A while ago I was invited to a 40th birthday celebration by a kind-of friend. She had rented a hall, and the invitation read ‘bring your own meat ‘n booze’ and then, beneath the picture of a disco ball and a couple dancing, a request in small print that everyone bring along ‘a salad of (our) choice.’ A salad of our choice? That we have to make? Are you kidding me? I thought BYO meat was a bit cheeky, but a side dish? Okay, that’s just rude. How about I bring my own chair to sit in, cutlery and the fridge? Or, how about I just don’t come.
Thing is, past a certain age that starts with an ‘f’, a major incentive to finding a sitter, paying said sitter and standing around in heels all night is the fact that I don’t have to drive to the supermarket and drag two bored children around the meat aisle. I don’t have to slice cucumber, toast seeds or make vinaigrette because you, the host, have presumably done this for me. It’s what is called ‘hosting.’ And that’s what is in it for me.
Yes, I get to drink wine and make conversation, but that I can do in the comfort of my own kitchen and what’s more I can wear slippers. But make me bring everything I’m going to eat and drink, and I’m not going to come to your party. Now, I understand not everybody can afford to feed and water 50 guests so, by all means, let us bring wine, and lots of it. I’ll even throw in a bottle of Jose Cuervo to get the party started. But you have known for, well, forty years that this occasion was imminent, so maybe you should have put some of that Guess jeans money aside so that we, your friends, didn’t have to cater for your party.
I am all for entertaining having become more casual. If we still – god forbid – had to come up with three courses plus canapés we would never, ever see our friends. I say, bring on the braais, the curries, the takeaway pizzas – anything that does away with undue hassle and stress. But if you decide you want to host something, get into the goddamn kitchen.
Before Per and I had the girls, we travelled a lot together and had a bunch of fun doing it. We’re perfect travel companions – I talk incessantly and he doesn’t utter a word, and while I have extremely fixed ideas about what I want to see, eat and drink, he doesn’t care and is happy to go with the flow. It’s a travel match made in heaven. But when you have kids, the stuff you like doing together and the things you enjoy most about each other get buried under the morass of things you HAVE to do and ways you HAVE to be to get your children through childhood without anybody dying or getting arrested along the way.
And children, let’s be honest, can be self-centred little bastards who will watch you in the death throes of exhaustion and tactile sensory overload and ask for a glass of juice. They’re sweet as pie and they write you adorable notes but until they reach 35 they simply don’t have the cognitive skills to understand how desperately hard the job is of raising them. And that’s not their fault, they’ll get it eventually, but in the interim, it’s you guys against them and you have to save yourselves.
I have to disagree when people say having a career and raising kids is a balancing act. Balancing act? That sounds like carrying a tray of tequila shots from the bar to your table in stripper heels. This is juggling, people, of the kind that would get you a job with Cirque du Soleil. That guy who balances a thin girl on his feet while handling twenty burning spears? He’s got nothing on you. It’s demented, what we’re expected to accomplish on a daily basis – and, by the by, look amazing while we do it.
And it’s only natural – I mean, this is a battle, mothers of the world – that you and your life partner, The Dude, the one you dug above all others and still (hopefully) would rather collapse into bed with after another day in the trenches will start taking all of these frustrations out on each other, and that your conversations will be about whose turn it is to do stuff and why the other one didn’t do that other stuff they were supposed to do. It’s boring, relentless and it murders the love.
Here’s the thing: before you can say varsity fees, these kids are going to be off on gap years, living in digs, finding weird friends and avoiding you as much as they can get away with. And when this happens all you’re going to have is each other. But it’s really difficult, if not impossible, relating to one another like before because the second you walk through the door of your home you enter parenting mode – it’s the new, default way of being, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it.
Except, that is, to go away for a while. Drag him by the short and curlies if you have to. Get as far away from home and your children as you can manage and you know what? Without even realising it you’ll find yourselves slowly reverting back to the way you were when you were best buddies and in love. You’ll talk about different things, have real conversations again and be reminded of why, amongst all those other people, you chose each other. And at the end of the day the best thing you guys can ever do for your kids is be happy, and together. Try it – you’ll see.
The trouble with psycho women is that they don’t have glow-in-the-dark eyes like Natalie Portman in Black Swan or breathe fire or carry assault rifles which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to spot them at first glance (though I have come to be familiar with a certain type of hair which I recognize as ‘mad hair’, but more about that later). But I’ve had a couple move in and (thankfully) out of my life so I know that they exist and that while they’re around things can get a little crazy.
At first, these women seem like the nicest, most thoughtful friends a girl could ever have, and they’re generous as anything, showering you with invitations and gifts (it’s part of their M.O.), but just when you get close enough to start wondering how you ever lived without them, they start with their antics. At first it’s subtle because they’re clever and manipulative, and a lot of the time you’ll start wondering if it’s you who’s mad, but this is a sure sign: If, at any point, you find yourself puzzling over an incident or a conversation with this person which has left you hurt and bewildered and wondering if the problem lies with you, get your Nikes and head for the hills. You’re dealing with a psycho, and you’ll never win.
I had this friend a few years back, we’ll call her Nadine. Nadine and I became friends predominantly because we were from the same small town and were living in the same big city. Nadine, at first, was a dream come true: Fun, funny, easy to talk to and loved socializing. From the get go we hit it off and became firm friends quickly. But it didn’t take me long to get a sense that something was up. Nadine was a little nuts. I could tell by the way she turned on her husband, fought with her family and had fall- outs with her friends. She also started copying me – wearing the same clothes, preparing the same dishes at dinner parties, befriending my friends.
Through all of the dramas in her life I was her closest confidante. But then she started turning the weirdness on me – offering to host my birthday dinner and then ‘forgetting’ at the eleventh hour; putting me down subtly in front of mutual friends; inviting my friends to parties at her home and excluding me. This went on for some time during which I endlessly harangued my husband with tales of what I said versus what she said, trying to make sense of what was going on, why I felt so hurt and confused and how she could do these things to her so-called best friend.
Ah, how naïve I was. It took me some years (and the friendship ending) to see her behaviour in context, understand that these are the actions of a deeply damaged woman (her mother openly rejected her – you never get over that) and that, while she loved and admired me, on a different level – one which even she could not understand – she hated my guts and would have liked to see me die a painful death. She has been hurt so deeply by a woman it’s difficult, if not impossible for her to form healthy relationships with other women. Once she wins you over with attention and affection and stuff (I got all kinds of amazing gifts for no particular reason) you become the recipient of her wrath. And it’s wrathful and pretty scary.
So, if you’re in a friendship which confuses your brain, ask yourself this: How are her other friendships? Are they happy and long, or are they a series of mini dramas which tend to end badly? Is her marriage/relationship with her partner stable and healthy or kinda crazy? How does she talk about the people in her life? Is she generous to a fault, or mean as a snake? Pay attention, because these things count. What happened with the others will more than likely happen with you, no matter how tight you you are now because there’s a hole in her that no amount of love from you or anyone else will ever fill. It’s gaping and it’s sad, but it’s not your problem. So, get out while you can.
So finally, at the age of 42, after being a slave to my scale for as long as I can remember, I have stopped weighing myself. It’s been about six months since last I voluntarily made myself feel crap first thing in the morning, post-wee, pre-coffee. And it’s not because at last I reached a level of self-acceptance and understanding that I am more than that what those numbers say, it’s because my scale takes those little round batteries like you used to get in Nintendo games and I have no idea where you buy them. And while at first the site of that blank screen filled me with panic (how would I know how fat I was? How would I measure yesterday’s level of gluttony or – less commonly – denial if I didn’t know my exact weight, down to the comma whatever?).
And then an interesting thing happened – nothing. At first it was weird not starting my day with the rush of oh-yay-I’m-down-300-grams-since-yesterday-I’m-not-gonna-touch-a-carb-all-day OR the crash of oh-fuck-why-did-I-have-those-three-glasses-of-wine-now-look-I-might-as-well-have-ciabatta. I missed the smug (albeit hollow, short-lived) feeling of victory when I had gone hungry and the scale was my best friend, but I didn’t miss the other feeling which happened rather more often – the dismay and the quiet self-loathing. Because it’s really quite difficult to feel okay about yourself as a woman if you’re not pretty thin. And somehow, achieving that goal can feel like the most important thing in the world. Which is seriously fucked up.
Three years ago, roughly (I remember this moment well) I got on the scale at midday (midday, nogal!) and it read 57kgs. That’s low for me as I’m not a naturally skinny person. The reason I weighed 57 (as opposed to 62, my body’s happy weight) was because I had recently moved countries with two small children, had no job or home, my husband was working overseas, I had chronic insomnia and our marriage was taking strain. I have never been so stressed and on edge in all of my life but, by god, I was thin! And that made up for all the other stuff. Needless to say, my delight was short-lived. We bought a house, I got a job, we settled in and found the love, and with happiness, (for me) comes food. We cook and we eat and drink wine and talk into the night because we’re friends and we’re alive and days are hard enough without living on grilled chicken.
I don’t weigh 57 anymore, and – barring a terminal illness or my head falling off – I never will again. I have no idea what I weigh, and I don’t really care. Okay, that’s not true. I do care, but not enough to make me go buy those batteries. My really skinny jeans are too tight on me, but luckily I have others. I exercise a few times a week without being mental about it, and instead of imposing crazy rules on myself, I try to listen to what my body is asking for. Sometimes it’s an enormous salad; other times it’s Kettle Fried chips. I have days when I eat too much and days when I eat just right. Sometimes I clutch at my muffin tops and hate the way I look naked; other times I think, hell, you’re not doing not too bad, lady. I think the biggest challenge we women face is being nice to ourselves. And without that mofo scale to torment me, I’m finding this a little bit easier.
Last Friday at sundowners in the Courtyard of Iniquity (the home of my neighbour-friend where we frequently gather to let off steam) a forty-year-old divorcee whom we’ll call Craig started entertaining us with stories of singledom – who he meets, what it’s like out there and what the new rules are for dating. And what amazed me is that even though the women he’s seeing are older and ostensibly wiser – having travelled around that proverbial block more than twice – their stupidity and naivety are nothing short of amazing. While Craig is a nice-looking guy with a good job and a sexy car, it takes around 7 seconds to work out that the man is a bona fide dog. And I say this with affectionate because I like him. He’s warm, open and engaging. But if I was a single woman I would avoid him like the plague.
Because, not only did Craig’s marriage end because he was a serial cheater (leopards and spots, friends, leopards and spots), but because it’s patently clear that he has the morals of Hugh Hefner and less than no respect for women. But now before you start feeling sorry for the hapless girls who stroll into his favourite drinking hole den, here’s the rub: at no point does this man attempt to hide the dogness of his ways. On the contrary, when he meets a woman whom he knows is only good enough for a shag and will never, ever be anything more in his life, he tells her upfront. Not in Arabic or code or veiled language, either. What Craig says is this: ‘you do not want to sleep with me. I am a dog. I am the kind of man your mother warned you about. Take my advice, and don’t go there.’
And what do these women do? Do they go, ‘at last! A man who is honest about his intentions. I do not want some arsehole who won’t call the next day, I want a husband. So, best I move along swiftly. Goodbye, player guy, I was made for better things.’ Nooooo. They whip their knickers off faster than you can say La Senza. They love his admission; they lap it up. Turns out, it’s the best line he’s ever used. It’s foolproof. Then, when he doesn’t call (like he promised he wouldn’t), they are incensed. They hound him, leave furious messages on his phone, demand to know why it meant nothing to them. What is going on here?! What part of English are they not understanding? It’s truly the oddest thing.
All we could work out that night was that either they don’t believe him (mistake), or they see it as some kind of challenge – I’ll be the one to change you. That’s how amazing I am. Needless to say, they end up getting burnt. So, the moral of the story is this: in the first half hour of meeting someone they’re going to tell you who they are. This is the most honest he will probably ever be with you, so play close attention to what this guy chooses to reveal. Later, in the heat of the moment, you’re deliberately going to forget, and then the disappointment that follows will be your own damn fault and you’ll be phoning him and crying when you knew all along. There are as many different kinds of guys out there as there are women, but one thing holds, irrespective: when a man advises you not to have sex with him it’s a really good idea to listen.
Who – as in, WHO – puts a two-year-old and a newborn baby with a personality disorder into the back of a station-wagon and drives across northern Europe in horizontal rain? And how could this scenario ever, possibly, end well? In my defence, I was newly post-partum and I think hormones and the searing pain of mangled nipples (and mangled other bits) were clouding my judgement to the point that when I saw the photograph of the house on the fjord, all awash with sunlight (they must have taken the pic on the single rain-free day that year) with snow-capped mountains in the background and the water an astonishing aquamarine I did not think, ‘hang on – this house in the mountains would be a very nice vacation spot for two adults who like to read, relax and take walks, but since we now have these dreadfully noisy and demanding young children, no way, José’ – no, I did not. I thought, hell – how bad can it be? Well.
While we knew the distance in kilometers from Malmö, south of Sweden, to the village of Sogndal in Norway, what we didn’t know is that Norwegian roads are roughly four metres in diameter, and that July is the month when all the Germans of the world decide to rent camper-wagons and go and purvey the fjords. So, while we should have arrived at our destination relatively quickly, instead we crawled along, unable to overtake, while the smaller of the dictators screamed blue murder pretty much non-stop. It was a long journey, to say the least. Our only respite came on the ferry when – please understand that these were the days before Madeleine McCann – we locked her in the cabin, asleep (okay, screaming, but eventually she’d wear herself out and nod off) and enjoyed a very nice fish buffet with an ocean view.
The house on the Sognefjord was every bit as beautiful as the picture promised. One doesn’t say this lightly when one has grown up in Cape Town, but Norway is off-the-charts gorgeous, with its alpine-looking mountains towering over lakes the colour of a Caribbean ocean. But, it must be said, there is the issue of the weather. We stayed for a month while my husband did a locum for a chiropractor couple who’d gone to the States to have their baby, and it was the longest month of my life. Because there is only about half an hour of darkness a night, nobody slept. And in the day, when you needed to be awake to deal with the demands of two bored, cranky babies, a constant, grey drizzle made you want to do nothing but go back to bed forever.
I can write about this with humour now, but honestly, I don’t remember feeling more desperate and suicidal in all my life. Since the house was (literally) on top of a mountain, putting the smaller and more tyrannical of our children into a pram so that she’d be appeased for 30 minutes was tricky. We spent more hours than I care to remember walking up and down this mountain in a perpetual drizzle while I, in a high-pitched Mary Poppins-voice (bordering on hysteria), pointed out ‘interesting’ flowers and insects to my soggy two-year-old who was trying her best, under difficult circumstances, to keep a stiff upper lip. There were times that ‘holiday’ that I lost it, and even writing this, the memory brings tears of shame to my eyes. Sometimes I yelled at the two-year-old when it was the other one who deserved my wrath. I was just so fucking tired. And fat. And miserable. Per went off every day to work in Norwegian (not easy) and tried his best to be with us, but somebody had to bring in the dosh. The days dragged, and every afternoon I sat by the window, Carly Simon on repeat, waiting to see the car turn the corner so that he would be with me and life would feel manageable again.
And there were fun times, too. My mom and dad-in-law drove up from Denmark, and they took the girls for walks and gave me a few moments to gather myself (though even saintly grandma’s patience was tried by the child who refused to shut up for five seconds). For my birthday we boiled king crab and Per made me the best seafood platter I’ve ever eaten in my life. We took road trips on the weekends and were astonished by how every corner we turned revealed landscape more scenic than the last. And we survived with our sanity and our family intact. Now, we look at those pictures and laugh and shake our heads and say, what the fuck were we thinking? But, it’s a holiday we’ll never forget.