The parent trap: can you be a good writer and a good parent?

Doris Lessing left her marriage and children to write. Seventy-five years on, Lara Feigel examines the author’s maternal ambivalence and explores her own struggle to balance motherhood and freedom

When I tell people that I’m writing a book about freedom and Doris Lessing, their first response is often the same. “Didn’t she abandon her children?” Implicit is the assumption that freedom, in whatever complex ways she sought it, came at too high a cost: she paid the price of unwomanliness, even of monstrousness. When I say I’m writing the book partly as a memoir, and that it began with a process of intense identification with Lessing, I feel implicated in the judgment. Defending her actions, stressing that they didn’t result from a straightforward absence of maternal love, it can feel as though I’m admitting to such a deficiency myself.

It’s partly because these questions are so difficult that I decided to write my book as a memoir and to investigate Lessing’s attempts to seek social, sexual, political and psychological freedom through the lens of my own life. The book began with a summer of going to too many weddings while reading The Golden Notebook, Lessing’s 1962 exploration of the artistic and sexual life of a “free woman” prepared to sacrifice happiness for liberation.

“I am interested only in stretching myself,” Anna Wulf declares in the novel, “in living as fully as I can.” That summer, I worried that my generation might have betrayed Wulf and her creator. Weddings celebrated on the scale we celebrated them seemed to take for granted a happy-ever-after of decade after decade of safely monogamous marriage, with appropriate numbers of children born at appropriate intervals along the way. They ushered in a world where work was a means to the ultimate end of enjoyable family life; where love was the “love you” at the end of a phone call. I felt uncomfortable at the weddings partly because I was sharing in this vision and that made me claustrophobic, needing urgently to insist on my right to live fully, without quite knowing what that would entail.

So I wanted to reflect on my own experiences of marriage and motherhood at the same time as exploring what Lessing had gained and lost through her attempts to find a new, freer way of living. I too had felt the bonds of family life and of maternal love as a source of constriction as well as pleasure. I had experienced being judged as a mother, when I periodically left my son with my husband from the age of six months – he is six now – to go away to write. I only departed for a week at a time. But who knows what I might have done had I lived in 1940s Southern Rhodesia, trapped in a life of coffee mornings and sundowners, worrying, as Lessing did, that the time when she could openly be herself might never come.

Doris Wisdom was 23 when she left behind her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter and began a new life only a few streets away. She had joined the Communist party and was convinced that she was about to create a different world for her children to live in. She wanted to write, and found this impossible while living with a resolutely conventional man.

A decade later she portrayed Martha abandoning her daughter in A Proper Marriage. She takes the girl on to her lap, knowing that she’s doing so for the last time, feeling as though the three-year-old is the only person really to understand her. For a few seconds, she holds the “energetic and vibrant little creature” tight and then whispers: “You’ll be perfectly free, Caroline, I’m setting you free.”

Doris Lessing with her son, Peter.
Doris Lessing with her son, Peter, from her second marriage. Photograph: Courtesy of The Lessing Estate/UEA Photograph: Courtesy of The Lessing Estate/UEA

In a world where we no longer believe that communism might offer freedom or believe the communists’ mantra that the family was a dead construct, this makes little sense. What makes more sense is the painful description of maternal love before Martha leaves. Martha fantasises about leaving home almost as soon as her baby is born. She resents the “invisible navel string” that continues to connect her to her daughter. She worries that she’s “good for nothing, not even the simple natural function that every woman should achieve like breathing: being a mother”.

Yet this belies her ease in responding to the navel string when she accepts it. “How lovely then to wash the little girl,” she observes, “and see her in her fresh pretty cotton dress, the delicate pink feet balancing so surely and strongly over the floor.” Even when their interaction becomes more complicated, she’s painfully conscious of love. After a battle over food, Martha’s heart becomes “a hot enlarged area of tenderness for the child whom she was so lamentably mishandling”.

Donald Winnicott
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, wrote in his 1947 essay Hate in the Counter-Transference that ‘the mother, however, hates her infant from the word go’ Photograph: Public domain

“Do I love her?” she asks herself, in one of these conflicted moods. The love vanishes as she examines it, leaving only the bond of responsibility. But then Caroline turns to her with a “warm, confiding smile” and Martha’s heart goes “soft with tenderness”. Even this isn’t simple because love generates the desire to overprotect, creating the risk that Caroline will eventually hate her. “Yet the idea of her and Caroline hating each other seemed absurd.”

What Martha is experiencing is what’s now known as “maternal ambivalence”. Shortly after Lessing left her children, the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, that reassuring advocate of the “good-enough mother”, announced in his 1947 essay Hate in the Counter-Transference that “the mother, however, hates her infant from the word go”. Winnicott’s maternal figure is aggravated by the demands of a baby who remains maddeningly oblivious of her sacrifices – “especially he cannot allow for her hate”. Her hatred is a natural component of her initially unbounded love, and a test of her maternal strength. She must tolerate hating her baby without acting on it and this tolerance is a feat enabled by love.

Winnicott’s was a rare voice in the 1940s discussion of parenthood. Already, though, when Wisdom was chastising herself for being a bad mother, there were literary models for ambivalent maternity. Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is revered as a maternal archetype, but is relieved when her children go to bed because she need think of nobody else. “She could be herself, by herself. And that was what she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone.”

More dramatically, DH Lawrence tells us that Mrs Morel, the possessively loving mother of Sons and Lovers, had dreaded her baby “like a catastrophe” before he arrived. Initially, she experiences his gaze “as if a burden were on her heart”. In a passage that seems knowingly or unknowingly to have influenced Lessing, Mrs Morel is distressed to feel as though “the navel string that had connected [the baby’s] frail little body with hers had not been broken”. She experiences a wave of “hot love” and determines to love him all the more as penance for her unwillingness to have him.

However, it was only in the 1960s and 70s that ambivalence became openly admissible. “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience,” wrote the poet Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: “It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-eddied nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness … I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.”

Rich sees this oscillation of pain and pleasure, frustration and fulfilment, as the result of the “patriarchy”, which divides women into good or evil, fertile or barren, creating terrifying expectations for mothers. I think this is too simple – that the invisible navel string felt by Mrs Morel and by Martha is not just a product of its time. But it’s certainly true that there have historically been very different standards for maternal and paternal love. The fathers who have left children – Augustus John, John Rodker (the modernist poet and publisher), Lucian Freud – have not been seen as monsters and, portrayed in fiction, are not often plagued with guilt.

John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit, Run was published six years after A Proper Marriage, and describes a father abandoning his wife and son in not dissimilar circumstances. Yet escaping from home, Rabbit is subjected to relatively minimal disapproval for cutting off his bond with his child. He himself briefly misses “the kid and his shrill needs” but is contented to feel “freedom, like oxygen everywhere around him”. Though his actions have catastrophic consequences, there is a larger tragedy at work, so his capacity for paternal love is not the central problem. Instead he’s tragically torn between his need for self-fulfilment and his need to fulfil his role in society, which involves taking his place in his family.

John Updike describes a father abandoning his wife and son in Rabbit, Run (1960).
John Updike describes a father abandoning his wife and son in Rabbit, Run (1960). Photograph: Susan Wood/Getty Images

By the 1970s, it had become easier for women to talk about these dilemmas as well. “The only thing which seems to be eternal and natural in motherhood is ambivalence,” claimed Jane Lazarre, in her 1976 account of caring for her son The Mother Knot. If Lessing was held up as a role model by women’s liberation feminists, then it seems to have been not in spite of but partly because of her complicated feelings about motherhood. Equality, it was now seen, was going to involve women as well as men having primarily social relationships with their children in which the navel string could be cut. If they couldn’t do this, then the resulting ambivalence needed to be openly discussed.

Reading my way through these accounts in the 21st century, I’ve been troubled by how much harder it has become to acknowledge ambivalence than it was 40 years ago. In 2001, Rachel Cusk published A Life’s Work, her account of the uneasy contradictions of early motherhood. This is a book that expresses as much love as fear. It is primarily concerned with exploring the way in which, in becoming a mother, Cusk became “both child and parent” and “both more virtuous and more terrible” than she had ever felt before. She writes that, in giving birth, a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist changes profoundly: “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.”

This seems no more radical than the sentiments expressed by Lessing or certainly by Rich. Yet Cusk was vilified in the press after her book appeared. Why is this? It’s partly because of a change in attitude towards the child’s place in our homes. Reading the online forum Mumsnet, it’s clear that there’s a widespread assumption in middle-class Britain that the needs of children should take precedence over those of their parents. It’s also because of the role of new men. Now that men change nappies and do night feeds, women shouldn’t feel ambivalence. Certainly this was the case in my household, where, in our rhetoric of equality, it would have felt misplaced to complain about navel strings.

There is also the role of IVF and the physical and financial price that women are willing to pay to have children, often because they have left it later than the women of Lessing’s day. After all that, it’s hard to admit ambivalence, hard to admit to anything but gratitude at the miracle of created life. Reviewing a memoir about IVF, Cusk complained that the woman who documents her infertility can come to view “maternal ambivalence as a somewhat grotesque luxury”, which means that she’s “in a sense putting into reverse the evolving contemporary discourse around motherhood”.

I am among these women. I have a four-month-old daughter, conceived after three years of trying to get pregnant, which culminated in a year of IVF. Since she was born, I’ve written a few pieces of journalism with her by my side. She’s a happy and easy baby; I’m a happy and easy mother; I’ve enjoyed our companionable mornings, where mother, baby, book and laptop seem able to coexist on my bed. When it came, though, to writing this piece on maternal ambivalence, I found I was unable to write it with her smiling up at me, waiting patiently for some attention. I had to ask her future childminder if the baby could go and visit for a day. The writing has already been interrupted by a summons to return to feed her, because the baby is less willing than I am to agree to the principle that it’s reasonable to do the occasional bottle feed.

Rachel Cusk was vilified in the press after A Life’s Work came out.
Rachel Cusk was vilified in the press after A Life’s Work came out. Photograph: unknown/taken from picture library

There’s an absurdity to all this, but it feels necessary nonetheless. Right now, ensconced in that “Motherbaby” state that Lessing and Cusk describe so well, grateful for my miraculous child, I almost never feel ambivalence. Knowing how short a phase early motherhood is, I don’t resent the night feeds. Knowing that I’ll return to work after six months, I’m enjoying the time away from it. But this doesn’t make writing about ambivalence a “grotesque luxury” now, for me. I know that this state won’t continue for ever. I know that these months of delight in the pleasures of reciprocal smell and touch will give way to a more social relationship, that I’ll be bored by long repetitive hours with an argumentative toddler, that I’ll need once again to reclaim my freedom. Away from her for these hours as I write this, I’ve been telling myself that ambivalence is just that – a combination of joy, love, boredom and fury – and that in admitting to ambivalence I’m not admitting to a lack of love.

Once I started reading and writing about Lessing and motherhood, I found that I needed to own the assertion of selfhood implicit in my trips away from my son. These trips, which I argued were necessary in the face of book deadlines, might well have been avoidable on a practical level. Plenty of women have learned to write in the interstices of days with children. But I have come to see that the trips were necessary at a more existential level as well, and have come to believe in the necessity of admitting to this. Those were weeks when I needed to regain the selfishness of my previous life in order to write, in which my child needed to be out of mind as well as out of sight.

Recently, Geoff Dyer has complained about writers who claim that they have to sacrifice family life for the higher vocation of writing, arguing that “writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money”. This may be true, but it leaves out the necessary solipsism and disloyalty of the writer; the way that you’re always observing yourself and the people you love from the outside at the same time as interacting with them. Some writers, such as Lessing, have lives in which the strain of this becomes impossible.

Nonetheless, I’ve had moments, during the long months of IVF and the recent months of Motherbaby delight, of judging Lessing for what she did. It’s not an action she made it easy to understand, though she made it clear that she paid the price of guilt, however easily she dismissed it at times. Those scenes in A Proper Marriage allow us to feel our way into a more conflicted state than she admitted to in her autobiography.

A powerful fictional portrayal of maternal abandonment is found in Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter, published a few years after Cusk’s memoir but less castigated for its brutality, perhaps because fiction can enact rather than describing ambivalence. Leda, a woman unloved by her own mother, abandoned her two daughters as small children. Asked about this by Nina, a young mother she encounters on the beach in middle age, she explains that “sometimes you have to escape in order not to die”. She loved them so much that it seemed “love for them would keep me from becoming myself”. But this act of transgression was temporary; she returned when she realised she was “more useless and desperate” without them than with them. And now she steals the doll of Nina’s daughter in a gesture that has the unconscious logic of a dream, in which she identifies simultaneously with mother, daughter and doll, and in which her fears of being abandoned and of abandoning come together in an act she finds impossible to explain. “I’m an unnatural mother,” she says, too confused for this statement to have the political force it might have in a memoir.

Thinking about Lessing, I have found that the term “freedom” has meant less and less, especially in relation to motherhood. She found as much freedom with her children as she found without them; as much constraint in leaving them as in overprotecting the child she had next. I’ve also come to see that Lessing, Ferrante and Cusk were all chafing against family life as much as against motherhood; against a model of domesticity that can all too often offer proximity without intimacy and that can feel overvalued culturally, whether in Lessing’s mid-20th century world or Ferrante and Cusk’s 21st-century one. Perhaps their dilemmas were not as different as it appears from the dilemma offered by Updike to Rabbit. Certainly, it may be telling that when Lessing did relax into motherhood with her third child, she did so outside marriage, in a setting that looked nothing like the middle-class family.

What’s important, I think, is that she found a way, in the years that followed, of writing about it. In reading my way across the past century of literature, I’ve been reminded that we are as historically contingent as Lessing was and that no generation will get it right. That’s why we gain so little in judging Lessing as a mother. What matters most is that she succeeded in writing, openly and painfully, about the peculiar ties, at once claustrophobic and liberating, between mothers and children, whether present or absent. And it was in the writing itself that she found a form of freedom •


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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