You shouldn't need to choose between your children and partner

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

Are you having enough sex? Is it good sex? Experimental, energetic? And if not, do you think perhaps you don't love him enough anymore? Ayelet Waldman, best-selling author and essayist wants to know. Or at least, it felt like that back in 2005 when she wrote about her passionate marriage to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Michael Chabon. The urgency of desire she felt for him somehow sung out above the calls of early motherhood in stark contrast to the marriages she observed around her in mothers' group. We read her confession, 'Truly, Madly, Guiltily' and we simultaneously roared and wilted in reply.

In the piece, Waldman, who as a feminist has always subjected herself to intense scrutiny for the sake of telling unspoken truths, argued that a mother should consider her love for her husband more important than her love for her children because this matrimonial love was, ultimately, for her. Implicit to this is the assumption that your husband is forever, whereas your children will one day belong to the world. And as such, the love you show your husband is not only an investment in your post-mothering years but also in your children's future and their sense of possibility in the world. Waldman's piece has reached its ten year anniversary and I would wager, is almost as controversial today as when it first set Oprah and The View alight. That mothers may be preoccupied with motivations beyond childrearing was challenging to conservative readers. But that this liberation could reside so closely to Christian notions of hierarchy in a family and putting husbands first, was suspicious to many progressive readers, too.

There was also the 'God forbid' scenario Waldman used to measure love for children versus partners. If, God forbid, something terrible happened, whose death could you bear the least - your child's or your husband's? It was an alienating thought exercise. Being asked to envision the deaths of loved ones feels akin to torture.

Thoughts on motherhood are very often reactive. Parenting reduces us so effectively to living moment to moment. The narrowing, the immediacy, are necessary for the tasks of giving and focus we encounter as parents. But in the process, we lose our peripheral vision. It leaves us unusually vulnerable to the comfort of conformity.

An old picture of the couple

An old picture of the couple Photo: Twitter

One empathises then with the frustration Waldman must have felt in a mothers' group so homogenous and self-reinforcing in its beliefs about maternal devotion, and the thrill she would have sought in horrifying them. As Waldman tells me, "I think what I was saying was wait, are you really saying that, are you really saying you love your child more than anyone else in the world. Well if you're going to say that, I'm going to double down. It is a kind of rhetorical hyperbole". And as Chabon notes, "I think you felt licensed to take that liberty ..to that degree because when you were writing the piece you thought ..you are going to be in this little dark corner of the debate and suddenly you're in The New York Times".

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Re-reading her piece now that I am a safe distance from its primary targets – my children are no longer babies and I am no longer with their father - I see that as with all of Waldman's writing on motherhood, she did, in fact signpost ambivalence. In one moment, she refers to feeling 'touched out' by her baby, in another she refers to her own moments of strained libido and, still, in another she refers to insecurities around her husband's shifting attention. But we missed it, didn't we? Such are the stakes in motherhood in those early years.

Michael Chabon observed this, too, "ever since that article came out .. almost without exception the people who had their hackles raised by what Ayelet wrote were not the parents of adult children. They were the parents of young children or they were the prospective parents. Parents of adult children almost exclusively communicated to Ayelet that she was totally right on ..either because that's what they had done and they'd come out with a strong sense of security from their parents' relationship … or else that they didn't and they wished they had".

Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman

As Waldman observes of herself, "in pretty much everything I've written about motherhood, there's a huge element of saying this is not it. It is not good for you if this is all. Think about the world, about the work you create, think about your role". If this is the case, Waldman was arguing less for women to prioritise their husbands and more for women to prioritise their own desire, wherever that may lie.

But the art of storytelling required Waldman to flatten the depth of the women in her mothers' group. Who is to say their diminished libido was sustained? And how many of them turned their playfulness and sense of adventure towards their children not because they had made an erotic transition to the sensuality of babies, but because their husbands were increasingly humourless and detached as they moved into the responsibilities of their thirties.

The truth, like everything else in family life is messy. We are not readily sorted between good and bad mothers. As Waldman notes, " we even home-schooled one of our kids, just for a year. And I often think if people knew that the Ayelet Waldman who was throwing her children under a bus actually home-schooled one of them, what would they say?" She elaborates on her children's perspective, "the areas in which they complain .. are exactly the opposite. They will complain about we've hovered or been too involved or.. too domineering a mother. They won't complain that we were neglectful". Chabon continues, "or that we're too involved in one another..".

And the story of Waldman's and Chabon's relationship is likely not so simple, either. At some point, Waldman and Chabon became known not just as successful writers married to one another but as a creatively successful couple, enough to be invited to speak together at literary events on their work and marriage. What an opportunity to tempt fate, I suggest.

Chabon tells me, "I remember once we had this horrendous thing happen.."

"Worst thing in our relationship", Waldman says.

Chabon continues, "And then we literally had to..".

".. get out of the car..," Waldman adds.

Chabon adds, ".. go in and do a joint event in front of an audience."

"It was awful."

"It was Oscar-worthy".

Finally, Waldman notes, "but here's the thing, nobody noticed". "It was chilling to me because I thought what we did well when we appeared together was to be authentic. I thought that it was the authenticity that people were responding to.. but in fact, when we were in the least authentic moment of our relationship , when we were portraying a farcical illusion and the reality was this disastrous day, nobody noticed. What does that say?"

Chabon suggests, "I think it was training. We were practiced doing it together and we had our lines down. Also, people are not very observant, thank God".

That's the thing about sexual relationships, isn't it? Part of it is real but part of it is always appearance, too. This facade is as much for yourselves as it is for others. Because a sense of self both feeds and is fed by intimate relationships. Ironically, the pressure to stay together is precisely what may be limiting passion in those women Waldman observed from in the mothers' group. Children may have nothing to do with it. People stop having sex when they get bored with one another, too, but they are prevented from ending relationships by the pressure to 'perform' relationships.

Waldman wanted women to be more passionate, but there are limits to how comfortable any of us are with the pursuit of desire by women, and particularly, with mothers focusing on it. Having been a single parent for a couple of years I now find myself falling in love with another man and re-partnering. Sexual desire prioritises itself in a new relationship. Libido is all-consuming, it does not require conscious effort. In fact, it can be confrontingly disruptive to the calm necessary for parenting. I ask myself, is this how someone's mother behaves?

Re-partnering threatens the construction of Waldman's argument. "It seems to me if your relationship ends and you're back out on the dating world … I imagine my priorities would be different. At that point I would absolutely say that my first priority is towards my children. Any new relationship would have to come second to that. I haven't given this enough thought to make it a manifesto".

Chabon ponders mischievously, "this is a whole new essay. If my husband dumped me". Waldman tries again. "Maybe it's because they've gone through the trauma of having their parents separate. Or for whatever reason it does seem like that role becomes.. in my mind, it would take priority. Not ultimately, not forever. I mean at some point they do grow up".

Suddenly, it seems Waldman's ranking of love has multiple caveats. Making your children the satellites to you and your partner's centre is safe when you are in love with someone very bonded to your children. But without that, whether you're with the father of your children or someone else, makes the outcomes for children potentially dangerous. Reconsidering the outrage that originally greeted Waldman's piece, you see some of it reflected very confining beliefs about mothers and their obligations of sacrifice, but some it suggested something ancient in our social mores around the defencelessness of children and the protection they are owed.

Waldman and Chabon fell in love with each other and by all indications established a marriage of mutuality. To what degree was that by luck or design? Chabon explains, "I did have an expectation". "My expectations were of myself, and what I would want and what I would give and commit to and what I would be looking for, as opposed to what I thought would happen, which I ultimately thought was up to me". Waldman, endearingly worries that, "I guess it was up to me but I mostly feel so lucky. I feel like I dodged so many.." Chabon replies, "I know, but anytime anything good happens you think it's luck and anything bad happens, it's your fault. Whenever anything good happens to me I think.." I interject, "you deserved it?" Chabon laughing replies, "yes".

Our perspective evolves as we parent and also, as we grow, returning again and again to the question of who we are and what is important to us. Waldman says, "I felt like I spent my thirties with my head down. I fixated on what was in my arm's reach, which was my children. Then somewhere in my early forties I kind of lifted my head and saw what was all around me and it was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I think that's inspiring for children. I don't think it's good for children when parents are so focused exclusively on them.. it gives them a false sense of their importance and it gives them a terrible pressure. Now that I just turned fifty… I'm looking round and I'm thinking now what, now what, now what? It's similarly terrifying".

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon will appear at The Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, on Wednesday 4 November.