Category Archives: relationships

What’s in a name

In four weeks time I have to decide whether or not to change my name.

It would be a lot less awkward if I’d reverted to my maiden name after my divorce, but I really could not be bothered. My maiden name is not spelled the way it is pronounced and my first name has its own difficulties, so one of the pleasures of early matrimony was no longer having to spell out both names letter by letter every single time.

It seems discourteous to marry one man and use another man’s name, but I’ve got used to it. It trips off my tongue and spells itself easily and if you google it, it’s mostly me that you find.

To my shame, this last may be the deciding factor.

Oh, the patriarchy… Decisions decisions. Perhaps I should just choose another one altogether and be done with it.

Maybe I’ll call myself Ms Rose.  That way I’ll still smell sweet.

Yelping about babies and bathwater

Every now and again I back myself into a conceptual corner and sit there yelping in confusion and distress.

I realised very clearly the other day just how subversive feminism actually is. I’m not sure that women can live financially and professionally independent lives without un-weaving society around us. I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it. It’s an unsettling thought – particularly from a position of feminine freedom and privilege.

But feminism is good – right? I mean it’s freedom and self-actualisation isn’t it? How can that be wrong?

But communities are good – right? They’re caring and supportive networks of people reaching out to help each other. When communities fall apart we end up with underclasses and gang warfare and drugs and knives and guns.

Shit! I’m turning into a Daily Mail reader before my very eyes.

I’ve always known communities aren’t necesarily either caring or supportive. There are too many places in the world where you can’t be gay or trans or bi, where you can’t be a woman and educated, where you can’t be poor and ill, where you can’t be an atheist and hold office for me to think for a second that communities are safe places to be. But on the other hand, we are social animals and we do need some glue to hold us together: if you are a round peg, then those round holes and cosy and snug.

What I hadn’t realised is that if you are a woman and you don’t suit the community you are born and raised in, then you will either damage yourself or undermine that community.

I realised this when I had lunch with a friend the other day. The friend is Asian, 30ish, educated, professional and has a strong stream of self-determination in her temperament. So far so westernised. She is also a sincere believer in her religion and a committed member of what she refers to as “my community”. Her religion, her family and her roles as a daughter and aunt are part of her identity. But she doesn’t want to become another one of the submissive women she sees around her, tucked in to an arranged marriage and made bitchy and manipulative by boredom. She wants to be herself within her family, her friends and her religion, and respected for it. It’s like looking back in time to the 50s or the period before the first World War. My friend’s position is very much the same as that of my grandmother’s sister a century or so ago who left home to become an actress: to do that she left her family, any hopes she had of marriage, her friends and the places she knew. These things are more common than not in the West now, and we forget how hard they were.

My friend wants to have her cake and eat it, and I don’t think she can. Communities function best when men work and women don’t (oh, goddess, the Daily Mail) because men bond when they are active and women bond when they talk. This isn’t how it should be, not in a society of human beings where the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are more or less taken care of. But darwiniansim sucks and it’s an observable fact that communities start to fracture when more than a few of the women work, and communities where the men don’t work fall apart. Social cohesion happens when women share conversation, motherhood and domesticity and men win bread or hunt mightily.

You can see why this thought has left me yelping. Unfortunately we can’t wrap ourselves up in warm value judgements about social justice, ethics and how things should be: this is a matter of wiring.

So women like me, my grandmother’s sister and my Asian friend, who aren’t mothers, who work in predominantly male environments, who have friends of both sexes, who network rather than gossip, we pick away at the glue that holds communities together.

And women like my friend and my grandmother’s sister have to choose between cutting off one part of their identity of suppressing another. Individual western women are luckier: we don’t have such strong and cohesive communities and families to constrain us. But collectively are we worse off?  They are not there to support us either, because we’ve torn them down pay-cheque by pay-cheque and latch-key by latch-key.

Which means that the mad feminists of the 70s who said that the patriarchy were inherently opposed to wimmin’s freedom were right.

The mad feminists AND the Daily Mail?


The starting gun

One summer’s evening ten years ago I sat on the sofa while my guts moved nine foot to the left.  This placed them about a yard outside the house I was sitting in, which is a tricky sensation if you are trying to have a rational conversation.  But when your partner of 15 years says he wants a divorce, it does that sort of thing to you.

It was, not surprisingly, the start of an entirely new phase of my life.  It took us a long time to shift from where we were then to where each of us is now; it took us a good two or three years just to sort out the legals.  It would have been much quicker if we’d divorced in bitterness and acrimony. (Doesn’t acrimony sound like a wind-swept purple wild flower or a homoeopathic remedy for – well – acrimony perhaps).  But we were remarkably leisurely about the whole thing.  It’s irrelevant now if that was because of laziness or denial.

Suddenly I realise that something which has always felt very recent was in fact a long time ago.  For ages the late 1990s has been just before now, and suddenly it’s a decade behind me.

1999 – I am with a group of colleagues in the centre of Glasgow – a place I had run to out of dire economic necessity and where I was finding my feet in my brand new single life – and someone hands out a card advertising a nightclub.  I realise that the only words on the card I have any cultural references for are ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘to’ and ‘and’ and the dates.  I guess I’m not in my 20s any more.

2000 – I cross a road in Hamburg from a business hotel to the offices of the multinational company where I have a shiny new contract.   What happens if it all goes horribly wrong?  What makes me think I have anything to offer this giant company in this foreign country who are paying top dollar for my unexpectedly rare skills?

2001 – I walk back to the friend’s house where I’m staying in Sweden through sunlit suburban woods and find myself thinking fondly of the way my lover talks almost entirely about himself when we go out for a meal.  In a moment of self-awareness I realise that I’m falling in love.  I stop myself almost physically, by reminding myself that – no – his self-obsession isn’t endearing; it’s actually rather discourteous.  And a good thing too, since our affair has run its course and he leaves a few days later.

2002 – I unpack my suitcase one Sunday night in the business hotel where I have been staying for three months; I’ve been to Sweden for a wedding.  As I unpack, I find myself thinking “It’s nice to be home”.  Then I realise that, no, the Holiday Inn in Leopoldstraße in Munich is not my home.

2003 – I pick up a car from the airport just outside Stockholm, and drive it carefully north through Uppsala. “How’s the driving?” – “Fine; I could go right the way up to the Circle” – “You mean that, don’t you!” I think about it for a moment and realise that yes I do.  So we drive through hundreds of miles of austere Swedish woodlands right the way up to the Arctic circle, and photograph each other wearing sunglasses at midnight when we get there.

2004 – My life becomes briefly like a French art-house movie as I spend afternoons in a hotel with a married man whose name I never know and I become a way for middle-aged men to experiment with infidelity in the same way that they’d experimented with drugs in the 1970s, and I spend one unexpected night in bed with a bisexual woman and a transsexual man.

2005 – I accept a job with a Great Big Company in the spring and in the autumn I buy a small and awkward house on the edge of nowhere with a fabulous view.

2006 – I sit among fellow-members of the WI while a moan of appreciation emerges unanimously from 20 different female throats as we watch a cookery demonstrator fold melted chocolate into whipped cream.  It is exactly like the scene in Catch 22 when the Colonel’s secretary crosses her legs and the entire gathering of enlisted men groan.

2007 – I rage, endlessly, futilely, week after week as the government destroys an entire generation of junior doctors.  My energies are almost entirely taken up with this.

2008 – I take stock, and realise I’m surprised to that find ten years have got behind me, that I’m older and – as Pink Floyd remind me – shorter of breath and closer to death.  But I sure as hell heard that starting gun.  And I sure as hell have had an interesting time since.


Shagging the Tudors and Stuarts

While I’m having a go at the Scots, I am going to settle down and have a thoroughly good bitch about Mary Queen of.

Mary StuartI have finally pinned down what annoys me about Mary Stuart-Darnley-Bothwell or whatever her surname was. Some people are ruled by their heads, some are ruled by their hearts and some do all their thinking with organs that are slightly lower down, and I suspect Mary Stuart was one of these. There are lots of good things about having a powerful libido, however far too many women whose cognitive abilities have been washed away by their hormones deny that they have a strong sex drive and present themselves as being sensitive, emotional or romantic, because it’s nicer than being a hot babe. Their admirers describe them as ‘passionate’ though that’s often no more than a polite euphemism. In fact many of them are drama queens, and the rest of them are just plain needy because all they want to do is buck like rabbits but they can’t face the implications, so they wrap their lust up in pink bows and say that they are longing for a relationship. As I said, Mary Stuart’s series of overly-emotional and frequently disastrous marriages suggest to me that she came into this category of self-indulgent and rather precious women.

Eliabeth TudorIf we look at Elizabeth we find a much cooler customer. Whether or not Elizabeth bedded her various favourites is a matter of speculation but whatever her sexual history she didn’t for a moment get off on the emotion of it all. She sometimes comes across as ruthless and cold-hearted, but in fact I think it is simply that she had a very strong survival instinct, honed by the extreme precariousness of her upbringing as the sometime illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Elizabeth could never afford to put a hair wrong; her mother had been executed while Elizabeth was still an infant and she had veered from heir to bastard and back again depending on the political and religious inclinations of her father and siblings. Whatever other speculations you make about Elizabeth’s sexuality and gender, it is quite clear that personal survival was a primary goal.

Mary by contrast was raised as the golden little darling of the French court, feted, spoiled and flattered, and never developed any of the survival instincts which Elizabeth learned as a toddler. Maybe Mary didn’t need them, maybe she was just incapable of developing them. Mary comes across as emotionally self-indulgent and short term: Liz Taylor to Elizabeth’s Katherine Hepburn.

It is probably unfair of me to admire Elizabeth’s self-control and dislike to what I see as Mary’s self-indulgence, but women who wail about love and betrayal when all they want is a good shag scrape on my nerves like chalk on a blackboard. If you want a good shag, go out and shag someone.

Right. That’s the Scots insulted. Again. I’m off to read up about Owain Glyndwr now.

Needing being needed

When does being supportive slip into co-dependency?

My Grandma, who had a large part in my raising, was born to a well off middle class family in the 19th Century. The role of womanhood which she presented was to help and support her men-folk and I imbibed co-dependency with my morning cereals. On the other hand I also learned that although men are loud and shouty and useful for heavy lifting, they aren’t necessarily that bright and in fact it takes a woman to understand the subtleties.

I emerged from my up-bringing believing myself very capable, thinking that men only see half the picture, and believing it is appropriate for me to enable my partner to Do His Work. Grandma acknowledged that the Work men Do is often Important, even if it is lopsided and frequently misses the point. On the other hand, she sent her daughter to university and certainly we grand-daughters were expected to enter professions rather than get jobs, so maybe she was a seething mass of feminist frustration all along but being a five year old, I didn’t notice. She could certainly be very impatient with men. Her motto was “‘I’ll do it myself’, said the Little Red Hen”, and my problem with feminism has always been to question why women should lower themselves to equality.

Now, whenever I get into a relationship, I can end up putting myself out to enable my partner to Do His Work. I do it consciously, I do it sparingly, and I tend to do it when it really does make a difference. However, I have previously been supportive of partners to my own emotional, financial or professional detriment. I am rougher and tougher than I used to be, and have much firmer boundaries, but the instincts to be supportive are still there.

What I struggle with, is whether or not it is a Bad Thing.

John Grey and Dorothy Parker

What I say is what I mean.
what you see is what you get,
what I think shows on my face,
and yet you’re still confused, my pet?

Men are from Mars, Women are from VenusDorothy Parker

Lust, actually

The one I go to bed with I’m wild with desire for you
Aphra (pleased and flattered) Wild with desire…? Really…?
The one I go to bed with Well, a bit pissed off with desire, actually
Oh well

Lust actually

… but then again, too few to mention …

FrankieWhen you get a text message at a quarter to midnight saying “Are you still awake?”, what are you going to do? That’s right. I rang back.

My friend has a complicated life. I’m used to being the soap opera around here, and it is rather odd to find myself the stable one while my friend ricochets from situation to situation like the ball in a pinball machine.

He has some choices to make and, for once in my life, I didn’t have advice to give.

I am great at giving advice.

No, really I am.

Sometimes it’s advice, sometimes it’s an opinion, sometimes it’s a suggestion, and one of the things that makes me a good person to ask for help is that I am always really clear on which it is. I’ll even give people advice that I really don’t want them to take, if what is good for them is painful for me. For some reason that’s the one set of advice I have a 10/10 take-up on. Oh well.

So I told him about a couple of ways that I make sure I end up with as few regrets as possible. Coward that I am, I don’t like the idea of regrets.

The first is to kick start some hindsight. Imagine yourself five, ten, fifteen, twenty years in the future, or at the far end of your career, or the far end of your life, and look back on the situation you are in. What would you wish you had done? What would you regret the least? A powerful question that. (Ha!) Use it wisely.

It’s an odd thing to do the first time you do it, but it is so powerful and so useful that it can end up becoming habitual. It helps you get some perspective on the thing and sort out the short-term gain or pain from the lasting consequences of your decision.

The second is to take time to notice that the decision you are making is the right one, given the circumstances you are in right now. This is something that good abortion and adoption counsellors do. They take the time to make sure that, whatever happens in the future, the woman knows now that the decision she has made (to terminate the pregnancy, to give the baby away or to go through with the whole thing) is the right one given the situation she is in and the information she has available.

This one makes it easier for you to forgive yourself for your own mistakes because you know you did the best you could at the time.

The third thing is to be aware when a decision really is not your call, and you are just a factor in someone else’s decision-making. Deluded fools that they are, they think the world revolves around them. Don’t they realise? You see, you can have all sorts of reactions to the consequences of another person’s decisions but unless you caused them to take that decision, regret cannot be one of them.

So there you are. Aphra’s guide to regret-free decision-making. Mind you, you may still make completely lousy choices. You may still lie awake staring at the ceiling and aching with pain. But at least you’ll have got there really really carefully.

Grandmama, Grandmama, here’s this lovely egg. Listen up while I teach you how to suck it.

Category Errors #1 – Pre-Nup discussions

I am fine with all the questions in this NYT list of Things To Discuss Before Marriage – very wise and prudent they are too. I did in fact discuss all of this and more with the former Mr Behn before I jumped over the broomstick with him. Didn’t make a jot of difference in the end, but there you go.

So there I was reading this and checking them off in my mind – have I Discussed this with the One I Discuss These Things With? But then my mental train jumped the track for a minute:

  1. check
  2. check
  3. check
  4. check
  5. check
  6. check
  7. huh……….? I mean …………? HUH…………?

I am sure that relationships deteriorate into acrimony and end awash in bitterness because of this. It used to be toothpaste tubes before they were plastic and you couldn’t squeeze them in the middle; and of course times change.

But is it me, or is #7 in a completely different category from all the others?

Good news, bad news

Happy Face I don’t have to wait until the afternoon of Christmas Day to read the autumn Terry Pratchett

Sad Face I have to buy it myself

Happy Face No-one tells me “that dress is really unflattering from behind”

Sad Face I can’t tell when what I’m wearing is really unflattering from behind

Happy Face My bank balance is nobody’s business but my own

Sad Face Paying off the mortgage is up to me

Happy Face Sex is dirty again

Sad Face It can also be infected

Happy Face Buying erotica at the bookshop is a symptom of how liberated and sexually at ease I am with myself

Sad Face Sometimes flirting with the guy at the till in the bookshop is the nearest I get to an erotic encounter

Happy Face Someone else will raise his teenage kids

Sad Face Someone else is raising his pre-schoolers

Happy Face I can use any colour I like to paint the bedroom

Sad Face I am the one who has to paint it

Happy Face I don’t have to choose Christmas and Birthday presents for his family

Sad Face I no longer get the gossip about his sister’s latest lunacy

Happy Face I can eat pasta with pesto every night for a week if I want to

Sad Face I am putting on weight

And finally:

Happy Face The loo-seat is down when I go to the bathroom

Happy Face Nope. There isn’t a downside to that one