Now that I have children, the consequences of living under patriarchy are starting to make themselves known to me in ways that are not theoretical. I was a woman who had considered herself forewarned and forearmed by principles of feminism embraced when I was young, thinking – based on nothing more perceptive than youthful arrogance – that the troubles that beset older women of a previous generation would never bother me. Instead, I find myself grappling as I hurtle toward middle age with the very narratives of freedom and constraint that I naively thought I could outsmart simply by virtue of being able to identify them.
What has changed? In part, it is the gendered work of parenthood, which our culture makes so easy for women to undertake, to the detriment of all. The transactions of time and money and labour that mitigate our lives also conspire against artistic pursuit, particularly when combined with the additional unpaid labour of childcare. In other words: I am a writer and a mother; when these identities collided, I grew alert to cultural structures shaping and validating – or undermining – the lives and identities of the women around me, those who have preceded me, and those who will follow after. And I started to notice how so many of the books that I cherish are essentially explorations of sacrifice and curtailment – and what it costs to break free. The writers I admire and look to most, Deborah Levy, Rachel Cusk and Helen Garner, have all questioned the complexities brought by marriage and motherhood to the pursuit of creative lives. When I turned to Into the Fire by Sonia Orchard, and Islands by Peggy Frew, I saw that the concerns I’ve been ruminating on were replicated in the pages of those novels, too.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself for failing in my twenties to see what was coming. Can girls on the cusp of adulthood, even in spite of impressive educations and righteous politics, ever really appreciate the suite of concessions and compromises that launch so many women into middle-age? Can they empathise with and understand the sacrifices and trials of marriage and motherhood from the vantage of their unencumbered freedom? What chasms open up between women of different ages and life stages and backgrounds and experiences – and even within individual women themselves from one decade to the next – as they attempt to navigate the tensions that arise between ideals and lived experience? Lara, the heavily pregnant, thirty-something narrator of Orchard’s second novel, Into the Fire, must navigate these questions as she recollects for the reader the arc of her relationship with her best friend, Alice.
Lara is attempting to come to terms with Alice’s recent death in a house fire. A decade prior, while studying at Melbourne University, the women meet under feminism’s awning. They live together, party and share intimacies, exemplifying the special kind of platonic coupledom that is often enjoyed by young women before they are romantically involved with other people. But a new boyfriend for Alice, the charismatic rock-star Crow, and then motherhood soon arrive to strain the women’s friendship. During the intervening years between the end of their studies and Lara’s final reckoning, Alice clumps with the mothers, maligned in drudgery and wasted potential, on one side of the chasm that separates women from one another in our culture. Lara graduates to stand with the career women, ambitious and self-involved, on the other.
Alice is thrilled when she discovers that she is pregnant. Lara is incredulous: ‘we’d always been taught that having children was not something educated young women – women with choices – did…we didn’t admire mothers’. Reading this, I felt a jolt of recognition. What becomes of women – like Lara, Alice, and I – who are raised to hold and espouse such views, but then go on to become mothers? I suspect that we inhabit a complex terrain wherein our ideals and our choices are forever unsettled; we endure the discomfort that comes with chafing against patriarchy’s limitations. Until Alice’s pregnancy, the friends have expected to enjoy adulthoods unconstrained by the inequities and absences and abuses of power they have witnessed in their parents’ marriages. The women find it easy to critique the experiences of generations gone, but they struggle when ideology clashes with practice within the bounds of their own lives. Crevasses open up between their guiding principles and the messy realities located at the school gate; in the marital bed; at the office.
The lives of their own mothers offer little guidance – they’re a template for living and womanhood to disparage and rebel against. ‘I didn’t want to be my mum’, Lara explains. ‘Always the one to reach for a bruised apple in the bowl of fruit’. This is a stunning and bleak signifier for the martyred, self-sacrificing perception of motherhood in the culture; even now, months later, I still think of it, shudder, and force my hand to snatch up the shiniest Red Delicious in the bowl on my kitchen table. But the young women’s perceptions of their flawed, unhappy mothers are coloured by their youth. They collude to view their mothers’ misery as the consequence of character flaws that the older women haven’t the internal fortitude to elude – instead of as the result of the very systemic inequities that the young women themselves are so well trained to identify. On some level, the young women have ingested the cultural notion that older women are to be pitied and ignored. But from a compassionate viewpoint, the ordinary heroism brought to the thankless labour of family life is breathtaking. Put simply, as Garner does brilliantly in her essay The Insults of Age, ‘Really, it is astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order.’ The tragedy is that we don’t often see or appreciate the shit our forebears have put up with until we’re copping it ourselves.
‘I think about my mum quite a bit, now I’m about to become a mother myself,’ Lara concedes in the novel’s present day, ‘trying to better understand her life.’ What thoughts might mothers impart to their daughters about the wisdom or folly of following in their footsteps towards marriage and motherhood, had they been asked instead of dismissed at the outset? By the time Lara is open to giving her mother’s experience empathetic consideration, she is already in free fall. Intergenerational relationships – whether between mothers and daughters, or between subsequent waves of feminists – are not neatly dichotomous. Lara does attempt to seek her mother’s counsel and she is rebuffed; her mother admonishes her for being too critical of the ‘good man’ she has secured for herself.
Before the fire claims her life, Alice makes a choice that finally seems to furnish her with agency and fulfilment beyond the bounds of family responsibility. Exemplifying sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ credo, beloved by Deborah Levy, that ‘we either die of the past or we become artists’, Alice manifests a creative practice for herself and invents alter-ego Alonso Magnifico: handsome and subversive. ‘A woman must constantly reinvent herself; it’s not quite the same for men,’ she suggests to Lara, who at that point is still so self-absorbed that she fails to ask the question I would like the answer to, which is: why? But we already know the answer. Women are raised to be malleable and accommodating, starving and silencing themselves to fit into the tiny little pockets of air sequestered for them to inhabit. Perhaps this is even more acute for women who, like Alice, harbour artistic desires.
In her essay On Turning Fifty, Garner asks, ‘How can a woman be an artist and nice in the way women are supposed to be?’ As Alonso, Alice finally has the opportunity to shed the restrictive straightjacket of feminine niceness; to take up space; to embody the masculine power and prowess that her husband has enjoyed so innately. But because we already know her fate, it is also clear that by stepping beyond her assigned gender role, she will be punished. Certainly Crow is unsupportive of her aspirations. His attitude toward Alice’s creative output brings to mind Doris Lessing’s punitive assessment of women who ‘allow’ the insult of being ‘unfeminine’ to be weaponised against them. ‘It is my belief,’ Lessing writes, ‘that any woman who marries, or takes seriously in any way at all, a man who uses this threat, deserves everything she gets.’ This is a chilling aspersion to cast over Alice. Suffice to say that Into the Fire explores what Lessing demonstrates: how even the best-intentioned women, even feminists, might fail one another simply for not appreciating the many reasons – hidden, silent, structural – that their sisters end up thwarted, or in the most tragic circumstances, dead.
Age gives rise to understanding for Lara: she failed to save Alice when she had the chance. It is perhaps the most crushing tragedy of Into the Fire that Lara must come to terms with the limits of her compassion, with her failure to connect with Alice’s experience as a young mother, just as the birth of her first baby approaches. The novel ends before Lara gives birth. Then, there will be more grief for her to weather: greater insight into the life of her friend, who ventured into the one-way journey motherhood, and did not return.
In Islands, ‘John worked in the garden, digging, pruning, sweating… Nan picked vegetables and took them into the kitchen… Anna lay on the porch in her bathers and read Choose Your Own Adventure books’. But even at her most contented, John’s wife, Helen, strains against the gendered expectations heaped upon her. She presents a free and captivating vision of womanhood. This is what draws John to her in the first place: ‘she’d just breezed right past his mother, and you had to admire it, really. Those steely glares, those comments – Girls today, any number of university certificates, but can they sew? Can they cook a dinner, or press a shirt?’ Helen can’t – at least, it appears that her ambitions lie beyond the mastery of home economics. Soon, the couple’s traumatic separation detonates familial bliss, with devastating consequences for their daughters, June and Anna.
Conventional wisdom has it that Helen finally leaves the family in pursuit of other men. Her lust is at the forefront of the tale that her jilted husband and wounded children cling to in the wake of family breakdown. Levy describes women like Helen, who take up the roles assigned to them only to find those roles confining and disappointing. ‘If she is not too defeated by the societal story she has enacted with hope, pride, happiness, ambivalence and rage, she will change the story.’ Helen is a woman who simply performed the societal story, until she grew disaffected enough – or perhaps mature enough, angry enough, disillusioned enough – to reject it. But at what cost, such freedom?
The second tragedy of Peggy Frew’s novel, like a delayed rejoinder to her mother’s abandonment, is the disappearance of Anna, years later. Compounding and cementing the suffering triggered by the fracturing of the family, Anna’s disappearance as a teenager atomises Helen, John and June. At that point, they become the islands of the novel’s title. Has a mishap befallen Anna, or has she run away? The survivors of the tragedy struggle to answer this question as the decades pass; to make sense of what has occurred and who is to blame. Certainly, Anna had been angry with Helen for leaving. She ‘wrecked everything, our whole family, and she takes no responsibility.’ But what Anna doesn’t countenance as a teenager, is that perhaps, for Helen, staying in the marriage would have done more damage. ‘Freedom is never free’, Levy reminds us. ‘Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.’ Yes, but as a tariff, the loss of a child is unendurable.
Then again, within patriarchy, what more can a woman expect than egregious punishment for bucking the rules? Women know that to transgress the boundaries of their gender roles is to conjure trouble; and when they choose to transgress regardless, because the alternative poses intolerable stifling, they have been trained by that same system to accept responsibility for the fallout. ‘Sometimes in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness… dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath’, Cusk observes. ‘It is my belief that I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame’. In the wake of the divorce, when Anna hurts herself as a small child and is inconsolable, Helen refers to Anna’s histrionics as punishment. June wonders,
What was the punishment, and who was giving and receiving it?… Junie didn’t understand what Helen had meant until many years later, until she was an adult, with her own children. She was picking one of them up from child care and as she went in the gate another woman came out, carrying a struggling, red-faced, wailing toddler. ‘My punishment,’ said the woman to June, with a wry smile.
In both Into the Fire and in Islands then, working mothers, mothers who lust, women who want for themselves, who think for themselves, whose ambitions and desires range beyond the hearth, are shown to challenge the status quo and suffer for it.
Reflecting on the sanctity and power inherent in nuclear families, and the compromises involved in maintaining them, Cusk describes the impact of leaving her own safe little nucleus when she divorced her husband. ‘We’re not part of that story any more, my children and I’, she writes. ‘We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom.’ Islands, in form and content, exposes the tensions that arise between fragmentation and freedom, for women, for Helen and for June.
By virtue of the work’s experimental form, the reader is exposed to events from various perspectives, as they occur. At the same time, the narrative leaps around in time and across characters’ lifespans. Characters reframe events, bringing nuance and understanding to episodes that we have only just been party to. Such a structure challenges the assumption that nuclear families are in their essence entirely whole, safe places; even before Helen leaves John, and later in June’s own marriage with Paul, complex undercurrents buffet the couples. In this way, intergenerational experiences of love and sex, marriage and domesticity, parenthood and ageing, separation and loss, are shown to be at once unique in their specificity to each individual character and the times they live in, and also shockingly repetitive. Much like the women in Into the Fire, in Islands, grandmothers and mothers and daughters judge one another and are judged from the position of one life stage, only to buckle under the same constrictions themselves when their time comes. ‘Is that what it means, then, to be a mother?’ Nan wonders. ‘To suppress your own intelligence, to allow them their mistakes… And then later, when they come, angry, saying, Why didn’t you warn us, isn’t that your job, then what?’
The traumas in Islands – a mother’s attempts to claim a life for herself beyond mundane domesticity; a daughter’s disappearance – affect them all, but perhaps they ramify most profoundly through the development and choices of the remaining sister, June. Condemned to live with competing impulses: to both accept and question the status quo for what constitutes an acceptable self, and acceptable life, June struggles. Both Helen and Anna, in their own ways, step outside of the agreed-upon narrative for women’s lives, and they incur the consequences. June tries – and ultimately fails – to keep within the boundaries of the nuclear family. On this, Levy writes, ‘the patriarchal story that has been broken. All the same, most children who grow up in that story will struggle, along with everyone else, to compose another one.’ This is certainly true of June. She falls in love with Paul, marries, and has three children. For a time, like Helen before her, she is happy enough with such a life. After the birth of their first baby, June and Paul, ‘touched like they had only just met… But what June feels now isn’t derision, or wistfulness, or the fond humility of an older woman looking back…what she feels now is wonder. At her own certainty, her boldness. She is staggered by it.’ To go there, rushing into the future her own mother burned everything to the ground, figuratively speaking, to escape from, requires a special kind of self-deception, which in June’s case derives from the grief she carries over Anna’s disappearance.
But art-making offers a mode of salvation to June as she ages, as it does for Alice in Into the Fire. June applies the intelligence that her grandmother possessed but had no outlet for; that her mother possessed and bequeathed to men and to the workforce, to painting. Her oeuvre, which references Anna and their parents, serves to externalise the woundedness that June carries as a result of her childhood experiences.
A middle-aged artist meets the young June. The older woman wonders, ‘Thinking of that girl, what I could have said to her, about art and pain and work and salvation, what lessons I could have passed down, worldly wise guru that I am. But who listens, at her age? Some things can’t be known until later.’ Perhaps, in all of this, I am getting ahead of myself, and the wisdom I require will announce itself with age. Or perhaps I am already the older woman with advice to hand down to those coming up behind. As a writer, I see how, simply by virtue of trying to wrestle with these problems on the page, I might leave not answers, but a useful train of thought for the next person to pick up and pursue. Often, I have wondered at my sense of embarrassment which stems from the audacity – something that women are socialised from birth not to claim – residing in my desire to be a writer, of all things. Like the mothers in these novels, I don’t appear to need much help to mete out my own punishment for seeking an artistic identity. Intellectually, I understand that women contain multitudes. We can be wives and mothers and workers and artists. Lovers, friends, makers. Or none of these things. And yet, I keep striving to define myself neatly one way or another, seeking to adopt a narrative that will contain and explain the story of who I am. The innate messiness in life and identity and how they intersect with theory, with feminism, disquiet me. As I age, the mess only seems more profound and confusing, not less. The thing is that, at this juncture, wherever I go, I am in disguise. I am not wholly the mother I pretend to be. Whirring underneath the homemade playdough and careful arrangement of dollhouse furniture, my brain is making connections that I will use later in my writing. When I am at my desk, the visceral voices of my little children call me back into the spaces they inhabit, an impatient reminder that my real life is elsewhere, with them. Or is it? Perhaps, this is what it is to be both a mother and an artist, and the only available consolation: to be perpetually torn, to suffer, but to exalt in the small mercy of being able to articulate well the precise nature of that suffering.
Deborah Levy. The Cost of Living. Hamish Hamilton, 2018.
Doris Lessing. The Golden Notebook. Fourth Estate, 2014.
Helen Garner. “On Turning Fifty”, True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction. Text, 2017.
Helen Garner. “The Insults of Age”, True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction. Text, 2017.
Rachel Cusk. Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. Faber & Faber, 2012.