Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Mother's Tears

This morning I went to Town. I don’t like going to Town. I’ve adapted to living next to cows and green fields so that in Town I feel claustrophobic. It felt crowded; there were students everywhere, making me feel old in their frighteningly fashionable clothes. There were roadworks and ambulances and runners and cyclists and lots and lots of mums. Mums pushing prams with baby toes peeping out. Mums pushing buggies with grumpy toddlers who’d rather be walking. Mums with young babies scooped into car seats, smiling because the sun was coming out and they’d managed to leave the house. One mum had a white faux leather pram; I thought it was hideous, then had to remind myself that we are all different and it is those differences which made the world so exciting.

Another mother, walking down hill in a residential part of town, was crying. I wanted to stop and ask if I could help but there’s never anywhere to park quickly in Town.

All the way home I thought about her tears. Motherhood can be so isolating. You so badly want to do it right which just makes it worse when you feel you are doing it all wrong. Everyone else around you seems to be laughing and coping. You hear nauseating clichéd comments “I wouldn’t have it any other way!” What does that actually mean? Is it realistic to love every minute of motherhood? Of course I love my children and live in constant fear of them being run over on the way to school, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when I wish they’d all go away and leave me alone.

I often wonder why we have children. Why do we put ourselves through these extraordinary years of relentless work and worry? In my cynical moments I decide we only have children so that we won’t be lonely at Christmas when we are old. I read somewhere that having a family is “life-enhancing” and despite my cynicism I can relate to that. I love the dynamic between my children (when they aren’t fighting) and enjoy the things they say and do with each other that make me laugh. But I still don’t think that enjoying and loving your children has to mean “you wouldn’t have it any other way”.

Having children is a tough choice, it changes your life. My life would have been very different if I’d committed to being a lawyer and strived for partnership. Over the years I have stood at crossroads and had to make decisions about which path to take. I feel that none of those paths have been right or wrong, they just lead to very different lives. When feeling down and finding things tough it's easy to pile on the self-blame thinking, "well, you chose this life". I've realised it's important to remember that just because you make a choice doesn’t mean everything about it will always be easy.

The scientific answer to why we have children is that we are biologically programmed to reproduce. Yes, I got to a stage in my life when having children felt like the right thing to do. Whether you stay at home with them is another difficult decision for a modern mother. In Town, stay-at-home mums were in abundance, striding across pavements with “I’m doing it right for my children” confidence. Last night on the news there was a feature on some research which had concluded that children of stay-at-home mums had healthier lifestyles. Or something, I wasn’t really listening, I was watching the pictures. A group of mums were at a music and movement group in a park, smiling ecstatically while their toddlers danced to Bob the Builder. I couldn’t help wondering how many smiles were real and how many mums were really thinking “I wish I was at home reading the paper”. Is this a dreadful secret that all mums carry? That very often we’d rather be using our brains than endlessly posting blocks through round holes? To my great relief, the Yummy Mummy who was interviewed as part of the news item completely dismissed the research and said “mums can’t win can they”!

It’s this solidarity of mums which has saved me – I am lucky to live in a fantastic community. My wish, for the sake of the crying mum who I saw this morning, is that we can all avoid the clichés and admit that mothering is hard. There are good days when you do love every moment and bad days when the trick is to just get through the day without yelling too much or crying. Yes, having children can be a wonderful and unique experience, even bettering - my life would be more lonely and selfish without my children and I’ve learnt a lot about myself and my less attractive traits by looking in the mirror of my children who reflect back what they see.

But motherhood can also be claustrophobic and utterly overwhelming. Children push us to our limits and attitudes of society pressure us to strive for perfection. “Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt stricken affair.”* These are all issues I hope Emmeline, my fictional mum, will explore in the book I am planning. This morning on Radio 4 I heard someone say “human life is now too hurried. We need to take the time to find special moments; they can make such a difference.” I missed the context but have taken the phrase and a mother’s tears as a reminder that I must always find moments for my “mum” friends when they are struggling.

*Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers

Monday, 28 September 2009

Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams

Kayla Williams enlisted in the US army at the age of twenty-three and learnt Arabic in order to be Military Intelligence. She was posted to Iraq, staying for a year. This book was sold as telling how it was to be “Young and Female in the US Army.”

On some pages I was really disappointed, on others I was fascinated. The beginning is frustrating, lots of anecdotes about the injustices of sexual inequality then compromising paragraphs about “partying with the guys” and having casual sex. I’d heard Williams on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and was attracted to the book by her seeming intelligence and eloquence. This I was not getting from Love My Rifle. Just a lot of sex and swearing.

However, once in Iraq, in between the swearing and gripes about the reality of being female, there were interesting insights. All depressing.

War is degrading and dehumanising. It turns people crazy so that they do things they wouldn’t normally do. Williams describes the situations they live in; the clothes you have to wear, the heat, the deprivations, no showers or toilets - if you had dysentery, would you like to deal with it holding a plastic bag to your mouth and one to your backside with nowhere to wash? And the pressure of wondering if you are going to get killed, what that does to you and your attitude towards locals – “If you see someone heading toward you, he could be approaching to offer you information. He could have an explosive device strapped to his waist and be about to kill you. He might want to ask for food. You have to make that call – instantaneously...It did occur to me that I was seeing a part of myself I would never have seen otherwise”.

But if you spend time in this aggressive and unnatural environment, you’re going to lose the connection to what is normal and acceptable in regular society. Williams’ war wasn’t really about killing people but about living in uncomfortable conditions doing not a lot that seems productive. This book allowed me a little more understanding about how people can be warped into committing atrocities. It made me think that war, the way it’s fought and lived, can never be productive for anyone on any side.

It was the small, seemingly insignificant details which I found most distressing and did most damage to my opinion of the US army. For example, when they are in convoy they hurl their rubbish out of the trucks. I imagined thousands of American soldiers littering Iraq with plastic bottles and chocolate wrappers, an image of utter ignorance and disrespect.

Williams describes the depressing incompetence of the military; inept officers; no apparent coherent strategy; soldiers just hanging around getting nervous and as a result intimidating Iraqis; orders to secure locations with razor wire, ending healthy and uplifting interaction with local people. “You had to wonder if the subsequent souring of relations with the locals was connected to the escalation in our security. Whether when you cut people’s access off to their religious shrines and began to treat them like criminals, they then maybe started to act like criminals?”

There were sections of the book when I felt Williams belittles her intelligence and let herself down – but then she was just being honest about what she’d done and they were aspects of her character I wasn’t so keen on – she admits she learnt much from the army. I’m still not sure what work she actually DID, “running ops” was just listening I think, but that’s probably just a fault of my ignorance. But her reflections and mental wrangling were interesting – and reassuring. Speaking Arabic she is able to interact and relate to Iraqis on a positive level, they’re not all just “the enemy” a categorisation she admits many soldiers default to when they are constantly being shot at or ambushed. It’s interesting to see her culture shock when she returns home, how she views her compatriots having seen a very different life. “Everyone in America was fat. Everyone was on some stupid diet. How could a diet encourage you to eat bacon and forbid you to eat bananas?”

She’s not positive about the war; she went into the army for financial rather than ideological reasons. Was that foolish or naive? But at least she questions the deeper purpose of what exactly was trying to be achieved in Iraq. “The more we know about what brought about this war in the first place, the harder and harder it gets. It was a year of my life. And what the fuck for? What was it all about? Not having an answer for that makes it hard. Makes it feel dirty.” Soldiers are professional; war is what they’re paid to do. That may be so, but as this book so vividly shows, soldiers are also human.

As for the reflections on being Young and Female in the US Army, this is a tough issue. If you are a female in a male dominated environment, do you put up and shut up or do you feel angry about men looking at your boobs as you walk across the “chow” hall? Surrounded by hundreds of young men, full of fear and adrenaline, sexually frustrated, can you do your job properly or is the sexually-discriminating reality that you are, as a woman, by definition a distraction, a temptation, however good at your job you might be? Can there ever be true equality in such an unnatural social situation?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Role Model

There is no doubt that parents are role models for their children. One of the saddest thing I've heard recently involves pupils in a school in a deprived area of Kent. A friend of mine teaches there and he told me that if you ask children in his class what they want to be when they grow up, they tell you they want to be on benefits. They can aspire to nothing else if every adult they see makes claiming benefits their entire vocation.

Many feminists accuse stay at home mums of being bad role models for their daughters - will daughters aspire to anything other than homemaking if they don't see their mothers working? This argument may have its roots in the guilt of working mothers; a convenient excuse for their absence. The relationship between feminism and what it means to be a modern woman and mother are complex; issues I’ve written about before and will keep coming back to. I write about this today because at tea time my sons gave me a strong illustration of the power of role models and gender stereotypes.

I was bustling around in my usual way, fetching drinks and mopping up when T, the five year old, commented "it's hard being a mummy, that's why I'm glad I'm a boy". "We will go to work when we're daddies won't we" B, the three year old added. Baby J smiled at me from her chair. Although I was amused by their simplification of life - mummy mops up spilt milk, daddy goes to work, I hope, for my daughter's sake, they will learn that these roles can cross gender boundaries. A positive aspect of our complicated modern society is that women are no longer forced into roles by etiquette and expectation. As my children understand more about my life I hope they will appreciate that I have enjoyed a variety of vocations and have chosen to be a housewife. An important example I wish to teach them is that a worthy goal to work towards is the luxury of choice.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Reflections on New Tarmac

Isn’t it depressing when, trying to clean the house, your children manage to mess up where you’ve been by the time you get to the other end of the room.

In the same way I feel for the workmen resurfacing a road in our village. As it goes down the tarmac is black and glossy, the surface pristine. By the time they’ve altered the contra-flow and let us all back on, it’s marred by dust and encrusted with horse poo.

How disheartening for the men to end the week with an already imperfect road.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Book Club - Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

If you are thinking of reading Notes from an Exhibition and don’t want your reading of it tarnished, best to skip this post.

Every reader comes to a book with their own mental history and therefore will read it in a completely different way, perceiving it in absolute opposites. This happened at our first Book Club with Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale.

Notes from an Exhibition is simply about a family dominated by a bipolar, artistic mother. After her death the characters reflect on pieces of their lives, gradually revealing significant events and how they struggled, died and survived.

I loved the book. During the days I read it I floated along in its hold, absorbed by the characters. I found it very meditative, the calm way in which the reader was drawn into each character’s reflections. I found the style gripping, the way Gale gradually feeds bit of information from different directions, as remembered by different people. I wanted to keep reading, hoping, being an obsessive for detail, that I would find out exactly what had happened to everyone, but knowing there would be pieces left for my imagination. Aware of this I concentrated while I read, going back to check information Gale had snuck in to earlier chapters before I knew what I was looking for.

So while I was sucked in and utterly absorbed, other members of the Book Club were unmoved, wondering when the story would start as they got to the end. “If it had been a film on late at night I wouldn’t have stayed up to watch it,” D said. Some thought nothing “happened” whereas I’d had to stop myself reading, forcing myself to take a break after some chapters so that I could properly absorb what had happened rather than racing further into the narrative – when I’m enjoying a book I often speed through it and feel sad afterwards that I may have missed the nuances.

Each chapter is preceded by a “Note from an Exhibition” – finally you understand the slightly obscure title. Many of us really liked these notes, finding they gave so much insight in themselves. Gale uses detail and I loved the way that just by noticing who had loaned the picture to the exhibition, for example, you could deduce another strand of the story. Others found these notes distracting; at times you did have to work at launching into a new theme and character at the start of every chapter. Someone commented that the date of the item described helped to cement the fragmented narrative in time. A most interesting remark came at the end of the evening, just as we were drifting into discussing the issues of our real lives rather than fiction. Maybe there was no exhibition, H suggested, maybe Rachel herself was the exhibition and the Notes, and chapters, reflections on her and how she influenced her family rather than commentaries on art.

It’s certain that this is a book about the effect of a “difficult” (Gale’s word not mine) mother on her family. After reading it I decided that the book sold on the back cover was not the book I’d read. The blurb talks of “a painful need for answers” about Rachel’s death and I’d assumed there was suspicion of murder and some sort of investigation. In fact, Rachel’s death as an incident is, for me, insufficiently explained. We learn she was making a terrible noise, made a rambling call to her son Hedley and flung some stones through a window, but then we understand that she keeled over with an unexpected heart attack. The GP among us felt this was unrealistic; with what we knew of her, a sudden, fatal heart attack was unlikely. Someone else commented that as she needed to die for the story to take place, but Gale didn’t want the violence of suicide she’d tried so often, he had few options left of how to frame her death.

Thinking about this I wonder whether over introspection of books is an inherent problem with book clubs? I remember feeling turned off reading by A’Level English Literature because I grew tired of tearing books apart rather than just enjoying them. N commented that as she finished Notes from an Exhibition she felt she liked it, but the more she thought about it the more she found inconsistencies and flaws she didn’t like. I had loved the book but by the end of our discussion wondered if my love of it had been marred by points raised – we agreed to rate the books before we arrived at Book Club next time to prevent any contamination of our initial opinions. No author will ever get everything “right” for every reader. Is our need to discuss and analyse therefore fair on an author? Are we in danger of retrospectively spoiling the reading experience for ourselves? A book has to be tangible to draw you in but how much scrutiny should a book have to withstand to be worthy?

Stephen Fry comments on the front cover that “this book is complete perfection”. After reading, and before other’s critiques at Book Club, I agreed with him. Despite my reappraisal I would consider including Notes from an Exhibition on my list of Top Ten Books. This list is still being compiled. It’s impossible to conclude; how to chose just ten books from the many who have given me so much? The most interesting issue, I’ve decided, when choosing your favourite books, is the criteria you chose by. My criteria is “would I read the book again?” There are so many books to read and so little time, re-reading is a luxury I rarely do, which is sad because the same books could offer me many things if I took time to read them at different stages of my life. The time-of-life, place and atmosphere in which you read a book have such an influence on your reaction to it. I read many significant books when I was too young, too intellectually immature, and they have therefore been lost to me. I know I should take the time to try them again.

F said that a favourite book for her would be one about which she could really remember something; so many books are read, absorbed and forgotten. H said a favourite book was one she thought about all the time and just wanted to read – certainly with Notes from an Exhibition my family must have thought I had some ailment as I snuck off to the toilet more than usual, my furtive way of grabbing a few quiet reading moments.

N said a favourite book was one that made her re-evaluate how she saw things and that she hadn’t gained that from Notes from an Exhibition. I, in contrast, did. Gale’s style is for each character to shares their reflections of the past so that our understanding of what actually happened is modified with each new piece of knowledge. I liked this reminder that things aren’t always as we first perceive them to be and that a different opinion or version of events can be a valuable way to find the truth.

There is much in Notes from an Exhibition to take away; images of Cornwall, thoughts on the relationship between mental illness and creative genius and, most interestingly for me, Quakerism. Antony, Rachel’s husband, is a Quaker and the religion permeates the whole book. Its gentle thread was a scaffold holding the book, and characters, together. Through all the pain and chaos, wherever they were in the world, the family members attended Meetings, giving them, and the book, a focus of calm reassurance.

Rachel is portrayed as erratic and selfish, not a good mother figure. Absorbed in her work she neglects her children and is not a natural homemaker. I felt too ashamed to admit that a small part of me could identify with Rachel, the obsessive, compelling desire to create something (with me it’s writing) and the guilt felt when your mental distraction impacts on your family.

Antony is calm, honest and good. Many felt him a weak character, or at least underdeveloped. Was it realistic that he, a quiet studious recluse, would give his life supporting Rachel? But then on the penultimate page we’re told that "he was so practised at thinking of Antony as Rachel's minder" but maybe “it was she who constrained Antony”. How frustrating, N said, that this was not developed. What drove Antony to “care” for Rachel – duty, entrapment, love? N felt a lot of interesting issues were thrown in as asides towards the end of the book without the chance to explore them.

But even with these perceived flaws, even after our discussions and criticisms, I still highly recommend Notes from an Exhibition. I found it a gentle but riveting read, a book with absorbing characters that I wanted to find time to read about. I wanted to know what happened to them, I was compelled. I like to read books set in places as I visit them and will definitely be taking a Patrick Gale book with me next time I travel to Cornwall.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Book Club

In June a friend from the village organised a charity book swap. We were all supposed to take books we’d read and loved and buy those offered by others to raise money. This was difficult for me as I rarely part with a book and especially not one I’ve read and loved. Fortunately I found something I had two copies of and, of course, lots I was keen to buy.

Surrounded by books, mostly by Sophie Kinsella as no-one seemed to be grabbing those, I asked if anyone was interested in starting a Book Club. The answer was an enthusiastic yes. Inspired by having something other than our children to talk about, we made plans and our first meeting is this week, the book Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale. I plan to share our thoughts on the book in this blog.

What I have found most exciting is how starting this book club has fired us up. The day after the book swap, many of us met with our children at another village event, the church fete. We were all still exhilarated and gabbling about books, enthusing about recommendations and what we were going to read. Husbands were muttering about how maybe they should start a beer discussion club. Many of us have been inspired to read more again, remembering how much we love books and how therapeutic reading can be. I think the buzz is to have a mutual focus other than our children and school events, something else to challenge our brains. It has also demonstrated to me, again, the importance of being part of a community; how sharing something, anything, with other people, can be so uplifting.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Learning Independence in a Field

Following on from my frustrations about my eldest son not playing independently, I tried a little experiment. The idea was to encourage him to push the physical rather than verbal boundaries. I sent him, B and a friend off into the field next to our house; the challenge, to pick blackberries. I was not completely irresponsible. I took a magazine and sat outside where I could see them, Baby J bottom shuffling at my feet. Off they went round the perimeter, diving into the hedgerows, lifting up brambles. T called out that he was not getting scratched. I didn’t reply. They moved away out of earshot; after a long, noisy summer holiday, the silence was therapeutic.

I read a short article then looked up. I could not see them. I quashed my panic thinking “be rational”. There they were, camouflaged in a ditch. I watched three little bodies marching up the hill, B waving from the top. Then they disappeared from my view into a corner. I was relaxed; the worst that could happen would be a scratch from a barb. Before my reading and epiphany in the garden centre I would have called out to check they were still there, but I made myself give them some freedom.

They stayed behind that corner a long time. It started raining on my washing. It rained harder. I saw them racing across the top of the field in what looked like gleeful abandon rather than whining back home. I left my washing. They sheltered under the hedge; it was great. I think we all felt liberated.

They trudged home, deep in conversation, B trailing slightly, slowed up by tall thistles against his shorter legs. Baby J and I welcomed the adventurers home at the gate – I had to open it for B who can’t climb it. “We were working as a team” T called to me across the last of the field. They showed me what they’d picked – blackberries and some “blueberries”, which were actually sloes. T said B had eaten one so I had to deliver a lecture about not eating berries if you didn’t know exactly what they were – which in retrospect maybe I should have given before they departed. Was I irresponsible to have sent a 3 year old off into a field without an adult to pick in hedgerows?

But they all seemed invigorated by their run in the wind, talking about wanting to do it again when more berries were ripe. They had black stains around their mouths from eating blackberries; a clichéd sign of a wholesome childhood and I felt proud, like we’d all achieved. They mentioned that they’d wanted to go into the next field but didn’t as I wouldn’t have known where they’d be. I was impressed, this showed good common sense and a pleasing appreciation that it was important that I did know where they were. I said that next time, if they told me where they were going, they could go into other fields. They found this an exciting possibility. In conclusion, it seems to have been a good learning experiment for us all.