Were I ever to give advice to women which I wouldn’t because I continue to learn that the ways in which I can be stupid are infinitely more numerous than the ways in which I can be smart and to give advice to anyone it ought to be the other way around, but if, stupidly, I disregarded that little spark of self-knowledge and went ahead anyway, I would say, a woman in a family must resist the domination of the managerial if she wants her creativity to survive.
By the “managerial” I mean that aspect of ourselves so competent, so deft, so practical, so capable it could run a global corporation with one hand tied behind its back, and blindfolded. In my life as a partner and mother, and in the lives of many women I know, this aspect became so dominant it stole the oxygen from every other. This occurred as much because it suited everyone else that I manage the family’s daily affairs as it did because I thought I was supposed to.
Virginia Woolf grappled with the problem the managerial can present to women, describing its pernicious influence as “The Angel in the House” with irony and humour, but with deadly seriousness as well:
You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her — you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others…
I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself… I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must — to put it bluntly — tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her…
For me, it wasn’t entirely about reviewing male writers and depending on charm to get me by, although the spectre of disapproval, the fear of offending and as a consequence being despatched to the margins also has to be regularly fought off if I’m going to write what I truly want to write. My recent foray into erotica, for example, was a frightening experience of voluntary vulnerability, as is any self-revelation, but if we are to write about what it is to be human, that writing will always provoke anxiety in its author, and likely at times in its readers.
As unlike Woolf we had no household staff, for me the managerial was about knowing where everybody’s socks were, remembering the washing and the shopping and the cooking and the lunches and the driving and the.. look, I can’t even bear to go back there, you all know what I mean. I lost myself. I became The Manager, and worst of all, I found it almost impossible to turn her off in my head. I came to hate her. She was like the strangler fig parasitically stealing the life of the rainforest tree.
This suited everybody in the family, but it didn’t suit me.
One of the wisest pieces of advice any woman ever gave me was to cultivate absent-mindedness. For example, when people asked me where their socks were I would gaze thoughtfully at them for much longer than necessary. I would assume a puzzled expression and tug at my lip. Oh, darling, I would say finally, I know I saw them somewhere but I can’t think where…
I had to strictly discipline myself in order to be able to do this. My every conditioned impulse urged me to take responsibility for everything in our household’s daily life, and this conditioning had to be constantly and consistently resisted. Family members do not easily relinquish their dependencies, and tend to passively and aggressively fight changes in a wife and mother with every bone in their bodies. I think it was harder than giving up smoking, and there were no quit lines to help me.
It took quite some time, but eventually I noticed they weren’t asking me to manage their entire lives for them quite as often as they used to. Then one morning I overheard one child saying to another, I’ll ask Mum. She won’t know, replied the other, she’ll just look at you as if she doesn’t know what you’re talking about, she never knows where anything is, we’ll have to find it ourselves.
And I knew I’d done it.
This proved to me that you can’t change anybody but yourself and if you do change yourself there is a good chance that people who really love you will eventually learn put up with it, and change as well.
There are many advantages in being thought a muppet by your family. Muppets are not renowned for their managerial abilities, and nobody expects it of them.
Sometimes, it’s the only way the creative woman survives.
Many thanks for the inspiration for this post to the lovely M, who sends me a poem to wake up to every morning. The two words “managerial mess” in this poem by Jennifer Strauss, What Women Want summed up an entire period of my life.