Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Merve, August 21

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Brooklyn, New York

Dear friends

At a dinner party some weeks ago, I declined a glass of wine and told my host that I was four months pregnant. "I bet you've read all the baby books," sighed the younger woman sitting next to me, a woman who knew very little about me except that I liked to read. I demurred. I disliked baby books, I told her, as well as mommy blogs, maternity clothing, baby showers, and all other sentimental scenes of motherhood. What were they but false promises, cheerful and hallucinatory flashes intended to distract women from the unpleasant facts of what was to come; the drudgery and boredom of childcare, the visceral unfairness of pregnancy?

I must have raised my voice, because the younger woman shrunk back. "I don't think everyone feels that way about their children," she said primly.

sentimentality

The flip side of sentimentality is rage, and many of the parenting books I have read this summer are indignant, vengeful, frustrated, or unsettling tales about what Rachel Cusk has called the "mythic snare" of motherhood: that a child will forever "live within the jurisdiction" of her mother's "consciousness," wrenching a woman from her former self so violently that her understanding of "what it is to exist is profoundly changed." Cusk's A Life's Work is on my shelf, where it leans on Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born, Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation, Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter, and the final two books in her Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child.

Beyond just the existential pangs of maternity, these books all wrestle with the politics of childcare. There exists, in fiction and reality alike, a transparently unequal division of labor between those who leave in the mornings (usually men) and those who stay at home during the day (usually women). For women who stay at home, and for those who make a living by writing, a dilemma presents itself: how to reconcile the demands of childcarethe feeding schedule, the midnight cries, the incessant need to minister to another human beingwith the unbroken time and seclusion one so often needs to put pen to paper?

stupidbaby

I like to joke that if Ferrante had written a parody of What To Expect When You're Expecting it might go something like this:

  1. You can be one of two types of pregnant women. You can be a woman like Lenù, a woman who "feels light" and unburdened by pregnancy, a woman who experiences "no breakdown in [her] body, in mood, in the wish to be active." Or you can be a woman like Lila who turns green, sickly, aged, and bitter, morphing into a prisoner in her own expanding body. "The body suffers, it doesn't like losing its shape, there's too much pain," Lila warns Lenù, and her warning is a near perfect mirrorthree clauses, three commasof Lenù's rapturous physicality.
  2. The first type of woman will never understand the second type. The inverse is also true. To Lenù, Lila's warning doubles as an invitation to masochistic communion, a chance for the two women to share an experience of pain that transcends the many experienceseducation, marriagethat have divided them over the years. Lenù's unwillingness to accept Lila's understanding of maternity, and Lila's unwillingness to acknowledge Lenù's, seems a form of betrayal: a denial of something that both woman perceive as essential to their sense of self.
  3. Which type of woman you are is, in part, a choice, a matter of willful thinking, not physical reality. When Lenù rejects Lila's invitation to suffer together"It was a wonderful experience," she says of giving birthher rejection is also a refusal to believe that motherhood is the "fabrication" of one's "very own torture." She ignores the aches and pains and revels in exaggerated sentiment, convinced that her "sense of physical and intellectual fulness" has made her "bold" and "expansive." "Each of us narrates our life as it suits us," Lila responds passive aggressively. Here one can almost see Lila slitting her dark eyes and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  4. The other shoe will always drop. Lenù's baby shrieks, shits, vomits, and refuses to breastfeed. Lenù feels inadequate, useless, and pained. At some point, she begins hate your husband for not suffering as she does, for not rising in agitation when the baby gives off a sense of unhappiness. She hates him for going to work when she must stay at home. She hates him for saying things like, "Someone who really has to write will write anyway, even if she has a baby." You, too, will feel ashamed and you will feel abandoned, "ugly and old before [your] time." You, too, will resign yourself to the idea that this is the way things are supposed to be.
  5. Money is the only way out. Money most often takes the form of cash paid to a housekeeper/nanny/cook. For Lenù, money assumes the guise of a wealthy mother-in-law, one who arrives at the house with an armful of radical feminist tracts and tries to "rekindle" her "frozen mind" and her "frozen gaze." She does not want to read these tracts. She does not want to read anything, nor does she want to commit words to paper because, even with money, writing seems to require far greater expanses of time, and a far greater clarity of purpose, than she can summon.
  6. Rarely will your children perceive you as an autonomous human beinga person with a past, a person with desires separable from their own existence, a person capable of being wounded by their thoughtlessness.
  7. Eventually, you will abandon your children to save yourself. Bon voyage!

stupidbaby2

I could go on like this, but it occurs to me that it might be dangerous to do so. No matter how opposed to one another they may seem, sentimentality and indignation are equally capable of constricting the imagination. Both are intense, absorptive modes of feeling, and both are prescriptive in their own ways. If the preciousness of diaper ads, stork-shaped cupcakes, and staged baby photos advertises pure bliss, unsullied by the grime of exhaustion and self-estrangement, then outright resentment at the inequalities of childcare also produces a vision of parenting stripped of possibility. What if your partner wants to do as much as you or worries, as mine does, that you won't let him do enough? What if you have friends who are more intimately involved in your lives than family, and are eager to raise your children alongside you? What if the new rhythms of parenting teach you how to write differently or to write better?

The most gripping passages in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay are the passages that formalize the constriction of the writerly imagination, first by sentimentality and later by rage. In her sentimental mode, Lenù's perception of her body's fullness prompts her to wax poetic, to spout nonsense. When she states during a speech that she feels "as happy as the astronauts on the white expanse of the moon," Lila criticizes her for her rhetorical flight of fancy. "Sometimes it's better to say nothing," Lila observes, "to stand with your feet firmly planted in the troubles of the earth."

Rage, on the other hand, is terse and invective. Nearly two years after she gives birth, Lenù reads for the first time Carla Lonzi's manifesto We Spit on Hegel, one of the founding texts of Rivolta Femminile, or "Female Revolt." To capture her overwhelming emotional response to Lonzi's critique of Marxism, Lenù compresses Lonzi's elegant sentences and paragraphs into militant commands. "Resist the waste of female intelligence. Deculturate. Disacculturate, starting with maternity. Don't give children to anyone .... Restore women to themselves." Her experience of reading Lonzi feels empowering to her, but what about our experience of reading Lenù reading Lonzi? If sentimentality is enshrined in pretty idiocies, rage is spitting orders at one's reader.

Yet in the middle of these emotional bookends are long, anguished meditations on the daily ethics of childcare, passages which are neither purple nor piqued in their representation of motherhood. In between sentimentality and rage, the style of Ferrante's prose is unpredictable and ever-changing; not the fragmented starts and stops of Offill and others, but sharp turns from one manner of feeling to the next. There are run-on sentences of baby talk, coos and gurgles and silly nicknames crafted to appease a colicky newborn. There are sentence-long paragraphs of self-doubt, which sometimes dissolve in tears, but just as often emerge into tranquility and acceptance. There are alternating bouts of euphoria, anxiety, depression.

Here, then, is everything that is impossible to contain in one extreme feeling or another. Here are all the possibilities of parenting and writing, treading water somewhere in the middle.

Merve

IN THIS SERIES:

The Slow Burn: an Introduction

My Brilliant Friend: Jill, June 22

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, June 23

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, June 25

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, June 26

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, July 1

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, July 6

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, July 11

The Story of a New Name: Jill, July 17

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 20

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 30

The Story of a New Name: Katherine, July 31

The Story of a New Name: Sara Marcus, August 6

The Story of a New Name: Sarah, August 9

The Story of a New Name: Marissa Brostoff, August 10

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Katherine, August 20

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Lili Loofbourow, August 26

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Jill, August 27

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Cecily Swanson, August 28

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Amy Schiller, August 30

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Sarah, September 1

The Story of the Lost Child: Merve, September 16

The Story of the Lost Child: Katherine, September 18

The Story of the Lost Child: Jill, September 21

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25