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It’s Freaky Friday All Week (Final)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part six

Last Day: Friday

The food has been delicious, but the housekeeping has been somewhere between minimal and non-existent. We are under pressure because we have a friend, Brian, coming over for dinner this evening. I stomp around pointedly muttering about monetary rewards and their direct relationship to performance levels. This doesn’t work and myself and John both begin shouting. Soon all five of us are shouting, vacuuming, dusting and sweeping piles of toys under rugs. Our dinner guest arrives just as we have finally pulled it all together. Mary has been simmering beef chilli in the hotpot all day and whipped up some rice and homemade guacamole to accompany it. Michael and Seamus have set the table on the terrace nicely and sit chatting to our guest and fetching us drinks while we wait for dinner. Five minutes after Mary serves up it starts to rain. No one can be bothered moving the whole shebang inside, so we take turns to huddle under our canopy and I notice with alarm bright orange and green rivulets pouring off the edges. So the paint wasn’t waterproof. Oops.

The final task of the week is to do the dishes, after which they are free to watch inane cartoons until they lose consciousness and reawaken into normal life in the morning. But instead they stick around. The rain eases off and we light a fire. Brian shows Michael how to use wax to keep a little stick-torch alight. We’ve been playing with fire all week, what’s a few more hours?

The food and fun were spectacular but neatness is not their strong suit

Aftermath: Back to Porridge

It took a day or two of slipping back into the comfortable bed of old habits to appreciate what had really changed during our adventure. I can’t say that I was surprised by how well my children could cook and clean. I knew they were capable of that. The biggest surprise was myself. I hadn’t realised until I stopped how relentlessly frustrating, stressful, exhausting and downright depressing it is to try so hard to manage another person’s life. To schedule a week. To organise a day. During our experiment there was a subtle shift in responsibility that had nothing to do with whose job it was to do the dishes. I didn’t see it until my books were stolen in the train station. I was so upset with myself for forgetting them, I sort of froze for a moment before I even started looking for them. It was Mary who organised the search party, assigning us each a section of the station. She took charge. Her brothers followed her lead in a symphony of perfect cooperation. In case you think my kids are just saints, or freaks of nature let me say with haste that this is usually not the case. We have suffered protracted bouts of sibling rivalry. Hours of teasing, arguing and fighting. I’ve also wasted hours on lectures advocating personal responsibility that were intended to engender the kind of initiative I saw that day, to no avail. I had expected this initiative and responsibility to show itself in clean bedrooms and walked dogs, all on cue and in fulfilment of clearly communicated expectations. And I had often been disappointed. So what was different now? 

The most common and fundamental mistake we make in bringing about change is to focus first on changing other people’s behaviour instead of looking first to ourselves. The missing ingredient my kids needed to really practice responsibility was for me to let some of it go. Giving your children a job is easy. Backing off and letting them carry out in their own way is harder. Doing it badly. Doing it wrong. Doing it as quickly as possible and then watching cartoons for four hours. It’s all infinitely better than not doing it at all. This can be hard to swallow in a culture where both children and parents are constantly under surveillance and constantly being judged. But kids, please! Give the grown ups another chance. We can eventually learn to back off. We just need some practice.

Séamus finds space to relax without well meaning parents trying too hard to entertain him

It’s Freaky Friday All Week (5)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part Five

Day Four: Thursday

I am practically begging to leave the house. My usual strategy in summer is to spend as much time as possible outdoors, for several reasons. It’s healthy and wholesome. It means less tidying and cleaning up. It keeps everyone entertained. It keeps me entertained. The kids have been so happy to be left to their own devices and so busy working at cooking and laundry that they have barely left the house at all. Over a lovely brunch of potato waffles and Mary’s homemade Moroccan spiced beans I float the idea of a trip to town to tempt them outside. They agree to head off with me on the train to pick up a book I have ordered after they finish cleaning up. Yes! Freedom!

While they are doing the dishes I impulsively start to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. We have a white tent-canopy over part of our balcony so we can air-dry our washing even when it is raining. I have long fantasised about decorating it with paint. Giving it a bit of colour and adding a Jackson Pollock vibe. I lay the canopy on the ground outside, get some of the kids’ acrylic paints and start to spatter. Before long the dishes are abandoned and everyone is getting involved. Once we’ve squirted some of every colour in the house Michael suggests adding footprints into the mix. I can’t resist, but accidentally go into automatic responsible-for-the-mess mode and bring a bucket of water outside to ensure everyone washes off their feet (and paws) before they hit the carpet. When we have finished there are multiple paint stains on the paving stones that look very much like they are never coming off. After a half-hearted rinsing attempt I abandon it and we head off to collect my book.

Once in town Séamus decides to have a tantrum in the first shop we enter because he doesn’t have enough pocket money to buy the toy he wants. He does something he hasn’t done for around two years- lies down on the floor in full brat mode. I am consumed with silent rage, but icily determined to get the book I have waited weeks for. I make an impulsive and unusual move. No bribes, not threats, no dire warnings about “consequences”. I wait for him to get bored on the floor and stand up and then I take them to the nicest coffee shop in town and get them hot chocolate. They are visibly confused. I explain that this week is a holiday for me too. Not just from the dishes and the laundry, but from being in charge and directing everyone’s behaviour. I tell them I really, really want to get my book (Fearless by Catrina Davies) before we go home. We get to the bookshop and somehow have a lovely time browsing for ages. As well as my long awaited book I pick up another on David Hockney (John’s favourite artist) as a surprise. We make it to the station on time for our train without the usual huffing, puffing and rushing. We even have ten minutes to pop to the loo before the train comes! 

Our modern art installation ‘Hung Out to Dry’

Of course I leave my book bag hanging on a hook in the toilet stall. I realise I’ve done so five minutes before our train is due. We go back and search the toilet to no avail. 

We ask a member of staff who tells us that a book bag was handed in. It’s my bag alright, but the expensive David Hockney book and Fearless are missing although some school books remain. The book thief has admirable literary and artistic taste. Of course we miss the train. The kids are surprisingly sympathetic as we wait for the next one. And patient. Strangely so in fact. Waiting an extra 30 minutes for a train after a long hot day with a four year old should be a nightmare, but he sits peacefully and quietly. It dawns on me that the usually constant background drone of sibling bickering has been absent all week. 

I get home exhausted, but very thankful that I don’t have to make dinner because I want to hoist our paint splatter canopy back up before John gets home. He might find our little foray into modern art a bit more acceptable if it doesn’t involve any DIY work on his part.

For dinner we have vegetable curry with homemade naan bread. This proves to be the first culinary mishap of the week for Mary as the naan dough is too sticky to roll out. I show Mary how to add extra flour gradually to make it less sticky. It feels more like an exchange of know-how between equals than my usual lecture “On How to do Everything Correctly”. The line between helping kids and doing it for them has become increasingly blurred of late. The experiment has really helped me find that line again.

It was hard to adjust to all the free time at first but I managed

It’s Freaky Friday All Week (4)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part Four

Day Three: Wednesday

Although I only had a few beers last night and got to bed fairly early, I somehow wake up bitterly hungover. There is a patch of sand at the bottom of my shower tray that has been there since Monday. A toilet roll the dog ripped up has been strewn about the stairs for two days now. They left the wash in the machine yesterday. I suppose the cooking and laundry are running well because everyone likes to eat and have clean clothes, but it turns out no one else really cares about general messiness but me. But I can’t bottle it up any longer.

The dam has burst and I’m giving verbal prompts all over the place. I explain about washing left in the machine too long and the lingering smelliness that ensues. They decide to rewash it before hanging out. That will be a total of 2 washes complete in three days then. Not ideal. I do approximately two a day during term time. Without school uniforms the summer laundry schedule is a bit more forgiving, but not that forgiving.

Michael practices Zen and the Art of Dish Minimisation

Lunch is a joint effort with all three helping. They make tuna wraps. John pops in from his “office” in the garage for a bite and is obviously starving, having been hard at work all morning. He is trying to be a good sport and praise their efforts, but they don’t quite seem to grasp that as the tallest in the family by a foot and by far the most athletic he definitely needs more food than the rest of us. John, myself and everyone else even down to little Séamus are served the exact same portions. Luckily little Seamy can’t finish his and John jumps at the chance to wolf it down.

Even MasterChef Mary can’t keep it up every night of the week as salmon en croute goes puff by Wednesday

I think everyone is a little tired at this point, and at dinner time Mary forgos her usual gourmet adventures for a quick-and-easy chicken burger and chips. She serves up all our burgers pre-dressed with salad and sauces according to our individual tastes on one big wooden board and plonks down a ginormous bowl of chips. No plates or cutlery. Dishes are for chumps and those who never have to tidy up after themselves. We fall asleep in front of a movie apart from Michael who goes on a 4 hour lego binge constructing what amounts to an entire village in his room.

It’s Freaky Friday All Week (2)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part Two

The Challenge Begins

Day One: Monday

I open my eyes and grope for my phone to check the time- 9AM! I can’t believe how long I’ve slept. My generalised diffuse compulsion to “get things done” usually has me first up in the morning. When I emerge from my room there is a lot of sitting around watching cartoons going on and breakfast seems to be every man for himself. This is smart. Why start messing up the kitchen when there are a further two meals to prepare and clean up for today? I ask why there are no piles of breakfast dishes and snort with a mix of admiration and dismay when Mary responds that they had toast and tea in the kitchen, leaning over the sink to cut down on dishes. Genius! They even rinsed out their cups instead of piling them in the dishwasher. It’s sterling work, but why didn’t the little darlings ever think of this when I was chipping congealed weetabix out of a stack of bowls every morning for years?

For lunch Mary serves up pastrami rolls with sundried tomato and spicy olives. She pays much more attention to presentation than I would and even a sandwich suddenly feels like a treat. For afternoon entertainment they suggest afternoon tea and biscuits with a nice quiet read, and of course I am happy to oblige. The promised screen time limits for me have not been mentioned. Nor has the threatened homework. It seems that as long as I am not hanging over their shoulders telling them to switch it off they are suddenly not too fussed about what I am doing. I find myself with an unprecedented amount of time to answer texts, follow links and even watch videos I have been sent. This normally has to wait until after about 10 at night when absolutely everything else is done and all the people who messaged me are in bed. I’m using my new-found bucket of free time in part to write up my diary of each day. Mary looks over my shoulder and asks what I am writing. When I explain that I’m blogging about what we are up to she shakes her head, dismissing it as “a bit too… American”.

For dinner they have planned to cook spicy prawn and pepper kebabs. After chopping garlic and preparing various seasonings for about 20 minutes Mary pulls out the wooden skewers to assemble the kebabs and realises that because they are made of wood and have been in the cupboard some time they have gone mouldy. I bite my tongue and resist the urge to jump in with suggested solutions. I’m assuming she will need to change the menu. Instead she asks me to visit the corner shop to buy more skewers. I can see in her eyes as she asks that she is aware that I am often hit with a stream of complaints when I ask her to pop to the shops for a forgotten ingredient while dinner is on. I acquiesce graciously to her request and immediately leave to get the needed item. She is grateful and a moment of understanding passes between us. We have a delicious dinner.

Having had their fill of ipad and cartoons in between their one laundry load and the cooking and cleaning of two meals they ask to go to the beach with the dog. When we return I put on a movie and no-one objects, except Michael who goes downstairs to watch the cartoon of his choice alone in his room. Not something I usually approve of, but hey, he’s the boss now. They stay up until 11pm and are too tired to object when I suggest they might want to switch off and go to sleep. It doesn’t matter too much that they are up late as there’s no unbearable woman to wake us all up in the morning early to make sure we have time to eat, dress, run, walk the dog and do yoga all before 10am, and as I drift off I feel immensely grateful for that.

Séamus (4) doing the dishes

It’s Freaky Friday All Week

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part One

April 2022: The Proposal

I call the troops (Mary, 12, Michael, 9 and Seamus, 4) around the table for a family conference. I have been banging on relentlessly for years about the need to develop independence and practice self-care skills. I’m aware that the term self care is more often associated with duvet days, probiotics and mindfulness meditation these days. But you have to walk before you can run, so I’m focusing on staying alive stuff like cleaning, cooking and washing. I’d like to think that if I banged my head and lost consciousness they could keep it together to phone an ambulance and tidy the house for me before it arrives. So far this self-sufficiency training has met with very mixed success, but I’m about to put my money where my mouth is. I’m not at all sure how they will take it. 

“What do you think about swapping lives for a while?” I ask. They look at me quizzically. “How would you guys like to be in charge for a week?” Now they look hunted. I’ve piqued their interest but they are almost sure it is a trap. “You three will be in charge of running the house: cooking, cleaning and laundry. Myself and Dad will do your jobs: running to the shop for milk and bread, walking the dog, clearing and setting the table.” Their first reaction was to ask if they can impose screen time limits on us. It immediately seems like a deal breaker. They don’t seem at all intimidated by the idea of running the house, but unless they get to throw their weight around dishing out orders they are not sure what is in it for them. I don’t see why not. I hate being chained to the computer all the time. I’m very happy to have a week off. Their Dad, John, is a very different story though. He is a self-employed artist who runs his own website. They are very resistant to the idea that Dad’s screen time is necessary as it puts a roof over our heads. Banning it would therefore make us homeless. I gallantly offer to make up for Dad’s selfish bread-winning-by-computer by saying that in addition to my strict screen time limits, they can give me homework.

The Gang

May 2022: The Preparation

We agree some basic ground rules, and dangle a monetary incentive. The princely sum of 50 euros is up for grabs for a job well done. I fill them in on what it is I do all day when I am at home. Laundry must be washed, hung on the line to dry, then make its way to each person’s room neatly folded. Meals must be provided, meeting our usual standards of reasonable nutritional value (so no ordering take away for the week, or living on crisps). Dad and I will provide a stocked fridge and larder, and a small budget for items like milk and bread that need to be bought during the week. The dishes must be done and kitchen kept clear and clean enough to prepare food.

Cleaning of bathrooms and vacuuming should take place, with an obligation to keep the place tidy enough to get things done. Cook, clean, tidy… and that’s it. I will take on their usual burden of entertaining four year old Seamus and generally keeping him out of the way while they do the big jobs. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Early July 2022: The Final Countdown

As we get closer to doomsday Mary starts to ask questions and make lists. This is a dead giveaway that she has started to take things seriously, and to get genuinely interested in this project. She is a born list writer. Without any formal police training she has somehow intuited that pedantic notetaking can be much more intimidating than force. Food is her immediate concern. Recipes are consulted and shopping lists drawn up. Mary is a good cook and has been capable of making a family meal solo since age 11. She’s ambitious though, and I wonder how far into the week the salmon-en-croute-with-garlic-and-herb-butter mentality is going to go and whether I should stick some emergency fish fingers and beans on that list. 

I had intended to leave the house in tip top condition the night before, with all the laundry baskets empty, but this has not happened. We decided to spend the day at the beach instead, so I’m scrambling frantically to clear the decks at 10.30pm before we go to bed. Earlier this evening we visited the local budget supermarket to finish off the shopping list for the week. Because we stayed at the beach so late we found ourselves pedalling off up a hill under grey skies, rushing to beat the rain in a caravan of bikes and scooters to get there before closing time. At the crest of the hill, just as the first raindrops began to splatter us, Michael shouted out “this is fun!” without a trace of irony. It’s not a sentiment he has ever expressed about a supermarket trip before, and though I’m getting really pretty nervous about the whole experiment by now I feel hopeful and even a little bit excited about it too.

A Dependable But Fun Wife

I had a bit of a scare last summer. An uncomfortably close call. It started with an occasional pain in my right shoulder when I was running. Soon it was painful every time I ran. And then one morning in the shower I found a lump. I wasn’t too concerned at this point, but since a friend of a similar age had just narrowly survived cancer that year, I thought I should probably get it checked out. Just to be safe. I remember that my primary concern, as I cycled off to visit the doctor, was that she would feel nothing and send me home feeling like a stereotypically hysterical middle-aged woman. When she found not just one lump, but a second even larger one in my right breast then all the air seemed to rush out of my lungs at once. I’m mortified to admit I cried a little even though nothing had even actually gone wrong at this point. In retrospect what upset me was the thought of telling my husband. He had just buried both his mother and his best friend the year before. The idea of subjecting him to this kind of fear and worry, yet again, pushed me over the edge and way outside my comfort zone into a very public display of emotion. 

Next stop mammogram.

If you’ve never had one, a mammogram is really not what you might expect. I had supposed it would be something along the lines of standing in front of a big light box, and then very briefly slipping down my hospital modesty gown to allow a discreet and rapid photo of my boobs. This is not the case. If you have one scheduled then you can expect to stand alone right in the middle of a white room that resembles the deck of a spaceship feeling acutely aware that your entire top half is very, very naked, while a heavy and noisy horizontal metal plate thrums into place just below your chest. You will then be asked by a radiographer to lift your boobs and place them on this plate, laying them out like St John’s head for Herod. Things get weirder still while your boobs are clamped by a second descending plate and squeezed in a vice. Still more clamping, buzzing and squeezing to follow as they take some side profiles as well. I won’t say I have never had less fun with my top off, but it’s close.

Next up was the ultrasound room, where I blinked half-blinded as I struggled to comprehend the news that there were now not just two but three “solid masses” that would require biopsies.

I swallowed hard, nodding mutely as a member of the hospital administration leaned over my still naked bosom to confirm, up-close-and-personal, that I could pay before any further testing took place. When it comes to life, death or birth, we must turn our trust towards complete strangers. Dignity is a small price to pay for a chance at salvation, so most of us hand it over without hesitation when we cross the threshold of a hospital. I waited a long and uncomfortable week for my results. 

Creative Commons License
Stresstris by Patricia Frazer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

The most chilling aspect of the whole ordeal was to realise that somewhere in the cocktail of feelings (terror, shame, fatigue, self pity) was an unexpected guest. Something I never thought to find there. I am not proud to say it, but during that week of waiting there was a small part of me that felt… relieved. I was scared too. Especially for my husband and three children.  I was angry that this could happen to me after I had eaten all those salads, done all that yoga, jogged all those miles! But still, there it was. Undeniable. An easing up, a letting go, a release.  It took weeks of existential detective work to try to figure out where this feeling could be coming from. And this is what I came up with: it was existential relief.

Relief that I could take a break from trying so hard to make something of my life. Jean-Paul Sartre, capturing perfectly the post-religious, post-idealist disillusionment of the latter half of the 20th century, said “Man is condemned to be free”. Woman has increasingly joined him. The dizzying array of opportunity, choice and freedom available to many of my generation is a privilege. There are people all over the world who would love to have the time and resources to experience existential angst, but they are too busy surviving. But for those millions of us in the privileged position of choice, our angst is still real and our depression and anxiety is growing.

I lost my belief in any kind of afterlife or God after a very religious upbringing and a long, dark night of the soul trying to hang on to my faith. But a few bits and pieces stay with me, and these are often the ideas that have seeped out of Christiantity into broader culture for many people. A prime example is  “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (King James Version, Luke 12:48). I hadn’t realised until my fortieth year on the planet how deeply the responsibility to provide an existential return on my existence had been eating away at me. With a great education, material comforts unimaginable to most people in the world, and a supportive family behind me, the least I could do is be an attentive and loving mother, a dependable but fun wife, an inspiring teacher and a good daughter. I also felt obliged to repay society’s investment in my education by publishing meaningful research, not to mention being a good role model for my kids by staying fit and pursuing wholesome hobbies like art and music as opposed to bingeing exhaustedly on Netflix and Belgian beer. I’ve never been good at or even particularly interested in being houseproud, but I have become dimly aware of the increasing expectation that we all  keep a home so clean and devoid of clutter it looks like no one lives there. Then there’s also the imperative to expand one’s horizons and take advantage of the opportunities our parents never had by learning to code, striving to thwart climate change and the increasing drive to justify the existence of hobbies by transforming them into economically productive “side-hustles”. You can’t just pour your heart out in a journal anymore, you need to drive followers to your blog. It’s a heck of a lot to get done in four thousand weeks. It’s beginning to dawn on me that I probably won’t manage it. I suppose on some level sickness could provide me with a reason or an excuse for not having achieved any of it.

When my results came back with nothing to worry about I was genuinely relieved and ecstatic but remained changed by the experience and keenly aware that it could have gone the other way. I’m not here to tell you that a brush with mortality has enlightened me about what is really important, or to advise you to live each day as if it were your last. If you are wrong you might end up with a colossal hangover. The problem with this approach is that the brevity of life on its own doesn’t do anything to clarify what is important in it. As Anne Lamott memorably puts it, we are still left wondering  “Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to be minding it?” 

And now I’m left trying to answer the question: What do I want for my remaining two thousand weeks? More of the same, or something a little bit different? 

Leaving Do

This story is dedicated to the memory of my late mother in law Teresa Frazer. It is a work of fiction, but it is nevertheless still all true.

The news was handed down from branch to branch on the family tree from eldest sibling to youngest. We were to come on Friday for a Chinese takeaway and a drink. I was immediately nervous because I am one of life’s big crybabies. It doesn’t take much to set me off. Soppy films and ads or even the funerals of complete strangers can be enough. So the order that there was to be “no crying” at this get-together was very scary for me, and I dreaded going. All week I tried desperately not to think of it as her “Leaving Do”.

When Friday finally rolled around I felt strangely ok. I had a little bit of a lump in my throat pulling up to the back gate, but once I got into the house I was fine. It was warm and loud. Everyone was smiling. I felt relaxed and happy. Maybe it was because she seemed relaxed. Or partly because I so often felt that way in that room, in that house. Ma’s sitting room was low-set. You had to walk down a sloping garden path to get to it and it was crowded on all sides by her neighbours’ terraced houses. The sofa faced a big window that caught the sunbeams slanting down in a way that called to mind a cosy burrow.

When I came in the rest of the family were all already there. Grown-ups huddled together on sofas and armchairs around the walls while the kids took over the middle of the room. James had recently bought her a smart speaker. I thought that was daft when he suggested it, but you know what older brothers are like. I’m glad I didn’t try to talk him out of it, because it turns out she loved it and we all got a lot of fun out of it that night. The kids shouted for song after song and danced like wild animals. We were in stitches watching them getting down to the Beatles, Ritchie Valens, and Rick James.

She sat there in her nightgown squeezed in between all her children on the sofa. Whatever she had taken before we arrived had done the trick. She just sank softly into the couch. Spaced out, laughing, smiling, watching the kids dancing and singing “Ob-la-di-bla-da”. I had a glass of wine, and then another. I still wasn’t crying. So far it felt just like all our other family get-togethers.

We stampeded into the kitchen when the takeaway arrived. The kiddies hopped up on her old straw-bottomed chairs, and we hovered over their heads with our plates, swooping and diving into the grub. You didn’t want to be too polite about waiting your turn in our house, or you wouldn’t get fed. She always used to stand by the cooker after making a big meal and shout “I love feeding hungry children!” Just as well, since she was surrounded by so many of them. All the children and grandchildren who gathered around the old wooden table that somehow held us all every Christmas and Easter. It holds me up still though I now sit here alone.

The only nerve-wracking moment in the whole evening was when she unexpectedly walked into the kitchen while we were eating. Older kids jumped aside to let her through. She pulled a chair up to the table and said clearly and steadily “give me out my plate”. She’d eaten off the same plate for nearly thirty years. It had ‘mother’ written on it, followed by a sentimental verse extolling the maternal virtues in rhyme. It had been used at every meal since it had been bought for her by the then ten year old Sean, my twin brother and by mere seconds the “baby” of the family. I looked at my feet. After a moment’s silence the high cupboard was opened and the plate passed down from brother to sister and over to the table. In a firm voice she asked my older sister for some chips, fried rice, and curry. “Ma…” began James, but it was already on the plate. I hoped he wouldn’t continue, but he did. He told her he didn’t want to end up back in the emergency room. The emergency room? I wondered then if he really understood what was happening. He had done most of the talking with the nurses after all. Months of careful sips and bites of bland food had followed her operation, but now that there was nothing more to be done for her, what was the use? We had weighed and debated and agonised over whether to take her home or to the hospice for a whole week before her last discharge from hospital. The longest week of my life. Now here we were at home, hoping and praying that we could give her the comfort she needed and that we weren’t in over our heads. My thoughts were scrambling over each other, frantically trying to think of a way to end the conversation and put the cat back in the bag. I needn’t have worried. She looked James in the eye, cleared her throat briskly, then turned her attention to her plate and calmly started eating her chips in silence, ending the argument before it even began.

The night wore on. We drank, talked and called for more music until eventually it was time to get the younger ones home to bed. Even after the wine, I had held my composure and was surprised to look around and realise the party was over and that we had all done it. We had honoured her request not to cry and turn it into some sort of funeral. There would be time enough for that later.

The older three headed home with their kids and left myself and Sean to stay the first night in the spare room. We left the landing light on and the door ajar and listened to her breathing until we were sure she was asleep. We whispered about what would come next. Who would stay with her and when? What did we need from the hospital? What about the pain? Over the following weeks we tried to follow her lead, and just take each day as it came. But it was hard not to panic when late one night she began to moan, and then cry out. The medication had been working up until then, but all of a sudden it wasn’t enough. I lay in bed, stiffened with fear. Sean was already up, and I was afraid to move. Somehow I didn’t want her to know I was awake and hearing it too. Sean knew what to do. He went downstairs to sort through the folders and files and medical supplies and find the number for the nurses. 

We had let our guard down a bit because she had been so strong. Things had been peaceful, almost dream-like for a while. But the torturous wait for the hospice nurses that night had shaken us all. The following morning there was talk of a hospital bed, in case it got to the point where we couldn’t move her. She dismissed it out of hand. She could move herself. We felt foolish for suggesting it to begin with when weeks later she was still getting herself out of bed to come downstairs and make a cup of tea. And singing. She sang as she pottered round the kitchen, just like she always had. We started to wonder if the doctors had gotten it wrong. Hadn’t they been wrong before? 

But the singing eventually stopped. And the pottering. And then there was no more coming downstairs. We always stayed with her in pairs from then on. It was too scary to do it alone. Every decision about what comfort to give, and how, or when to call the nurses just weighed too heavily to lift it alone. Sean and I stuck together. Every time the shift changed and we returned to our own homes for a break we had to say goodbye again, knowing it might be the last time. But also that it might not be, meaning we would have to do it all again. I couldn’t manage anything for these daily farewells better than a whispered “bye-bye, we’ll be back soon” with a kiss on the forehead. All my energy was concentrated on holding back tears at these moments. She really caught me off guard and I almost let go the day when she said softly back “Thank you. For… everything.”

It took me a long time to get my head around her courage. She wasn’t what you might call a “brave” woman. She was scared of most animals and horrified by every type of creepy-crawly that walked the earth. She fearfully avoided dirt and germs. We had a good laugh one day when she hid behind her own grandson to escape the attention of a yipping dog. She could drum up a good cry at the drop of a hat. But still, when she found out that death was coming for her, she threw a party. She made tea for the wait. The still spring of fortitude running beneath all the sixty-nine years of her life came back up to the surface. 

But death takes everything from us in the end. Even our courage. We were all with her when it happened, and I suppose that is something to be grateful for. But in the final hour she cried out in terror and agony instead of drifting peacefully to sleep as we had hoped. Sean, the baby, had carried us all through the past three months with composure and calmness. But he could not tolerate this last indignity. That she didn’t want to go. That, in that last moment, she was frightened. 

She used to listen to Whitney Houston cds on Saturday mornings while she cleaned the house, singing her lungs out. In the final few days, after she had stopped talking, Sean sat by her bed with her hand in his listening to her favourite albums. Afterwards when we were calling up like dutiful children to put the customary death notice in the paper he said “I’ll put ‘at home, surrounded by her family’… but I’m not saying ‘peacefully’. I won’t say that.”  

James wasn’t happy about that. It all kicked off the morning of the funeral. I meant only to defend Sean, but things quickly unraveled until we all stood shouting at each other over her dead body. Every time one of us had been late for a shift change, every time the fridge had been left without milk, every minor aggravation or annoyance that had somehow worsened the last month of hell came tumbling out. I told James he had let us all down and that we were all sick of him telling us what to do.

I was fifty miles away and halfway home when I pulled over to answer Sean’s call. I made it back just in time for the tail end of the mass. When the moment came to lower her into the ground, myself and Sean stood shoulder to shoulder, dry-eyed, and squeezed each other’s hands.

When I arrived at the funeral reception I headed straight to James’ table. I wanted to get it over and done with. I’d rehearsed what I would say to him on the drive back up. I’d tell him how much I wanted to believe that she had somehow had the last laugh and was at peace now. That I knew he was just trying to guide the family, now without mother or father left, as best he could. That without Ma’s house as an anchor pulling us back home together we needed to really try. Instead I said “Do you want a drink?”. He nodded and patted the seat next to him, saying “Sit down, kid.” 

Mum Calling, by John Frazer. Image reproduced with permission of the artist. You can see more of his artwork on

Some Girls Have All the Luck

When I moved from a small, mixed-sex national school in Shannon to a big all-girls school in Belfast for the first time, it marked a seismic shift in my inner world. Aged ten-and-a-bit, introverted, awkward and usually oblivious to social cues, the move to a new city and school had brought some previously uninteresting things to my attention. I started to notice how other girls looked, and compare them to myself. Most of the girls who seemed happy, confident and at home in this school had certain features in common. They had perms. They had little rock-solid bumps of hair at the front, bound tightly with gallons of hair spray and slides, and colourful scrunchies at the back. They also had what I now know are called white “slouch socks”, but at the time just confused me. I knew their socks were better than mine, that their socks had a volume and a presence that mine somehow lacked, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why or how this was so.

To my amazement I managed to make friends with some of these girls to the extent that I was allowed to “call for” them after school. In case you are under thirty years of age, I’ll explain that “calling for” someone after school was where you walked to a friend’s house unannounced and rapped their door. They answered, flung a coat on, and shouted over their shoulder “I’m going out!” to whoever was in charge inside. And “out” was where we went. There was no real plan, and usually very little to do. There was a lot of talking, visiting the shop en masse, and linking arms. We linked arms while walking anywhere, usually shouting or singing at the tops of our voices. 

The method by which I gained access to this important nexus of girls was accidental. Despite my having the wrong food at break time (fruit instead of crisps), the wrong coat (warm and padded instead of a paper thin Naff jacket) and the wrong hair (no perm, no hairspray, no bump)  I circumvented the system by wowing them with my doodles in class. It just so happens that RTE was not widely available in Belfast at this time, so most of my classmates did not recognise the Don Conroy masterpieces I was cranking out day after day. They had never seen his how-to videos on the Den explaining that anyone could draw these things.

Although I had moved at a pretty vulnerable time in a girl’s life, I had never felt more at home. Some thirty years later, I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere like I belonged to that little group. The streets where my classmates lived, up past my school at the edge of the city, were our playground. When I watch hard hitting independent films about the reality of life on council estates… the low, crumbling brick walls, the overflowing bins, the broken glass, the paint chipped railings… it makes me a little bit homesick and lonely still. 

“council flats” by sgis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I knew I was accepted by my new group of friends because they nick-named me Pee-Wee (based on my stature) and begged me to stay out when it was home time. They couldn’t understand that home time was not a remotely fungible or flexible concept in my house. My parents were different. We didn’t watch the soaps, or anything else my Mother deemed to have the potential to be a bad influence. We went to mass every Sunday, without exception. We had non-negotiable boundaries on behaviour. I hated that the fun went on without me long after my early bedtime. And I really hated that most extra-curricular adventures the gang decided to take; up to the nearby forest to jump streams, throwing stones into the local pond (known as “half moon lake” and drenched in scary urban legend), taking a bus into town, kissing boys; were off-limits to me. My Mother had a sixth-sense for mischief and could usually sense right away when I returned home having broken the small circle of geographical and behavioural freedom afforded to me. She just knew.

Despite being the poor sap saddled with the stick-in-the-mud parents and all their rules, my friendships with the gang developed until I was spending every free minute I could with them. One of the tokens of acceptance that I valued most from them was an invitation “in”. Being taken into someone’s bedroom rather than waiting at the door was a sign the friendship was going to the next level. No longer just a peripheral member, but really part of the gang. That’s why when Deirdre* brought me in one day, I was determined to do and say the right things, and most of all not to betray my general cluelessness about life. Deirdre had an unbelievably bouncy perm and was allowed to wear low-neck bodysuits. She held a lot of sway with the gang, not least because she had a knack for attracting the attention of boys. So I tried not to show my surprise when I saw her bed was a beaten-looking mattress on the floor. She mumbled something about the state of the room being a temporary one as it was due to be “done up” very soon. That sounded reasonable to me. When she went to the bathroom for a wee, she took me in with her. As she unbuttoned and sat down right in front of me without asking me to turn around or showing even a hint of embarrassment or hesitation, I tried hard once again to seem at ease, as though I were used to company in the bathroom too. She continued the conversation as she urinated and wiped and I struggled to contain my own unease as I wondered whether I should turn, look away, or just try to look at her eyes as she spoke. How I wished I could be as confident and at home in my own skin as she was! She had boobs already, at only eleven. How I wished I had even the mildest swelling, promising boobs to come at that age. But I had nothing. I felt trapped in the body of a child, with parents who treated me as a child, whilst she was somehow almost a woman already.  

As Deirdre brought me back downstairs to head out again, her mother heard the stairs creak and called us into the living room to chat. Her hair was white and yellow towards the ends and black at the roots, and she had black lines drawn around her eyes. She talked about going to a nightclub called The Arena. It was somewhere outside of Belfast. A bus had to be arranged. She told me how she would have a carry-out on the bus then take just half of an E once inside, because she wasn’t going to go mad or anything. Unsure of what to say, or why she was telling me, I just nodded silently. I could always find out what an “E” was later.  My God! A bus trip to a nightclub! I’d heard of some older sisters, or friends of friends who were 16 or 17 getting into The Arena, but the idea that someone’s Mother would go absolutely floored me. Again, I hoped I looked cool, like all this was very normal and expected for me. Like my Mother’s social life didn’t centre round knitting circles and prayer groups. 

I never managed to make it inside Deirdre’s house again.  My Mother put her foot down in regards to my roaming up “around there” with “those girls”. I was heartbroken. I sat at home night after night, with my parents’ tv news droning on and on in the background, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Why was she treating me like a child? How I envied Deirdre. Her looks, her friends, her freedoms. I turned inward. I turned to my books. When September came, my parents sent me off to a Grammar School outside the area, a bus ride away, where I knew no one. I made some friends there, but we never had the kind of freewheeling adventures and closeness I had before. We never really had a “gang”. And I never did figure out how to dress or do my hair to attract attention from boys or envy from other girls. I embraced grunge instead, and told myself I didn’t want to. In time I gained my freedom by signing up for University and moving out, far away from the old streets to new streets near the Botanical Gardens and the Museum.

One morning coming through town I bumped into one of the old gang. I asked about everyone I could remember. What became of so-and-so? Where are they now? What are they doing? I eventually asked about  Deirdre. She seemed to think I knew part of the story already, because she said wasn’t it a real shame that Deirdre’s Mother took her Father back into the house after what he had done to Deirdre, her little girl. Of course Deirdre couldn’t just forgive him for what happened, she had no choice but to run away. The last she had heard was that a group of boys from the area had taken a car and gone to get her from the juvenile home. She jumped from a first floor window and left with them in a stolen car. No one had heard what became of her after that. I nodded silently, hoping I would seem worldly and unsurprised, like I had known what was going on in that house all along. I wished my friend well and said goodbye. I went off to catch a bus to a long day of statistics and research methods.

*pseudonyms have been used

Let’s Just Not Know

My long-suffering husband Mr Frazer has been listening non-stop to a Van Morrison song called TB Sheets. It is a fantastic bluesy number from 1967. It recounts the experience of a man longing to escape from the room of his dying lover as she begs him to stay. The lyrics are simple and sparse. It isn’t terribly explicit in terms of the physical horror of her illness or the finality of her death. What makes it so ghastly and simultaneously brilliant is the shocking realism. It just sounds so believable. This song stayed with me long after it stopped playing. It kept me thinking, tortured me even. It troubled me, like good art should. But with this unease came a second and even more pressing torture…the unbearable urge to google it. Then I could know if this woman was real and if Van himself or some other man really sought to abandon her. I wanted to know something, anything, about this story in the hopes that it would somehow diminish the existential terror of it.  

And yet I didn’t want to know. I wanted to retain some mystery and let the art stand for itself. I lasted three days before giving in to google. This led me to observe that my tolerance for not knowing something is much lower than it used to be. I’m shocked by how accustomed I’ve grown to being able to access information immediately. I can have song lyrics, chords, band lore and even a singer’s life history on demand. Once upon a time when a cool friend let you hold an album sleeve on which lyrics were printed (reproduced in the band’s own handwriting no less)  you knew you were in the presence of something special. Awe was in order. This cool-friend access isn’t necessary anymore, for the loan of the album, the lyrics, or any of the band trivia. Anyone interested can listen for free and read up about it on Wikipedia. It’s democratic, I suppose, but what’s democratic about cool-ness?

There is a beautiful scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young where two forty-somethings who can’t remember the name of an almond confection immediately pull out their phones to search for it. They are gently reprimanded by a pair of groovy twenty-somethings who tell them “let’s just not know”. It is sort of pretentious, and sort of inspiring at the same time. Could we go back to just not knowing, or is it too late? Would we even want to? I don’t imagine Aaron Swartz would. He risked jail time and ultimately ended up losing his life in the battle for open access to research papers.

Sauron’s all-seeing eye beckons me to look at what people I dislike are saying on twitter, but probably best not. Artwork by Patricia Frazer/wondermuman, so not reproduce without permission. See

The mythology around knowledge is that it always comes at a price.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden as punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. In Norse Mythology Odin sacrificed an eye for the ability to see all that happens, as well as throwing himself on his spear and spending nine days in torture hanging from a tree. Perhaps like Swartz we are willing to pay the price for valuable information that democratises science or allows the overthrow of corrupt governments. But what have I sacrificed to know who BuzzFeed rate as the 19 sexiest philosophers in history, or what cat my personality most resembles, and was it worth it?  There are obvious benefits to having so much information at our fingertips. But the gateway to almost boundless information in our pockets can also weigh us down. It’s not all helpful to know. Because this situation is still relatively new, I don’t think we as a species have developed a sufficient capacity to filter out what is worth knowing from what is sucking up our limited attention without clear benefit.

When I was in my youth, my search for information and truth came with a bitter, painfully earnest intensity. I needed to know things. If God exists. What my friends really thought about me. If love could ever really be true. Now, I can think of few things I would like to know less than what people really think about me. But I am disturbed by the fact that at times of emotional turmoil and existential angst when I am lost and have no idea what to do, I sometimes find myself unconsciously reaching for my phone, as though google could provide me with answers.

Find a Feeling, Pass it on

I don’t think there is ever really just one moment when you decide to marry the person you are with, but some moments are such obvious forks in the road that we look back on them as decisive.

I was in the living room at my parents house in Dundrum, Co Down when my brother arrived home for Christmas. He handed me a small, folded and pencil-marked white package. On closer inspection it was a used office envelope, which had been folded over to form an improvised wrapper. “It’s a Christmas present from John”, he said. 

John was a friend of his that I had been seeing for about a month or so. It was such a new relationship that I had decided to cleverly avoid any awkward gift-giving uncertainty (and unnecessary expenditure) by suggesting in advance that we give each other a single book. Now this deal obviously had the potential to bring on some uncertainty and stress about the choice of book. Because I happened to be smugly secure in a lifelong identity as ‘the reader’ amongst my family and friends I felt sure I would come out of it looking ok anyway.

It took a beat or two to register that this dirty envelope was a gift, especially as someone else’s name had been written and crossed out on the front of it. I pulled a small, thin, volume out of the envelope and opened it. There was an inscription on the inside, but, alas, it was not to me. It was from one strange man to another, on the event of his birthday. Beside the inscription was the price inscribed in pencil- £2.00. The plot thinned. The inscription wasn’t for me because the book was second hand. 

The book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It tells the story of a rich Prince who turns his back on luxury and privilege to seek spiritual enlightenment after witnessing the suffering of the masses outside the palace. After years of wandering and trying many different paths he finds pursuit of both enlightenment and flesh equally disappointing and settles down by a river. The sound of the river flowing calls to him to stop searching and start living.

I was twenty six at this time, and floundering in a sea of opportunity. I was unbalanced by unexpected acceptance into my dream PhD program the year before. At the same time, I was lost in a vacuum left by the disappearance of my religious faith. The book floored me. It was just what I  needed to read. I had a strong gut feeling that John would be part of my life for a long time to come.

A few weeks later we were taking a walk together through a very quiet town centre. He had come to stay over with me as I was living an hour and a half away from him by train, in a peaceful seaside village in Northern Ireland. It was Sunday, so we were hung over. He told me what he thought about the book I had chosen for him. It was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. The story is about identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia. It is long, detailed, and emotionally tense. John is an identical twin, and as psychology was one of the interests that had gotten us chatting in the first place, I thought this was a no-brainer. He hated it, and pulled no punches in telling me exactly why. He rubbished the plot, eviscerated the structure, and tore into the style. Ouch. I was incensed. Who was this idiot to think he could tell me what was and wasn’t an enjoyable book? Stupid gut feeling! I never wanted to speak to him again, and I never did, for about an hour.

I hadn’t yet become acquainted with John’s unique style of giving or speaking then. He’s gives it to you straight. Not because it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or there’s a social obligation. Not because it’s expected, or meets the budget, or it’s what you want to hear.  

He had picked a book for me that he knew would resonate with my exact circumstances. That meant something to him. A book that at least attempted to stand at the edge of the void of our existence shouting back some ideas about why we are here and what we should do about it. He presented it without artifice, didn’t worry about looking cheap, and I don’t think he would have cared less if I’d left it in a train station, thrown it in a bin, or hated every word of it. I picked something diverting and superficially relevant, wrapped it well and hoped I wouldn’t look stupid in my choice. 

We’ve been married for twelve years now. Books pass through our house like a river. They appear from friends and family who have read something they want to share. Once finished, John always knows who to pass it on to. Somewhere else that idea needs to go. Giving without thought of return.

This reminiscence was inspired by Lucie Ehiwe’s post on reading to live better. I wish you and Peter many happy arguments about the ideas you read.