Unsheltered: about mothers and daughters (and mothers who are daughters) and a mother-daughter-conversation every mother and daughter dreams about, about independent, pioneering researchers and class and/or gender inequality, about neoliberalism and capitalism and destruction of the world, about human effort and failure, about finding out how ‘doing the best one can’ is always permeated by social standards which time or the next generation may reveal as false, and about feeling and being socially and materially unsheltered. I love this book.
After my previous enthusiastic thoughts on Rachel Cusk’s classic ‘A life’s work’ (2001) I was alarmed when I heard that she had received many negative responses to her book. I had considered it This is what I found: her own reaction to the responses to her honesty. I was both thrilled to read more about the book’s and the writer’s context and amazed (how naive!) at the mother-bashing. Cusk’s liberating honesty clearly does not have a place in the frameworks that dominate our culture. What a shame. And what a pressure on mothers.
Reading with much interest The Guardian‘s review of ‘Mother’ by Sarah Knott, written by Laura Feigel (also an author I must look up). Knott stands in the tradition of Rachel Cusk and others, describing mother’s experiences in the months preceding and following giving birth. But Knott adds something special: historical research into these experiences, as far as she can find it. That is interesting! She shows how these experiences have changed yet can be communal over time. For even though mothers have lived in quite different circumstances, many aspects of ‘being a mother’ are similar. This comparison sheds a clarifying light on our present culture, in which the working and mothering culture are quite separated and not supposed to have an impact on each other. Knott concludes with a plea that we need to join forces as mothers to make space for caring and create a culture of interruption, where caring is allowed to have priority,, and on the other hand mothers neither need not be totally involved in caring but are allowed to have their attention interrupted too. I quote Feigel’s review:
At the end, she asks herself if she has a political vision for motherhood and suggests “a defence of caring under late capitalism”. She doesn’t expand on this, but I found that there was a cumulative political force in the argument she makes for valuing interruption, given that it is the rhythm of so many of our lives. This means no longer privileging the kind of working culture that assumes that our children must be excluded, or the kind of mothering culture that assumes that our children must be the centre of our thoughts during every hour they’re in our company.
Reading this book is a fun and enlightening experience of recognition as well as astonishment. Cusk is a masterfully reflective, funny, sharp, and affecting analyzer of the lived experience of becoming a mother. It is both in similarity and in contrasts that stories like these are clarifying one’s own experience, carving out space for new understandings, and helpful in finding words for the transition into motherhood. Cusk’s own experiences and choices, e.g. how she objects to ‘routine medical procedures’ and experiences the first days after caesarian section as unreal, offer a mirror for mothers and all parents. Here is an adequate illuminative quote:
Full-time paid childcare was what I, with the blithe unsentimentality of the childless, once believed to be the solution to the conundrum of work and motherhood. In those days fairness seemed to me to be everything. I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.
Red Clocks is a disturbing but all too probable dystopia: a fictional frightening American society for women in which only a few subsequent presidents have successfully passed laws that restrict reproductive freedom to a minimum and reverse women’s rights to an abortion. A pink wall has been built on the American-Canadian border to prevent women from having an abortion there. Illegal abortion is considered murder. Soon single parent adoption will be prohibited too thanks to the ‘Every child deserves two’-law. Women in this society struggle with every aspect of motherhood: having given it up, trying to become one, trying to get rid of it, trying to survive it. Women’s lives are found to be interwoven along the lines of these struggles and ancient knowledge becomes the target of a modern witch hunt. Sacrifices in this world are all over the place, but – not surprisingly – mainly brought by and expected and demanded from women. Intriguing! See a review in the Guardian here.