Lara Feigel is publishing what sounds like a fascinating analysis of maternal ambivalence, centred on Doris Lessing. Feigel writes, thoughtfully and thought-provokingly, about Lessing and other female writers on ambivalence.
Here are the thoughts Feigel provoked in this particular ambivalent mother.
I took The Golden Notebook with me when I went away for a month to write the first draft of Motherload, in 2014, and it found its way into the manuscript.
I remember reading it in horror, while wind and rain lashed the February house, and I felt dreadfully alone. Horror, because I identified so much with Anna Wulf, and didn't want to have to. Why had nothing changed between 1962 and 2014?
Just reading the book made me question exactly why I had felt it so necessary to leave my children, aged ten and seven, for a month, to write a book about motherhood.
But it was perfectly obvious why. It had nothing at all to do with maternal ambivalence: of course I couldn't write if I had to bob up and down every five minutes at the behest of the State, the local community, primary schools, social mores demanding I do everything and paste a smile on my face as I did so, be thin, exercise, cook the right kinds of food, somehow straddle the divide between the classes and the two-tier education system, manage the NHS, understand a full spectrum of psychopathology, suffer from it, treat it in others and generally be responsible for it. Oh, and earn a bloody living.
Of course I loved my children – that was exactly why I was in thrall to the whole of society, trying to raise them as well as I could. Not to please anyone else, but because it's been made so impossibly difficult to raise children by the contradictory rubbish we are constantly being fed about how to do it.
Writing takes time and attention, and a place to do it. If all those conditions are missing, of course you can't write. But nowadays you're then expected to beat yourself up, for failing to overcome the conditions of your entrapment. The writing mother isn't Sisyphus, she's just trapped in a pinball game.
So bring on the trolls to tell me I'm a terrible person. Pah! I thumb my nose at trolls. Troll, c'est moi.
The Duchess of Malfi, before her murder, says:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways: any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering. Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
I would fain put off my last woman’s-fault,
I’d not be tedious to you.
Exactly. The Duchess of Malfi: working mother. Any way, for heaven's sake, so I were out of your whispering.
Mumsnet was outraged when I announced I was off to the country for a month to write, and I was duly vilified – although a few people were kind enough to admit that the vilification was based on envy rather than fact. The Daily Mail nearly published a story about it. Why they didn't, I don't know, but I like to think it was because even the Daily Mail couldn't make money out of a mother simply… going away to work while the father looked after the children. However pernicious the social judgement, we are, let's try not to forget, in the twenty-first century, in an affluent, relatively progressive country, with laws that protect women, their right to an education, their right to vote, their entitlement to own property and to work. Even if those laws fail all the time. It is social attitude that prevents social equality, not patriarchy, the framework of which has now largely been dismantled.
We are battling demons now. And while we shout about non-existent demons, the social structures that keep us safe are quietly being dismantled behind the scenes.
I wrote thousands and thousands of words in that month away – a whole draft of the book, many blog posts, and while I was lonely and anxious and missed my children and my husband, I could not have achieved this while at home. And indeed I have gone on, for the following four years back home, not to have achieved this again.
My husband, who suggested I go away for a month in the first place, precisely because he had himself just been away for a month to work, is now suggesting I do it again, and this time go to Paris. The children are now fourteen and eleven, and it is eminently possible.
The reasons why I was not able to complete more than a second draft of the book in the four intervening years, however, have little to do with maternal ambivalence, and more to do with death, unemployment, terminal illness, employment, cancer, the book not being good enough, and bad luck with publishers.
I will go to Paris soon, not for a month, or for the six months I was away last year to be with my own mother as she died, but for a week or two, to be able to concentrate, and whittle away at this third draft.
Because I can't do that at my kitchen table, even though I have much more time and space, now that my children are at secondary, my husband has a good job, and most of my family has died.
Now I need to be in a place where I once thought of myself as a writer, to overcome my own imposter syndrome all over again.
To pretend to myself that I haven't completely failed, that it's possible to finish with motherload.
No more equivocation.