The Great Escape
A review by Sandra Tsing Loh
Finally, an American mother who stopped her yammering and found a stunningly simple
solution to the work-life balance problem: she left her family -- her husband
and three small children! And now she has written a memoir about it: Unraveled.
She is Maria Housden, and while I waited for her memoir to arrive, in its plain
brown amazon.com wrapper, I wondered what had made her do it. Certainly some sort
of substance abuse had to be involved, a Judy Garland-like hitting of rock bottom.
Or maybe the decision was triggered by a Fear of Becoming Andrea Yates self-diagnosis.
Perhaps this was a serious psychotherapeutic memoir, the kind sometimes co-written
with an M.D., who stands quietly in the authorial background, calm hands steadying
the writer's pen, providing reassurance and possibly a medical Web site (sponsored
by Oxygen? Lifetime?). I thought of Brooke Shields's Down
Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, and Marie Osmond's
Behind the Smile:
My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression (co-written with Marcia Wilkie and
Dr. Judith Moore) -- except in this case the journey would be one that propelled
the mother through the family, beyond it, and right back into single life.
Or perhaps I was imagining such hellward-spiraling narratives only because
my own escapes from family have had such a random, seamy, slumming quality.
I find I'm the sort of harried working mother who has difficulty scheduling
in a bit of rest amid the Ptolemaically complicated interlocking gears of professional
and personal life. The clock of woman is strange. You go along for four days,
or sixteen, or twenty-five, in some hidden, hard-to-divine algorithmic pattern,
heaping more and more little things on your already crowded plate (the playdates,
the craft projects, the teeny-tiny little muffins), and then on Day 26 -- Saturday -- the
whole thing collapses, and suddenly there you are, a character straight out
of Cheever, lying in a hammock from 10:00 a.m. on, swilling cosmopolitans while
re-reading William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist
"A book where
there are actually compelling metaphysical reasons children behave the way they
do!" I recall yelling back at the house on that fateful day, which my family
so cheerfully remembers.
So yes, I'm a C+ mother, but...leave the family for good? Who would go
that far? In two to three business days I'd know.
My first encounter with Unraveled was disorienting. The cover is an
inspirational sky-blue, the triumphal subtitle is "The True Story of a Woman
Who Dared to Become a Different Kind of Mother," and the first quotation that
leaped out at me on the back is "'Unraveled does for mothers everywhere
what M. Scott Peck did for truth seekers in The
Road Less Traveled.' -- Mark Matousek." Whether or not you are a truth-seeking
fan of M. Scott Peck, you could be forgiven for wondering how much insight the
former Interview editor Mark Matousek can claim to have into mothers
everywhere, as he is famously gay.
The psychological impulse to leave turns out to be rooted in Housden's processing
of grief: she had lost her three-year-old daughter Hannah, several years earlier,
to cancer. The passages dealing with Hannah's illness, written as flashbacks,
are moving and spare, the epiphanies and surprisingly uplifting transformations
fully earned. Housden -- a stay-at-home mother at the time -- depicts herself
standing sentry weekly, daily, hourly, over Hannah. As the situation becomes
ever more hopeless, Housden (then named Maria Martell) and her husband, Claude,
abandon painful experimental treatments to honor their daughter's wish to die
at home, "in the bed that smelled like mom and dad"
recognizable three-year-old's phrase that had me weeping.
Tissues in hand, I decided that because of her unflinching service to this
extraordinary child -- and the fact that she has written about the experience
with such precision and ultimate optimism (her first, best-selling book, Hannah's
Gift, being, in my subsequent estimation, a jewel) -- Housden is a mother
who deserves a major sabbatical, if not actually carte blanche. When, after
a year involving surgery, chemo, and a bone-marrow transplant, despite all your
efforts, your three-year-old dies in your arms, I think the maternal fuses must
be blown, the machine topped out, the illusion of parental omnipotence shattered.
Your mothering henceforth will be different, more Buddhist-detached, with that
bird on the shoulder asking not "Is today the day I'm going to die?" but, even
more unimaginably, "Is today the day my child's going to die?" Few mothers can
ponder that question with equanimity; Housden has lived it. And so the Dr. Laura-like
moral censure of Housden for leaving her three surviving children -- in their
own home, with their clearly devoted father and an aupair, a decision even the
publishing staff was divided over -- is no ax I have the stomach to swing.
But as I finished Unraveled, I was weeping again, this time in frustration.
Because now, horribly, I was being moved to unintended laughter by some of the
writing, and was finding the confluence of emotions quite nauseating. Although
grief over loss is the book's emotional back-story, the forward action involves
Housden's escaping suburban housewifehood and traveling to an artists' retreat
to gingerly spread her wings and write (in this case to write Hannah's Gift
-- so in a sense this second book is a tale about "the making of" the first).
Embarking on this familiar type of women's -- or womyn's -- journey felt like
entering a bit of a seventies time warp. It was not just the prose style, in
which the present is in regular type, and the dreamlike past is in italics.
In which a tiny ladybug's progress across a journal page is a metaphor for one's
own. In which the narrator observes, "I was a secret being kept hidden until
the time was right, ripening and waiting for the external world to change before
I could be revealed." In which the epilogue's title is "La Mère (The
Mother), La Mer (The Sea)." Secrets ripening, feelings upwelling, the ebb and
flow of the maternal self being like the tide -- it all seemed less than daisy-fresh.
Then there's the Fair Haven, New Jersey, split-level Colonial that Housden
is fleeing, which recalls the 1950s ones long ago dissed by Betty Friedan. (Claude's
"rules" for the marriage include that dress shirts be washed and ironed
the same day; when Housden falls short, he rails, "I expect you to take
pride in this house. I want results! Trying is not enough!") Similarly
old-school is Housden's girlish awe of career women.
Siobhan owned a very successful public relations agency in Los Angeles,
had traveled the world extensively, and never had children or married. To
me, she was the epitome of what was possible when a woman is unapologetically
ambitious about her work and dreams, which is what I was wanting more and
more to be.
This startled me, since so many Siobhans I know in Los Angeles admit to feeling
not so much boldly self-actualized as stuck in a Sex and the City episode
that will never end, even though, grimly, the show itself has. (Former Sex story
editor Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo's best seller He's
Just Not That Into You, which is easily readable in sixty-second bursts,
has been traveling from bathroom to bathroom in my circle over the past year.
Although drink-coaster light, this roundup of female excuses for why men aren't
calling -- ending with a rousing exhortation to love one's own tasty, lingerie-clad
self! -- has for me a dark underside, leaving open as it does the very real
possibility that some of our frothiest and most fabulous may be destined for
a lifetime of solo apple martinis. Sixty years old will be that foot in the
Jimmy Choo.) But here's the next turn: although old Maria Martell feels that
spurning domestic wifehood is necessary if she is to pursue her dreams, her
fate is not exactly to be single either. Enter, to the artists' retreat, Roger
Housden -- English writer, photographer, and explorer of such exotic places
as Africa and India. Although he's fifty-three and she's thirty-five, the two
speak a similar metaphysical language. He is given to utterances like "Beauty,
Beauty, you are the sun." And later, when he asks in wonder, "Who are you?,"
she elatedly replies, with typical Boomer math, "I am the second half of your
life." Roger exudes boyishness and a kind of heady European sophistication;
personal details given include both that he wears clogs and has a medicine kit
containing Eternity cologne and a tiny bottle of tea-rose oil. Often seen sweaty
and wearing only running shorts, he is described rapturously as having a "mossy,
musky" scent. This was when my horrendous attack of the giggles began. The mossy,
musky scent, combined with the clogs
it was too much. I raised my hands
in protest, as if to ward off the inevitable tantric sex, but here it came anyway.
Soft, moist mouths, bellies rising and falling, swollen, oozing, trembling,
I had felt my heart, petal by petal, gently opening. I had been both in my
body and outside it as he entered me, as we stared into each other, eyes wide
open. "We are there," he had whispered, his eyes filling with tears. Later,
he had gradually unwound his body from our embrace and, kneeling at the foot
of the bed, pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, then lifted
and kissed my feet.
At the thought of leaving the unhappy, washed-and-pressed straitjacket of her
marriage and making a new, more bliss-filled, yogic-flexible life for herself,
Housden realizes that she fears losing connection with her children less than
she does the condemnation of friends and community. That insight is freeing.
She grants Claude the primary custody he requests (Housden takes the kids on
alternate weekends and in the summer), reconnects with Roger, and eventually
moves from the suburbs of New Jersey to Roger's redwood-canyon-view tree house
in northern California. The two embark on a whirlwind life of writing, dining,
and traveling, and are married, eventually, by a Tibetan lama. Her book sells
immediately, for $250,000.
It is true that I am a person who prefers, most of the time, to remain petals-closed.
My emotional orientation is not tidal. So I had to know: Was it just jaundiced
me, or was Unraveled as much of a New Age white upper-middle-class fantasy
howler as I thought it was? Test reads by other mothers, trusted friends, revealed
that if anything, the book seemed more of a Rorschach inkblot: women reacted,
often weepily, to the individual strands that most resonated with their own
experience -- grief over a lost child, gloom of a collapsing marriage, hope
of finding new love midlife, even the simple desire to break the domestic doldrums
and start some fresh new creative journey. Which made me think, "My God -- could
this be the fable my generation of mothers actually deserves? A kind of The
Bridges of Madison County meets Jonathan Livingston Seagull?" (Or,
rather, Joanne Livingston Seagull, in which Housden is the one gull bravely
taking flight from the cawing, flapping, land-bound Flock Council of disapproving
suburban minivan moms.)
"And what if it is?" an unsettling voice answered.
"Oh, my God," I thought. "Is that my New Age inner voice? The one that's going
to rip me from my closed, cynical mind-prison and take me on some gauzy Celestine
Prophecy-like voyage to...? Ahhhhh!!!"
And in that moment, as if with an electric shock, my entire mind and being
were hurtled back to the summer of 2004. A cavalcade of images passed before
me: the Republican convention, the Athens Olympics, and, as inevitable as the
wind-lashed tides of Cape Cod, Oprah's Book Club. That summer OBC was spotlighting
Anna Karenina -- Western literature's reigning absentee mother.
Oprah had confessed that she'd always had a fear of Anna Karenina, chiefly
because of its prodigious length. Hence she and her viewers approached their
summer's reading of Tolstoy's novel like an arduous long-distance run. I remember
the post-read show as though it were yesterday (although my recollection has
been aided slightly by a Nexis transcript)...
Narrator: "They came from across the globe, Oprah Book Clubbers ready to
take the Anna Karenina 2004 Challenge. Eight long sections, 817 pages, twenty-three
complicated Russian names. The only thing to fear was fear itself. They would
battle the elements, summer heat, busy family schedules, obstacles at every
turn. Some would stumble, exhausted from reading. But could they pick themselves
up and press on to the final chapter? Could they do it? Could they read Anna
Karenina in just one summer? Could they conquer Tolstoy?"
Group of people (in unison): "Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna."
The opening guest of the Book Club episode was one of Oprah's all-time most
requested: the Music and Passion -- meister himself ... Barry Manilow. (Alternate
haunting question: Does each generation of females get the romantic hero it
deserves?) Manilow led in by singing, to the tune of "Copacabana," "Her name
was Anna, Anna Karenina ... The hottest broad north of the Kremlin!" The
final comment came from Will & Grace's Megan Mullally, who was most
intrigued in her reading by Anna Karenina's mental unraveling: "Of course, now
she'd just, like, take some Paxil and it'd all be good. But ... they didn't
have those mood stabilizers back then, apparently."
Which is to say that Oprah and her army of Lady Reebok-shod women did, chapter
by chapter, "conquer Tolstoy," practically trampling him.
And is that a bad thing?
One of Anna's few descriptions of happiness comes early in the book. Recognizing
young Kitty Shcherbatskaya's coquettish excitement before a ball, Anna says,
"O yes, it is good to be your age
I remember and know that blue mist,
like the mist on the Swiss mountains
That mist which envelops everything
at that blissful time when childhood is just, just coming to an end, and its
immense, blissful circle turns into an ever-narrowing path, and you enter
the defile gladly yet with dread, though it seems bright and beautiful
Who has not passed through it?"
Anna will enter the bright, beautiful defile one last time to triumph at that
ball, not in the quadrille (which Vronsky dances with Kitty) but, specifically,
in the mazurka (which Vronsky boldly decides to dance with Anna). From that
blissful, Swiss-blue-misted high point the path indeed grows ever narrower for
Anna. But in the twenty-first century, of course, the apex of female achievement
has extended far beyond the mazurka; upper-class -- or upper-class-contending
-- women are no longer trapped in ballrooms like great fluttering swans. And
although Anna and her sister adulteresses Emma Bovary and Tess still mesmerize
us by plunging spectacularly netherward through their societies, heat tiles
flying for all to see, in modern times a transgressor's extravagant death by
train, arsenic, or even that deliciously gothic twist from the court ladies
of Imperial China -- eating one's own jewelry -- no longer cuts it. Yes, there
are still taboos to be broken; but in post-feminist, post-twelve-step times
then comes epiphany; rehab; meeting of the sympathetic psychotherapist, sociologist,
or -- if need be -- pioneering death-row lawyer; followed by possible adjustments
in medication, six-figure advance, book tour, Self magazine contributorship,
spot on Oprah. There's no female pariah who won't get pardoned eventually,
or even hired for a Monica Lewinsky-style hosting job on Fox, if she gets her
Since women's empowerment will not tolerate tragedy (Thelma & Louise's
ending was decried by progressive female critics), other genres have necessarily
arisen. The 1989 Broadway hit Shirley Valentine, about a forty-two-year-old
British housewife who leaves her husband to have a fling with a Greek, played
successfully to audiences as a heartwarming, comedic feminist tale. Driving
the zeitgeist now is the notion of mothers as brave warriors in the unfolding
drama of capitalism. In our female-rage anthologies by overstressed working
mothers bitterly wrestling with husbands and playdates and deadlines, it seems
the worst thing that can happen between a woman and a train is for her to miss
it (again!) and have to call the nanny (again!). New studies by female professors
at Harvard and Yale constantly compare the economic plight of today's working
mothers with the economic circumstances of endless other demographic groups:
single men, divorced fathers, childless career women, American mothers before
the multi-generational family broke up, French mothers, tribal mothers from
seventeenth-century African villages
Typical solutions proffered include
corporate flex time and petitioning our government -- which, "unlike Denmark's,"
does not provide universal day care.
All good and well (certainly I am grateful), but hovering ever beyond, like
Anna's blue mist on Swiss mountains, is that elusive thing called happiness,
even bliss -- a thing that sometimes seems to have gone out, along with rope
belts, in the 1970s. Mock Jonathan Livingston Seagull if you wish, but
consider that the fablelike feel-good best seller of our time is a business
book: Who Moved My Cheese? Still puzzling over what, exactly, Mark Matousek
was thinking when he mentioned The Road Less Traveled, I flopped open our old
water-spotted 1978 copy and read,
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.*...
Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan
more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems,
their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if
life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their
difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and
that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families,
their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species,
and not upon others.
*The first of the "Four Noble Truths" which Buddha taught was "Life is suffering."
Buddhism and motherhood may be a tough fit; it's hard to imagine today's white-knuckled
über-moms adopting a non-Western, Zenlike detachment from their parenting:
"Will Dylan be admitted to the summer-session AP English preparation course
and then get in early admission to Brown? Maybe yes, maybe no. I leave it open
to the winds." But Housden has a line that must resonate for all: "I
felt certain that it was time for me to create a new container for the simpler,
more creative, and less angry life I knew I wanted to share with my kids."
And, in fits and starts, her life works for her. The weekend/summer mothering
Housden describes is full of beaches, sandcastles, baths, picnics, moments of
wonder in the garden. Ironically, her book is rife with a maternal happiness
unusual to hear of in these times. Which is partly the inherent beauty -- or
guilty upside, however you see it -- of being the noncustodial parent. It's
no accident that the category of parents who typically report the most parenting
satisfaction -- who feel they're doing the best job -- is divorced dads.
In these divorce-heavy days, maybe ceding primary custody will turn out to
be the new frontier for Women Who Work Too Much. Never mind universal day care
-- how much better to release the kids to hands-on caregivers who truly love
them: their dads. Many men today can cook or at least order takeout, and know
where and how to hire domestic help, perhaps with refreshing clarity and less
anxiety than ever-conflicted mothers. The weekend/summer schedule really opens
up a lot of time for mothers to make partner if need be, or to exercise, or
to write a book. Regardless, the times we live in suggest at least a reversal
of Tolstoy: among two-career couples in the chattering classes, it is unhappy
families that are now alike. The happy are unique, peculiar in their rarity
if not actually custom-built. Which makes me think, "Oh, if only Anna Karenina
had lived today." There would be no boredom (I see her thriving in any of the
hip metropolitan Sex and the City jobs); she'd hold her Vronsky secure,
Ashton Kutcher-like; there'd be bouts of the Kabbalah, instead of morphia, and
the edges would be smoothed with Paxil; she'd have a house in freewheeling California
and could still enjoy the sparkle of media favor. And she would not have to
wait 126 years -- as so many of the rest of us upwardly aspiring women feel
we are doomed to -- to get on Oprah.
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