Ah, behold, there’s poetry in motherhood!
Category Archives: Reading
In the weekend magazine recently, there was an article about women in the workplace in Poland- about their pay, their treatment, and their chances of getting to a higher position. I read it with that sort of sick excitement you get at having your worst fears confirmed, thinking somewhere, subconsciously, that things look much better in Australia. And definitely in Australia people might think twice before asking a female architect to make them coffee because she’s a woman, or telling a recruiter that they want a man for the job because they don’t breed, or telling a female in the police force that she should be happy to have gotten this far as a woman, and why does she want a promotion; it will only make her family suffer. In Australia I might not prefer to pretend that I am sick rather than confessing to a childcare crisis (which I have definitely contemplated in Poland.)
Well, guess what, ladies and gentlemen? If you are only interested in the pay gap, it’s much smaller in Poland (9-10 %) than in Australia (15-17%). Looking to confirm my prejudices, however, led me here ; the report uses more data than the pay gap, (it analyses four categories- economic activity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment), and now Australia ranks 24, and Poland 54.
Anyway, one of the things which struck me in the article was that women said they had trouble negotiating; that they were too apologetic, not assertive enough. I realised that it was true, in my case anyway- I am too busy trying to be nice, and my first instinct is to say yes. I vowed to value myself higher, and didn’t have to wait long for a chance; I was offered some work in a preschool, and the first move was to try and beat my price down. As my own children screamed in the background (making it easier to do something which I knew would lose me the job), I named a price only nominally lower than the current one, and said that there was no way I could work for less. I would only call it a partial win; taken by surprise, my initial instinct was still to please. And I am in a very privileged position- I can only imagine what it’s like for people who can’t afford to say no to work.
Well, I finally read it (and watched the movie), as per Marcin’s suggestion when I first told him I was pregnant (read about it here ). It’s not about high school massacres (though they’re there), or about how incomprehensible and unattractive you might find your own children (though this is also part of it.) It’s partly about the hollow-hearted, strange land of suburban America: a bit unsettling, a bit disgusting, faintly familiar but at the same time alien. But mainly, it’s a great tragic love story, about a love that doesn’t look anything like you imagine it should. Like Lolita. This is the spoiler, because you don’t really see much besides antipathy until the very end, at which point the revelation that there is something between Kevin and his mother besides mutual loathing will break your heart.
Having babies and deciding never to leave home again has not dimmed my interest in reading about other people’s travel experiences. It’s a counterpoint to my own ironclad routine, to the tyranny of naptimes and feeding times. In the last few months I have devoured Ed Stafford’s book about walking the length of the Amazon and a book by Wolf Kielich about Victorian women travellers.
I don’t feel any longing for my footloose days, or envy them their journeys. In fact, I don’t see a huge difference between what I do and what they do. They get up in the morning and do the same thing , over and over ( swim through the swamps, assuage the suffering of the lepers, give out bibles to Russian prisoners, save West African twins from being murdered as the devil’s spawn, etc). There are better days and worse days. They get sick, lose faith, can’t go on (but do). They are held on their course by religion, by sheer stubbornness, by the desire for fame and fortune, by an inability to conceive of other options.
When I was broadcasting the news of Maja and Janek’s birth far and wide, a friend wrote to me that I was starting a different kind of journey. I didn’t like the metaphor much- it sounded a bit glib, a bit high falutin. Now I have different reasons for thinking it doesn’t fit. Journeys end. You depart, you travel, you arrive. But this, ladies and gentlemen, never ends. I still can’t quite get my head around it.
Reading blue milk and hoping desperately for a lengthy nap from two grumpy infants, I came across this link to an article about an amazing project: taking the single photographs requested by people in solitary confinement. I was struck by the number of requests for pictures of downtown Chicago- for neighborhoods and junctions that the prisoner knows well. It reminded me of a scene that always moved me from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, where an old Aboriginal man, half crazed with loss and disease and alcohol, inspires William Thornhill’s envy for the solace he draws from sitting on a particular piece of land.
The areas that the prisoners want pictures of are not especially salubrious. Beauty has nothing to do with it. They are just places that are dense with personal history: it is as if the prisoner is requesting a picture of his own past.
There’s something wonderful and terrifying about have a place like this, where your entire history sits, layer on layer, like some great midden. I am thinking about this particularly at the moment because I have just bought a ticket to go and visit my first 14 years, which resides on the south coast of NSW. My children, that ultimate anchor in time and place, are little Europeans, and somehow I feel comforted by the idea of being in Australia with them.
Opening the Polish equivalent to the Good Weekend, I found an interview with the British writer Rachel Cusk, talking about the book (Aftermath) that she wrote after her divorce. It was bleak and sobering and presumably utterly honest – she was saying what nobody wants to hear, that there is no new life after divorce (or any other traumatic event). She flatly refused to pander to the increasingly desperate pleas of the interviewer, who wanted to hear a tale of rebirth after trauma, of rising shriven from the flames.
Interviewer: You constantly talk about the experience in terms of loss. Haven’t you gained anything?
Int: A better understanding of yourself?
RC: No. If anything, I understand myself less [……….]
Int: And you? Don’t you feel better?
RC: I don’t really feel anything.
She must have been a nightmare to interview, but it made me desperately want to read her earlier book about motherhood (A Life’s Work) which she apparently approached with similar cheerless truthfulness. Everything she said in the interview contradicted the evident need of the interviewer (and the reader) for some sort of narrative justice: she would not say that she had learned anything important, or that the divorce had improved her life in any way, or that she was freer or happier or materially or emotionally better off. She simply refused to tie up all the loose ends and hand over a glib little package of hope. I would like to hear more of what she has to say.
Coming back from our May week away, I got a moment (a long one, lasting almost half an hour) of blissful solitude. After starving for weeks on an elimination diet in the hopes it would render Janek’s head less scabby, I took myself to the train restaurant, determined to eat a substantial amount of something at any cost.
We were in the Berlin train, and the restaurant car had waiter service and little white goosenecked lamps on the tables so that important international travellers could read and check Facebook over their dinners. Poland flashed passed the window, green and flat. It started to rain and the sight of raindrops hitting the window and the springtime whipping past outside induced a sort of ecstasy in me. I read my book and ordered a pig’s trotter and a beer. When the waitress told me I would have to wait 20 minutes, I smirked to myself.
I haven’t been good at acquiring the quick recharge that everybody tells you about, when you spend 5 seconds away from your babies and come back refreshed and ready to do battle for another month. I don’t have that live-in-the-moment Zen where I can roll my instants of freedom about in my mouth and forget that somewhere, not far away, somebody is quite possibly wailing tragically for their own mysterious reasons, and on my return I will have to guess what these are.
In other words, I would generally scoff at the idea that half an hour and a golonka could do much for my state of mind, especially when returning with trepidation to the real world after a week of fun and chaos. But it in this particular instance, it did the trick. It was a brief and necessary reminder that my trotter-scoffing, book -reading Real Self still exists, and that I haven’ t turned into a sort of automated emergency response system. There was my little family, happily ensconced in the disabled car, the kids showing their gums to Marcin who had been engaging in Daddy-fun and flying them around like a a pair of giggling aeroplanes. I was unequivocally happy to see them.