On Marriage

hear cake

Yesterday was my 7th wedding anniversary, and the 18th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Eighteen years equals half our lives spent together, pretty much our entire adult lives, and it feels like a pretty big deal. Last night we celebrated with homemade pizza, heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake, and supermarket special-offer champagne. On Thursday, courtesy of my MIL babysitting, we’re going out for dinner, and may even get really daring and Go Into Town. The huge advantage of grandparental babysitting is that you don’t feel the need to get the children bathed, pyjamaed, settled and behaving before you leave, you can just scarper the second they arrive, which adds a good hour onto the length of time spent out of the house.

Anyway, in between scoffing and quaffing last night, I got all philosophical on what marriage means to me. Two glasses of fizz do that to me these days. The fact is, and I’m afraid there is no way of saying this without seeming unbearably smug, but I just love being married.

I always thought I would. For years it was a real source of contention between my then boyfriend, now husband, and me, because I desperately wanted to get married, and he absolutely didn’t. Neither of us could really articulate our positions – certainly not in a way that convinced the other! He didn’t like the formality and legality of it, saw our relationship as being about us and our love for each other, not about government sanction and tax breaks. I just wanted to stand up and shout about our relationship and our love for each other.

Unlike most of our arguments, ahem, he won this one by default, because we weren’t married. Eventually I gave up. We had bought a house together, and decided to have a baby, and they seemed like pretty big indications of permanence and commitment. But then unbeknownst to me, something shifted for my boyfriend. Without my ceaseless propaganda on the benefits of marriage, and my propensity to ruin any special occasion (birthdays, Christmas, holidays etc) by getting upset that he hadn’t proposed, he started to think that, actually, marriage might not be such a bad idea after all.

Nine years ago he booked a surprise trip to Rome for our getting-together anniversary. In a roof-top bar, with the twinkly lights of one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities spread out below us, he got down on one knee, produced a ring, and asked me to marry him.

Reader, I was astonished! And absolutely thrilled. I was four months pregnant at the time, and we decided to set a date for after the baby had arrived, and we had had a chance to get our lives back together. Little did we know, at that point, that our lives would never feel together again! We got married when Anna was 19 months old, and able to act as the cutest baby bridesmaid the world has ever seen*.

H, T and A weddingWe deliberately chose to get married on the (11th) anniversary of us getting together and (2nd) anniversary of getting engaged, as we wanted to keep one very special day to celebrate our relationship.

Our wedding was low-key, low-cost and informal – our local registry office, followed by an afternoon tea and fizz reception in the beautiful garden of a local museum. The guest list was limited by the size of the registry office, and so our guests were all people we truly care about. That evening we got grandparents to babysit Anna, and headed to our local pub with the younger generation of wedding guests. Our wedding present from my parents was a honeymoon of two nights in an almost obscenely luxurious boutique spa hotel in the Cotswolds whilst they looked after Anna. It was perfect – undoubtedly one of the happiest days of our lives.

It is clearly more conventional to get married before having a baby, but doing things the other way round worked very well for us. In those crazy days of early parenthood, when you can lose all sense of yourself, and of your relationship with your partner being anything other than ‘mummy and daddy’; a tag-team of nappy-changing, sleep-deprivation and spoon-feeding of pear puree, it was so special to have a project to plan that was all about us as a couple, and about celebrating our romantic love as well as familial love.

I still find it quite hard to explain what I value so much about being married, over and above being in a loving and committed long-term relationship. I love being able to reference my ‘husband’ and people know exactly what I mean, can make an immediate judgement about the significance of our relationship. The person I held hands with in the cinema when I was fourteen was my ‘boyfriend’; the people my husband has started a business with are his ‘partners’,  but there is no ambiguity about the terms husband and wife.

It is slightly controversial for a modern feminist to change her name on getting married, but I did, and I really love sharing a family name with my husband and daughters. I like the public statement of a shared name, of my wedding ring, that we are a team, a unit. In a world that feels increasingly uncertain, I love the stability and security I find in my marriage. I love that, although at its core our relationship is deeply private and personal to just the two of us, we have shared its significance and importance with our friends and family, publicly declaring just exactly what we mean to each other.

Marriage isn’t right for everyone. It wasn’t right for us for the first eleven years of our relationship, and I certainly don’t think that invalidates our deep love for, and commitment to, one another throughout that period. And pretty obviously marriage isn’t a magic wand that means you will be happy forever – we still need to work at our marriage every day – work at putting each other first, at thinking as a team rather than two individuals, at not taking each other for granted, and in not getting so caught up in the busyness of life that we fail to spend proper time together as a couple. But for me, for us, marriage feels like a joy and a privilege.

What do you think? Are you happily unmarried and don’t see the fuss? Or married and love it that way? If you’re single at the moment, do you see ‘getting married’ as the ultimate goal of a successful relationship, or do you see it as a total irrelevance in this day and age?

 

*not maternal bias, just straightforward fact.

 

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Flying solo

ducks

My husband is away with work this week, from Sunday afternoon to late Thursday evening, so it is just me and the kids. First of all, massive hats off to single parents! I’m finding this quite tough enough when I know it is just a temporary thing; coping day in, day out on your own must take such guts and determination.

I’m fairly used to time on my own, as husband has always worked in public transport, and the nature of the work is that when you’re moving other people round the country you can’t always stay in the same place yourself. Normally it is only for a night or two, but there are a few techniques I’ve learnt to help me cope:

  1. Be strategic about washing. Seriously. Do whatever it takes to avoid having to bathe and wash the hair of two children by yourself on the same evening. And plan your own showers in advance, begging/bribing older children to look after younger ones while you attempt a level of basic cleanliness.
  2. Get the treats in. I bought some maple syrup and raisin pancake in Marks and Spencer’s yesterday, and we had them for breakfast this morning with chopped up strawberries and yet more maple syrup drizzled (alright, poured) over, and it definitely brightened the start of our day. Plus, I’m pretty sure maple syrup has some kind of super food benefits, non?
  3. FaceTime doesn’t really work for us because when husband is away he tends to be working long/unpredictable hours, but I make little videos of the children talking to him on my phone, and he videos himself replying, and they can watch those over again when they’re missing daddy.
  4. Eat things your other half doesn’t like. On the sofa. With the gas fire on high.
  5. Get the children to sleep (I know, I know, those five little words conceal a world of pain), and then head to bed yourself with a good book. 9 or 10 hours sleep, while not entirely compensating for the absence of the love of your life can be an excellent consolation.
  6. Get all your female friends round, blow the housekeeping budget on prosecco and book a group of male strippers. Or alternatively, put your dressing gown on as soon as you’ve done the afternoon school run and curl up on the sofa with a cat and a vat of hot chocolate to watch GBBO. I’ll definitely be doing one or the other of those this evening…

I am looking on the bright side. I live in an age of readily available dry shampoo and Kindles, so I can get away without washing my hair if WWIII seems likely to break out in my absence, and I am guaranteed not to run out of things to read. Also, I get to really look forward to seeing my husband at the end of the week, and really appreciate how much easier things are when he is around (even though I frequently moan about how tough they are), and realise that, despite his inability to make a cup of coffee without covering 85% of the kitchen surfaces and floor with coffee grounds, I do love him very much, and miss him very much, and am very lucky to be in a marriage where that is the case.

The First Day of Advent: My husband

T speechWell, here we go. My first Advent Calendar of Happiness post. Yesterday afternoon I jotted down a rough list of the twenty-four things which made me happiest. I’ve been trying to decide how to structure this blog series – do I start with the little things and work up, or begin with the most important? Well, I decided that I can’t do it in order of priority like that, it just won’t work. But when deciding where on my first post, I didn’t have to think very hard.

So much of the happiness I have in my home, my children, my friends, is underpinned by the happiness I have in my marriage. We have been a couple for sixteen years now, our entire adult lives. We have been students, DINKYs, homeowners and now parents together. We are a team, and when things are difficult sharing the problem with my husband halves it, but sharing each other’s happiness seems to increase it exponentially. He is my best friend, the love of my life, my favourite person to spend time with, and a huge source of happiness.

I’m not normally great with photos, but for this calendar, adding some visuals seems the right thing to do. This particular photo is of my husband giving a speech at our wedding, so it seems particularly appropriate. We had our wedding reception in a community hall, and we bought lots of posters – mainly vintage travel ones of our favourite places – to decorate it. You can just see Winston Churchill declaring “Let us go Forward Together” in the background. We thought that was hilarious when we chose it, but no-one else seemed to get the joke. But a shared sense of humour with your life partner is definitely another route to happiness!

How do I love thee?

wedding glassesToday is my wedding anniversary. As we have a double anniversary – we got married on the anniversary of becoming a couple – today is my 4th wedding anniversary, but the 15th anniversary of us getting together. Rather like James I of England, VI of Scotland. It’s great for lots of reasons – it minimises the chances of one of us forgetting the date, it means we can choose which traditional set of gifts is most appropriate, and it makes one really special day for us as a couple. Wikipedia tells me that the traditional gift for 4th wedding anniversaries is fruit or flowers, and for 15th is crystal. To be honest, I’d be more than happy to take the flowers, although won’t be best pleased if my anniversary present turns out to be a bag of apples.

Anyway, whatever the gift schedule, I’m feeling very lucky to celebrate being part of such a life-enhancing partnership for fifteen years, and in this romantic/soppy (delete as appropriate) mood am going to blog fifteen reasons why I love my husband.

1) Because he has been the most constant presence through my entire adult life. The first person I want to celebrate the good times with, and the first person I need a hug from when things aren’t going well.

2) Because together we have created our precious daughter, not to mention a certain rather large baby bump, and there is no bond closer than knowing that he is the only other person in the world who loves our children as much as I do.

3) Because he is a brilliant dad, and watching him with Anna warms my heart like nothing else.

4) Because we make each other laugh.

5) Because together we have supported each other through the loss of four grandparents and a parent, three miscarriages, five house moves and one redundancy.

6) Because together we have celebrated matriculation, graduation, first jobs, promotions, two book publications, first home, two twenty-firsts, two thirtieths, fifteen Christmases, fifteen Valentine’s,  our engagement, our wedding, becoming homeowners, becoming parents.

7) Because when I’m over-tired, over-stressed or over-hormonal he runs me a deep hot bubble-bath, lights some candles and pours me a glass of wine.

8) Because he’s just as likely to tell me I look pretty when I’m curled up on the sofa in PJs and no make-up as he is when I’m all dressed up in full slap and high heels ready to go out. Which, in current circumstances, is just as well.

9) Because he genuinely respects and appreciates what I do in being Anna’s main carer and keeping our house running. Not running like clockwork, or on oiled wheels, or any of those other analogies implying unparalleled domestic bliss, but just about ticking over. I don’t think either of us ever expected we’d end up operating in such stereotypical gender roles, but it works because we see ourselves as a team, both bringing equally important things to the family, and recognise our current roles as what works now rather than how things will immutably be forever.

10) Because he has been the most ardent supporter of, and cheerleader for, my writing, believing in me long before I had a publishing contract, and remaining convinced, despite any evidence to the contrary, that I will be heading the bestseller lists before long.

11) Because he’s fab at romantic gestures. Whether that’s a bowl of Rice Krispies in bed (the only thing I can face when I have morning sickness) or whisking me away for a surprise weekend in Rome with a down-on-one-knee proposal in roof-top bar thrown in for good measure.

12) Because he is my favourite person to spend time with. Be that time eating gourmet food in a boutique hotel, snuggling on our sofa with a takeaway or hanging round a freezing cold playground trying to summon up enthusiastic smiles as Anna demonstrates (again) the different ways of going down a slide, things are always more fun when he’s there.

13) Because when he passes someone begging for money, even if he doesn’t give (sadly not really always possible living in London) he invariably makes eye contact, smiles and exchanges a few words, rather than hurrying past embarrassedly. And he helps old ladies with heavy bags and mums with prams and gives up his seat on the tube/bus and holds doors open.

14) Because he’s the exact, dictionary definition opposite of apathetic. He is enthusiastic, deeply interested in the world, and cares passionately about trying to make it a better place.

15) Because when I tell him that the Cath Kidston sale started yesterday and I purchased a new dress and a new bag he is going to be thrilled for me that I have obtained quality goods at such bargainous prices. And very possibly encourage me to check whether there’s anything more that I might like. Ahem.

How to be a Heroine

I’ve just finished reading How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, and my head is so full of it that there’s no point even attempting to blog about anything else. Or, indeed, to do what I ought to be doing and work on my edits for To Have and to Hold – that June publication date which seemed such a long way away is fast approaching, in publishing terms at least.

Ellis’ memoir is of a woman in her thirties reflecting on the books she’s read, from earliest childhood onwards, and on the heroines of these books who have all contributed to making her the person she is. It’s a fabulous idea, and before I started reading it I had to overcome my jealous resentment that someone else had the idea first. Now I’ve finished it I’m having to restrain myself from turning stalker, finding Samantha Ellis, and begging her to be my new best friend. She articulates so brilliantly the feeling I have always had  – that characters from the books I’ve read and loved are real people in my life, with just as much influence as actual friends.

The reviewer on the Domestic Sluttery website was surprised to learn that she wasn’t the only person who’d loved the Emily of New Moon books, L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known and less conventional heroine. I’d always thought the same, but apparently there’s a whole generation of bookish girls who grew up in the eighties and nineties reading about Emily’s attempts to resist fitting in and to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Like Ellis, I’m sure that the seeds of my own desire to be a writer were sewn when I read these books.

One of the things I found most interesting was how Ellis’ perceptions of the heroines have changed as she’s re-read the books. Applying her adult feminist sensibilities often leaves her horrified – at, for example, Katy Carr in What Katy Did, or even the March sisters in Little  Women. This kind of literary criticism is right up my street- analysing not just the text itself, but its social and historical context, and the author’s own personal circumstances. When I was doing my English degree in the late nineties and early noughties, the critical theory most in vogue was post-structuralist, with Roland Barthes, declaring ‘the author is dead’, as its poster boy. I just couldn’t get my head round that; for me the author and the context was integral to the book itself, and I couldn’t see how you could hope to understand one without the other.

It’s not as simplistic as that, though. The relationship between reader and character is symbiotic; their story helps to form us, but we also bring our own experiences to bear on them, meaning that a book can be read in entirely different ways depending on your own situation when you read it. As a young teenager I loved Gone With the Wind, and was so wrapped up in the story of Rhett and Scarlett that the fairly horrific portrayal of slavery as a necessary function of a civilised society basically passed me by. It was only when reading To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later that realisation dawned. Not my finest hour, and Gone With the Wind is one of the few books I loved aged 13 which I haven’t re-read as an adult because I still feel an insidious shame that, emotionally speaking, this book placed me on the wrong side of the civil war.

Ellis quotes a former boss who told her, when she was in her early twenties, that she might enjoy white wine, milk chocolate and Shakespeare’s tragedies now, but when she was properly grown up she would love red wine, dark chocolate and the comedies. At thirty-two and fifty-one weeks I still prefer white wine and milk chocolate (although, in extremis, will take them both however they come), but I’ve definitely shifted from a predilection for gothic tragedies to an appreciation of social comedies, typified by my loyalties shifting from Bronte to Austen. Partly I feel it’s because I have more of an appreciation of how difficult life can be and want to shield myself from that by reading something uplifting, but paradoxically it is perhaps also because I have grown to realise that there is usually a lighter side to the darkest situation, and that finding this perspective is the key to retaining our sanity.

One of Ellis’ criticisms of the books she re-reads is that they have a horrible tendency to end with marriage as a full stop, as though that is the ultimate goal for women. Or, in the few cases where the heroine’s story continues to be told after marriage,Ellis sees her as diminished by it, for example Anne Shirley in the later Green Gables books. Ellis explores novels where a woman can remain single, independent and a heroine, and finds them sadly few and far between. Since having my daughter, I’m hungry for books with heroines who are mothers, and who are struggling to combine their role as a parent with their sense of self and individuality. Not easy. There are loads of books in the ‘mum lit’ genre, but they often seem either to focus exclusively on the woman’s role as a mother, sending her off for a facial or manicure in the middle of it as a sop to the idea of her having an independent life, or the children scarcely seem to impinge at all, and you’re left with the feeling that the heroine must have a team of round the clock carers to protect her from the exigencies of day-to-day parenting. Jennifer Weiner manages it in Little Earthquakes and Certain Girls. Lisa Jewell does it in After the Party, showing Jem, the heroine of her first novel, Ralph’s Party, having made a difficult transition from single, carefree girl-about-town to a harassed mother-of-two trying to combine work, childcare and her partner’s desire for a sex life. If Ralph’s Party presents an idealised picture of life as a twenty-something Londoner, then After the Party should probably be prescribed as a contraceptive.

Ellis’ book has sent me headfirst into a lake of introspection, pondering on the heroines who have formed me, and it’s also made me desperate to re-read some of my favourites from my current life perspective. And to look forward with huge excitement to seeing what my daughter makes of these heroines in a few years time, and how they shape her journey into womanhood. And in the shorter term, to compose as list of my top ten literary heroines to go with my my Desert Island Books lists. Who would yours be?