The New House

We are now in the New House, receptacle of all the hopes and dreams of recent times. In the New House, we would turn into better versions of ourselves. The hallway would always be tidy and we spend our evenings playing musical instruments with the children rather than giving them TV dinners. (I am not sure the children were dreaming about this. I think they thought there might be satellite tv and an x-box; neither of which we had in the Old House).  After 10 days of unpacking boxes, the dream of a tidy hallway has still not come true. TV-free evenings are a reality though, as we can’t get freeview to work. We have all learnt to play chess. It’s nice to spend quality time with our children, I for one am experiencing  a virtuous glow. But, I now realise that the telly was the equivalent of an ‘off’ switch for the children. Now there is no such switch, they follow us around the house, catching us every time we try to sneak a private moment.
‘What can we do next?’ they say.
‘Ah, so nice to spend time with the kids’ we sigh, as we begin to dream of satellite TV and an x-box…and internet. Despite the fact that we have known we were moving for weeks, neither of us thought to set up internet for the New House. The result of this is that the unpacking got done much quicker, and I am typing out this post on a phone which thinks that every time I write ‘will’ I actually want to write ‘Wilkinson’, and when I type ‘the equivalent’ I mean ‘rhetoric equivalent’.
Predictive spelling is not my friend. It is in fact my worst enema…

Write like no-one’s reading?

Dance like no-one’s watching, sing like no-one’s listening, love as if you’ve never been hurt…and write like no-one’s reading?

I love to write. It’s always been the way I organise my thoughts, and often my preferred method of  communication.  As a child, I would write eloquent letters to my parents (usually about why they should let me have a cat but sometimes about why they should not make me clean my room), push them under the door then go and hide in my bedroom. At work, I would email people in the next- door office rather than walk over to speak to them. And at home, I have been known to text my Intended from the next room. Our arguments are often conducted via email.

I feel I am much more persuasive on paper than in person. Writing sometimes feels like a way of revealing my true self; a way to shed inhibitions and self-consciousness and speak from the heart (for times when I have no access to that truth potion, alcohol).

However, a total lack of self consciousness is rarely a good thing, as a brief look at the diaries of my teenage years (or even last week) will prove, or as anyone listening to my kids singing in the shower could vouch. The operative word in the above motto is ‘like’: dance like nobody is watching, but don’t go off into a room and dance by yourself. You may be pretending you are alone, but the knowledge that other people are around you should prevent you from dancing like the legendary drunk uncle at a wedding.

By the same token, thinking out loud on the internet avoids the worst excesses of self-indulgence found in an unseen journal…thoughts are honed and sharpened, you try harder to communicate your ideas, and sometimes you are rewarded with a comment…like a dancer who falls into step with you for a few beats, someone has read your thoughts and been moved to share their own thoughts in turn. You nod, smile, admire each other’s moves, and continue the dance.

Dancing, singing, loving: like writing, all of these things are more enjoyable with a companion or two…

To the uninvited

We’ve known each other since we were 11 years old; you are like my sisters. The saying ‘Friends are like stars. You can’t always see them but you know they are there,’ was made for us. Although we can’t always see each other (and I think we’d all agree that that’s a good thing), we like to know that everyone is still there, sparkling away in their rightful place in the firmament.

Gone are the days when we drank cider in the park, giggling, rolling down hills, crying, hugging, pouring our hearts out, hamming it up just a little bit, as we sat in the park under the whispering trees, sharing secrets and cigarettes (‘My parents don’t love me any more’, ‘If you inhale with your head upside down it makes you go dizzy, go on try it’). Half way between childhood and adulthood, we were hungry to live, love and learn, and that is what we thought we were doing as we drunkenly lay in the fallen leaves, forming our sisterhood. We talked about our weddings then, do you remember that? We were going to walk down the aisle in Doc Martens, with each other as bridesmaids; we would wear red and give our children exotic names, and one day we’d sit around a coffee table drinking coffee, while they ran around together.

Those weddings in Doc Martens never happened, nor the multiple bridesmaids, but we did end up sitting around a table while all our kids ran around together – the oldest 16, the youngest 3 years old. It wasn’t a coffee table, though. And we weren’t drinking coffee. That metamorphosis into responsible sober adults still hasn’t happened – at least, not when we are together. We regress to those days when we never really had to get up in the morning, although we still have a curfew as the kids remind us once they start to get tired.

After years of falling out and making up, or just growing apart, losing each other, we are all back in touch and it feels like coming home to family. Like family, we hate each other get on each others nerves, 50% of the time, but we are part of each other’s universe. My twinkly friends, you are the landmarks by which I can set my compass, and it is a dark night when you are not shining.

Like stars, you are so polarised and so bright that getting you together in the same room is difficult. You sparkle from different corners, sometimes shooting sparks at one another, sometimes just sending them up into the sky like fireworks.

That’s why I can’t invite you all to my wedding. This is the occasion for a different kind of family reunion; a quiet celebration.

You’ll love the wedding party I’ve got planned for our return…

What’s in a Name?

I’ve noticed that a lot of my daughter’s friends have double-barreled names. This seems to be the solution for when you have two parents with a different surname; instead of arguing over whether the child should be called Forrester or Davenport, you just call them Forrester-Davenport. Which seems like a good solution (even though it sounds a tiny bit daft), until you consider what is going to happen when Olivia Forrester-Davenport has a child with Sam Smith-Williams: Lucy Smith-Williams-Forrester-Davenport? And when she marries George Parker-Jones-Fletcher-Carpenter?

Another solution might be a Brangelina-style amalgamation of both names. Forrenport? Or Daventor? I think it could catch on. Each generation would start afresh with a new name, throwing off the baggage associated with the previous one. Although tracing family trees would be a nightmare…

So, what is in a name? How important is it? The law recognises name and religion as two of the most basic aspects of a person. Given as a birthright by parents, these things can only be changed by someone other than a parent if a child is adopted. Upon reaching adulthood, traditionally a woman lost her right to her own name when she married, taking that of her husband. The loss of a woman’s maiden name was seen as a loss of identity, a symbol that she had ceased to belong to her father and now belonged to her husband, in line with the tradition of being given away at the altar.

Women and children’s names can be changed – men’s, rarely. Women’s identities are more fluid nowadays. Few women see themselves as ‘just’ someone’s wife. One friend got married and changed her name, but retained her maiden name at work – because Peterson was easier to pronounce than VanSchallwyck. Another friend kept her maiden name. In reply to shocked relatives who asked whether he thought his wife should change her name, her husband would say: ‘but I’ve got used to calling her Lisa.’

My daughter and I share a name (my maiden name), as do my Intended and his son. There is a neat symmetry to it. If I were to change my name, our family would cease to be symmetrical and my daughter would be the ‘odd one out’. She might have some explaining to do at school, whether her name also changed or remained the same. I wouldn’t like to put her through this. Yet there is a part of me that would like to share a name with my Intended. When this is a choice, it feels very different to something that has been enforced.

So, my choices are: double-barrel, change my name, get my Intended to change his name, or stick with seperate names. Or, maybe I could keep my name for work, school, the doctor – but change it where it’s really important: – like on Facebook?

What do you think? Do you prefer double-barreling, made-up names, flitting between two names or keeping to the one name? And which one would you choose?

Thirty something bride? A confession

I am never going to be a thirty something bride. Just as I never wrote that novel before the age of 40, never became an astronaut, never battled the seas in the Rainbow Warrior to save the seals…I have come to terms with all of those things, but would it sound childish and pathetic to admit just how desolate I feel about never having been married before reaching the age of 40? How much of a failure this makes me feel?

In one of her novels, Joanne Harris writes about a proposal.

‘There it was in her hand. The small dream,’ as the character holds the ring. This phrase always stuck in my mind. The ring, the marriage, the happily ever after, is the small dream that women are handed as little girls. It’s in the books, the films, the lives of all the women who have gone before. A woman who has never been married is incomplete, a sad figure: a spinster. Big, bachelor dreams are for the boys..

As my 40th birthday hurtles towards me, the wedding plans just aren’t coming together. There is still no date set, no clear idea of the venue, no wedding dress ordered – and I know that I am going to be the 40-year-old bride.

I spent my 30th birthday alone, with an 8 month old baby. That day, to get myself through, I thought about my 40th birthday. I thought, by then this baby will be 10 years old. Work will be easier. Feeding her will be easier. I will be able to go to the toilet by myself. I will definitely be happier. There is no salvaging this birthday, but I will make sure the next one is better.

Now, to keep the promise I made to myself ten years ago – to be happier – I realise that I must stop defining myself, and my happiness, in relation to my status as a woman. On my 30th birthday I was defined by being a single mother, with all the pride and shame that burned in me because of that. Now, I am defining myself by my marital status – spinster at 40 – and I am allowing myself to feel shame again, and disappointment, at the small wish that I was never granted.

No, I will never be the thirty something bride, just as I was never the woman with a husband sitting by her side in the ante natal clinic. But these things don’t define me. There are so many other things I have been, and can be.

This year, my 40th, is apparently the beginning of the rest of my life. It cannot be another year of mourning for my abject failure to conform to anything like the ideal of a ‘proper’ woman. I hear my 30-year-old self calling through the years, and I can’t let her down. I would like to tell her, yes the baby is a 10-year-old, and she lets you go to the toilet on your own, she brings you breakfast in bed on your birthday and she has repaid you in gold for every sacrifice you ever made for her – the pride you felt when she said her first word is nothing to the pride you will feel when she comes out with her first bitingly sarcastic comment. You did well, 30-year-old self.

And to my future 40-year-old self, I would like to say – your 50th is going to be AMAZING!

The Tao of Tidying Up

I have always found it difficult to put things into categories. People, things – they all have so many different characteristics; choosing just one to label them by is problematic for me. This makes tidying up impossible. For example, this green felt tip pen – where should it go? The most obvious thing to do would be to put it with the other felt tips, but I don’t know where they are, so I have to think of another way to classify it. My brain struggles to do this. I don’t like to stereotype the felt tip. It’s good as a writing implement, but it is a lovely shade of green, too, so maybe I could put it with some other green things? In the plant pot? Or, do I arrange it by shape and put it with other long, thin things, like candles? Or celery, which is long, thin and green?

I look at the green felt tip for a while, considering where it should go. In the end, I just put it in my bag, where it magically becomes invisible and stops bothering me. Then I have to move on to the next object – an unpaired sock, which almost causes my brain to crash.

‘Don’t worry’ I told my Intended ‘I will do all the packing while you are at work.’

Packing is the torment of tidying magnified a hundred times. Every single item in the house must be categorised and put into a box. I must be decisive, impose order upon them.

After a week, I have made an impressive tower of boxes, packing the books by size as if doing a jigsaw. This was strangely satisfying. Books that have never been together on the shelf now nestle cozily together in boxes. Books are cooperative things to pack; they know that none of them will be left behind.

Up in the bedrooms, it’s another matter. Anarchy reigns. Clothes are everywhere, along with lost belts and socks, baby clothes, make-up and sparkly things stored magpie-like under the bed; teddies and games and shells collected from long-ago beaches. They defy me, these items, confusing me with their claims to usefulness. The baby clothes, for example – I’ve kept them for 10 years, and that very fact makes them impossible to throw away. They have made themselves part of the furniture of my life, even if the memories attached to them have faded. The socks – am I not supposed to make them into dishcloths or something? Am I allowed to throw them away or will they have to go into my handbag, too? The teddies stare reproachfully as I put them in a bag for the charity shop, and the belts clamor to be tried on with different items of clothing.

‘What have you been doing all day?’ asks my Intended when he gets home.

‘Oh, clearing out,’ I say ‘you wouldn’t believe how tidy the house is now.’

My phone rings from the bottom of my bag, and I throw a mountain of assorted objects onto the floor in my race to answer it.

All about privilege and not much to do with weddings

I have been working hard for the past couple of days. Today I was going to write a post about my engagement ring, but I decided to write about privilege instead, because that is just the kind of mood I am in.

There was a minor media storm lately regarding Caitlin Moran’s comment on Twitter that she ‘literally couldn’t give a shit’ about the fact that the sitcom ‘Girls’ features an all-white cast. Her comments triggered some debate over whether a show which has managed to become successful while focusing entirely on the concerns of the ‘Girls’, providing a rare portrayal of ‘real’ women on TV, should also feature women from ethnic minorities, and whether feminists as a group should ‘give a shit’ about whether it does or not.

Moran has been accused of demonstrating a sense of entitlement in not engaging with this debate. She answered her critics by stating that the question ‘why are the women in ‘Girls’ all white?’ is as relevant as the question ‘why were all the members of Abba white?’.

Abba is a pop group that formed in Sweden in the 1970s, where the population was predominantly white. ‘Girls’ is a sitcom written about life in New York in 2012, where the population is predominantly…oh, hang on…

The writer of ‘Girls’ focuses upon what she knows. She doesn’t extend her writing beyond her own concerns, and neither does Caitlin Moran. They don’t think about their own white privilege, because they don’t have to.

I started to think about this in relation to male privilege. This is something that all feminists can understand; it’s probably what made them become feminists in the first place. For me, it all clicked into place when I had a child. It was then that I felt the brakes applied to every aspect of my life. It was like the change from cycling along smooth flat ground in 3rd gear, to struggling up a hill in 1st. Motherhood engenders a total transformation, a complete rethink of priorities and lifestyle – yet for a father, this transformation is entirely optional.

As a single mother, I would watch news items where children went missing or were abused. The reports would focus on the mother and what she had done wrong: she took her eyes off her child for too long, she went off and had fun and left the child with an unsuitable person, she worked too much – I would marvel at the invisibility of the father; where was he? Sometimes my question would be answered, when the father would pop up on the screen, stating how devastated they were about what had happened to their child while admitting with a complete lack of embarrassment that they hadn’t bothered to see their child for several years. They had, in fact, gone off and had fun and left their child with an unsuitable person – the mother, who they were now stating they always knew was no good. Nobody would suggest that he might have shared some responsibility for the situation. For every single mother who is vilified in the press, is an absent father who is secure in the knowledge that the buck does not stop with him.

Not having to worry about things because they don’t concern you, is what entitlement is all about. Not asking questions about the lives of other people, accepting the status quo as long as it works in your favour, and dismissing other concerns as irrelevant – that’s how to feel comfortable with your own privilege. It strikes me that through reading some of the blogs here, I have gained insights into other lives, sometimes reading about struggles that I have been lucky enough never to have had, sometimes seeing the world in a new and different way – and sometimes realising that I am privileged. I still think mostly about my own experience, of course, but hopefully this all helps to ensure that I would never be the journalist who fails to query the absent father, or the feminist who when asked about race issues, says ‘I literally couldn’t give a shit about it’.

I would like men to question their own entitlements; not to abuse their privilege just because they can. By the same token, I feel that feminists (including myself) have a responsibility to do the same.