Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What am I Doing in the 19th Century?

In an earlier post, I wrote about my years of grappling with Tillie Olsen’s Silences.  Since finally finishing the book, I have been thinking about Olsen’s accounts of mothers who were writers, herself included.   I think back to images I have held since reading Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, mentioned in passing by Olsen.  And to the story of A.S. Byatt’s character Stephanie Potter, whose freakish accidental death in Still Life cuts short her halting attempts to resurrect her intellectual work, in the midst of young motherhood.

Adrienne Rich wrote memorably of herself as a mother of young children in the 1950s, and the strong emotions that tore at her as she fought to maintain something of herself and her work.  The fictional Stephanie Potter existed in this same time period, an ocean away.  Olsen was raising her children, as she said, “without household help,” in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Among the essays that make up Silences is Olsen’s treatment of Rebecca Harding Davis, who published Life in the Iron Mills in 1861.  Her early promise was, in Olsen’s view, buried under the domestic demands of her relatively late marriage and ultimate motherhood.  Olsen tells us, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s trials, quoting from a letter to her husband, who was apparently sympathetic.
Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts. They are delicate in health, and nervous and excitable and need a mother’s whole attention. Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?  (Silences, p. 204)

Stowe’s history-changing Uncle Tom’s Cabin would wait another ten years, until she was thirty-nine.  She

wrote it in magazine serial installments—in between—when weary with teaching the children and tending the baby and buying provisions and mending and darning; much of it on the kitchen table as the younger Harriet Beecher Stowe had, when trying to get writing done fourteen years before.  The firm, flawless style of her girlhood letters was gone.  (Silences, p. 206)

My three children were born between 1977 and 1993.  Two are still at home.  I have known Rich’s torment, followed Stephanie’s regimen, mirrored Olsen’s episodic pattern.  I have written, nearly to the word, Stowe’s lament.  Why am I seemingly mired in a time before my time?  What am I doing in the nineteen century, with my Subaru, my laptop, a dishwasher and central heating?  Why has technology not freed me to write?

I was born on the cusp of the changes many thought would bring relief, would allow women to “have it all.”  And yet, prior to the recent economic declines, many who could afford it were putting work on hold for motherhood, working part-time, changing careers to accommodate the kind of mothering we wanted to engage in.  We talked about “sequencing,” bumped our heads on glass ceilings, and some of us seemed determined to limit ourselves.   Add to this a new and powerful ideology of “natural” mothering, and in my case the “going native” phenomenon that lured me into the meaningful realities of my midwife dissertation subjects.  A perfect storm.

Olsen, again:

More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible. Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one's own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil.... Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage--at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.” (Silences 18-19)

And yet, in the nineteenth century, before washers and dryers and daycare, atrophy notwithstanding, a beleaguered mother of six surviving children changed the course of debate concerning slavery.  Who am I to sit in mourning for my weakened muse? 

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