As the pandemic rages on and mothers across the world are forced back home and renounce their creative projects en masse (yours truly included), reading seems like the best possible alternative to writing for mothers in lockdown with small children. 2 recent novels explore the tension between women’s creative endeavours and their roles as mothers: Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) and The Group by Lara Feigel (2020). What the two novels have in common is that they both give the relationships mothers have with their children the same weight and intensity that are usually reserved for women’s relationships with men. When children are portrayed in fiction, they are very often the symbol of the female character’s choices (of family over career, for example) – an encumbrance or a source of untarnished joy, they are the reminder of women’s relationship to heterosexuality. But very rarely are mothers’ relationship with their children described for themselves as worthy objects of narrative depiction, and more particularly the fraught and ambivalent bond which unites a mother and her small children. Both novels also explore how the women’s creative endeavour are constantly threatened by the demands of children and how mothers need to clear their own path in order to balance their duties to their children with their duties to their own artistic vocation.
In Night Waking, Anna Cassingham is a research fellow and the mother of two small children, including a toddler who is not yet sleeping through the night. She seems like the type of woman who truly “has it all”, but she also has a husband with a taste for remote, uncomfortable summer holidays — the type that don’t include the possibility of child care. The story therefore takes place on a fictional island in what we understand to be the Hebrides, where the weather does not even offer the possibility of distraction and outdoor play. While her husband does not consider the possibility that he might give up some of his own research time (he studies and elusive puffin colony), Anna bears the brunt of the parenting duties, carving time out of the care she needs to give to her death obsessed eight-year-old and her death-daring two-year-old. The result is an often hilarious account of Anna’s losing battle against the elements and against the constant attention that is required of her by her two children.
The type of life she lives on the island with her family is competely at odds with the requirements of research work: when she would need long periods of unbroken concentration, she is incessantly interrupted by her children’s demands, just like her sleep is contantly fragmented by her youngest child’s night terrors. There is an element of comedy in Anna’s repeated failures at finding the time to properly conduct her research. Anna is soul-crushingly sleep-deprived, but she is also time-deprived. Just like most mothers, her days are broken in small time slots which seem both interminable and too short – play time, meal time, nap time, etc. In her book All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior has shown that what is particularly difficult in a working mother’s time is to reconcile the fragmentary nature of child activity (as most children under a certain age can’t usually remain focused for more than twenty minutes) and the possibility of “flow”, that state of deep and uninterrupted concentration which is a requirement of any form of creative or intellectual endeavour. The little time she manages to devote each day to her own thoughts is dependent on her children’s sleep, which she also needs to manage with the utmost care: as most mothers of young children know, letting a nap last for too long means that nighttime will be pushed later into the evening – and the small time that may have been gained in the afternoon might result in the complete waste of an evening’s work. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband manages to stay away fromthe home and doesn’t have to sustain any of the children’s encroachments on his daily routine and continues to live his life as if to nothing.
The painful paradox here is that summer is supposed to be the ideal period for creativity – long stretches of time untrammelled by the usual demands of work and a different routine organised around leisure. Clichés come to mind of writers sitting by a window overlooking the sea typing away at their keyboard. But Anna’s summer is cold, the windows only open onto a raging grey sea and the only time she is able to sit down with her laptop is in the small periods allowed by her children’s sleep requirements. In those small crevices in time she manages to extract the material for a ghost story the details of which I won’t be revealing here for the sake of not spoiling the plot.
The Group, by Lara Feigel (who also wrote Free Woman, Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing about Lessing’s complicated relationship with motherhood as well as her own), deals with the lives of a group of five friends. It has a certain “Sex and the City” dynamic to it in that it features women with very different life choices whose narratives yet revolve around the same issues: sex, relationships, and particularly motherhood. What is special about this novel is the way it looks at the relationship between mothers and their children in three dimensions: the children don’t just serve as backdrops to their mothers’ struggle to keep it all together, they are characters in their own right, with their own personality. Similary, the whole gamut of feelings experienced by a mother in relationship to her children is represented: instead of the usual unproblematised, unconditional cliché of motherly love, Feigel’s mothers feel ambivalent, anxious, angry, fiercely protective, or simply adoring. Some feel guilty for loving one child more than another, for not spending enough time with them, while they also feel they are failing at providing sufficient love and attention to their husbands or boyfriends. Others desperately want a child against all odds or come to terms with the fact that they will never have them because they’re just not that into the ideal of motherhood and want to be able to get on with their lives These portraits of mothers, aspiring mothers or simply women choosing to opt out of motherhood provide us with a refreshing look at the complicated nature of the bond between mother and child and specifically at the conundrum of having a life of own’s home while being a parent.
One character in the novel, Kay, strikes the reader by her angry, bitter disposition. A frustrated literature teacher, she is infuriated by the needs of her children, paralleled by the needs of her husband, who doesn’t seem to believe that they are satisfied, and humiliates her on a regular basis by openly flirting and having affairs with other women. After lashing out at the people around her out of sheer dissatisfaction, she eventually breaks down and leaves her home, her husband and her children to hide in a house by the sea. Driven to near suicide by her frustration, she gives upon her self-harming fantasies by finally choosing to live that selfish life she had been denying herself for so long. Kay is in survival mode: no longer able to give to the people around her she centres herself on her own basic needs: eating, sleeping, watching the sea. When the narrator is missioned by Kay’s husband to come and get her back from her retreat, their conversation quickly turns not so much to the question of the men in their lives, but to the particular ache of missing one’s own children. Kay confesses that she used to miss her children, but that she gave up on those feelings in order to save herself:
But this time, it’s like they don’t exist. And if they do exist, they’re in a busy world, their own world, which has nothing to do with me, busy with their routines, their connections. Alisa’s about to stop being a baby. It might be better that she doesn’t have me, holding her back in it because I’m worried that I’ll stop loving her when she grows bigger. Do you miss yours?
Eventually Kay relents and agrees to come back to her life with her husband and children under the condition that she is allowed one day to herself to write the book she realised had been sitting inside of her for so long. It seems a hard-won victory for a woman to be able to fulfil her creative needs.
The beach is the place where many women spend away the long summer afternoons with their small children. Yet it retains its inescapable mystery and attraction, its promise of solitude and sublime. In Night Waking, the character of Anna daydreams of being transported in a remote cell by the sea, without her children, where all her most basic needs would be taken care of for her, and in which the main activities would revolve around eating, sleeping and dreaming:
Oh, fuck it, I am composing a business plan for a womb with a view. So what? I’ll call it Hôtel de la Mère and the only real problem is childcare. Absent, children cause guilt and anxiety incompatible with the mission of the Hôtel; present, they prevent thought or sleep, much more swimming and the consumption of biscuits. We need to turn them off for a few days, suspend them like computers. Make them hibernate. You can’t uninvent children any more than you can uninvent the bomb.
There’s the rub. When mothers write, where do the children go? Of course, they can be at school, or at the nursery, with the other parent. But their imprint is everywhere in their – mother’s lives and the relentless giving is incompatible with the dedication necessary to any creative endeavour. The holidays are a tricky period for writing mothers and the “crisis of childcare” created by the pandemic is threatening to turn our lives into one long summer.
Feigel, Lara. Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.
Emily Jeremiah, “Broken Nights, Shattered Selves: Maternal Ambivalence and the Ethics of Interruption in Sarah Moss’s Novel Night Waking, in Browne, Victoria, ed. Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins, 2014.