Home needs to be a place where will feel we belong, that it is our own territory.

The old adage “The Englishman’s home is his castle”, expresses well how crucial to the concept of home is both belonging and territory. The Duchess of Northumberland writes ironically of how little like a home Alnwick Castle felt, on the first night she and her family moved into her husband’s family’s ancestral home. “I remember the first night that we moved into Alnwick Castle so well, sitting in the dining room with my husband eating dinner. It was a chop that was really tough and it stuck in my throat. I remember thinking “God, I don’t think I can bear this”. Nobody had even rung us up to ask what we’d like for dinner. I’d always done my own cooking for 16 years and suddenly there we were with butlers coming out of our ears. I thought: “I can’t complain; it’s my first night; I mustn’t let my husband down”. But I knew that if I’d been at home, in our beautiful Georgian farmhouse I would be eating a plate of garlic prawns in front of the fire.” (HOM)

You do not have to be expected to live in a castle to feel that the place in which you live is not your territory and therefore not truly your home. When a young couple set up their own home, often they are suddenly surrounded by family and friends eager to tell them how to run it. In some cases, these people in fact want to run it themselves. Often people suddenly propose that they will come over and trim your hedges, paint your walls or replace your seat covers, with the rider that you will “of course” be delighted to accept. Others see a welcome chance to offload some Stuff from their own homes by suggesting that you would  “of course” love to have, say, Great Aunt Alice’s comfy chair, since she made the cover herself and “we just must keep it in the family”.  Often such offers are intended to be well meaning (or at least the proponents at a conscious level convince themselves that they are) but the net effect can be devastating. One friend and her husband with three children had never really plucked up the courage to fend off her mother who from an early stage in their marriage had turned up whenever she felt like it to “help”, putting on the washing, “tidying up” and generally doing all those things she “knew” needed doing. It was not their territory, but rather a place where the expectations and behaviour were set by someone else. Neither spouse felt that where they lived was truly their home. 

 

Virginia Ironside writes “I know its irresistible sometimes. Once, when staying with a scrupulously clean friend, I was tempted, when he was out, to clean the only dirty thing in the house- a banister that was covered with the black grease that comes of too many dirty hands clutching at it with a wipe from my handbag. Horror! The little bit I attacked came up gleaming clean- and I suddenly realised that I had gone too far. Try as I might I couldn’t dirty it up again. I cunningly hung a cardigan over that bit of the banister during the rest of my stay and just hoped he’d never notice my invasive and, frankly, bad- mannered attempt to clean up his home…Our homes, even ramschackle cottages …are our own personal space. If someone tinkers around with them.. it can feel as upsetting as finding a bloke has sneaked his hand up your skirt.” (TI6 23rd Oct) In the course of the same article, contributer Mary Nolze writes “When my mother-in-law used to fold my children’s clothes with geometrical precision, it was like a stab in the heart to me”.

 

If this kind of behaviour is not dealt with the emotional effects can be devastating.

Dr Thomas Verney writes of the research Dr Dennis Stott carried out in the early seventies into stress in pregnant women and its effect on their children. ”No ill effects ..were apparent in the offspring of women who had suffered fairly intense but brief stress during pregnancy, such as witnessing a violent dog fight..[or even] having a child of hers run away for a day..[but] Dr Stott’s data showed that prolonged upsets that did not directly threaten a woman’s emotional security, such as the illness of a close relative, had little or no effect on her unborn child, while long term personal stresses frequently did. More often than not, these were created by tension with a close family member- usually a husband, but in some instances an in-law. According to Dr Stott, aside from being personal, two other things characterised these stresses. “They tended to be continuous or liable to erupt at any time and they were incapable of resolution” (SLUB p33) Naomi Stadlen comments; “People who have been schooled into never making a fuss or never to burden other people with their troubles tend to withdraw when they feel unhappy. They feel safer alone, where they can” lick their own wounds” as the saying goes, to comfort them. …Another way of managing distress is to tell oneself “It doesn’t matter”. ”Its no big deal.”I don’t mind at all”. If this is a denial of a person’s true feelings, the person may feel calm, but at the price of shutting down a level of ordinary human sensitivity”. (WMD P79)

 

There are few more devastating stresses than that of feeling that you are not truly at home in your home. When a family finds itself in the situation faced by my friend, it can seriously undermine parent’s authority and self confidence and result in acute stress. Stress of this kind, ie caused by the behaviour of family members or friends, which you feel you cannot challenge and which undermines your emotional security, will have a very negative effect on your family life, whether or not you are expecting a baby. As a nation, English people do not like making a fuss and challenging such behaviour will inevitably make a fuss, involving as it will the questioning of dearly held assumptions as to what is acceptable behaviour and where the balance of power lies. The price of pretending that everything is “fine” however, is high and the rewards of tackling the problem head on are great, both for the family itself and for the people offering “help”. Taking such offers at their face value and explaining clearly at an early stage what your expectations are as a family, what you find helpful and what you do not, clears the air and avoids potential relationship problems from becoming chronic. It restores a sense of territory over your home and makes it an oasis of peace in a world full of competing and raucous demands on your family’s time, space and culture.

 

It also makes offers of genuine help more likely. To be genuine and supportive an offer needs to have three important features; it must be an offer of something the proposer, having studied the family’s situation and having given it some thought, has reason to believe will be accepted with thanks by the family (where a busy family clearly enjoys spending time together at weekends offering to “take the children off your hands because of course you will want time to yourselves” is unlikely to be perceived as helpful). Secondly, the offer needs to be made in such a way that the family has time to consider it. Face to face offers made with the assumption that they will be accepted, especially in front of the children, do not meet this criterion. An offer of “You  would , of course , love me to make you one of my special rabbit stews next weekend, wouldn’t you?” to a vegetarian family from Auntie Mabel eliciting cries of curiosity and enthusiasm from the children, is unlikely to endear the said Aunt to her sister or brother-in-law.  Thirdly, there must genuinely be the possibility of declining the offer without anyone being made to feel embarrassed or mean-spirited. A quiet aside to a mother or father of “ I have a series of children’s books at home all about sea life that Peter might like, but I quite understand that you may already have more than enough books. Let me know what you think.” is likely to elicit a warm hearted and appreciative response whether or not the parent decides to accept. Such offers strengthen relationships as well as making a house a genuine home. The basis of such offers is empathy. Also, as potential givers we need to remind ourselves that the giver is blessed more than he who receives; if we remember that whoever accepts our offer of help is doing us more of a favour than we are to them by offering, it will be hard to step on any toes, even unintentionally. When we approach another family we do well to remind ourselves that we tread on holy ground.

 

From a young family’s point of view relationship challenges may seem insoluble, but given courage and trust between the spouses, they are usually capable of resolution. The Duchess of Northumberland felt very despondent about her situation, with the weight of a long history of her husband’s family tradition weighing upon her, together with all its related assumptions. In fact her husband obeyed the golden rule; he remembered that, in the words of the Gospel once you are married you leave father and mother and cleave to your spouse.” My husband saw what was happening and he said; “Look, don’t worry; it isn’t going to be like this forever. I promise you we can change things…..Ten years later, people say that what they love about Alnwick is that it feels like a family home…one of the first things I did was to make a room where we could live as a family, so I made an enormous kitchen...we opened up some places, removed doors, then I got very modern lighting and ..it works. At that point I realised that you can actually do anything if you know what you like. It also taught me that experts are not always right and that you shouldn’t worry about what people think of you” (“Home” by Stafford Cliff, published by Quadrille and quoted in the Independent 14th October 2006)