Just a couple of anecdotes for a Friday evening concerning bookish things. It never ceases to amaze me how intertwined my reading and my life become, but that may simply be because I spend all my days reading at the moment. This is very pleasant, but after a while it does your head in as it becomes difficult to distinguish what is life from what is something I’ve read. I’ve been reading a lot of harassed mother books of late, stories in which busy, working women struggle over the tedium of household chores and the endless demands of their family. Some of those books have been fiction, but some others have been sociological and psychological studies. Now the other evening, I was sorting out the laundry while my husband was eating a late dinner. He’d been out rowing and was tucking into a rather nice pain au chocolat pudding that I make despite the fact I cannot personally eat it. Whilst eating he was idly flicking through one of the sociological studies I just mentioned and reading snippets out from an article written back in 1979 by a college professor who was discussing the difficulties of family life when both partners work.
It was rather a touching, heartfelt account in many ways, with the woman writer describing how anxious she used to be every morning, waiting for her housekeeper to turn up (who was a paragon apart from her inability to get there in time, it would seem) and fearing she’d be late to teach her class. Or how when she did leave, her son would roll around on the floor in front of her feet howling and begging her not to go. Neither of these situations did her husband have to deal with, for they were, as usual, left for the poor mother to negotiate. I particularly liked the story she told about the time her son threw a massive tantrum when her housekeeper picked him up from school. Apparently the housekeeper took it badly and threatened to leave unless she ‘did something’ about his behaviour, and other mothers from the school rang her up to ghoulishly gloat and criticize, suggesting that if she stayed home, the incident would not have happened (and remember this is 1979 when working mothers were rare). The professor roundly scolded her son and banished him to his room, then did what any woman would do under the circumstances: went to bed for a good cry and a tortuous session of guilt and self-reproach. Fortunately, when her husband came home and heard the sorry tale, he roundly declared he ‘had never seen a worse example of a would-be feminist in his life.’ The first time that the other mothers treated her maliciously, she had gone to pieces. Were children their mother’s puppets? Did he not count for anything in the child’s upbringing? What had happened to their belief that children were autonomous beings? The writer goes on to say that feedback from other people has a big influence on women’s ability to combine careers with motherhood. I’ll put it more bluntly: sometimes women can be really mean to one another, and never more so than over the working mother/stay at home mother debate. I don’t quite understand what’s at the bottom of this, but I’m going to make it my business to have a good dig around in this particularly murky swamp.
The extract that caught my husband’s eye, however, concerned shared household chores. The author writes that ‘the wife’s problem has only begun when her husband promises to take over certain chores. The real challenge is to get him to do them regularly so that she no longer has to think about them at all. This often requires a good deal of tact and persistence on her part as well as a willingness to accept that her husband may not do the job as well as she thinks he ought to.’ Now this was a poignant moment in the Litlove kitchen as I was at that point attending to laundry that is designated as a task for my husband. When my husband first came off work and I wasn’t so well, we redistributed the chores and he got the washing. But what this means is that we all wear our clothes very mindfully as what goes into the washing pile might not reemerge until the seasons have changed. Many a time I have had a serious underwear crisis, and my son regularly runs out of socks, despite the extremely toxic nature of any that he is obliged to wear twice. I don’t like to think of the times that garments are taken back from the laundry basket, and it is the norm to pluck them, creased, from the ironing pile in the hope that body warmth will do the trick. So there I was, with a big bundle that contained all my winter sweaters simply because I had none left that were clean. But as I say, I’ve been busy with research lately, and not too attentive to chores myself, with the result that the jumpers went into the tumble drier on Friday evening, and then seemed to take forever to dry on a low heat. Every time I walked past I gave them a little longer, and it was Sunday evening before they seemed dry enough to fold. So perhaps it was not surprising that as I held them up before me, I realized that they looked rather like the clothes of a big dolly. The arms aren’t too bad, but all my polo-necked jumpers, the staple items of what might laughingly be called my winter wardrobe, now reveal a chilly inch or two of my tummy and ping up to mid-rib if I lift my arms above my head.
‘Well would you look at that,’ said my husband, half admiringly. ‘You’ve tried the incompetence ruse. Any man would be proud of you.’ Then he lowered his voice and said, ‘A word to the wise: you’re supposed to sabotage your partner’s clothes, not your own.’ And then he laughed a lot. How terrible to think that nothing has changed since 1979.
The other item that caught my eye and my interest was in a book that made a notable connection between depression and dreaming. The depressed, it seems, dream a great deal more than the contented, with the result that they wake in the morning feeling exhausted and so perpetuate a cycle of depression. The situation arises when something happens that impacts on a person’s ability to get their basic needs met. Those who have a pessimistic or introspective disposition then tend to worry about their difficulties, ‘misusing their imagination’ as the authors put it (and the imagination is understood as a powerful tool that can do a great deal of harm when put to the wrong use) and allowing emotionally arousing thoughts to go round and round their heads. The result is ‘catastrophic thinking’, the ability to see the situation only as black or white, which in turn triggers the fight or flight responses, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream that simply make the situation much worse. At night, the mind attempts to deal with this influx of bad feeling by dreaming, distorting the amount of REM sleep (dream sleep) that the individual has. Too much REM sleep means not enough stage 4 sleep, the point where we heal our bodies and enjoy full, blissful rest. The poor individual wakes feeling exhausted and without motivation, and then, convinced it is not normal to feel this way, start to believe they are flawed and freakish. And so it goes on. Isn’t that interesting? I found that most credible and sensible. The problem, then, can be traced back to the (non) fulfillment of those basic needs that sets the worry off in the first place. The authors suggest that the route back to health is to figure out which need is not being met and to do something about it, as far as is possible. Here, for your information, is a very neat list of the basic needs:
‘Physical needs include a wholesome diet, exercise, good air to breathe and clean water to drink. Emotional needs include the need for security, to feel one has some control over events, to give and receive attention, to be emotionally connected to others, to have intimate closeness to at least one other person, to have status within one’s family and peer groups, to feel autonomous and competent, and to be ‘stretched’ in what we do (because being physically and/or mentally stretched is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives – a healthy brain is a busy problem-solving brain).’
It’s like a recipe for good living. I’ll be back on Sunday for the round up of the week’s reading, but may you have all your basic needs met in the meantime.