Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves.
— Rachel Cusk
I left my daughters when they were eleven and eight. I didn’t leave them entirely, but I did remove them from the place in my life — the centre — they had previously occupied. I put them off to one side and moved into that centre myself, or tried to. It was a gradual process. I thought there would be room for all of us, but I was wrong.
After twelve years of marriage, their father and I separated when the girls were nine and six. I had dated him all through high school and university. We married when we were both twenty-one. A daughter was born three years later, a second one three years after that. For two years following our separation, the girls alternated households: two weeks with me, then two with their father. We were living in Cobourg, Ontario, a biggish town a couple of hours east of Toronto, where I had found a job as a reporter at the Cobourg Daily Star.
By this point, I was thirty-four, late to the game, with no previous experience, no journalism degree. It was my first job after spending ten years as a stay-at-home mother. The work was hard and low paying, but I loved it. I was living a double life: sometimes a single mother, sometimes a divorced career woman. Gradually, an alternative me began to emerge. Gradually, my children were slipping sideways toward the margins.
The thing about being a mother to young children is how little room it leaves you to move, to think, to dream, to be something other than a mom. When asked “the mother of all questions”— Why don’t you have children? — the essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote that part of the reason was her love of solitude. I wish I had known as much about myself back then. There were times, when the girls were young, that I felt as though I could not breathe. And when I became pregnant a third time, a year after my second daughter was born, I terminated the pregnancy. I knew that having another child would break me in some way.
Separated, with joint custody, I could have that alone time again. Two weeks with them, two weeks without. A young mother once told me she almost envied her friends who were separated. Regular time off from motherhood sounded like paradise.
I was ambitious, determined to have something to show for the terrible disruption of divorce, for the pain I had inflicted on the people I loved most. Eventually, I left it all — my marriage, my children, the small town — for a better job in a bigger place. And then I left that job for yet another in the city.
“The hardest things to talk about,” writes Elena Ferrante in her 2008 novella, The Lost Daughter, “are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” How do I say that I couldn’t leave them, but I did? It was like losing a limb, and, at the same time, it was like learning to fly. I was suddenly free, yet I would be weighed down forever. Not many writers have tackled the irreconcilable urgencies and paradoxes of motherhood. The truth is taboo. The myth of the self-sacrificing, tender, and loving Madonna is deeply entrenched in women and in society. So too is the promise of the joys of motherhood, the selfless love, the enduring bond, the miracle of creation, of becoming something more than merely yourself — what Ferrante calls “this tranquil lullaby of clichés.” The pressure to embrace them is so strong that we lie to our own daughters, just as our mothers lied to us. And we are barely aware it’s a lie.
Leda, the narrator in Ferrante’s novella, leaves her two daughters when they are six and four. Her explanation —“I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself”— took my breath away when I first read it. It is a shocking admission, the idea that a mother would put herself first, that she would abandon her children because their existence is a threat to her own, and that she would do it in the name of love. But I knew exactly how the narrator felt. I, too, thought that if I could not get away, I would die. The sensation of being unable to breathe was real. I was suffocating. I know how ridiculously dramatic that sounds, but if there had been a way for me to stay, I would have. Leaving was the hardest thing I have ever done.
Two years after my divorce, I left Cobourg to take a job at the Peterborough Examiner. My beat was education, which meant I covered the local school boards, as well as the nearby university and community college. Four evenings a week, I attended board meetings that often went past midnight. Afterwards, I returned to the office to write two or three stories and a handful of briefs for the next day’s edition. The rule was that everyone had to be in the newsroom by 8 a.m. This meant I slept from three in the morning to seven, was at work from eight until one in the afternoon (when the paper went to press), and then drove home, to the farmhouse I was renting halfway between Cobourg and Peterborough. I’d nap for a few hours until it was time to get up and go to another meeting in the evening. This cycle was known as the “split shift.” It was brutal under any circumstances, but to manage such a schedule as a single mother of two young children would have been impossible. And so, although we hadn’t planned it that way, the girls started to stay in Cobourg during the week, with their father, and came to me on weekends. A year later, I left the Examiner and moved to Toronto. The break was complete.
In The Lost Daughter, Leda leaves her children with their father for three years. And then she takes them back. She never says why she returns, but I believe she has accepted the fact that motherhood has stolen something from her that she could never recover, not even by abandoning her children. She hopes she can be both a mother and a person, but she finds out that would never be possible. Years later, after her daughters are grown, Leda meets a young mother, Nina, at a beach resort in Italy. She appears to be entangled in the same maternal web that Leda tried to leave behind.
Leda steals Nina’s daughter’s doll — a wretched, battered toy that spews filth and bile. In both the novella and the recent Netflix adaptation that stars Olivia Colman, the doll embodies the dark void of motherhood. Sure enough, as soon as it disappears, Nina begins to question the rigid patriarchal structures of her life, begins to imagine something for herself besides marriage and motherhood. Watching her struggle, Leda realizes the danger she has put this woman in; she returns the doll, and Nina acquiesces once again in her feminine fate. At the end of the book, Leda’s now twentysomething daughter, living in Toronto, asks why she hasn’t telephoned: “Won’t you at least let us know if you’re alive or dead?” Leda replies with the novella’s last line: “I’m dead, but I’m fine.”
In Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, from 2018, the feminist critic Jacqueline Rose argues that once you have become a mother, you can never be yourself again. The split that occurs when you bring another person into the world is permanent and fatal — to the self. What Leda learns in The Lost Daughter, what I myself have come to realize, is that there is no way out of the maze of motherhood. Most mothers know and accept this, but I did not. Or at least, in those heady days of second-wave feminism, I thought I could have it all. My children had a perfectly adequate father; I had put my career on hold for a decade so that he could pursue his. Now it was my turn. Wrong again.
In 1949, Doris Lessing left two of her young children with their father in Southern Rhodesia and moved to London to become a writer. She was a Marxist, and at the time she believed she was doing them a favour, sparing them, as one critic put it, from “the smug structures of middle-class life.” Despite her Nobel Prize, her innumerable novels and stories, plays and essays, and other awards, she was haunted by their absence for the rest of her life. Indeed, Lessing is arguably as famous for leaving them behind as she is for her writing.
Lessing did bring her third child, from her brief second marriage, to England and raised him herself. But motherhood, for her, was a series of impossible choices — between caring for her son and finding personal fulfillment. Her extreme ambivalence shows up in The Fifth Child, from 1988. The novella is a deeply unsettling horror story, a dark parable about a monstrous and violent youngest child, Ben, who wreaks destruction on his mother and family. After well-meaning relatives have him institutionalized, Harriet, his mother, rescues him and brings him home, despite the risk to her marriage and to her other children. It’s another impossible choice, one that Lessing, who bridled under the demands of raising a sickly boy, well understood.
As for me, I stayed away for two and a half years, but not completely. During the week, I lived in Toronto; on weekends, I still had access to the farmhouse I had been renting north of Port Hope. I saw my daughters every weekend, but motherhood is not a part-time job. We all lost so much more than I bargained for by my not being around on a day-to-day basis. I wasn’t there when they got home from school. I couldn’t help with their homework or comfort them when they were sick. I wasn’t there when they started their periods or had their first kisses. I wasn’t there to lend them clothes and makeup, drive them to school, urge them to clean up their rooms — all the things mothers do.
When she was thirteen, my older daughter auditioned for and was accepted into a drama program at an arts high school in Toronto, and she came to live with me. Her little sister stayed in Cobourg with their father and his new wife. I thought she would join us eventually, but she didn’t. Today, thankfully, she and I have a warm and mutually caring relationship. Her sister and I are estranged, maybe forever. I bear a huge burden of remorse for this. I thought I would be a role model for them, that they would be proud of the person I was becoming. I wanted to be a different kind of mother than mine — a high school dropout with no career — had been. But now I know that your children are not concerned with your fulfillment or your personhood. They want you to be their mother; that’s all.
Unlike Lessing, I don’t have a Nobel Prize to back up the choices I have made. But by most standards, I have been modestly successful in my life. I negotiated a minefield of a career path from a small-town newspaper to a job at the Globe and Mail. And although I wasted time on men who were not worth it, I managed to meet a good one eventually; we’ve been married (dare I say happily) for twenty-five years. I published my first novel at sixty-five. Both my children, despite everything, are successful and healthy and mothers now themselves.
In Alice Munro’s “The Children Stay,” a woman leaves her marriage and her two small daughters. At the end of the short story, an omniscient narrator, in the voice of someone who clearly knows, weighs in: “This is acute pain. It will become chronic,” she predicts. “Chronic means that it will be permanent but perhaps not constant. It may also mean that you won’t die of it. You won’t get free of it but you won’t die of it.”
“I’m dead, but I’m fine,” Leda says in The Lost Daughter. This is one of the many paradoxes of motherhood: It is miraculous and mundane, inspiring and disillusioning, humanizing and dehumanizing. When you are with your children, you are not yourself. It is as hard to leave as it is to stay. Impossible choices — yet choices that must be made.
“Say to yourself, You lose them anyway. They grow up. . . . They’ll forget this time, in one way or another they’ll disown you,” Munro’s narrator continues. “And, still, what pain.”
As Jacqueline Rose has written, “Mothers always fail.” That’s because, of course, the bar is impossibly high. Society has set us up for failure. Still, I take comfort in the truth of those three words, in the paper-thin possibility they hold of redemption. As I embark on my eighth decade, my biggest regret is that I left my two daughters when they were eleven and eight. It saved me and destroyed me both. I thought it would be okay. But it wasn’t.