We usually think of choice as a good thing. Capitalism even defines quality of life along the lines of having endless choices. Forty types of toothpaste to choose from? That’s seen as a prerequisite for a “good life”. And the same goes for our lives as women. We now get to choose between a whole raft of options when it comes to our needs and desires, having families, careers, lovers. The inherent inequality of our society is sold to us as merely one more kind of choice. What are you complaining about, you can CHOOSE between having a high-flying career and being a stay-at-home mother. Hell, you can even have it all, but at what cost? The result is often major dissatisfaction and a sneaking suspicion you may have made the wrong choices.
Give a kid a lolly and she will be thrilled to bits. But make her choose between five lollies, and what’s the betting she will be wondering all day long if she made the right choice?
I am deeply grateful that centuries of strong women have organised and blazed the trail that means I can now vote, have my own bank account, have children out of wedlock, and, albeit at great cost, even have a career whilst raising my kids. I can get divorced, or live in separation, I can join a union, I can get a restraining order out on an abusive partner, I can even go online and meet any number of random men to have sex with. Spoilt for choice? Not exactly.
I’ve just finished reading Rachel Holmes’ biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter to the infinitely more hirsute Karl. I had been hoping for an uplifting tale of how this intelligent, strong and independent woman fought for working women’s rights to unionise, to vote, to live independent lives. Well, yes, I got that of course, but what depressed me to the core was the fact that her attempt to “have it all” pretty much led directly to her suicide. She worked her fingers to the bone to be “independent”, translating and writing for numerous books and magazines, choosing not to marry her long-term partner (the abominable reptilian Edward Aveling) whilst supporting him financially and intellectually, delaying her obvious desire for children indefinitely, in favour of working for socialism and gender equality, and was rewarded by a lying, cheating partner who, as the final insult, married his mistress behind her back. No one really knows exactly why she killed herself, but a damn good guess would be that being confronted with the terrible contradictions of her egalitarian, thoroughly modern romance, she couldn’t bear the conclusion: that perhaps we can’t have it all.
Would you give it all up for this guy? (Edward Aveling)
A novel from 1971 by Alice Monro still seems painfully relevant to this day, when she has the character of Ada in Lives of Girls and Women say: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up to now is their connection with men …Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake of being distracted over a man, your life will never be your own.”
OK arguably Eleanor Marx was a poor judge of character when it came to men, but how many poor judges of character are there amongst us? Intelligent bright funny creative women…Hilary Clinton, Demi Moore, Ségolène Royal (Francois Hollande’s long-term partner and mother of their four children), the list is sheer endless.
A century and a half on from Marx, one of my other heroines, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recently suffered the same fate, albeit not feeling it necessary to top herself; instead she worked through it by writing the book “Girl in a Band”, hopefully handing us a few insights into the pitfalls involved in being a successful creative woman, mother and lover along the way. (The book is out in four days so I haven’t read it yet!)
Even now, with all these amazing female role models in art, politics, music to chose from, it is our depth and ability to create that is so intimately intertwined with our ability to love: that tender soft spot deep within that makes us so damn vulnerable and so resilient at the same time.
All the more galling then, to read about Thurston Moore’s male midlife crisis. How fucking boring and predictable. Gordon writes:
“The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock’n’roll world, was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure – a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.”
But at least Kim Gordon managed to be creative, indeed prolific, whilst also being a mother. I imagine though, that hardly a woman exists on the face of this earth, who doesn’t feel guilty about working late sometimes, being absent minded or checking emails whilst feeding the kids. Whilst men don’t seem to feel the slightest twinge. Where does the guilt come from?
A study by the Economic and Social Research Council at University College London found that children actually thrive on the fact that both parents work, with the small but all-important qualifier: “as long as parents are supported, do not have to work long hours and are able to combine child-rearing with paid work…”. Hmm.
And along with the guilt, is the omnipresence of our “other self”: two sets of needs and desires that so many women are plagued with. A feeling of dissonance, of always having two lives to live. Parenthood is a privilege (need I even say?), something I longed for, for two interminable years before it worked out, so I am the last to suggest skipping the motherhood part on the route to deeper fulfillment. But I sometimes get so ANGRY at the other me tugging at my sleeve while I am trying to stay present during a game of cards with my children.
Sheila Monro’s touching biography of her life growing up as Alice Monro’s daughter also ruminates on if and how a woman can manage to tap into her true talents (writing in her case) whilst still being a good mother. Just a few pages in and my spine tingles with recognition:
“How well I know this feeling, this sense of having to be on the surface of life, not really thinking, not focusing, sitting on the edge of the sandbox while my three-year-old plays, following him around the garden, all those hours with trains and trucks and stories, wondering what to have for dinner when all the time you want to go deeper, when all the time you are desperate to get to some other part of yourself.”
Björk, in her interview recently in Pitchfork magazine sums it up beautifully:
“… I was being like Kofi Annan—I had to be the pacifist to try to unite the impossible. Maybe that was a strange, personal job between me and myself, to show how overreaching I was being as a woman. That’s what women do a lot—they’re the glue between a lot of things. Not only artists, but whatever job they do: in the office, or homemakers. Biophilia was like my own personal slapstick joke, showing I had to reach so long—between solar systems—to connect everything. It’s like the end scene in Mary Poppins, when she’s made everyone friends, and the father realizes that kids are more important than money—and [then] she has to leave. It’s a strange moment. Women are the glue. It’s invisible, what women do. It’s not rewarded much.”
Yeah, you can say that again. For the first half of my life, I genuinely believed I could have it all, and set out to prove it. I worked very hard to convince everyone that “Look! You can be superwoman, bake cakes at midnight, translate PR texts as a freelancer in the evenings when the kids are in bed and run to the market first thing after the school run in time to open your own café complete with freshly pressed juices and homemade soup at nine every morning. You just have to want it enough.” Yeah. Let’s just say it wasn’t so much “having” it all, as “doing” it all. And it was brain-jarringly exhausting. I had exploited myself to the core, and after a few years I was ready to hand in my membership of the human race in favour of sweet oblivion on a psychiatric ward. I had had enough. Sure, on paper I had it all. But my spirit was charred and twisted out of all recognition.
It is an untenable dichotomy. And I am one of the lucky ones. I had the luxury of choosing (was it really a choice?) to work freelance from home, and managed to solve the either-or conundrum in my way. But without generous help in terms of childcare from their fathers and the state (after-school care) this wouldn’t have been possible either. If I lived in New York or rural Texas, or London? Forget it. Not on my pay.
And despite a certain equilibrium, I still feel torn: torn between wanting to spend a week completely free of any motherly responsibility, to immerse myself in takeaway sushi and writing in bed, and between wanting to be the kind of mother who always pays attention when her seven-year-old rambles on about the intricate plot twists of Emil and the Detectives.
As Björk says, mining ourselves and our deepest longings, whether for children, or for creative processes, we sacrifice ourselves on the alter of family and love and connection.
I don’t have an answer, but I do know that I am going to try to stop feeling guilty about it. And do my best to raise strong daughters who will maybe get a large skip and a jump closer to answering the questions we have raised in our push toward “having it all”. Despite all our hard-won rights, and the ability to earn our keep (Eleanor Marx was very clear that inequality was a question of economics, as she describes it in her pamphlet The Woman Question: from a Socialist Point of View), our Achilles heel remains our tender hearts. And that isn’t really something I am willing to forfeit. A woman like Marx, who was intimately acquainted with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, who believed in free love and equal marriage, helped countless women strike and organise across Europe, simply couldn’t see that she was sharing her life with a prime arsehole. Maybe that is the best lesson we can teach our daughters. First and foremost: live your own truth and love yourself. Then hopefully, there will be no room left for arseholes and more room left to be creative and mine our inner depths.
Eleanor Marx A Life, by Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, 2014
Girl in A Band, Kim Gordon, Harper Collins (Release date: 24th February 2015)
Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Monro, by Sheila Monro, Union Square Press, 2008.