A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

“I wake up at 4:30am because Catherine and Stuart (not their real names) like me to serve them their tea in bed in the morning, and it takes a long time to get from Khayelitsha to Camps Bay. The first thing I do when I wake up is take a bath and get dressed. Then, I get my older children up, make them oats for breakfast and get them dressed. My son, who is 11, takes the baby, who is one-and-a-half to crèche by taxi in the morning. My other daughter helps me feed and dress her before she walks to school with her friend. I have to leave my house at 5:30am to make sure I am at work by 7:30am when they wake up. Sometimes there is traffic or strikes or the trains aren’t running properly, and I get late. I have been late twice already, and if I’m late a third time Catherine is going to give me a written warning.

When I get to work I change out of my clothes and into my uniform. The first thing I do is wash my hands, put the kettle on and get the tea tray ready. Once they have their tea and rusks in bed, I go and wake the boy. I look after two kids, a boy of three and girl who is six months. The baby will be with the night nurse. Then the night nurse goes home. I get the boy up and make him breakfast. He likes French toast and rooibos tea in the morning. He is a good boy. I give the baby porridge and dress her. Stuart goes to work and Catherine goes to the gym. While she is gone I make her bed, pick up her clothes and shoes from the floor (she is messy, that one) and put everything away. I put the baby on my back when I clean the house. Sometimes it’s hard because the boy wants me to play with him, but if the house isn’t tidy when Catherine comes home she gets cross. I am not allowed to put TV on for him because she wants me to only play with him. So that is difficult.

In the morning we go to the park. Catherine likes us to get out so that she can have some peace and quiet. I pack some food for the kids. There is a park close by, and we play there. I have a friend who goes to the same park, so we meet each other. Sometimes I worry about my girl. She doesn’t like the crèche, she misses me. She cries in the night and wants me. It’s a long day for her to be without her mother. I took her there when she was one month old because I had to go back to work. I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore. She was always sick and I think it is because I couldn’t breastfeed her. It is a long time for a baby to be without her mother, but I must work. My husband earns R3500 a month. It is not enough for us to live.

When we get home Catherine likes me to make her a salad. She won’t eat bread because she’s on a diet. Only fish and chicken every day, but she is too, too thin. Then I make lunch for the kids and we sit together in the garden and eat. In the afternoon when I put the boy down for his sleep I put the baby on my back so she can sleep and I do the ironing. Then I start with supper. I used to work in a restaurant so I know how to cook. Stuart wants to eat meat every night. I make steak or a stew or I cook chicken and vegetables. I bath the kids at 5pm. At 5:30pm I must leave to catch my bus, but sometimes Catherine asks me to iron the dress she wants to wear if she is going out. Then I get home very late. It takes me two hours to get home. My kids are already home. I leave the key with the neighbour and they let themselves into the house and do their homework. My son fetches the baby at crèche after he finishes school. I cook supper and I am very tired.

My husband comes home at 7 o clock. At the end of the month the money is finished. Then we only eat pap and vegetables. Together we earn R7000, but most of that is for school fees and food and transport. Transport is very expensive, I must give my son R20 a day and my bus costs R150 per week. My husband works on a Saturday too, so Sundays we are all together. We go to church in the morning and then we eat meat for lunch. We only eat meat on a Sunday. I am lucky for my job, and my husband is lucky. There are lots of people who are not working. Then I try to do everything right. I tidy the cupboards and I wash the curtains. Catherine gives me old toys and clothes. We are also lucky that we have our own house, but in the winter the roof leaks and the kids get sick because it is always wet. There is water on the floor and our shoes and clothes are wet. It is very cold in our house in the winter. I am looking for an old washing machine because it is difficult washing all the clothes by hand. When I get home from work I wash. It is difficult to make the clothes get dry in the winter.

I have good kids, but my girl struggles at school. Her teacher wants her to have extra lessons, but it costs money and we don’t have money. If my kids are sick it is a problem because if I don’t go to work Catherine gets very cross. If the baby has a fever she is not allowed to go to crèche. Then my son must stay home from school and take care of her. I am worried then because he is only a boy of 11. It is not so easy, no. I have a good job. They give me paid leave at Christmas, two weeks. My family is in the Eastern Cape. It is very expensive to take the whole family so every three years we take the bus to see my parents for Christmas. They are old now. I don’t know if I will see my parents again before they die.”

As told to me by Florence, 36.

Angry South African Expats

What I’ve come to realise, over the past few weeks, is that there can be no angrier, more unreasonable person on the planet than the South Africa expat who is told that the country has not gone up in flames (yet) and that we actually spend a lot of time camping, hiking, hanging out on the beach and drinking very nice, inexpensive wine on our expansive lawns in the sunshine while somebody else does the ironing. I think it is fair to say that a goaded bull with a punctured testicle being shown 42 red flags simultaneously could not be more enraged than the (ex) South African who sold up, spent all their money on relocating their family to Wellington before the Swart Gevaar put a torch to the entire country only to find that it’s not quite the utopia they imagined and that their life is actually kakker than before.

When I wrote On Moving Back to South Africa I really did it for myself. It was a way of coming to terms with my own feelings, and trying to make sense of this country I choose to call home. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think it would get over 40 000 views in the first few weeks, get posted and re-posted all over the world, appear on the official South African Homecoming Revolution website and that I would get inundated with comments, thoughts and opinions. And while most, by far, have been extremely positive and a few have politely but vehemently disagreed, there is a small contingency who were made so cross by my allegations that South Africa is still a rather nice place to live out ones days I could practically see the spittle flying from their mouths as they did Rumpelstiltskin dances of rage and shouted abuse at me from their couches in Queensland.

And it’s a curious thing, because if you’re really, really happy in your new home abroad and you’re really, really pleased to have left this cesspit of hell, why would you care enough to get so emotional? All that their comments told me (which were, unfortunately, verging on abusive so I had to trash them) is that they feel deeply conflicted about their decision to leave, and that my story of settling well and loving what this country has to offer seriously messes with their heads. And I can understand that – it must be a fuck up of note to have convinced yourself that we were on the verge of apocalypse and that leaving was the only sensible option only to come back in December and find that your friends are doing very nicely in their holiday houses in Onrus, rump steak costs next to nothing and Woolworths dips keep getting better.

I have friends who left for Canada a while back and come back every summer, and their confusion is tangible. Because it’s the same old place it ever was. Even with that mad bastard JZ in power. We still go for picnics on Clifton 4th; hang out on the café strip; drink bubbly and watch the sunset; swim in our pools; have lekker braais. The story they had to tell themselves (and keep telling themselves and everyone who’ll listen) about why they left the country they loved gets a bit frayed at the edges when their buddies invite them over for fresh kreef and the kids have a jol being outdoors all day and half the night and Spur sauce still tastes good on everything. I’m not saying this country doesn’t have serryass problems, but for now it’s the same old place and sheesh, you have a cool life.

And neither am I saying that some people don’t leave South Africa happily and settle well and never look back, but they aren’t the ones writing me cross letters. And I feel for them, I really do. For me, leaving South Africa permanently would break my heart. Maybe their hearts got a bit broken and the only way they know how to deal is by running the country down and calling those of us who still live here – or, god forbid, came back – names. A writer whose name I forget once said in a novel, ‘Africa is not easily forsaken by her children.’ I never forgot those words. For whatever reason, this country gets under your skin. It holds you in its grip, and I see a kind of emotional attachment I haven’t witnessed in any other place.

A journalist friend of mine went to Australia to interview South African expats, and many had had to undergo some kind of therapy in order to come to terms with leaving. You hear of South Africans going down on their bended knees and kissing the tarmac when they get off the plane. I did it myself when we moved back permanently. Maybe it’s because our country has suffered so much, and we have witnessed its turmoil and anguish and then danced in its (rather short-lived) victories. Or maybe it’s something else; an intangible, indefinable quality that inspires this deep love and reverence.

So, I say this to the expats who need to sound off and be haters in order to justify their choices: let us love our country if that is what makes sense to us. We don’t yell at you and accuse you of abandoning ship because you’re living in Maida Vale. We are happy that you have homes in London because now we have somewhere to stay when we go overseas with our tragic Rands. You made a choice to go, like we made a choice to stay. No amount of shouting is going to convince us that we’re deluded. We read the papers; we get it. You don’t have to point out crime stats to us. For better or for worse, we have made peace with our decision, as you are going to have to make peace with yours.

And the thing is this: you talk about not being ‘free’ in South Africa. I lived in Sweden for eight years and as I ventured out, day after day, under a low-hanging grey sky to take my children to school in a gloomy, high-rise building where everybody I encountered seemed chronically depressed, that is when I felt unfree. Where there were so many rules I was afraid to do anything; where the weather was so crap we spent our lives watching TV, and where everybody lives for the end of the year so that they can get the hell out and feel like they’re alive. Now, I feel alive every single day. And it’s freaking awesome. A moment of shameless sentimentality, but I love this so much. And, like old Thabs says, today it feels good to be an African.

On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

Last Friday evening I attended the launch of Ruby Wax’s new book, Sane New World. Ruby is a close friend of my neighbour, and I’ve spent a few evenings around a dinner table with her where her openness about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety impressed me. We human beings are not big on admitting when we’re in trouble. We’re so terrified of telling the people around us that we’re frightened and not coping that we soldier on until we find ourselves so far gone that the only option is medication. When celebs (who have a lot to lose) come out with their stuff, it really helps the rest of us be brave about our stuff, too.

Anyhow, one thing she said really stuck with me. Due to her own mental health issues, she took it upon herself to get a Masters degree in Mindfulness and Cognitive Psychology at Oxford University, and learn about the human brain and why we do the things we do. And one of the things she explained was that, when we face social rejection, the same area in our brain which responds to physical pain is activated. Which is why, when people are crap to us on social media, our hearts start pounding and our mouths go dry and we experience a surge of adrenalin. Our brains can’t distinguish between a troll on Twitter and a zombie wielding a chainsaw. The threat is perceived to be the same, so even when the snarky comment comes from a complete arb who has no meaning in your life, you practically poo in your pants.

And I was relieved to hear that I’m not alone. Because when I get a criticized on Facebook or my blog for something I’ve written (though it’s really only happened a very few times) it bothers me a lot. I mull over it for days, wondering if I was wrong or if I should have expressed myself differently. (I am actually far too thin-skinned to be this opinionated about stuff). When I see a new comment has come in, I hold my iPad at arm’s length and read it with one eye shut for fear it’s someone telling me I suck. It’s pathetic, but that’s how I am. I have a few friends whose comments I dread getting. Because, while they are nice enough people, they’re not that good at thinking through the things they say, and I regularly get stung by their words. And I guess this is why we still have wars – we have a hard time thinking beyond our own noses and appreciating that other people have different thoughts and different experiences from ours.

And this whole thing has been quite a challenge for me, because when you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you know on some conceptual level that you have an audience, but barring the odd email you might get, your readers remain largely anonymous. When you’re blogging, on the other hand, your audience is right there, a click away. You get responses immediately, and you have to deal with them. Lots of responses from lots of people living lives and in circumstances that are different from yours. And while most are really, really nice a few can be less so, and the knee-jerk reaction is to defend your position, and even be a tiny bit not nice back. Because their comment has hurt your feelings. But then you start a war.

So, what I’ve been doing instead is only being nice. I put my thoughts out there, and they get interpreted in different ways, but I elect not to defend my position or explain what I actually meant or point out things they might have misunderstood. It is not my job to convince them that my view is right. They are, after all, as ‘right’ as I am, they’ve just had different experiences. And an interesting thing happens when you consciously operate from a place of tolerance and acceptance (and it’s not always bloody easy): the fight goes away. There is no fight, just human beings sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Yet somehow we’re raised to believe we need to make ourselves heard and stand our ground and fight for our place in the world. And I’m not saying there is no reason to push back, ever, but we’re very quick to draw our guns and go onto the defensive. I have a few people in my life whose entire ethos revolves around their egos and pushing their opinions and being the ‘rightest’ in the world, and they’re tiring and make me wonder who they’re trying to convince. And the thing is, if you can take a step back and not engage you do yourself the biggest favour. Because when people are shouting and being bullies and mean to those around them, more often than not it comes from a place of sadness and confusion. Individuals who feel loved and affirmed don’t need to sound off all the time.

And what I’m learning in the biggest, biggest way is that what you put out you get back. Give that injured inner child of yours a hug, and make a decision to err on the side of niceness. It’s easy making fires and shouting the house down, but contrary to what we’ve been taught, what takes the most strength and the most courage is being kind to the people who might not have been kind to you. And when you do that – are large and gracious – it’s astonishing, the bounty and grace you attract. And I can only imagine that the opposite holds true – be angry and aggressive, and that’s what’s you’re going to experience.

So, forgive me for sounding like the Dalai fucking Lama, but this has been a major a-ha moment for me. There are a lot of people in a lot of pain, and this makes them do (and say) really weird things. And, like Ruby says, if we could learn to be mindful about this stuff instead of going into battle at the drop of a hat, we’d all suffer less in our lives. And that’s what we human beings have in common, really, isn’t it? The quest to be happy and to avoid pain. And I’ll get it wrong and probably be annoyed before I’m done posting this blog, but it’s a step in the right direction. If we all made a decision right now that, for the rest of the day, we’ll be nice to every single person who crosses our paths – even when we feel they’re buffoons from hell – our worlds would become easier to navigate. Because, really, every one of us is crazy and a bit lost and fighting some or other kind of battle. So let’s try and remember that before we throw our word grenades.

Please Don’t Show Up At My Dinner Party In Your Pyjamas

The trouble with we Capetonians is that we’re so immensely pleased with ourselves for living in one of the world’s top tourist destinations (try and find a B&B or hotel with a room in December) that some of us seem to think we’re rather above manners and common courtesy. We can be flaky, we have a flat-topped mountain. We can be late – have you seen Clifton 4th? In fact, we’re so fabulous we can not show up at all, and guess what – you’ll invite us again. And if we do deign to honour your invitation, there’s every chance we’re going to show up in tracksuit pants and Uggs because, fuck it, we have the
winelands, and we’re too cool to care.

While I love this city and its inhabitants more than the sky, we are a bit like those upper class Brits who wander down to breakfast with filthy jodhpurs and mud in their hair. Lady Muffy Tittlegob doesn’t need to make an effort because she’s third cousin removed from Prince Charles, and anyway, she inherited Shropshire. Even though no-one in the world knows (or cares) where Camps Bay beach is, that irrelevant detail doesn’t temper our smugness one little bit. And, unfortunately, this sometimes translates to something not unlike arrogance. A few weeks ago I attended a dinner party at the home of a Swedish couple who have made Cape Town their home. Since I know hosting a dinner party in Scandinavia is quite a formal affair, and nothing like here (where if you arrive at the allotted time your host will be at the Spar buying rolls and you might or might not eat six hours later), I knew it was important to be punctual and to scrub up somewhat.

Sure enough, when our hostess made her entrance with salon hair, spiky heels and an LBD, I was immensely relieved to have donned a black pant and used my ghd. Not so much the other guests who clearly weren’t au fait with the ways of northern Europeans, and while our host was the epitome of charm and good manners, I cringed with embarrassment as guest after guest showed up looking like they’d fallen off the couch, grabbed their plakkies and got caught in a wind tunnel before arriving at the front door. And I love me a plakkie and a tracksuit pant when I’m at home or DVD Nouveau, but when somebody has spent an entire day (or more) shopping and cooking, cleaned up, lit candles and made everything beautiful for you, her guest, the least you can freaking do is give yourself a spritz of Burberry and put on a nice shoe.

Worse still – the invitation was for 6:30pm. By 8pm one of the couples still hadn’t shown up nor rung to say they were delayed, so we were shown our places and invited to start. At 8:30pm, while the main course was underway, the doorbell rang and these two graced us with their presence. Not an apology was uttered as the table had to be rearranged to accommodate them (she had changed the seating so that there were no gaps). Sis, guys. That is just not okay. It’s worse than bad-manners – it’s sheer disrespect. And I was mortified by the shocking behavior of my kind.

If my husband, a chiropractor, doesn’t SMS every single patient the day before to remind them of their appointment, they don’t show up. They’ll call three days later, offer a weak excuse or none at all, and reschedule. Or call five minutes before to say it’s actually not going to ‘work’ for them today. These gaps in his working day cost him big time, but he loves his patients and wouldn’t dream of charging them anyway – as he probably should. We’ve had one or two occasions where we’ve both been exhausted and not in the mood but fixed up the house, shopped and cooked for friends and acquaintances only to have them call, one by one, to cancel.

And the worst story of all is of a friend who was newly broken up and depressed over New Year’s Eve, so she decided to cheer herself up and remind herself that she still had people who loved her by hosting a dinner at her new house. She spent a fortune shopping, decked out the table and cooked all day for her ten guests. You know how this is going to end, right? Not one person showed up. Not one. Just. Beyond. Hideous.

So, here’s the thing (and believe me, I’m also guilty of being indecisive and non-commital, but I’m working on it): if you’re invited to something, don’t say ‘maybe’ and then wait to see if a better thing comes up. Say yes, and then if Jay-Z and Beyonce personally invite you to a shindig on their yacht, you will go to the Spur with your gran if you’ve already made that arrangement. Don’t accept someone’s invitation and then leave two hours later for another event. It’s such bad form. And if someone invites you to dinner at their home, for heaven’s sake, arrive on time and change out of your onesie. Put on a lip, bring flowers and show a bit of respect for the person who’s been missioning all day to feed your face. It’s really not asking a lot.

The Trouble with Maids

There can be no relationship in the world that is trickier to navigate than that between a white South African and her black maid*. Without a doubt it is our comeuppance for apartheid, and if for one second we’d like to forget about those bad old days of segregated park benches, Precious, with her Pick n Pay overalls, is there to remind us that the past is not quite as far away as we’d like to pretend. After years alone in Sweden a large, non-self-cleaning apartment with an infant and a toddler and no family anywhere near while my husband clocked ten hour days at work, the thought of moving back to South Africa and having hired help was a joy the headiness of which I could barely fathom. Things like going to the supermarket without negotiating a huge, double pram through a blizzard and then dealing with two hot, furious children in snowsuits in the 25-degree celcius store – never mind being able to work uninterrupted and squeeze in the odd yoga class – sounded like luxuries beyond comprehension.

But, having been away from the country long enough to forget that there is a system in place and that things work a certain way I was completely unprepared for the reality of hiring someone who is, essentially, a serf with a bad attitude (wait – hear me out), and how the slave/madam relationship works down here. Enter Nosipho (yes, she of the samp-and-beans). Nosipho was amazing with my kids – amazing – as in, she would host tea parties on top of the jungle gym and build forts out of blankets in the garden, make fires in winter, fry vetkoek and, within a month (Leo that she was) she was besties with all the maids in the neighbourhood, and her and the girls had a rip-roaring social life. She was clever and ambitious and, despite unimaginable disadvantages, had done pretty well for herself.

But, Nosipho was pissed off. For good reason – her mother was a sangoma who was more interested in pursuing her career than caring for her young daughter, and as a result she was placed in compromising situations. Despite being a strict mother her eldest daughter succumbed to tik addiction and lived on the street, abandoning her baby son with Nosipho who was left to raise him. For this proud woman who, on a miniscule salary, had managed to buy her own house and furnish it very nicely, her daughter was a terrible embarrassment. But, strictly speaking, none of this was my problem. She had a good deal with me – short working hours; a generous wage (well – in South African terms); time off when she needed it and lots of extras, like a big grocery shop of treats for her and her family on a Friday. I was always buying stationary for a relative; taking somebody to the optometrist; fetching and carrying a cousin’s child who had missed the transport home from school. She needed a couch, she got it; her geyser blew, we had it fixed. Her brother died – we paid for the funeral. It was never-ending.

But, there was the small issue of my ancestors having destroyed the lives of her ancestors, and none of this made either of us feel any better. In fact, it made things worse. You know the psychology of charity? The recipients get resentful as hell, and this happened with us. She’d come into work in a filthy mood and throw her bag down on the chair. I’d tip-toe around her and try to stay out of her way (not easy when you work from home). Of course, as an employer, what I should have done was say, ‘listen, lady, whatever’s bugging you – leave it at home. You’re here to work; get on with it or get out.’ Instead, I’d make us a pot of tea and fetch a plate of Melissa’s rusks and invite her to sit down at the table and tell me what the problem was. Was it something I had done? Was she upset about something work-related? She’d dunk her rusks and glower at me while I shivered in fear and thanked her profusely for the great job she was doing, never mentioning the fact that she left work every day reeking of my Prada perfume and with three loo rolls and all the sugar siphoned in a jar in her leopard print bag.

See, while we sat in awkward silence, me obsequious and her, vengeful, invisible assegais flew over our heads; Verwoerd in his droning voice assured everyone that blacks would be ‘separate but equal’; my school fees were free while her mother had to find the money to pay. The weight of our shared history was too extreme be lifted by the elaborate lunches I would prepare for the four of us to sit down together and eat until I realized why she was always ‘cleaning the bathroom’ when the food was ready. She didn’t want to sit and eat with me, but she didn’t know how to tell me. It just wasn’t the way things were done down here.

Eventually when she let me down severely by not coming back from her Christmas holiday on the allotted day and ignored her phone and my thirteen messages which meant I couldn’t show up at my job I put on my big girl panties and told her she’d better be back by the next day or that was that. She didn’t show up the next day; instead she went to the CCMA and reported me for unfair dismissal. She didn’t have a case so nothing came of that, and I was happy not to have that bad energy in my house, but it was a big shock and a learning experience for me. I was devastated, and mourned the end of our relationship for a long time. I had made the fatal mistake of thinking, because we were in each other’s company all day and talked often and were involved with one another’s families, that we were friends. We were not friends. I was her boss and, because of my own issues, I managed our working relationship poorly. And I take full responsibility for that. But it’s not easy either, given the status quo.

This past Friday night we shrieked with laughter as my gay friends, Bruce and Nicolaas, told stories of their maid, Dorothy**, who is very religious and hates Nicolaas so much she won’t even say hello when she shows up for work. She also leaves them rude, demanding notes and conducts her faith healing business during work hours from their phone account. Another friend of mine comes home to find her bathroom smelling of bubble-bath and her bed, warm. Apparently when Xoliswa is done with the ironing she enjoys a hot soak and a small nap. And, honestly, she probably deserves it. A colleague’s maid, Mavis, comes into work in the morning, makes herself tea and six slices of toast and watches Judge Judy for an hour before she starts with the vacuuming.

And the reason why nobody complains and our relationships get confused is because we know very well what a good deal we are getting. We have people do all our dirty work all day and pay them barely enough to survive. And because everyone else does it we pretend it’s okay. We say things to each other like, ‘R4000 a month is a lot for them. They live on very little.’ Really? Do ‘they’ have any choice? Last time I checked groceries and school fees and petrol cost the same for everybody, irrespective of their race or job or socio-economic position (and this is not a white-people-being-bad-to-black-people thing, the wage for domestic help is the same, whatever racial group happens to be hiring).

Anyhow. I don’t hire anybody full-time anymore. You can’t have a heart and not get personally involved with the people who are virtually living in your home, and it’s just too hard and complicated. I don’t have the mettle to draw boundaries and be tough with individuals whose lives are insurmountably difficult while mine is one long exercise in privilege. I have a char once a week, and the rest of the time I do my own dirty work. And maybe I’m denying somebody deserving a job, but at least this way my sanity remains intact. Eish, it’s a helluva thing.

*I know this term is not politically correct, but I’m going to use it anyway because ‘domestic worker’ just doesn’t work and ‘housekeeper’ is pretentious.

** Since this article was written Dorothy fired Bruce and Nicolaas. If anyone needs faith healing, drop me a line and I’ll get you her number.

5 Things you Need to Know to Live Happily Ever After

It takes having been married for a long time and making some big mistakes along the way to learn what works in a marriage and what, just, doesn’t. If you’d like to be with this guy for the long haul (and I hope you do, because it’s not better on the other side), here are some truisms you’re better off knowing sooner rather than later.

1. Your partner is not going to make you happy

He’s just a guy with skidmarks who loves you very much but is also trying to negotiate his way through this thing called life. He doesn’t have all the answers, and even if he did, it’s not possible for one human being to make another human being happy. Of course you can enjoy a good relationship which adds value and joy to your life, but that’s only part of the deal. The rest is up to you. If you don’t like your job and you have problematic friendships and you’re frustrated in whatever capacity, he could be Adonis spewing slabs of Lindt while he vacuums the lounge – you’re still going to be miserable. So, here’s the thing – you need to officially and mindfully absolve him of the mammoth responsibility of being the sunshine in your life. He is just a star – not enough to light your whole world. Figure out what it is you need to do to make your life a sunnier place and stop making the problem his.

2. If you don’t have respect, you have nothing

Remember your first date together when you looked every part of amazing, were the most delightfully attentive listener and nothing was too much effort? Over time this hallowed, romantic space changes to unwashed hair and farting in front of each other. While keeping the same level of mystery up as when you first met is impossible, it’s really kinda important not to relax too much into the comfort of your togetherness. Just because he’s made a commitment to you doesn’t give you license to whine, nag and nitpick. Or be self-centred or on his case or mean or hit below the belt. Your partner is as deserving of your respect as he was when you first fell in love. He’s a human being and he’s doing his best. Be nice, look nice, and don’t tell him to pull your finger. It’s just not sexy, and sexy counts for a lot.

3. Stop seeing him and he’ll cease to exist

The reason why people have affairs is not about the sex. You hear all the time about men who visit prostitutes just to talk and be heard. Affairs happen when people feel lonely and unappreciated. He might be as familiar to you as your favourite pair of granny panties, but try to remind yourself of how cool he actually is, and how many other women would give their left boob to have a kind, affectionate, honest, good-looking guy like him to call their own. He’s the business, and you’re lucky. And of course this goes both ways. Women look to other men when they feel like they’ve become invisible. We find ways to fill the holes in our lives, sometimes to devastating effect. If you can, somehow, keep seeing each other like you did when you first met you’ll automatically introduce a special kind of magic into your relationship. He hasn’t changed since that first day. Look past the familiar and get the person he is in the world.

4. Being attracted to somebody else doesn’t mean you have to have an affair

Forever is a long time, and when you exchange rings you don’t die or go blind. You’re still a separate human being, and it’s inevitable that, along the way, you’re going to meet at least one person you’d really, rather like very much to shag. Don’t do it. Being attracted to another person doesn’t mean you have to act on these feelings. And don’t, for the love of god, encourage the attention, irresistible as the affirmation might be – you’re just going to make things difficult for yourself and worse, incur pain on a number of people. A wise friend (who learnt this the hard way) said to me the other night, ‘I’ve revised my opinion on infidelity. It isn’t shades of grey. It’s black and white, pure and simple. You make a choice not to go there, and you don’t.’ Because if you do, even if the relationship survives, you create terrible cracks that never, ever go away. If you want to do this thing right you have to honour the trust between you. Look, imagine if you must, but don’t touch. You will get burnt, and it won’t be worth it.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize

A lot of people get divorced for a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t make it an easy option. A psychologist friend of mine talks about how divorce brings out the most primal feelings and the rawest kind of pain human beings virtually ever experience. Whatever you might think from the comfort of your so-so marriage, you’re not going to get out of it unscathed. It will hurt you, hurt your friends and families, and worst of all, devastate your children. The prize is this: a partner who loves you above all; who will be there for you no matter what; who (probably) fathered your children and therefore has only their best interests at heart; who knows you and accepts you; who sees your flaws and loves you regardless. In this world of loneliness, broken dreams and heartache, this is not a bad deal. Love him back. Be good partners to one another. Fight well and constructively, and remember how much you loved each other once. Accept that he’s going to infuriate you and that you’ll infuriate him right back. Watch your tongue and the words you use when you argue. Make kindness the default mode. What you have is special and might not come around again, so guard it with your life.

Why You Must Never, Ever Send a Guy a Second Whatsapp

It’s a good thing smart phones and social media hadn’t been invented when I met my husband because I can tell you, for free, we would not be together now. While I am fun and delightful, I am also mammothly needy and intense, and he would have taken one look at the 19 whatsapps I’d sent before 7am and run for those proverbial hills. Which would have been a shame, because we’re actually great together. He is logical and sensible and easygoing, while I am more, well… not any of those things. And therefore we balance each other nicely. But I can say with absolute certainly that I would not have managed that space and the whole instant accessibility thing well.

Back in those days (which are now pretty much regarded as the dark ages but was actually only about thirteen years ago) not even everyone had cell phones. You still relied on a landline which sometimes, but not always, had an answering machine. Therefore, when the guy you were crushing on madly didn’t answer it meant he wasn’t home and you had to go away and think about something else (Or drive past his house but that’s just nuts and I never, ever did that. At all.) Me, in my twenties, with a smart phone? It would have a mess on wheels. I would have been relentless – messaging, tagging, instagramming, whatsapping and then freaking out when he didn’t answer me instantaneously, as in the following second.

Instead, I was forced to be patient and wait till he came back from his dive/finished watching the game/ended his working day till I could impose myself on him again, which led him to believe that I was more reasonable than I really was. So, it’s with great empathy and tremendous referred pain (from them to me) that I watch my single girlfriends navigating the dating website space and conducting these agonizing exercises in torture otherwise known as chatting to a new guy. And I cannot judge their eagerness and concomitant devastation when he doesn’t take the bait for one nanosecond, because that would have been me.

But on Sunday I went for a walk with a new girlfriend who shared a simple, but very clever little analogy re the whole dating website/new guy fiasco. And, being a dispassionate observer who is not (god forbid) looking for a man, I can see how absolutely correct and appropriate it is, and share it with you. She said, when you meet a new guy, either in person or online, you’ve got to imagine a tennis court with two people on either side and a ball going back and forth. Back and forth is the only way. You serve, he returns your ball. You send it back to him, he sends it back to you, and so it goes on. If he does not return the ball to your court, you do not serve again. There is one ball in this game. It is tennis, not snooker. If that ball doesn’t come back to you, you wait. And wait. Still not coming? He’s on another court. Move on. Don’t ask him where the court is or what he’s doing on it – he doesn’t want to play with you, and that’s all you need to know.

And yet all the time I see the women sending that ball over, then sending another and then another still, and then asking, why doesn’t he answer? Was it something I said? What’s his problem? And then taking their communication apart word for word in an attempt to decipher its hidden message. There’s no hidden message – he doesn’t want to play ball with you so you must go away. It’s much simpler than we believe. We sit there over-analysing, picking things apart, second-guessing: what is he doing? Why is he online and not answering me? Who else is he talking to? When none of this matters. It’s irrelevant. Despite all this technology which (for better or for worse) keeps us connected 24/7 some things have stayed the same: if the boy likes the girl he will go and get her. And that’s the long and the short of it.

Stop sending more balls – it just makes you look desperate. Even if you just want to say this one thing – don’t. Even if it’s the funniest, cleverest thing anyone has ever said in the world – don’t do it. He’ll feel hounded and think you’re psycho and not like you anymore. True story. And it’s easy as hell for me to say this because my dude is chained to the net, bless his tennis socks, but at the same time this vantage point allows me to see things a lot more clearly than I would if I were waiting to see if the little yellow ball was coming my way anytime soon. And if this guy isn’t game, eff him; there are many more where he came from. You served, he missed, game over.

On Going Stone-cold Sober for a Month

A few Saturdays ago I went to a friend’s dad’s memorial at a pub in Obs. It was lunchtime and my house was full of workmen and the morning had been chaotic, and as I drove there I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to drink today; I’m not in the mood – I’ll just have a diet coke.’ I’m not a good daytime drinker – alcohol at lunch makes me grumpy and hungry, and I knew I’d have to go home and deal with painters and kids. ‘Yes;’ I thought. ‘What a good plan.’ So, in the door I walked, said hello to friends, and then was asked if I’d like a draught. And immediately I said yes. I drank it down, and then, inexplicably, had another. And worse – I harangued a friend who did have a coke because he was going surfing later. The beer made me grumpy and hungry, as I knew it would. I went home and had to deal with painters and kids. I drank water and coffee but it didn’t help; I felt blech and my day was kind of ruined.

And you have to ask, what the hell? What is this about? And I think, simply, habit. It’s a habit to drink. Sometimes alcohol is lovely and tastes delicious and improves your mood and your day, but sometimes it doesn’t. And yet it remains really difficult to just say no. It took moving to Sweden to realize that we South Africans are a thirsty, hedonistic bunch. For dinner parties at home we’d cater roughly a bottle of wine per person, only to find our friends wanted water and milk and soft drinks. Which meant we drank it all up ourselves and had a rip-roaring time, but really. I’d go for lunches in groups and be the only one ordering Chardonnay. Eventually it got embarrassing and I stopped.

But we South Africans do drink a lot. We do a lot of things a lot. I suspect it has something to do with how we live down here, and how kind of nuts and Wild West-y it is. Life is lived in technicolour – we work hard and play hard, and while I wouldn’t change it for the world and I love the spontaneity and the aliveness, I do think my relationship with alcohol could bear a little scrutiny. Why do I drink when I don’t really feel like it? Why is it easier to accept a glass of wine than admit I’d rather have a lime and soda? And then, if we want to take the argument even further, why do we need the social lubricant in the first place? Don’t we like each other enough to sit around a table and chat and catch up on our lives without being half pissed?

Last Sunday was an interesting experiment. I had lunch with two close girlfriends, both of whom love their wine. Since we’re doing Sober October together nobody was drinking. I’m sure it was the first time I’ve had lunch with either of them where alcohol was not involved. We had grapefruit ‘cocktails’, and then they had a non-alcoholic beer each and I stuck to soda water and lemon. We ate a beautiful rib stew in the sunshine, talked non-stop, shrieked with laughter and two of us literally fell off our chairs. It was a wonderful afternoon. Then we drove home without feeling sleepy from wine or worrying about a roadblock somewhere along the way. Because even if you wait till you sober up before you drive you’re never completely sure you’re within the limit.

For the past two weeks I’ve been in a vague state of panic over a birthday party I’m attending at my favourite venue this coming Friday. Because it’s one thing socializing with people who are also refraining from drinking and you’re all smug and in cahoots, but being in a smoky bar where waiters keep offering you another glass of champagne (my favourite) will be another story. Still – even though I’ve never been a huge drinker (at varsity I was always the semi-sober one who went home first), and three glasses of anything are my absolute limit – I feel that this is a good exercise to undergo. Not just to give the old liver a break and to drop a few pre-summer kilos, but to see whether all this booze is really necessary. And to observe myself in a social setting without the help of a drug. I had a meeting with a teetotal sound engineer a few months back who was telling me how much people’s voices change when they drink. Once, as an experiment, he used sophisticated sound equipment to record people speaking before they had their first drink and then as they consumed more alcohol, and he said it’s incredible how our voices get lower and slower till eventually we’re almost unrecognizable. Kinda scary.

For me, there are few things more pleasurable than a glass of good wine at the end of a long day. Or, an icy cold beer when you’re hot and thirsty and harassed. It gladdens the soul and relaxes a mind that’s been in overdrive all week long. And it just takes the edge off like nothing else. I refuse to believe that when drunk moderately and mindfully alcohol is a bad thing. It’s the other way that’s not so great – when we do it because we do it or because other people or doing it and it’s the default option. And it’s particularly bad when it’s a daily crutch or we have so much we make ourselves sick or when we become aggressive and unpleasant. And so far I’ve missed it much less than I expected. In fact, I’ve not missed it at all. After this experiment I might opt not to drink in the daytime anymore. Or, only very seldom when it’s a special occasion or I’m on a certain friend’s deck where a glass of vino and happy times just go hand-in-hand. And while I’ll never give up wine, it’s been good to give up wine for a while. Just to see how life feels without the insulation. Pretty good, actually.

Where is Miley’s Mother?

I know we’ve all had it up to here with Miley Cyrus hype, but this morning as I looked at the shoot she’s just done with Terry Richardson (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2442749/Miley-Cyrus-simulates-sex-Terry-Richardson-shoot-swipes-Sinead-OConnor.html) all I could think was, where the hell is this child’s mother? Because if there is anyone in the world who loves you enough to take one look you pulling some bizarre underwear garment up so high that you reveal your labia majora to the world and slap you upside the head for your goddamned idiocy it’s the woman who birthed you.

My mother has always been the most amazing champion of my career. When I was just starting out as a writer and the only person who would publish me was the editor of Hustler magazine (I wrote ironic articles about things like feminism under a male pseudonym), she would go and buy a copy and black out the naughty bits and show her friends at work. But, proud as she has always been of me, I can say with absolute certainty that were I to take my clothes off in public and simulate sex with a bear, she would be sad and disappointed beyond – and let me know about it.

Maybe this is my age speaking, but when I see Miley’s emaciated body and huge, blue eyes staring at the camera ‘sex symbol’ is the furthest thing from my mind. What I think is, ‘darling child, what have they done to you?’ As I’m sure Sinead did when she sat down and wrote her letter. I see a troubled, confused young woman who has lost all sense of perspective and must value herself very little. And I remember myself at that age, and how vulnerable young women are, and what an exploitative place this world is. But somehow, because she is Miley Cyrus, and we think celebs are above normal standards of decency, we get confused ourselves and start questioning our own values and think because she’s doing it it must be okay.

And this is where moms come into the picture because no amount of Hollywood/fame/money/stardom would prevent me from dragging my 20-year-old daughter from that photo shoot by the ear. It would be over my dead body that she would demean herself in that way, and the horror that I had raised her so poorly would be devastating and make me question every decision I’d ever made with regard to her upbringing. And I wouldn’t give a crap if she was 20 or 25 or 35 for that matter. ‘Grown up’ means nothing to a mother. And then, as I looked at those pictures of her holding a beer bottle in a suggestive pose and doing all manner of lewd and lascivious things, I realized how lucky I am. Because when I became too arrogant to think my mother had anything more to teach me, I went to an institution of learning where I was surrounded by strong, powerful, brilliant women writers and intellectuals who changed who I was by illuminating the subtle machinations of the patriarchy and showing me how much I had to offer.

And from there I got my first job at a women’s magazine whose all-female staff included some of the brightest, most astute women in this country, and much more than my seniors, they became mentors to me who, with their collective cleverness and life experience, filled in whatever gaps were missing. What these ‘big sisters’ taught me was invaluable, and I guess the point I’m making is that, whichever way you look at it, we live in a man’s world and in order not to get lost in it, young women need this type of guidance; they need mentors to show them that they’re valuable and clever and worthy – otherwise it’s too easy to persuade them that swinging naked on a large, metal ball is a good career move.

I guess because of her fame and her money Miley missed out on this important life stage. She must not have had the advantage of female elders – grandmothers, aunts, big sisters, whatever – to guide and affirm her, and assure her that she is a valued member of her community. No woman who feels safe and loved would do the things that she has done of late. It speaks of a generation of lost daughters; girls who enter adulthood with a deeply warped sense of what it means to be a woman. Exactly at the time we should be achieving power and the balance should finally be tipping in our favour, we have somehow veered off course and lost sight of the things our sisters fought so hard for. This whole thing has been a sad moment for women of the world. It would be nice to dismiss it as every part of ridiculous, but too many young girls (my daughters included) look up to Miley Cyrus not to take it seriously. Her mother should have stepped up to the plate. Mama Cyrus, you’ve let your girl down.