Socks, pants and the meaning of life

By | 12 April 2010

My daughter is at that stage of life, with a husband, a toddler and a new baby, where life seems an endless round of dealing with laundry – gather it up, get it washed, get it on the line, get it off the line, iron it if the spirit is willing, re-distribute it to its respective owners.  Tedious, repetitive, essential. But not jolly.  And probably neither taxing nor stimulating for the brain cells.
On a rare evening out with girlfriends, she discovered she is not alone – they are all at that stage, and the trials of the laundry basket struck a chord with them all.
‘I told them about your blow-up,’ said my daughter, cheerfully matching up a pile of ill-assorted socks.
‘My what?’ Ok, I admit it, I was nervous.
‘You remember, that time – it must have been a Monday morning – when the three of us lined up in front of you and said, ‘We don’t have any clean shirts, or pants or socks!’ You must remember?’
Er, no.  But it transpired that her recollection – and possibly that of her younger sister and brother – was crystal clear.
‘You must remember – you burst into tears!’
Really?  Well, perhaps that wasn’t so bad – a moment of pressure and stress and undoubtedly guilt – how could I let my three little angels face a Monday morning in school without the bare essentials of their uniform crisply arrayed in their rooms, ready to be worn with pride?  No wonder I cried.
Apparently, that’s not all I did.
‘Then you exploded – and you said, ‘I have two degrees in English Literature and I won a prize in the year I qualified as a teacher – what has my life come to that I am reduced to just being the minion who does the washing, irons the shirts and can never find a pair of socks that match!’  You must remember!’
Sadly, no.  Or perhaps, wisely, no.  I do not remember the incident at all – though my daughter remembers it so well she is now repeating it for a gaggle of girlfriends who will  only remember me dimly, if at all, and now have a new vision of me as a screeching harridan.  And – I then heard – her husband is well familiar with the incident, having heard  the story several times and even coined a person-specific version of it for said daughter when she is equally stressed and suspects that her two degrees in law, sociology and criminology are not providing her with the rich  and intellectual rewards she might reasonably have expected when she graduated.
The trouble is, from this distance, while I can hear my own voice in the story – and I swear, I thought it far more than I actually said it – I think I may well have been wrong.  Without wishing to borrow clichés from football, at the end of the day, which mattered more – all that toiling with pants and socks and a red hot iron, or all that toiling in the corridors of schools, if not of power, made possible by the two degrees and the qualification to teach?
There is no doubt I enjoyed the job (mostly) and I would have grave doubts about the enjoyment of laundry in all its phases.  But the job, in the end, is just a job.  The laundry, you do for love.
I have attended two funerals recently.  In both, there were long accounts of how the deceased had spent his professional life – qualifications, jobs, promotions, positions of power and influence, achievements.  And in both there were constant references to the fact that regardless of all of that, the man we mourned had been most proud of the wife he had loved and the family he had raised.
You do not raise a family by writing a thesis, or by striding around with exaggerated ideas about leadership in general and your own self-importance in particular, or composing strap-lines that distinguish your family from those of all your friends.  You raise a family being up all night with a crying baby, pushing toddlers on swings till your arms ache and singing nursery rhymes till your throat is sore, worrying yourself into grey hair about their nursery group, their pre-school, their primary school, their senior school, their choices for university – place and course – their future, God help us even their pension. You raise a family stressing about the food they eat, the friends they make, the dangers of bungee jumping and driving lessons.
You raise a family dealing with the pants, the socks and the shirts, so that none of them has to form a pressure group of three and demand where these simple things are, while you were sneaking around reading the papers or having dinner with friends, or embarking on research for your third degree.
So I am ashamed – about twenty five years late – of my hysterical outburst in the face of justifiable enquiry.  And I am also interested in the place of – let’s face it – the drudgery in the great scheme of our lives. And I am very concerned about where schools stand on such matters.
I was there when Home Economics turned – overnight – into Food Technology, and when Woodwork turned into Design Technology.   From my slight distance from such things as an English teacher, it seemed that several things happened at once: palaces of technology, money no object, suddenly appeared in otherwise impoverished schools to cater for this brave new world of subjects with the sparkling ‘Technology’ label; and students stopped making cakes and pipe racks (the very idea!  I wonder what the modern equivalent might be?) and spent their time designing the brief for any object they might think of making, or ensuring the packaging would be appealing to the market.  It seemed to get a long way from hands-on anything.
In fact the subjects seemed to move a long way towards art – fantastic sculptural creations appeared from A level students, and many a fashion designer must have caught the bug in early classes which were a long way from my own experience of taking a year to make a gingham apron with my name on it in cross-stitch.
But while what you might call domestic arts – the whole business of home-making, when you boiled it down – were shrinking on the timetable, girls were powering ahead in the examination stakes and the league tables.  They quickly earned better results than their brothers in most public examinations you could name.  Hurrah for the girls, and good luck on your way to a career dancing on the glass ceiling of British industry and institutions like banking and law.
In fact, hello cruel world, and goodbye pants, and socks and crisply ironed shirts.  Hello increased maternity leave but a fairly rapid return to the working world , and goodbye to the ten year spell I had at home with three small children.
My daughter’s story of my own explosion, so vividly remembered, is evidence that the old days were not necessarily a bed of roses. And of course I hope I have raised my own daughters – and sons – to make the best of all their talents, needle-sharp intellectual as well as cuddly nurturing ones.
But I hope that collectively we do not forget what people may well realise just in time as they approach their graves: that in the end, whatever the glittering prizes,  it’s the people in your life who matter, and what they remember of us will be what we did for love.
And to underestimate that – tedious or repetitive as it may be – would be just pants, really, wouldn’t it?

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