For as long as I can remember I’ve been apologising for myself, for my life. ‘You apologise too much,’ says my husband, his brow furrowing in confusion and frustration when I say to him, ‘I’m sorry you’ve had a bad day.’
‘How is that your fault?’ he asks every time.
‘It’s not, its empathy,’ I explain. Which of course makes no more sense to him than the original apology. Empathy is not something he understands, neither the theory or the practise. For him, it’s a waste of time, but bless him, he’s been rote learning how to say empathetic words because he knows that they are important to me. Sometimes it helps, sometimes I want to slap him, but it’s the best he can do.
Other times, though, I wind up apologising for my life. We used to live in Toorak, a suburb renowned for being home to wealthy individuals. I hated it when people asked where I lived. Often I would lie and say South Yarra, Toorak’s trendier and somehow more acceptable neighbour. Whenever I couldn’t avoid it, I would lower my voice as though I were telling a very shameful secret, and very quickly explain that the rent was cheaper in Toorak than in Richmond. I’ve said variations of this to family members, friends, acquaintances, and tradespeople, so many tradespeople. One of the quirks of living in an old house is the number of tradespeople that come through to fix whatever it was that happened to break overnight. To each of them, I’ve sought desperately to separate myself from the stereotype of people who live in Toorak, and prove in one way or another that I’m just like everyone else. Having chickens certainly helped with that.
My husband doesn’t have this issue. He is very proud of where we live and the lifestyle we have. He tells anyone and everyone, without any hint of shame.
My mother hates that we live in Toorak, and feels as uncomfortable as I do when certain people ask.
‘What’s it like living in Toorak?’ asked the short, rounded Courier one day when he was picking up a pathology test that would later confirm that I, in fact, did have a parasite. He was busy looking around at our yard, and his tone suggested he had his own thoughts about what life in Toorak might mean.
‘Uncomfortable,’ I said handing him the box.
We no longer live in Toorak, which is a relief, and now when people ask me where I live, I don’t have to worry, because Amsterdam doesn’t have the same judgement attached to it. The house we live in, though, is another story. And it tends to attract a similar response to Toorak. We live in an old Dutch house that is five floors in its entirety. We do not pay all of the rent, the company my husband works for share the cost with us. We needed the space for our nanny and her fiance, whom we brought with us from Melbourne, and for family, when they come to visit us. We are lucky, to have such an incredible home, we also work incredibly hard for it too. My husband travels, a lot, and always has done. For much of my life as a mother I have felt like a single parent with really great financial support. It helps, but at the end of the day, it is still just you, two kids, and no sleep 24/7. It was about the time I became so sick I could barely eat anything but stock, that we decided to get a full-time nanny. If I thought living in Toorak was bad, try telling people you live in Toorak, have a cleaner and a nanny. Oh, the eye-rolls. I’d officially become a walking stereotype. I felt ashamed.
The other day, the doorbell rang, it was about 7 pm. I opened the door to be greeted by a man with awesome dreadlocks and painted pieces of card in his hand. In Toorak, I very rarely had people knocking on my door collecting for charities or selling their artwork. In Amsterdam, it is a near daily event. The man began talking in Dutch, and I gently interrupted him to tell him I’m still learning dutch and do not speak enough yet to understand what he is saying. He then explained that he was an illustrator and was selling his artwork.
‘We get a lot of people coming door-to-door,’ I said, somewhat frustrated that I now had to say no to something that I hadn’t actually wanted in the first place. I find it really hard to say no, and it makes me anxious. Of course, that’s not really his problem except that he chose to come to my door. I wish home was sacred.
I find it really hard to say no, it makes me anxious. Of course, that’s not really his problem except that he chose to come to my door. I wish home was sacred.
He picked up on my frustration and resentment and launched into a soapbox rant about how I should be grateful I don’t have to go door-to-door to try and make a living, how I should be grateful I live in this big house. My jaw dropped open as he continued, becoming angrier, and more self-righteous at my …, well I don’t really know. My lack of compassion perhaps. My lack of empathy. My inability to do what he wanted. I felt shocked and ashamed and angry. I was grateful, who was he to suggest I wasn’t. I didn’t ask him to come here. I didn’t invite him into my space. I didn’t want this, this judgement, this shaming, his and mine, intermingled in a dance of the shadows.
Sometimes life is about luck, and no matter how hard you try, it doesn’t work the way you hope. I’m lucky, I have never been homeless, I’ve never been in a position where I have had to beg or go door-to-door to earn money. I wonder if he too feels shame or the possibility of judgement. It seems that no matter where we are in life, no matter what we are doing, people are judging us, but worse, we are judging ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if I am trying to pre-empt the judgement, to avoid the pain, to redirect the judgement into understanding by giving people a context. I don’t think it works, though, I think I’m just hauling the judgement around on my back, wounding myself at every turn.
A couple of days later, I was riding my bike home from my dutch lesson, I turned into my street, the houses towering over me, the wind sending a gold and russet shower of leaves that crunched under my tyres, I felt inexplicably happy. I love our house here in Amsterdam, I love our life here, I am incredibly grateful for it, and more than that I am not sorry for it. My husband and I work hard and we have been lucky. We live in Amsterdam, in a beautiful home. We have a part-time nanny, an au pair and a cleaner. We even get to travel a lot. Our life is not easy; it’s often messy and chaotic and highly changeable from week to week, but it is also a lovely life that we are living. And I’m beginning to think that’s okay.