Monthly Archives: July 2012

A mother’s guilt

I’ll let you into a little secret: I feel guilty a lot. I don’t think I can entirely blame my Roman Catholic upbringing, although I would like to. It would be more accurate to blame motherhood.

It started in pregnancy. Before my baby even drew her first birth, I’d already suffered many pangs of guilt. Don’t drink wine, don’t eat unpasteurized cheese, don’t eat soft-boiled eggs, don’t eat raw fish, don’t eat seafood; don’t drink too much caffeine. Pregnancy is really just one long period of abstinence.

I did all the things I shouldn’t. I occasionally drank a glass of wine with dinner; I drank coffee every day; I ate sushi from our favorite Japanese restaurant; I had oysters; I couldn’t bring myself to give up runny eggs; and I also ate soft, unpasteurized cheese at a wedding.

But each time I did these things I felt guilty. What if I am damaging my unborn child? What if I’m to blame for future developmental problems? What if my child was destined to be born a genius but instead ends up average? I had all these thoughts over and over again, and yet I didn’t want to give up all these things I loved. I thought the odds of something going wrong were extremely slim. I gambled.

Maybe I got lucky – both of my children are healthy. My guilt, though, drags on. Now I feel guilty about other things. One of the biggest is this: I don’t want to spend every waking hour with my children. Some days I’d rather not spend much time with them at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love them ferociously, but I don’t feel totally fulfilled by my role as a mother. I feel bad about this. At my most morose, I feel like it’s unnatural to have these thoughts at all.

Now that I am staring down the barrel of a very long summer, I am getting anxious that I’ll spend my days working to negotiate a truce between two sparring children. I have vast amounts of experience in this now, enough to possibly negotiate a truce between Israel and Palestine.

I look at other mothers in the playground, cooing at their small children while they push them on the swings. I watch mothers closely in public, to determine whether they might feel like I do. But how can you tell how someone feels in private? We all lead lives which people will never know anything about.

I hate myself when I snap at my children after a fraught morning or another stressful dinner. I don’t like raising my voice or hissing at them in public, hoping they won’t have a major meltdown and embarrass me in front of strangers. I despise myself when I squeeze their arm just a little too tightly. ‘Why am I doing this?’ I ask myself. Why do I feel like I’m failing at this?

I believe I would be better off at work. This is what I have determined. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a full-time mother. No book can prepare you for how difficult it is. No one tells you how very lonely it can be, how alienating. I sometimes feel like this entire world is going by and yet my world has shrunk so irrevocably. Would anyone want to hire me now, after so much time thinking about diapers and schools, swimming lessons and ballet classes? My self-esteem suffers.

Motherhood, of course, has the last ironic laugh. If I did find a job – and I’m actively looking – I feel like there would be guilt every day as I head to the office to be among other adults. I am leaving my children to be reared by someone else. Perhaps this would eat away at me and leave me equally unfulfilled.

Here’s the final rub: even writing this makes me feel guilty, like it’s some sort of betrayal.

This is my secret. Do any mothers feel the same?

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Manchester (with kids)

Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey on a summer’s day

Once upon a time, in a parallel universe, I used to go on long weekend trips without kids. It feels like it happened several decades ago, but I recall eating out, going shopping, drinking coffee, walking through cities and taking in sights. Nostalgia has made me pine for these long weekends, when I might actually change into a dress for dinner and have a cocktail at 7pm. If I was feeling adventurous, I might even have three.

These days, a weekend away (inevitably with kids) means that I end up more frazzled than if I’d just stayed at home and done nothing. I’m in Manchester last weekend to visit a friend, about to have her third baby. She’s probably some sort of masochist. I took my two children, so we were four kids (all five and under) and two adults. By any standard, this is probably a disaster in the making – and it kind of was. I was determined to drink through the worst of it – and I did.

Here is the highlight: If you have children and find yourself in Manchester when the weather is kind (a small miracle, I gather), you could do much worse than visit Dunham Massey, a National Trust site. Here, among verdant English countryside, you could let the kids run wild and get caught in thorny bushes. You might even be able to wander off for five minutes and pretend your progeny don’t exist.

No such luck for me. There were moans about going to the bathroom (in the bushes, I’m afraid), moans about being cold, moans about the picnic, moans about sitting on a bench or sitting on the grass, and then just moans about nothing much at all. One child almost got speared by an irate deer and another screamed for an hour over an ice cream that dropped on the ground. Typical day, all in all.

Raging Bull and deer

My money is on the Raging Bull if it came down to a fight

Dunham Massey is a 300-acre deer park with a huge Georgian House attached to it. It was owned by some Earl or other (I get these confused), who had a lot of money and a wife he wanted to divorce. Old letters from Henry VIII to Jane Seymour were also found here. One letter, dated 1537, was written while Queen Jane awaited the birth of her son, the future King Edward VI. I am quoting most of this from the Dunham Massey website, because I couldn’t very well have a leisurely stroll through the house with four fractious children in tow.

Instead, we were ‘confined’ to the beautiful gardens. We learned that Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, came to Dunham Masssey while in exile in England in 1936. My history is very hazy, but a volunteer on site explained that Haile Selassie was hoping the League of Nations might prevent Italy from invading Ethiopia, and he made an impassioned plea to this effect. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears.

The day we visit is Selassie’s 120th birthday and The National Trust, quick to capitalize on anything that could make more money, have set up an event with African musicians; women dressed in their traditional costumes make strong, Ethiopian coffee for visitors. There are also tables talking about Selassie’s link to the house, which is tenuous at best.

It turns out that Selassie was only at Dunham Massey for about four days, but the Earl flew a Rastafarian flag over the house every subsequent year on the emporer’s birthday. (Selassie is considered the god of the black race by many Rastafarians.) I’ve already decided that this Earl fell in love with the Ethiopian leader in one weekend and that’s why he found his wife such a boring chore.

And then there’s the rest

I wish I could say I saw more of Manchester – the famous nightclubs, the music scene, the trendy places to eat – but I’m afraid we were rather saddled with kids. I can recommend West Didsbury as a place to live. There is a good mix of students and middle-class families. There are plenty of restaurants, decent pubs and good cafes, all a few minutes’ walk away from leafy residential streets with Victorian houses.

Most of my memories of this trip will be of children refusing to go to sleep and digging up mud in the garden. I did have good food (thank you, Sophie) and good wine (thank you, Sophie), which made the worst bearable and even slightly funny.

I came back to London feeling like I had participated in an Olympic sport. I think it’s what you’d call a marathon – we rarely sat down before 10pm and these sit-downs were punctuated by sprinting up quite a few stairs. But I would say the weekend was a success, because my friend and I were still talking to each other and the children were all still alive at the end of it, if a tad grumpy and sleep-deprived.

I won’t be going anywhere else with these kids for a while. Frankly, I’d rather eat my toenails.

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Tourist London

St James's Park

St James’s Park on a summer’s evening – it’s a Leprechaun’s paradise

I have become a tourist in London once again. There’s nothing like a visit from out-of-town guests to make you appreciate where you live or see it through the eyes of someone else.

A couple of nights ago I went to a gig at the Southbank to see Bela Fleck, who is one of the world’s most accomplished banjo players. He was playing with African singer Oumou Sangare for a couple of nights. I was invited by American friends who are related to him. The gig, part of the Southbank’s Africa Utopia season, made me realize once again how multicultural London is. Here I was, five minutes from Waterloo station on a typically wet night, and I felt like I was transported to Africa.

The women, who were wearing their traditional dress, reminded me of hot, humid nights. The colors were vivid, like summer fruit ripened in the sun, all purples, deep reds and golds.

The Southbank skirts the Thames and, on a summer’s night, I felt like I was part of the pulse of something much greater than myself. I caught a glimpse of the London skyline as I approached the river and I felt a surge of excitement.

Houses of Parliament

The Chatterbox outside the Houses of Parliament during a break in the rain

With the same American friends I embarked on the usual London tourist trail. We walked through Green Park and St James’s Park, passed by Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and ended up at the Tate Britain for an early dinner with four very tired kids.

The weather was fickle. I think we spent about half an hour under a canopy of trees, trying to keep out of the rain. I walked for what seemed liked hours back to the tube station that would take us home, dragging the Chatterbox behind me and urging her to press on. She might have a future in an endurance sport.

There were many reminders of the Olympics. I am not sure how London is going to cope with the influx of visitors, but central London is now a maze of Olympic signs and temporary structures. I think I will try to avoid the Tube for the next three weeks.

The Royal Parks, of which St James is one, will be welcoming people from all over the world. Because of all these visitors, temporary toilets have been installed at the far end of the park, where it leads out to Westminster tube and Big Ben.

I’m not sure who’s in charge of these facilities, but I suspect English is not their first language. Good thing many of the visitors won’t notice the embarrassing typos. If England is the birthplace of English, I think someone with a good grasp of the language needs to start giving grammar and spelling lessons.

toilet sign

The sign inside the toilets at St James’s Park. Could they mean cooperation?

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A week in London

It has been a week and I’ve realized how much I’d forgotten about London. It’s all come rushing back. Something which has struck me is how the city seems to suffer from a persistent personality disorder. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It has many sides, all of them equally valid.

This great capital is leafy, polluted, beautiful, old, historical, seedy, squalid, tawdry, grimy, complex, intriguing, addictive, bohemian, cultural, artistic, ponderous, wild, etc. I could go on and on. There seems to be no end to London’s many sides.

In the last few days I have seen its extremes close up. There’s nothing quite so depressing as going to visit a local council office. It’s right up there with getting your tooth pulled in a Third World country without anesthetic. On Friday, still feeling jet lagged, I set off for Haringey’s youth and children’s centre to discuss getting a school place for my oldest child, who will be 6 in August.

The journey doesn’t start out well when I get lost in the thick, concrete forest that is Wood Green. If you know nothing about Wood Green, its name would give you the impression that it was a rather pleasant, verdant place. Far from it.

Wood Green should really be renamed Horrid Dream. It’s a vision of hell, I’m sure, if you think hell is a bunch of tacky shops strung together. There is also the local mall, a place that looks like it was constructed by an 80s heroin addict suffering from halluncinations. Even someone who loves shopping as much as I do can’t quite bring myself to go there – the place makes your heart contract.

Away from the tube, things get a little better. I pick my way through the wet pavements littered with garbage and find a place that I thought was Haringey’s adminstration building. It turns out to be connected with Haringey but not where I needed to be. So off I go again towards the tube and to my destination, a huge nonentity of a building with automatic doors that are being blocked by a couple of strollers and tired-looking mothers.

It’s shabby inside. Old chairs with their seams splitting sit by the entrance. A man who takes his job too seriously reprimands me for leaving the Raging Bull, who is fast asleep, in her stroller by a pillar.

‘What are you doing?’ he barks at me in a thick African accent.

‘She’s asleep and I thought I would leave her to rest where she is out of the way.’ I’m not relishing the prospect of pushing the stroller through a long, narrow line hemmed in by an elastic cordon.

‘You can’t leave her there.’

‘But I can see her from where I’m standing,’ I protest, feeling like he is calling my motherly judgement into question.

He proceeds to tell me that there are crazy and unpredictable people around here, any of which might try to whisk the Raging Bull away from right under my nose.

‘Where I come from,’ he continues, ‘children are looked after by everyone. But not here. Not the same here.’

So I’m ordered to sit down on a sofa next to my sleeping toddler. He’ll call me when it’s my turn to speak to someone behind the reception desk. This makes me feel uneasy. Everyone else is standing patiently, and I’m singled out like an invalid or someone too good to wait her turn in line.

When we leave the building I squeeze antibacterial gel on my hands. I imagine germs following me out to the street. The bus looks like a breeding ground. I’ve become so American again, I think.

On Sunday I find myself without kids. I take a long walk to my ballet class through some of central London. It’s not raining and the walk is enjoyable. It takes me a moment but I remember how London is interconnected. I stumble across a huge parade with people, all Italian, in Christian costumes enacting different scenes from the Bible. It’s totally surreal and unexpected. I get lost in the throng for a moment and the sun peeks out from behind its grey shroud.

This is what I loved about London – its unpredictability. I buy the Sunday paper and stroll to the shops near my new flat. This is the London I could get used to. Today, though, it rains all day and I feel pissed off with it again.

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Hello, London

I’ve made it to the other side of the Atlantic ocean, but not without a few near-disasters. The first of these occurred at LAX, where I was worried I would be turned away when the airline saw how much luggage I had with me. I suspect I was Air New Zealand’s worst nightmare – a woman traveling on her own with two small children, one of them with a terrible cough, and hauling about 200 pounds worth of stuff.

New house

Outside our new house on a rainy day. I think the kids better get used to the drizzle

I was tipped off that my largest suitcase (one of four) was horribly overweight when the porter picked it up and said in disbelief, ‘Wow, this must weigh about 90lbs.’ He was right, of course, because the woman at the check-in desk told me that they wouldn’t even put this suitcase on the plane unless I could lighten it.

You can imagine what comes next – I have to open all my suitcases in front of better-prepared, less frazzled travelers, to redistribute the weight. Since all the suitcases are ludicrously full, this is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The Chatterbox had to sit on one of the suticases to get it back shut. I feel like I’ve won the lottery when I’m told it will only cost $140 to get all this crap to London.

So it’s with a small amount of relief that I board the plane, still nearly intact, but already feeling as exhausted as a marathon runner in the desert heat. When the cheerful flight attendant asked me if I was well, I couldn’t resist saying no. He shot me a sugar-sweet smile and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re here now and we’ll take care of you.’ Sure, I think, I’ve heard this before.

What the flight really needed was a full-time babysitter for the kids, who refused to go to sleep. I could hardly blame them, since sleeping required folding themselves in half and twisting their heads to the side. It’s not conducive to anything but a terrible neck ache. I somehow survive 10-plus hours, but leave the airplane looking like a wrinkled wreck.

My first view of London is on the tarmac, where I see that my fears have materialized – it’s winter in the middle of summer. The sky is gunmetal grey, and rain splatters the windows of the plane. At least it’s not hailing, but the captain did warn us that it was a chilly 16 degrees Celsius outside. In California, the temperature was nearly double that.

I drag the now sleep-deprived children through Heathrow and to the immigration desk. I forgot how huge this airport is. We pass an entire section of the airport dedicated solely to people coming to the city for the Olympics. They have what looks like an entire wing to themselves. A large wall is decorated with a glossy picture of a beefeater (in his traditional costume), saying ‘Welcome’.

I don’t feel much like I’m coming home. I feel weighed down and tired, both physically and pyschologically. If you think moving is exhausting when you are on your own, double it when you have kids, and triple it for moving countries. There is no end to my exhaustion right now and it’s not great for my state of mind.

But I am now firmly esconced in the flat, which feels a bit like a cozy cottage. We are living in the heart of Crouch End in north London. This is a middle-class inner suburb with more cafes than you’d find in the Latin quarter of Paris. In London speak, this means we are living in a place where the average house price is over £1m. You kind of need to be rich to own a house around here. Hence, we have the basement of a once-grand house. It was probably once used for the servants or for storage. I can also hear everything our neighbors upstairs do, and I suspect they can hear everything we do, too. I will probably never meet them.

When I stare at my things, many of which look too flimsy for this weather, I do wonder how I got here. What’s next? I’m not sure. I know it’s not a trip to the beach.

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Goodbye, California

I’ve said many goodbyes over the last couple of weeks. The hardest is coming. I’ve been here before, though. Exactly a year ago I had to say goodbye to all my friends in London. I wish I could say that you get numb to the experience. You don’t.

For me, the sadness comes in waves. I’ll be doing something totally ordinary and then it will wash over me: a pain in my chest, and a feeling like I am choking on something. There’s a reason it’s called a heartache – it honestly does hurt.

So, the suitcases are mostly packed – they look like they are leering at me, with their zippered mouths wide open. They are full to the point of exploding. There’s nothing like a bit of packing to make all your possessions look so inadequate and pathetic. You have all this stuff and what does it amount to? I am loaded down with a bunch of heavy junk.

My idea was to come to the United States and start a new life. I’ve not been that successful. Namely, I haven’t found a job. For that reason I will be going back to London, where I have a husband with the means to support our small family.

What I will miss:

I will miss the sky, the expansive blue dome of sky that you get in California. It’s endless. It looks like someone has thrown a baby boy’s blanket across the roof of the Earth.

I will miss the beach, the canyons and the gentle winters.

I will miss my friends. Thank you for listening to me, for supporting me and for trying to help me. I will not forget all your generosity. You have done what all good friends do – tell me the truth about myself.

I will miss my family. It’s not easy to live with your mother when you are a mother yourself, but we’ve made it work somehow. I am so glad my children know you well enough to ask for you when they wake up in the middle of the night.

I will miss my brother. We can laugh at each other. The wine helps.

What I have learned:

You can get used to almost anything, even sharing a bed with your child when you should be sharing a bed with your husband.

You are stronger than you think you are.

You can’t have everything all at once.

A year goes too quickly.

Driving requires coordination and confidence.

Insurance is expensive.

Every relationship, even the one with your parents, requires patience and compromise.

Thank you to everyone who has read my random scribblings so far. I am afraid that my blog has kind of lost its reason for being. I will keep you updated with my experiences from London.

I’m off to catch a plane and I should be in bed. The end.

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Fictional London

I’ve been thinking a great deal about London. In less than a week I will board a plane that will take me there for the start of a new life. Even in fiction, the city follows me. In the last few months I have read three books where London has been the setting. You can even argue that the capital sometimes functions as a character in these books, because it has a temperament and a voice.

London gets under your skin. No wonder so many authors choose to make it the setting of their books. But a writer who chooses a recognizable place for the setting of their novel also takes huge risks. The reader might not judge the depiction believable. Or it can add a layer of self-consciousness. Instead of losing yourself in a book, you can find yourself asking too often, ‘Does this ring true?’ It’s hard to write about something as large and complex as London without reducing it to a stereotype or a cliche.

Capital dust jacket

A cover of John Lanchester’s latest novel about London – it’s a portrait of the city as seen from eight different characters

I sort of found this in the latest book I read, My Special Relationship, by Douglas Kennedy. It’s probably the kind of book you would pick up at an airport and read on the plane, which means I’ve read it a couple of weeks too early.

The story centers around an American journalist living in Cairo, who finds herself moving to London after falling in love with a British colleague. She gets pregnant and discovers that her new husband is a cheat and a cad; he abandons her after a serious bout of postpartum depression and tries to take their child away from her, claiming that she is an unfit mother. This is hardly uplifting stuff. While I breezed through the briskly paced novel, I found myself getting stuck on the bits where London and the English get mentioned.

Here’s one sentence that popped out at me: ‘The great difference between Yanks and Brits was that Americans believed that life was serious but not hopeless … whereas the English believed that life was hopeless but not serious.’ I laughed at this and then wondered how true it was. Ultimately, I decided there was a grain of truth in there and the comment seemed well observed.

London appears in the story in all its usual ordinariness: the angry White Van Man; the dreary weather; the Pakistani shop owner who is permanently pissed off; the NHS; the obsession with property; the obsession with class; the excessive prices; the snootiness; the obsequious regard people have for traditions; the neurotic middle class. I recognized all of these and yet couldn’t help but feel that there was something a little too obvious about it all. I think the word I’m looking for is contrived.

I felt equally disappointed when I read Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. London featured prominently in this book, but it also felt a bit like it was trying too hard. All the usual suspects of modern Britain were there: an arrogant, workaholic banker who believed in nothing but making money; a professional football player with a beautiful Eastern European girlfriend; a disillusioned youth who smokes too much pot; a would-be terrorist; a newly rich Asian family; an American woman who drinks too much; a Tube driver; and a disgruntled book reviewer.

I have loved much of Faulks’ previous novels, especially Birdsong and Engleby, but this one seemed a little off. I couldn’t care about the characters, and I wanted to skip the pages which featured the banker. As well researched as I think the novel was, I did not get sucked in.

I’d be interested to read John Lanchester’s new novel about London on the brink, Capital. The plot focuses on a single street and how what happens there mirrors larger tensions in the city in the modern age. In an interview in Newsweek, Lanchester says, ‘The thing you can’t do in fiction is unlikeliness. In a novel it has to feel true. London’s full of things that don’t feel true but just happen to be true.’

I agree with this comment and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to capture the city in fiction without tipping into the hackneyed. So much of what happens in London doesn’t feel like it could be true, but it is. As the old saying goes, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ London eludes something which tries too hard to pin it down.

Here are some books I’ve read which are set in London. Can you add to my list? I’d love to read other people’s suggestions, particularly if you liked what you read.

  • A Week in December
  • 84 Charing Cross Road
  • One Day
  • My Special Relationship
  • The Night Watch
  • Tipping the Velvet
  • Brick Lane
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • White Teeth
  • High Fidelity
  • A Little Princess
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Great Expectations
  • Laura Blundy
  • Hawksmoor
  • Her Fearful Symmetry
  • Mrs Pettigrew Lives For a Day
  • The Crimson Petal and the White

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