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September 11, 2016

Ardent Desires


“Whom does a child belong to? What responsibility does it bear to those who ardently desired—or even designed—it without knowing what ‘it’ was?” —Rachel Cusk, “What She Bears.” 

I always wanted to be a mother. It did not seem to be an idea worth examining, or it was worth examining as much as it’s worth examining why I might want to be a creature who walks upright or a being with lung capacity (although when I got pneumonia last winter, it was underlined how tremendously luxurious it is to be a person who breathes). My desire for motherhood was not something I’d been told I should want; it would have been impossible to talk me out of it. I read Rachel Cusk’s seminal book on motherhood, A Life’s Work, before I had a baby, and missed the point of it entirely, so intent was I upon upon my own desire to have a baby of my own, to make my own story. I suppose Cusk had been trying to warn me, even to talk me out of it, but I took no heed. I “ardently desired it” and I didn’t know what “it” was, it was true, but there are some boxes that don’t need to be unpacked. I do think that Rachel Cusk has made it her life’s work to make things far more complicated than they need to be.

Another thing I know is that there are women want to not be mothers as ardently as I wanted to be one. I am in complete understanding of that certainty. Those women and I are on the same wavelength, I’ve always thought. All of us wanting what we want because we’re listening to our own hearts, and not because this is what anyone has told us about how to be a woman.

—Ambivalence, by the way, is not the opposite of certainty. I think many of us manage to live with both. For example, I always wanted to be a mother. And then there was a time after I became one that I didn’t want to be a mother at all.—

It was during the time, after my daughter was born, when I didn’t want to be a mother and wondered how I’d got the whole thing so wrong, that I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work again, and finally understood what she writing about. And I was grateful that someone had been willing to write about what my days were like, the boredom, the desperation, the inanity of those people who were imploring you to “enjoy every minute.” That someone was writing about how motherhood was so terribly hard, and lonely. Putting a name to the thing, which was “maternal ambivalence.” Sometimes I hated my baby (usually in the middle of the night when neither of us had slept for hours) and I wondered where my life had gone, and lamented that it was possible that I’d never crawl out of the dark hole that had become my life. I was learning how to love my baby too, but this was more of a work-in-progress.

How long did this go on? The crying-on-the-floor-while-not wearing-clothes period was a few weeks, at most, although it is the salient image for me of all that time. Eventually I learned how to bake scones while holding my baby in one hand, and to breastfeed while holding a book, and there would come a time in which the baby would be a creature woven into the fabric of my life. A different fabric, sure, but it was something I could recognize. I could find my self. I learned that a mother has to insist on the self, and not to feel badly about that. I recall many trying times, but these eventually became more about abject fatigue than existential despair. When my baby was around a year old, I realized that for the most of my days were good ones now. She was getting older, and together we had learned how to make it work.

—It helps too that I became a mother when I was 29, which is relatively young these days, and even more importantly that I was wholly unaccomplished in all the fundamental ways when my child was born. In some ways, getting pregnant had seemed like a concession to life—”All right, I give in,” because there really wasn’t much else going on. And it could have been a concession had things not started to happen to me because of motherhood—creative connections made with women I met through our children, the stories motherhood inspired me to tell, the books it pushed me to read, ideas it drew me to consider, questions I’d never thought to ask before. Motherhood was to be my creative and professional blossoming in ways that were entirely separate from the baby, who was a blossom all her own. All which is to say, everything important I’ve done as a creative person I’ve done since becoming a mother. There may have been a pram in my hall, but that hall was huge and crowded with doorways, and these were rooms that I wouldn’t have been able to access any other way. The situation would be different if my life had been as creatively rich beforehand, if I felt I’d had to give something up in the process of becoming a mother. Truthfully, I’d not had that much to give.—

The book,The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, was inspired by conversations with friends about infertility. Having known without a doubt that I wanted to become a mother, I could empathize with those woman who wanted the same but could not achieve it easily. I understood too how the desire was magnified as “it” seemed less attainable. Its elusiveness makes it all the more coveted, a complex paradox too because as motherhood seems elusive for these women it is also everywhere in our mommy-saturated society (which also doesn’t respect or support actual mothers at all, but that is another story…). There are all kinds of solutions to the problem of infertility, usually delivered by people who like to suppose that these things are simple and/or people who’ve seemingly never wanted anything at all—adoption!, or there are too many people in the world anyway!—and I understand how none of these answers would suffice.

Rachel Cusk though, doesn’t seem to get it. In her recent review of two new books about women’s experiences of infertility, she is frustrated by the very premise of a woman desiring motherhood. She takes particular offence to Julia Leigh’s point in her memoir, Avalanche, that motherhood and the creative life could be compatible. Cusk quotes the following: “The truth was that many women had gone before me and found ways to lead a creative life and also be a mother. There were countless prams in countless hallways. It wasn’t ‘rocket science.’ It wasn’t either/or. There was enough space.”  This Cusk takes as a “dismissal” of “the honourable testimony of female literary history of what is very much the rocket science of combining artistic endeavour with family life.” She compares Leigh’s tone to that of the Brexiters, which is kind of of the worst thing you can say about anybody these days, short of calling them ISIS. Leigh, says Cusk, is failing to interrogate a fundamental truth at the outset of her journey into motherhood, and therefore it’s inevitable that she’ll come into danger.

This is a terrific failure of empathy, I think. And also not so surprising considering Cusk’s fierce interrogation of everything, which I appreciate because it has resulted in her substantial body of work, but which I also imagine makes it hard to be a person in the world. I have always felt rather third-wave feminist when it comes to Cusk’s ideas (which is saying something, because I have never feel very third-wave), understanding her ideas on a basic level but finding her tiresome on others. All those questions in her novel, The Bradshaw Variations, in which the woman goes out to work and the husband stays home and supports the family in domestic fashion and this switch causes the family dynamic to fall apart, and this notion that success for a woman, for a feminist woman, is a male-defined one. The right to wear a suit and tie, if not literally. I never wanted that. And the idea that women pursue these ideals and end up unsatisfied seems kind of obvious to me.

I think it’s important that we critique why we make the decisions we make in our lives, to acknowledge the complicity of the patriarchy in the choices we make—whether we marry, change our names when we do, shave our legs, and wear uncomfortable shoes. I think interrogation is important. But I am not sure that the decision to have a baby necessarily falls into this category. We should interrogate it for sure, but for me, no amount of interrogation would have checked my desire to become a mother. Having a baby is not like putting on lipstick. Its more than that. And the desire for it was beyond me. I can’t explain it. I just knew.

And the thing is that Julia Leigh is right about the creative life and motherhood: people make it work. I think of Helen Sawyer Hogg, the Canadian astronomer, cataloguing star clusters during the 1930s while her baby slept in a basket beside her in the observatory. I think of Rebecca Woolf and her recent post, “Hell Yeah you can be both mother and artist.” I think of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble and Eula Biss and Zadie Smith and so many of my favourite writers whose work is informed by their experiences of motherhood, who don’t necessarily find the pram in the hall something to trip over. (Here’s the thing too: eventually the pram leaves the hall. Children get legs of their own. Read my friend Nathalie’s recent post, “Redundant“.) I wonder what Virginia Woolf could have written if she could have had the child she wanted. And I think of all the brilliance we would have missed out on in Rachel Cusk’s work had she not done her own grappling with all the questions that having a child raises. What would she be writing about now? Would I even know who she was?

So why shouldn’t Julia Leigh have that? Or desire it, at least. What is wrong with that, the unexamined yearning. Cusk so fixated on the origin point of Leigh’s story that the story itself is brushed away, that things go terribly wrong with Leigh’s relationship and with her health, and that work indeed gets in the way of her fertility treatments, and it’s hard to balance both, and it’s as though Cusk is writing, “See? I told you so. Not rocket science, eh? You have no idea.” As though such hardship is the inevitable outcome of the desire for a child, to be a mother. Instead of understanding that infertility is its own particular trajectory, one that is injected with hormones and other tortures, and disappointments and a mix of hope and despair. What could the journey have been, Cusk never seems to wonder, if things had been simpler, if Leigh had received the baby she desired. Plenty of strong relationships have cracked under the pressure of infertility and strong women too. It seems cruel to turn this into a moral tale.

“I just never thought it would be like this, ” is a sentence I wrote in my essay, “Love is a Let-Down” (which basically launched my entire literary career, no exaggeration). I used the line again in an essay four years later, “When Love isn’t a Let-Down After All,” after the birth of my second child, whose early days were so remarkably different from her sister’s, brighter, more salubrious and utterly infused with happiness and well-being. If I’d heard anyone describing new motherhood in such a way beforehand, I would have assumed they were lying, particularly after the darkness of postpartum days with my first baby. “So I think what we have to keep in mind as we’re sharing our stories,” I wrote, “is that stories are stories instead of facts or even destinies…The great thing about stories is that sometimes you get to write your own.”

There are so many ways to be a woman and a mother (and negotiating with infertility complicates both of these).

Which Cusk doesn’t seem to realize. And I think it’s possible she’s has been reading “the honourable testimony of female literary history” too narrowly, doing what we all do in applying our own personal lenses to other people’s stories. What I mean is that women should allowed to want to become mothers without compunction, and that (and I will never cease to be grateful to Cusk and her work for this, for she blazed a trail) when we become mothers—by in-vitro fertilization, even—sometimes we’re allowed to hate it too.

2 thoughts on “Ardent Desires”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Kerry, I just read your essay “Love is a let down”- what a wonderful piece of work, powerful and intense. Though I do have to say – if I’d read it before having children, I might have changed my mind, you capture the nightmare elements so viscerally. My own experience was easier, but still, it was hard. The issue of being a mother and a writer was one I wrestled with, unsuccessfully, for years – I just didn’t write much, could not clear the psychological or even the actual space, particularly after the divorce. You’ve been able to keep going creatively despite it all. I salute you.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks for reading, Beth!

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