Thursday, June 12, 2008

Books about motherhood: Can Any Mother Help Me? and We Need to Talk About Kevin

If I was a writer for the LRB or some similar heavyweight publication, I'd have added Anne Enright's book about motherhood, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood in here as some kind of bridge between these two books. Having read several extracts from it, I know that it addresses many of the problems tackled in them, but in a humorous fashion. However, I'm not, so I haven't.

Can Any Mother Help Me? is one of them there social history type books. It deals with the history of a circulating magazine started in the 1930s by a group of mothers in the British Isles who felt isolated and bored with their lot in life. Most of them were middle class and well educated, and several of them had been in good jobs before they were forced to give them up when they got married and/or started families.

Although none of them would go so far as to suggest that they resented their children, they most certainly felt the lack of adult company and the drudgery of domestic engineering, not least because they had never really done much housework as children. Moreover, they became housewives at a time when people of their class no longer had servants, but before the great era of affordable labour-saving devices came in, so they genuinely spent most of their time washing and cleaning and cooking and minding children, and they were mostly quite isolated from friends they would have had in their early adult lives. The book contains many fascinatingly ordinary and matter-of-fact entries about things I found quite shocking.

The two stories that really stood out for me were one in which one of the women talks about what would now be called an attempted rape by a male friend, but which she just treats as a silly incident in which he had too much to drink and became overly amorous (things end fairly well for her, however). This reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge's attitude to rape and sexual politics, which is very much one of "so you didn't want to have sex but he made you. Well, there are worse things, eh?" Clearly a major generational difference.

The other was when one of the women found out that her child had Down's Syndrome. The two things about it that struck me were the way in which she found out: the doctor took her husband into his office and told him, then the husband drove her home, got his courage up, and eventually told her some hours later. Again, this seemed perfectly normal to her at the time, but to me as a modern reader it just seemed the most insidious abuse of male power. The other thing, however, was the public admission of the fact that this would make her life more difficult to deal with than if her child was "normal". Offers of help from her friends and family poured in. People rallied round. Now, okay, I know that having Down's Syndrome is not the end of the world, but it does seem to me that on a societal level, accepting the full spectrum of the human condition as part of one's family does seem to put an extra strain on families, because they're expected to behave as though everything's fine all the time, when it may very well not be.

The admission that motherhood may be harder than it looks, that it may turn out to be a mistake for some women, and that some women feel even more pressured into it today than they might have done in the past (because obviously today it doesn't mean that you have to give up your career, or give up anything at all in fact) is at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin. On the surface, this is a horror story about a monstrous child who is the product, in a magical realist fashion, of his mother's failings as a mother. She does not really want him, she does not bond with him, he is angry and distant and weird and violent and destructive from the word go, and she has made a horrible mistake with her life. Underneath, it's a book about family pressure, success, failure, the disintegration of larger society, the whims of the unreliable narrator, and the struggle between the genders. I know several people who were expecting one thing when they started reading it, and got something very different. To say I enjoyed the book would be untrue, but it was very good in its coldness and stiffness and lack of humanity.

I would recommend reading these two books together, as I did by accident. The first really does make an excellent antidote to the second, and both give you a lot to think about.


mylescorcoran said...

I've passed on mention of this post to Sam, who read with interest Enright's book and would probably be interested in these two.

There is a real isolating effect for a full-time housewife/mother, especially when the kids are small and consume all your time while they're awake, and a good chunk of it when they're asleep (cleaning up after their waking maelstrom), and it's not an easy effect to combat, particularly with child-care a) costing a bomb and b) usually being less than flexible about hours.

Part of me thinks community creches are the way to go, but I'm less than impressed with the way primary education is funded so what chance is there that the littlies would get something half-way decent?

Ammonite said...

I read 'We Need To Talk About Kevin" standing by the 'New Releases' shelf in Hodges Figgis. It is a mesmerising book. I heard about "Can Any Mother Help Me" on Woman's Hour and thought it sounded very interesting. I think I will take you up on your suggestion and read the two together.

Ray said...

The LRB did review Can Any Mother Help Me, btw

Trish Byrne said...

Indeed, that is where I first read about it, and then mrmonkey bought it for my birthday. At first I was attracted to the APA nature of it, but now I love it as a piece of social history.

scattyme said...

These sound really interesting - I'll try to pick them up when I'm over in Ireland next month.

The stuff abut gender relations in the first book reminds me of things that I've been told by an old woman who lives up the road here in Cluny. (I give her a hand with her shopping bags a couple of times a week, which has given me a chance to hear quite a bit about her life). She said her husband was angry with her when she had a series of miscarriages and then finally, after having successfully borne a child, lost the baby because she wasn't able to breastfeed him adequately. This must have been in the 40s or 50s. What struck me was her apparent lack of any sense that her husband's reaction was unjust - indeed she actually seemed ashamed of what had happened.

She was also convinced that Tom would be disappointed that our child is a girl. Again, this was stated matter-of-factly, in a "this is the way things are" kind of way. The generational difference can be quite shocking to me sometimes.