. Each evening saw us sauntering towards a harbourside restaurant, where you laughed as I ate a lot of Greek Cheese Pie, and calamari that made me sick on the last night. We managed to eat at Gerald Durrell's villa, much to the envy of my children.

We returned together, with our small bags, sitting side by side on the flight, quietly reading, occasionally muttering to each other.


We parted at the baggage reclaim with a brief hug and kiss. I rolled my weekend bag away from you, did not look back, through customs, and out to the dreary tube back to Bounds Green.

At one point, you asked me a question, ministering to me as you were that week, making me tea, making me sit down and keep working, keeping me off Facebook, patiently listening, as my poor, poor husband has been forced to listen for five long years, to my attempts to articulate what I have to say about the state of motherhood. 

You asked me, "What exactly stops you from writing three hours a day?" And my mouth fell open. I did not know how to answer you. Both my children are at school. One of them takes the bus to school. A helper takes my son to school three times a week, and collects him once. We now, finally, finally, blessed relief, have a cleaner. I have, thus, several wives. What stops me writing?

*

I get up at 6am, with my daughter. I help her make her breakfast. I unpack the dishwasher – it's my daughter's job, but sometimes the fight isn't worth it – put on a wash, hang up the last wash, empty the recycling if it hasn't been done, make a packed lunch for son. Check email and texts, reply where necessary. Plan the day. Get son up. Force daughter through dressing or showering, send her back to wash hair or do teeth if she has 'forgotten'. Make sure she has bag packed, keys, bus pass, cash, phone. Had already tried to make her get that kit ready the night before, to great sighs and screams. Make sure son has kit/piano book, lunch, school bag, socks, head, as required. Get him to school, or get someone else to get him to school. Get, get, get. If I go to the school, I take a cake (baked the previous day) for the charity cake sale, help set up the stall, then run to an exercise class. I have to do exercise, I go crazy without it. 

Then I do admin. For the house, for the children, for my own work. I do my own work, teaching and consulting.

I plan and cook every meal we eat, down to each ingredient, which I go and buy once a week. Down to the homemade granola, the nutritionally-balanced lunches and dinners. I've been on a healthy eating campaign, and it's a constant fight to stop the kids (and myself) wading into the ocean of sugar that saturates everything sold to us. I barely understand it, am in a constant tizzy of choice, which makes me brutal and dictatorial at home.

In the evenings, at dinner, I sit with the children, reminding them (every three minutes) about their table manners, while trying to ask how their day was, sort out any problems, work out what's coming up. 

I run our finances.
I plan our repairs and our renovations.

I make sure the kids do their homework and their music practice (I don't do the work for them or with them – too much a recipe for misery – my husband helps, though).

I take Child 2 to several activities per week, around my teaching. Child 1 can get to her own now.
I look after Child 2 on the 6-8 teacher training days that the D of E allows schools to organize in the school term (what?). I look after the children during their half terms and their holidays, booking activities and treats to keep them occupied. Never enough. 

I sort out buying uniform and clothing (not for hubby: he's a grown man).

I fight the amount of time my daughter spends on social media, and I actively time how long my son sits on Minecraft. Then I fight him to get the iPad out of his hands.


I feed the cats. They don't answer back.
I garden.
I make pizza dough.
I sew on badges. I repair tears. I iron. I quite like ironing.

I book holidays, nights out, trips to the theatre, cinema, excursions of one kind or another, when I'm not completely exhausted. I manage my children's social lives with the help of iCal, one colour for each member of the family.

I am a governor at my daughter's secondary school.

I sort out bullying incidents. I'm on the end of the phone if son forgets stuff. Or if he falls over and must be collected. Even if there is nothing wrong with him.


I very rarely play with either child, which makes them sad, but I do read to Child 2, sometimes. It is my greatest pleasure. I go shopping with my daughter, because she loves it. I loathe it, but I know it makes her happy.

And that is the house that we built.


*

I am writing this on a bus, and have finished writing it in a cafe. That's how I get most of my writing done.

I make sure I sleep. I take herbal medicine and vitamins to stay bouncy.

My life is slowly, slowly coming back, as our children get older and learn how to do more without us. It was like a bomb going off, my choice, our choice to have children.

Three hours of writing a day? Perhaps not. But perhaps there's a need for less volunteering, the need to take a deep breath and rely on my several wives, let the money be spent to allow me to write, the need to encourage the children more firmly to do it for themselves.

You, my friend, encourage me to be ruthless. It is difficult to be an existential mother in an age of compulsory anxiety and critical judgement, and against one's own feelings (but what ARE the feelings of a mother?). But I assure you I am trying, and I will succeed.

Thank you for loving me enough to ask the question.

Here's to writing. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Mother of all Questions

Rebecca Solnit has published the most wonderful essay in Harper's Magazine this morning. She, or her editor, have also managed to give it the best title – 'The Mother of all Questions'. On the face of it her essay is a response to all the pigs who've ever hounded her for not having a baby, but it is so much more than that.

In it she comes up with an excellent term for the best way to respond to a closed, negative, spiteful question: to be rabbinical. I'm not sure that I could borrow that word, being so completely unJewish as I am. But I, too, long for a word for that way of being which allows you to respond to spite by gently reflecting it back, opening up its painful, mean little folds, and helping your hound to see a bigger picture.

I'm currently reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a yearning love letter from a dying father to his future adult son. There is that same quality of mercy, and perpetual wonder, that in anyone else's hands would sound naive or sentimental. Reading Robinson is like sinking into a bath of relief – her depiction of humility makes up for the infinitely many times in which one has been humiliated.

Rebecca Solnit has bigger quarry than her hounds, however. She is interrogating the question of happiness. For Solnit, eudaemonics is perhaps misplaced – or rather its reduction to one kind of thing, one kind of life is the true enemy. As she points out, even if one diligently follows the cookie cutter version of the happy modern life, it is perfectly possible to be a mess of unhappiness; lots of people are. Conversely it is astonishingly possible to find happiness by following – truly, not half-heartedly – one's dreams. Perhaps one's dreams more than one's desires. Dreams are always vanishing, whereas we can give all too concrete a form to our desires, only to find them disappointing in their very materiality.

She reminds us that eudaemonics is, or used to be, all about the search for the good life, and the good life used to be about what we could do to give back to the society within which we had grown up, or what we might usefully leave behind.

In writing Motherload, I have been looking at the question of happiness through the looking glass, so to speak. I have been wondering how best to be happy as a mother, and my answer sounds like the opposite of Solnit's – that mothers must fight for their happiness. It sounds as if I'm demanding free spa days, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm with Solnit.

I am talking about the full spectrum of what 'happiness' means: pleasure, delight, fulfilment, contentment, together with the freedom, time and place to seek them, and the community within which to do so.

I'm also talking about developing the courage to ask, calmly, surely, gravely for these things, in the face of social expectations that you immolate yourself in the service of your children once you become a mother.

Thank you, thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for being rabbinical.



Thursday, 13 August 2015

Blanchot nails the school summer holidays

‘Since when had he been waiting? Since he had made himself free for waiting by losing the desire for particular things, including the desire for the end of things. Waiting begins when there is nothing more to wait for, not even the end of waiting. Waiting is unaware of and destroys that which it awaits. Waiting awaits nothing.’




BLANCHOT, M., L’attente l’oubli, Paris, Gallimard, 1962, 
trans by John Gregg as Awaiting Oblivion, pp. 24-5, 
University of Nebraska Press, 1997. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Summer loving

Summer is as dreadful as ever – it's not that we're not doing nice things, it's that woven into those things come horrible events like having too many friends with cancer at the moment, two with terminal brain cancers.

This week I have been an adult.

This week I visited my friend who has terminal brain cancer. We wanted to put on a 'play in a day' with her children, mine, and her cousin's, because she and her cousin used to love to do this in their own childhoods. The play eventually ended up as a two-minute iMovie, some kind of insane Arthurian Dance-Off. It was fun, but it was also not at all fun. It is not fun to see children playing, and know that their mother is going to be taken away from them. However much one can dress up the day with costumes, and ice cream, and pasta and iMovie. Yet this is what you do when there are children, because children want to play. They understand what is going on, but they want and need to play. They are full of unquenchable optimism.

The next I tried to go fruit picking, with someone else's child, and the car broke down in the field. I had to be very grown up and call the AA, as opposed to bursting into tears and kicking the car. He duly appeared, trundling across the field, a knight in a white van, and saved me with coolant. It could have been worse.

The next day, after crying my way through Inside Out, there came a call from our neighbour. Her husband, too, has a brain tumour, and has suffered such severe seizures recently that he has lost the power of speech. They needed help getting to hospital for a blood test, because he is falling a lot. The rain poured from a leaden sky, as though smiting me for my previous life of blithe indifference to other people's suffering.

The day after that, I tried to take the family to a local festival, to do a water slide. A Planned Happy Day! Except that… my daughter managed to use up all her dry clothes, and had to be taken home in tears, because she felt judged by others for wearing a swimsuit. Her excruciating embarrassment brought years of changing room unhappiness flooding back to me. Why is puberty so cruel?

The contrast between sorting out the children's bickering, buying food, doing the cooking, picking up pants, shouting about food in the living room, planning and replanning entertainment, and trying to cope with the emotion of seeing other people suffering, is leading to headaches, insomnia and complete despair.

Normal relentlessness in motherhood comes to an end once the little blighters are in bed. In my son's case, practically tethered to the bed. But this kind of relentlessness connects you like a laser beam to all the suffering on earth.

Of course I could 'choose to distance myself' – except that I cannot. These are people I know, they are my friends, we have had fun together, I love them, they have children, they are my age, they could be me, I could be them.

All I can do is offer compassion. But compassion tears you to pieces. Better not to care. But I cannot not care.

I get it in the neck from my own family for not sorting out their, much more minor, problems. Except that they are not altogether minor – daughter having a large tooth extracted, then having a painful fixed brace fitted; son having a removable brace fitted and needing to learn to speak and swallow saliva again; husband working incredibly long hours, salvaging our financial situation after months of difficulty…

So it turns out that caring is a bottomless pit. You cannot save anyone by caring. You are ripped to pieces by doing it. And through it all I hear the critical voices of those who say, 'this isn't about you', 'grow up', 'suck it up', 'get over yourself', 'get it in proportion', 'just get on with it', 'if you can't stand the heat', 'you shouldn't have had kids then', etc. etc.

To me this is Motherload in extremis – where your natural tendency to care about others becomes too painful to bear, because you are helpless to help them. Expected to sort out everyone's problems, unable to do more than put a sticking plaster over them.

I've got to a point where I can't even write about Motherload, because the ethics and politics of care are so entangled. It's not my place to expose others, to seem to cash in on their suffering. To bear my Motherload honourably, I should, perhaps, do so in silence.

But… I tell my daughter not to be self-conscious, because everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look themselves to judge her. I tell her to be proud of herself. Yet here I am, worrying about being judged for writing about how life feels at the moment.

I will write. Because these experiences are not mine at all. They are other people's suffering witnessed. It is my role to bear witness, to scream at the heavens about the injustice of it all. Life itself is so grotesquely, so unbearably unfair, but it is the task of the adult to bear it, to allow that unfairness to stream through the body in waves and particles, to be aged and denatured by it, and still to hold fast to what is good, beautiful and true.

*

After I had written the above, I found out that my friend, Nicole Smith, died this morning from brain cancer. Grace, who is nearly nine, Alex, who is eight, and her husband, Rod, have to go on without her.

Nicole was a wise, witty and formidable woman, whose courage during her illness was humbling and inspiring. I always had a good time with her. She was the real thing, feisty, hardworking, and funny. She had complete integrity, and a great bullshit detector. She fought for reason, right and justice all her life. She was a force for good. She never gave up, and she found true joy in life. I'm going to miss her.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Jon Day, Cyclogeography

Jon Day as cycle courier, back in the day
I sat down with Jon Day, one-time cycle courier, now English literature lecturer, and had a very enjoyable discussion about cycling and his wonderful essay on it, Cyclogeography (published by the rather fabulous Notting Hill Editions).

What I really loved about Jon's views on cycling was that he thought the British attitude to the bicycle was po-faced, while the French have a completely irreverent, subversive and inherently revolutionary take on le cyclisme.

You can read the interview here – and take a look at Shiny New Books, which is all about what's hot in literature this summer.

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

ChrisKitch

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. http://www.chriskitch.com. 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.