I awoke this morning with an image in my mind of a grey motorway opening up before me, never ending; of driving into this nothingness, of silence, emptiness, freedom. I was reminded of The Hours by Michael Cunningham: of his mother-character, Mrs Brown, who takes off one afternoon in her car, leaving her toddler with a neighbour, to escape a birthday cake she’d made that afternoon for her husband, and the weight of its imperfection. All she wanted was privacy, a bed where she could read her book, uninterrupted. As she drove, she felt giddy with the risk of escape, yet she couldn’t stop thinking about the cake. When I read The Hours, at the early stages of motherhood myself, I deeply sympathised with Mrs Brown’s need to flee. This need, seven years on, is inevitably less intense, but it’s still there, enough to wake me with images of an open road, of not looking back. Perhaps part of this desire is bound up with the sense of its impossibility.
I ask myself: is motherhood a tying of the soul? As, even when we get away, knowing that our children are safe and happy at home, and we have time on our hands, our heart pulls us back. It is inevitable that we miss our children because we love them. But perhaps we need to look at it differently, to remind ourselves how important it is for us to sometimes surrender.
A few days ago I went to see the ‘Home Truths’ exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery. I stood before the photographs of Ana Casas Broda, who documented her early mothering of her two young sons. Knowing nothing of the details of her life, or her creative intentions, I found myself tearful before her work, responding on a very instinctive level, as if I was let into her secret, that I understood wholly what she was doing, and that somehow her simple playful images encapsulated what I felt it was to be a mother. She is naked in nearly all of the exhibited photographs; in many she is staring away from her children, emotionally distanced, while her body acts as a vessel for her sons’ enjoyment, as they crawl over her and massage her with cream, snap at her bare nipple with a toy crocodile. She is dreamy in a bath of milk, as her son washes her hair; absently she sits at the table in a darkened kitchen and her toddler helps himself to her exposed breast. Her body is a piece of meat, she is distant, used, depressed even, and yet she is also excruciatingly present. She gives herself to her sons in that moment, just as she did when they were growing inside her, protected by her uterine walls, sapping her of nutrition, of energy. I found myself strangely envious of her surrender, of the intimacy of their moments together, as I stood alone in the gallery room, my hand momentarily outstretched, reaching to the child that wasn’t there. It’s half term, but my children are somewhere else.
I had childcare in place so I could work. I had planned my day to end with enough time for my walk back home through the streets of London, to take time, to construct my own version of freedom, before I am sucked back into my family life, my mother-demands. This walk home at the end of a writing day has become an essential part of my working routine. I am lucky that I have two days in the week when I can do this, that we as a family can afford childcare. So, what of that envy?
Ana Casas Broda’s photographs reminded me that my children are happiest when I give into them. When I stop the tidying and washing-up, the cleaning, the cooking, sticking to the unnecessarily rigid routine that acts as scaffolding to their tenuous needs and changeable moods. Often this means getting down to their level, lying on the floor even, letting them crush me with their combined weight, cover me with kisses. These moments are precious. If we listen we might even find a special kind of freedom of its own: pleasure in our children’s pleasure, pleasure in letting go.
As I walk home through London’s chilly, blustery streets, I feel simultaneously comfortable and unnerved, as I often do when I am away from my children – less so now that they are getting older, but it’s a distinctive feeling, just like the conflicted emotion brought on by the photographs I have just viewed in town, and Mrs Brown’s nervy but thrilled escape from her child and her cake. She finally books a hotel room for the night, an indulgence she believes, in order to gain just two hours of reading time. She picks up her book, and reads from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:
‘…did it matter then, she asked herself walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling that death ended absolutely? but that somehow on the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, she survived…’ Even in suicide, Virginia Woolf writes, we still exist, ‘…she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there…; of the people she had never met.’ Mrs Brown thinks of how deeply comforting it might feel to simply go away, as if she needs to experience this thought, and follow it through to know that she couldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it. ‘I would never,’ she speaks aloud to the empty hotel room. She loves life, ‘loves it hopelessly, at least at certain moments.’
Part of the responsibility of motherhood is our continued existence in the hearts and minds of our children, present or absent. There is joy in that. And yet it is all possible: life, death, escape. Anything is possible. Mrs Brown could follow that road. Just as she ludicrously booked a hotel room for the night just to gain herself two hours of uninterrupted reading time. She could make that choice.
I think of my never-ending motorway, the dead space all around, and the hard, grey concrete.