The calamity of unwanted motherhood

The calamity of unwanted motherhood

The protagonist of Penelope Mortimer’s 1958 novel, Dad went hunting, is a 37-year-old housewife named Ruth, who slips into a madness of suffocation and despair in her forties. Alone in her kitchen at the start of the novel, Ruth drinks gin and tentatively confesses to an imaginary listener the source of all her anguish. When she married Rex, her petty bully husband, at 18, she was three months pregnant with their daughter, Angela. “She doesn’t know, of course,” Ruth explains, to no one. “I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want Angela. We were to get married. There was nothing else to do.

The burden of consequences on Ruth is a dead weight. She has no perceptible life force, no desires, less form than crumpled tissue paper. Its vagueness is countered in the novel by Mortimer’s caustic narration, which mixes Ruth’s boredom with a fierce undercurrent of social criticism. Dad went huntingcurrently reissued in the United States, was published several years before Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystic. But the novel, apparently set in the late 1950s, seems to anticipate what Friedan proposed as “the problem that has no name” – the deep unhappiness of a generation of educated women trapped in the domestic sphere. No Exit. In one chapter, Mortimer compares the women of “the common,” Ruth’s suburban community, to icebergs, outwardly “shiny and shiny” but only scratchy beneath the surface. “Some are happy,” she writes, “others poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the line, are a little crazy; some love their husbands and some die for lack of love; some have talent, as useless to them as a dying limb. Together, “their energy could spark a revolution, power half of southern England, drive an atomic power station.” Deprived of a socket, however, it tends to short-circuit itself.

Ruth’s desperation is clearly rooted in her accidental teenage pregnancy, her necessary marriage to a man she despises, and her obligation to care for an unwanted child when she was still essentially a child herself. same. The driving force of the novel is a simple, repetitive plot: his daughter, Angela, now 18, tells Ruth that she is pregnant. Ruth gets angry; she also discovers, once again, that she is forced by circumstances to act against her will. “It wasn’t that she took a step; she had been pushed, stumbling forward and finding the responsibility thrown into her arms, finding herself engaged without knowing how it happened,” Mortimer writes. Angela intends to have her pregnancy terminated, which was illegal in the UK until 1968. To prevent her daughter from repeating history, Ruth must balance conflicting impulses – her desire to protect Angela from the risk of an illegal procedure in relation to his desire to secure for her a future less miserable than his own.

Dad went hunting is largely based on Mortimer’s own experiences. Like Ruth, she married at 19 and soon had her first child; like Ruth, she helped her eldest daughter have an illegal abortion when she became pregnant while studying at university. In a later semi-autobiographical novel, The Pumpkin Eater, which explores marital infidelity and disaffection, Mortimer presented scenes of middle-class life with a remarkably acid touch, stripping away any vestige of illusion or pretense. With Dad went hunting, she enters lightly into a sparse and immensely cunning genre, the literature of parental regret. Ruth’s resentment towards Angela and Rex is an “unmentionable thing”, a secret “held so long that [it] had become almost unrecognizable as the truth. And yet Angela has always felt it; her life has been defined by “being rejected, abandoned, betrayed by someone who should love her”. (Names quiver with symbolism throughout Mortimer’s story: Ruth, in British English, means ‘repentance’, ‘remorse’, ‘regret’. Rex is the cruel king of his sturdy castle in the suburban belt; during the week, he disappears off to London for his work as a dentist, performing countless “painstaking excavations in rotting bones.” Angela, meaning “messenger,” is the character whose circumstances force Ruth into action.)

Mortimer neither theorizes nor expounds; it tears, on the contrary, with the description. Her 64-year-old novel is, in its atmosphere and circumstances, one of the most compelling arguments for reproductive freedom of choice I have ever encountered. Without a choice, she suggests, we are doomed to follow the streetcar lines of predestination that punish all involved. Without choices, everyone suffers, including children born not out of love but out of resentment. (In the novel, Angela has always felt how differently her two parents seem to view her compared to her two younger brothers, both born by choice.) Ruth’s psyche in the book is inexorably stunted by her inability to define herself. before having children. While reading Mortimer, I was reminded again and again of 2021 by Merritt Tierce New York Times writing—published decades later Dad went hunting was written – describing what getting pregnant at 19 had cost her. “My personality was erased,” she wrote, “and replaced with MOTHER before I even knew who I was.”

To deprive women of the ability to choose when and if they become parents, the novel insinuates, is to deprive them of the ability to be or become fully human in their own right. In one chapter, Angela sleeps while Mortimer sketches a surreal scene in which the teenager appears to be having a conversation with her subconscious:

What do I look like? I mean, who am I?

You are an exam result, my dear. Perhaps, in time, an honors degree. Try harder.

But I mean myself?

Maybe you could find yourself in the Guides, or in the New Testament somewhere. Alternatively, we can provide various substitutes, such as Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Nurse Cavell. It’s really none of our business, but we keep a few heroines on hand, just in case.

Angela’s unformed sense of self is reflected in the novel by Ruth’s childlike state. “For the first time in their history, women are becoming aware of an identity crisis in their own lives,” Friedan wrote in 1963, “a crisis which…will only end when they, or their daughters, will take an unfamiliar turn and make themselves and their own lives the new image that so many women now desperately need. as hard as Mortimer’s exploration of motherhood may be, there are noticeable signs of change on the horizon. baby, as her mother had done before her. When Ruth asks her if she wants an abortion, Angela is “bewildered, as if someone were asking if he wanted to go on living. Ruth is easily able to draw in a whispered network of women offering advice and approval “There was an Irishman, Susan Raynes said he was a real angel,” a friend told him. “Then Yvonne used to swear by a man somewhere in Chelsea.” She also has other recommendations: Epsom salts; “something you can put on cotton”; soap.

Even with the most anticipated baby, the change of identity into motherhood is necessarily painful, an elimination of old needs, priorities and desires accompanied by the primordial absorption of another soul, another physical body within you. same. Bone of your bones, curious flesh of your flesh, thinks Ruth. “Not a hair, not a fingernail, not a speck of skin is the same as when you were born, but the aging body that was once a child is still a part of you.” Ruth’s love for Angela is basic and difficult. Yet it drives her to help Angela make the choice that Ruth herself couldn’t: the choice not to have the baby that would deny her a future of being anything other than a mother.