Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Great Expectations

A good friend of mine was having coffee round at my place this morning. She and I have often talked in the past about having children, whether or not to, and what it means not to have children.

She described how a close friend with children said to her this summer, "I won't be able to see you 'til September". I was incredulous — until I thought about my own behaviour: I, too, duck into the trenches over the summer weeks, mainly because I don't have childcare, partly because everyone seems to go away, and sometimes we do too, and, with regard to single or childfree friends, I somewhere make the assumption that they won't want to see me with my pesky kids.

But my friend today made it clear that it was she who felt excommunicated. "Why does she think I wouldn't want to see her children?" my friend said. I think that, after years of interrupted conversations, I know the answer: her friend wants to have a peaceful chat, and knows she won't get it until the kids are back at school, so has given up forcing the situation, and just manages it instead. For my friend without children, the unit of time is the hour, possibly the minute. For her Motherloaded friend, it is the week. Summer is 6 units (8-9 if you go private).

What struck me in this anecdote is the translation problem between women about children. Mothers have to think in childtime, and women without kids can continue to think in both calendar and subjective time. Locked onto their respective islands, they develop different discourses — and are then surprised and hurt when they can no longer quite understand each other's culture.

My friend very astutely raised the issue of 'expectations'. She, a child of the first generation of liberated women, like me, was brought up to expect equality with men, to expect to succeed through her own hard work and a good education. She, like me, has come to grapple with an amorphous, tentacular monster, which has interposed itself between us and our 'expectations'.

We can make some statements about this monster, tricky as it is to locate in everyday life.

  • Firstly, true social equality between men and women has not been achieved. 
  • Secondly, equality between women has not been achieved and is constantly under threat. 
  • Thirdly, that monster has a name: it is reproduction. 

Women's liberation was achieved largely through access to contraception. A new kind of imprisonment has descended in the twenty-first century, however, through turning 'choice' into 'judgement'. Women don't 'choose' to have children — they only think they do, or think their choice is private, and then they find that they are being judged, often viciously, on whether they have kids or not, and how 'well' they are managing the 'juggle'. If they are not juggling, they are judged to be (i) negligent or (ii) underachieving. What fresh hell is this?

This afternoon, I was teaching Dickens's Great Expectations. It reminded me that Pip's expectations are not innate, but cultural. When he is introduced to Miss Havisham and the coldhearted, snobbish Estelle, the excruciating discovery of his own lowliness, mixed with his desire for Estelle's affection, catalyses a longing for social mobility.

Yet he would never have conceived such expectations had he not been rejected because of his social position: "what would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so!" This inchoate longing is then unexpectedly given fuel when Pip is given money to become a 'gentleman'.

Miss Havisham, on the other hand, has nothing but expectations and wealth. Her spooky spider-webbed stasis is the result of another kind of rejection: being left at the altar. Miss Havisham started off having it all (under patriarchy), and assumed that life would go on giving her everything to which she was entitled. Her expectations seemed natural to her. Her shock on discovering, unexpectedly, publicly, that 'having it all' is not enough, catalyses immobility. She cannot let go of her expectations, they are too deeply intertwined with her very identity, and she remains imprisoned within them.

The narrative of Great Expectations traces a very nineteenth-century moral arc: social ambition resolves into exposure of the world's emptiness and a renewed truce with humility.

That's all very well when we're talking about Pip.

Imagine my surprise to realize that I have been playing the part of Miss Havisham. I have been arthritic with anger and disappointment, for a long time, about what happens to women's careers after they have children.

I can only hope that I am moving in a more Pip-like direction.


litlove said...

What a fantastic post, Ingrid. I agree with every single insightful word of this.

Kirkegaard said...

Thank you Litlove! Comparing oneself with Miss Havisham is not a thought experiment I recommend. But it was salutary. What I should have added was that Miss Havisham sailed on the expectations provided for her by others, by patriarchy, and cannot work out what her own really are. She's not much of an existentialist. But she shows how easy it is to be trapped by an ideology.