There’s a liminal moment, at the end of each day, when I pull my son’s door to and whisper goodnight. My daughter’s door is already part-closed, and I hope she is sleeping. As I descend the stairs, doing my best not to clump on the painted steps, a layer of awareness slips from my shoulders. By the time I’m at the bottom, I’m mummy no longer, I’m just myself. Some nights, the moment passes without notice. Friends are waiting between dinner courses, or emails blink. All too often, half-made sandwiches sit open on a wooden board. It’s a bittersweet moment: a hint of how I’ll feel when my children — already teenagers — really do leave me. I love them too much to want to be free of them. Instead, I hug the feeling to myself as I pass from the mother I am in the hall upstairs to the woman I am in the rooms below.
I like to imagine that when my mother bundled my three sisters and me into bed, at the end of each day, that she could rest easy — at least until morning. Perhaps this is just a story I tell myself. However, I don’t recall her stealing into her study after our lights were out to start her ‘real work’ — as I usually do after settling my children. Admittedly, she didn’t have to work to support us financially but neither did most of her friends. That, after all, was what husbands were for.
When I was a teenager, I made a vow never to become like my mother. I would never sacrifice myself to family in the way my mother seemed to have done. I would put my own work first — whatever that would be. I would be true to my creativity, my life’s purpose — and would never be swayed by how my teenage offspring might judge me. But I was wrong. Or perhaps just young, which isn’t quite the same thing.
The year I turned 30, my mother visited me in London, where I’d lived for many years. One chilly morning, we walked across Hyde Park and had tea overlooking the Serpentine. Mid-conversation, my mother put down her cup and came straight to the point. ‘Helen,’ she said, with her familiar emphasis on the first syllable. ‘Helen, if you’re going to keep on pushing in your career in the way you’ve been doing, you’re clearly too selfish to even think about starting a family.’ My cup clattered on its saucer. I didn’t like what she’d said, but I heard it.
Yet, as it turned out, I wasn’t too selfish to have children. If anything, my problem has been the opposite. My husband would complain that I haven’t been selfish enough. Like Odysseus strapped to the mast, trying not to hear the sirens’ song, I can’t not hear my children’s calls, even if they sing me off course.
I didn’t become a traditional mother in order to follow in my mother’s footsteps. Yes, a traditional way of doing things chimes with my personality. But it went deeper than this. It was a matter of beliefs. When I had my first baby, I came up against my beliefs about how best to care for him. ‘The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.’ The moment I read this comment, by Henry David Thoreau, it rang true. The more slowly my son grew up — I felt — the more he leant on me along the way; the less jarring the external demands on him were, the sturdier he’d end up on the inside. And with any luck, the more complete his independence from me would one day be.
What credits my sisters and me in the eyes of the world, and to some extent our own, is the work we do on top of the families we raise
From my son’s earliest days, I knew that I couldn’t give him religious certainty. And existential security was beyond me, too. Instead, from that time, and for the hundreds of weeks that followed, I gave him myself. And maybe, by the time he works out that that isn’t enough, he’ll be old enough to find his own sources of meaning and certainty. This has been my gamble. (So far, so good.)
It’s clear that in my children’s minds I’m a traditional mother (though they would never use that term). This is no mistake. I’ve let them take possession of me over the years, encouraged it even. I’ve wanted them to take me for granted — just as my mother did with my sisters and me. Not because I want them to grow into petty tyrants, but because I’ve always felt that their development depends on it — that, by leaning on me, they’ll grow out of me all the quicker. Just as I did with my mother.
‘And what about fathers?’ I imagine a voice calls out from the back of the room. The Harvard professor of literature Susan Rubin Suleiman had, I think, the right response: ‘To know that a man is a father is generally less of an indication of how he lives his life, than it is for a mother.’ Mindful (and envious) of the exceptions, this is what I’m getting at. My husband is active in our children’s lives — no question. However, his involvement doesn’t extend to keeping track of appointments, organising school clothes, filling lunchboxes or returning library books. And it’s caring about the daily necessities — the circus of childhood — that is, for so many mothers, both fantastically demanding and weirdly rewarding.
Thirty years ago, I left my mother at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. While I boarded a plane to London, she drove home to her now-empty nest in Adelaide. Having spent decades of her life barely sitting down, she suddenly had plenty of time in which to think.
Although she’d never use these words, I’m pretty sure she believes that her four daughters’ quest for self-fulfillment is in hopeless conflict with family love. Might she be right? Is our culture quietly hostile to something deeply important — loving our children in a genuine and attentive way? More troubling, are we ourselves hostile to it? Do we really think that loving our children unconditionally is to spoil them? We might work a double shift, when it comes to housekeeping. I know my sisters and I do. But it’s the emotional double bind that’s the real agony.
What, then, should I have done? On looking into my children’s eyes, should I have looked the other way and pushed on with my academic career (following the advice of my mentors, professors Isobel Armstrong, Steve Connor and Anthony Grayling)? Or was I right to take my children into my arms, and let the careers of others overtake mine? Some might say I lacked commitment — I didn’t lean in. Others that my mortgage wasn’t big enough. Still others that I’ve loved my children too much, that I’ve over-invested in my relationship to them.
What I now realise is how hard it is to devote yourself to children and not to lose your way, at least for a while
I am no retiring stay-at-home mother. I write and edit — most recently a lifestyle magazine in Tasmania, where I now live, that went spectacularly wrong. I review, give talks, and am involved in the world. But this paid work has fitted around my children’s needs. I am a traditional mother in the deep psychological sense of wanting what’s best for one’s children, no matter how inconvenient for oneself. An understanding that, when all goes well, is passed down from mother to child. I’ve longed to make my mark on the world, just as I’ve longed to be a good mother. Like my sisters, I’ve hankered for self-fulfillment and personal goals. Why else, having devoted myself to family for so long, would my ambitions still taunt me? On reaching 50 with a perfectly respectable career behind me, I sometimes feel that I’m on the back foot, my husband and peers having shot past.
What credits my sisters and me in the eyes of the world, and to some extent our own, is the work we do on top of the families we raise. Every day, I pour as many hours into my family and housekeeping than into my writing and editing, yet I’m recognised only for what I do beyond the home. This might be no more than polite social shorthand, but it’s still a sign of our times. My children give me enormous pleasure and pride, a love so profound it escapes words. But my sense of identity and worth, and my inner buoyancy, stem from my work beyond them.
If you called up my mother today, and asked her why her four daughters are always busy, she might sigh and reply, ‘Too busy to see me.’ However, the real answer lies elsewhere. My sisters and I are forever on the go because we’re determined to be more than ‘just’ mothers. We’re not content simply to put our children to bed at the end of each day and put our feet up until morning. We refuse to accept that love and ambition don’t go together: we’d sooner toe the party line that career and family are happy bedfellows than accept the awkward truth of how hard that is. Even if the price is to be forever on the go. Yes, we’ve sacrificed our free time. But at least, we tell ourselves, we haven’t sacrificed ourselves.
No wonder my sisters and I find it hard to relax, given the push-me-pull-you nature of our desires. At once to be there for our families, yet also to get on in the world. Sadly, feminism – to which I was once fiercely loyal – hasn’t been much help. If anything, it’s compounded the conflict by giving me the go-ahead to do and to be anything. It’s a licence that often feels — late on Sunday night with a deadline looming — like yet another pressure to perform.
This is why my sisters and I accept a double shift. Not because we’re domestic masochists in thrall to throwback gender norms. But because, if we’re to sustain a rich sense of ourselves, independent of family, we feel we have no choice.
During my 20s I read all, and taught much, of Virginia Woolf’s work. Though I read her less now, I still find myself touched by To the Lighthouse (1927). In it, Woolf reflects on her upbringing, recalling family holidays by the sea. Reading this novel as a young woman, I assumed that it was about the passage of time — the way life happens to you, rather than the other way around. I assumed that Mrs Ramsay, the motherly central figure, was nostalgic. Mrs Ramsay harked back to a time when it was acceptable for a woman to credit her life through family, rather than her own life’s work. She didn’t even cook the beef dish that she served her family and guests, I thought waspishly. She just thanked her cook.
However, now that I’m a Mrs Ramsay in my own family — sadly, minus the help — I find I respond to her very differently. These days, I admire Mrs Ramsay for being vitally present, even after her death. I see her maternal qualities seep into her every relationship — with her children, husband, house, garden and visitors. Above all, I see the way she holds everything together, and credits the lives of those around her as deeply valuable. Her gestures might be passing — the sock she knits might never be worn — and yet they build up into a kind of solidity that, now that I care for my own family as much as for myself, seems all too real.
These days, I see my own mother — like nearly every mother I know — in a sympathetic light. I see her as noble and wonderful, no matter her failings. The good mother that I so railed against when young is now someone I aspire to be. She’s someone who conveys to her children that she’s on this earth for them alone, while yet holding firm to her own ambitions. She’s someone who feels privately convinced that her children will be living with her till kingdom come, while also knowing, in another part of her mind, that one day they’ll be off and away. And she’s someone who, though intimately acquainted with sacrifice, chooses not to dwell on it.
But this is not an elegy for self-sacrificing mothers. For Mrs Ramsay’s story is a warning too. Losing yourself in a deep love for family is, well, just that. It’s to lose your way in the journey that we all make to be ourselves. What I now realise, and didn’t before, is how hard it is to devote yourself to children and not to lose your way, at least for a while. It’s finding your way back that, I now believe, is the crucial part.
My realisation, unfashionable but true, is this. Because of the way I love my family, I enjoy my personal freedom more when I put them first. Until my children reach maturity, my first loyalty is to them. I have other callings, too — I’d have gone mad if I didn’t — however, looking after them is still my principal work. I’ll never put it on my CV, but it’s clear to me that this is what accounts for the holes in it.
So why did I become a traditional mother, rather than the modern mother for which my feminist education — and nearly 20 years of working in publishing, higher education and psychotherapy in London — groomed me? Why did I risk being consumed by a role that might leave me high and dry, a cuttlefish at high tide? In part, I rather unexpectedly enjoyed being needed. Equally unexpectedly, I found being around my children very creative, far more than I’d been led to expect. Caring for them — loving them unreservedly and creating a way of life out of this love — has been a revelation to me. Least fashionably of all, I realised that my marriage might not survive if I didn’t bend, and that bending like a reed was far better than breaking something good. Family life has expressed a deep part of myself that was there, as a potential, well before I had children.
Being at home with my children has given me an imaginative space in which to rethink every aspect of my life, in a way that the pressures of my previous life simply didn’t allow. Just as I had to get to know my children in every mood under the sun before I really understood them, so being around them has led me to know myself better. Yes, these past 16 years have marked a hiatus in my career. But they’ve also been a precious opportunity. I’m now much clearer about what I care about. I now know what I love enough to pursue. Perhaps, I say to myself, I had to let go of the old me before a new me — wiser, older and flawed — came out of the shadows.