Sunday, 26 January 2014

Falling out of love with yourself

This was the thing he never understood: yes, he would give me time to work when I demanded it, but my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signalled that I wanted out. His time was considered to  belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.  
Even the nice ones don't understand what this is like. ' What's the problem?' They say it sadly, trying to do the right thing. 'All you have to do is ask...'
I did not fall out of love with him at any stage.  I did not fall out of love with our lives here, in this house, with the world we had built around us… I fell out of love with the way I had coped, over the years, with the hard work I had done, the sacrifices I had made… if I fell out of love with anything it was with that competence of mine. I fell out of love with myself. 

Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty


A friend of mine told me about the thriller Apple Tree Yard the other day, and sent me these quotations from it. We often talk about being working mothers and what it means. I found the quotations as unsettling as my friend. 


How clearly recognisable the first quotation is — how neatly a mother's time is constructed for her: 'my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signalled that I wanted out'. And, conversely, how rationally, and consequentially, paternal time is defined: 'His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in'. 

There is such a complicated play going on between the female author and the character, here speaking in the first person. Where does this partitioning come from — the author's imagination? Her character's? From real life observation? There are no statistics here, no clear proof. Yet I'll wager that every woman reading this will understand Louise Doughty's words and will nod their heads. 

Was considered by whom? That's ideology at work. That mesh of opinions, judgements, comments, from which each of us draws out individual identities, like candy floss, trying to find reflections of ourselves in society, seeking approval and acceptance. 

For mothers, that apparently, inviolably, naturally means 'belonging' to the children we bear and the families we thereby create. 

Mothers are caught on the barbed wire of that enclosure, in fact we are that enclosure. We create it, nurture it, bound it, protect it, and cannot escape from it. We turn ourselves into the barbed wire of belonging.

It is up to each individual woman to patrol and staff that enclosure, and it takes enormous strength to delegate that work to another, even if it is the father. But why is that? Why do we not trust anyone else to look after our cubs? Why has social evolution not pulled us beyond such a primitive, animalistic instinct? And why are we so concerned with patrolling other women's enclosures, making sure that all is right with the world?

When, at the end of the novel, the protagonist explains how she came to have an affair, here is the fascinating way the author expresses it:
 I fell out of love with the way I had coped, over the years, with the hard work I had done, the sacrifices I had made… if I fell out of love with anything it was with that competence of mine. I fell out of love with myself. 
Competence. She seems to elide 'competence' and 'myself', as if, over the years, whoever she once was had eroded into a remnant of mere management, like a dissolving crystal, or a sandy cliff pummelled by the tide. 

By contrast, the following sentence, 'I fell out of love with myself',  feels like a false note to me. It begs the question, was she ever in love with herself? Or again, was there ever a stable self with which to have fallen in love?

What is so difficult, so all-engulfing about becoming a mother, at least in my experience, is that it so crudely exposes that we — humans —are flux in a tide, we are ever-changing. The selves we thought we were are shown to be so much cardboard construction. What is demanded by motherhood is a plastic, protean identity that can move and shift with each day that passes. In becoming mothers, we find that we are not — and never were — a fixed point, looking out on time passing from the safety of a stable identity, like a little car driving through pelting rain with its wipers going. We turn out to be globular, organic, tentacular, feathery instantiations of time, attaching our minds and bodies wherever we can, then loosening, and floating off again in the wake of the new creatures we have created. 

The trouble is how to fit that truth into school runs, trips to the supermarket, endless school concerts, homework, universal child benefit, welfare to work and all the rest of it. 

2 comments:

Peter Denton said...

A finely drawn observation, but perhaps a trifle self justifying. Men also suffer similar psychic trauma for 'bringing home the bacon' - conforming to crippling corporate identities, manipulative bosses, demanding business obligations. I shared a hospital ward once wihth an old tradesman who was dying from the devestating effects his craft had taken on his body. He'd certainly fallen out of love with himself. But his family treatedhim as a hero.
PD.

Kirkegaard said...

That is a very moving comment, Peter, thank you for making it. The quotations come from a novel in which a woman is indeed justifying herself — for having an affair. So yes, she is using something, a strand of ideology, to help her own case, by raising sympathy from women.

The story you tell of the dying tradesman is very moving. And makes me want to ask whether being treated as a hero by his family for the sacrifice of his body only heightened his loss of love for himself. The lionising prevented anything real from being said.

In the book I'm trying to write, it's true that I'm looking at women's experiences, and the reason for that is that it's what I best understand. I don't intend to exclude anyone, but a book's focus of necessity excludes elements that lie just at the margins of its focus.

What you touch on is one of the very greatest problems in writing about family life — that it is full of different perspectives, each contradicting the other. One of the hardest things to find and hang on to is empathy or commonality, however happy the family.

Thank you for making me think.