Letting Go of Them – Empty Nest Setting In?
Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.
By RACHEL CUSK
MARCH 19, 2015
My daughter complains that she can’t sleep. Sometimes I pass her room at 11 o’clock, at midnight, and see the light still on under the door. Inevitably, if I go in, I find her propped up in bed with her laptop, the blue haze from the screen on her face.
You should read a book, I say.
She rolls her eyes.
I’ve read loads of books, she says, as though this history has some bearing on her current situation. She has indeed read loads of books: It’s what I taught her to do.
Reading helps you sleep, I say. That thing — the laptop — keeps you awake.
My relationship with that thing is ambivalent at best. Sometimes I feel it has displaced me as the navigator of our lives; it has become her compass. Yet increasingly I recognize that I will be — that I ought to be — displaced.
A nice long German novel, I say. That’ll send you straight off.
She makes a noise of exasperation, and her temper instantly rises, like mercury shooting up in a thermometer. At 16, my older daughter is in the fever of adolescence: Her temperature is nearly always high. And in fact, if I could stuff the words back into my mouth, I would. Lately I’ve become aware of a dissonance, a dislocation, as though a familiar text had suddenly become illegible to me. What she needs is different from what I think she needs. Perhaps it always was, but she’s had to grow up to be able to tell me. Sometimes — when I’m brushing my teeth or chopping vegetables, when I’m not thinking about her at all — she’ll come and stand next to me and say, Give me attention. At other times, like now, I feel I’m forcing myself on her, like an insistent hostess forcing food on her guests. I don’t want to force, to insist, even at the risk that what I cherish will be wasted. Parenthood suddenly seems like one long litany of force, of insistence, of exposition and declamation; it seems, suddenly, to have contained too much of the sound of myself. When you declaim, you can’t listen. When you insist, you miss the opportunity to learn something new.
They used to be so sweet, a friend of mine said of his daughter and son ,shaking his head. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a nightmare.
Mum, she says irritably, twitching so dramatically that the thing nearly falls off her lap, I’ve read enough books.
When my two daughters became teenagers, something began to happen that was unique in my experience of parenting so far: Other people began to warn me how awful it would be. Until then, the story of family life that I heard from my contemporaries had been one of relentless — almost frantic — positivism, a bright picture from which shadows were meticulously absent, as though they had been carefully excised. I had struggled to believe in that story, which often seemed to invoke a version of childhood composed of adult fantasies, fantasies so powerful that they threatened to undermine reality itself — a Walt Disney world where wish fulfillment had become a moral good yet whose ultimate wish was to obscure the truth. In my own experience, truth had stubbornly continued to insist on itself: the difficulties of continuing to create while bringing up two small children, the conflict between artistic and familial identity, the attempt to pursue your own truth while still honoring the truth of others, the practical and emotional complexities of motherhood and recently of divorce and single parenthood — all these tensions were real, so real that sometimes their causes were difficult to locate. At such times I learned to recognize the good by its proximity to the bad and vice versa; light and shadow couldn’t be separated, for the reason that they defined each other. Yet the public narrative of parenthood denied the light and shadow of reality; it veered insistently, sometimes crazily, toward joy. Sometimes it simply sounded like people trying to bridge the gap — for themselves, as much as for others — between the image and the truth, a gap that is nowhere deeper or more mysterious than in the experience of having a child. But at other times it sounded more like something nobler, something I lacked the knowledge of, a kind of courage or self-restraint that was interwoven with the responsibility of parenthood; a form of election, like knighthood, that brought with it a distinct code of conduct.
Except that suddenly it didn’t anymore. When people asked me how old my daughters were, they would grimace at my reply. Poor you, they’d say, or, Good luck, or, at best, Don’t worry, it’ll pass, you’ll get them back eventually. Stories began to emerge in my circle of acquaintances of shouting and slammed doors and verbal abuse, of academic failure, of secrecy and dishonesty; and of darker things, of eating disorders, self-harm, sexual precocity and depression. They used to be so sweet, a friend of mine said of his daughter and son, shaking his head. I don’t know what happened. It’s like a nightmare. Another friend says, It’s as if they hate me. I walk into a room and they wince; I speak and they ball up with irritation. I’m being bullied, she says, reminding me of Raymond Carver’s disturbing poem, “On an Old Photograph of My Son,” an outpouring of the author’s feelings of victimization at the hands of his adolescent son, his anger at the waste of his own youth and energy the nurture of this “petty tyrant” represents. Carver was an artist, and no cheerleader for family life, but perhaps all parents feel an element of artistry in their creation of a child. To be an artist is to have your creation obey you, but as Carver points out, parenthood is the opposite of art: The created object — the child — can become instead an uncontrollable source of destructiveness.
Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce. The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other. Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story, sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters, creatures derived from life who nonetheless have their being in the author’s head. A large part of parental authority is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of this story, its repetition, its continued iterations and adaptations. And it feels right to tell it, for what we are offering our children is a story of life in which they have been given a role. How true is it? It’s hard to tell. In a story there’s always someone who owns the truth: What matters is that character’s ability to serve it. But it is perhaps unwise to treasure this story too closely or believe in it too much, for at some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel. The shock of critique is the first, faint sign of the coming conflict, though I wonder how much of what we call conflict is in fact our own deserved punishment for telling the story wrong, for twisting it with our own vanity or wishful thinking, for failing to honor the truth.
My daughters tell me stories of how this conflict is playing out on the other side, in their world. One friend’s mother is so fearful for and overprotective of her daughter — an only child — that she won’t let her go by train with a group of her friends for a day out; the daughter must remain at home while the others enjoy themselves. Another friend’s parents have no idea that their son is a regular and increasingly chronic drug user; they adhere to the happy, sunlit story of family life, while his friends grow more and more anxious on his behalf. Another is subjected to severe and often bizarre penalties and punishments for the minutest failure to achieve excellence in her moral, academic and personal life. Her parents are Catholics, my daughter adds, as though that explained everything.
Because they’re told by my daughters, these stories have the teenagers as their protagonists. The stories told by my peers work the other way around. One woman’s son texts her abusive messages from his bedroom while she stands cooking in the kitchen below; another’s children have defected to live with their father, despite their mother’s tireless generosity and care, because he allows them unrestricted access to their phones and laptops; the son of a friend has a party at the family home that results in hundreds of dollars’ worth of damage; another’s daughter won’t invite friends home or allow her parents to pick her up from school because she is ashamed of the family’s modest house and car.
I find that I naturally side with the protagonists in my daughters’ stories and against the narrators of my friends’. My own memories of adolescence remain the most potent I have. That self is still more real to me than any other I have inhabited. As a 13-year-old, I felt both powerless within, and outraged by, the adult world. I was characterized as the family firebrand, the difficult one — but increasingly I find myself recollecting the powerlessness. It is possible, I have discovered, to attribute an inordinate power to your children. But in fact the only power they have is that which lies in the mere fact of existence. They exist: It is from what their existence means for us that the chimera of their power is generated.
I’m currently writing a version of Euripides’ “Medea” for a theater in London. The director and I have an ongoing difference of opinion. The play is notorious for its representation of a woman who kills her two young children; that is what most people know about it, without necessarily being aware of how or why she does so. At its most reductive, Medea is the archetype of the “bad mother”; vaguely, she has become associated with the concept of maternal ambivalence, in which women’s suppressed hatred for and resentment of their offspring is seen as the counterweight to their enactment of “perfect” motherhood. There is a kind of cultural hysteria around maternal ambivalence that I dislike, for the reason that it takes something subtle and interesting — the mixed feelings of motherhood — and turns it into something blatant and grotesque. The idea that the woman who explores those feelings sits at one end of a trajectory that has child murder at its other is ridiculous. And besides, Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.
I find that I do not believe in the child-killing as a literal event. But the director cannot conceive of a “Medea” in which the children are not killed. Around this impasse we have arranged ourselves. I say, Ours is a world in which psychological and actual violence have become mutually distinct. The killing no longer means what it once might have. Actual violence is rudimentary and mute; psychological violence is complex and articulate. He says, The play’s violence is both metaphor and reality. The two, in other words, meet and mingle, as in the world of Greek mythology where the gods met and mingled with humans. I say, That metaphor is lost on our literal-minded society; instead the play is regarded as a “problem play” — but the problem of women murdering their children is not a problem we actually have. Even as metaphor. In fact, if anything, it’s the other way around. Metaphorically or otherwise, women don’t murder their children. It’s the children who murder their mothers.
The director looks skeptical. We discuss the “Oresteia,” in which two children, Electra and Orestes, murder — the former by encouragement and the latter by physical violence — their mother, Clytemnestra. Electra and Orestes aren’t, in fact, children. They are teenagers. They hate their mother for the fact that she has disposed of their father. They have come to resent maternal power so much that they destroy it. Instead they reverence the paternal, which is all image — their father, Agamemnon, was away fighting gloriously in Troy for most of their lives — where their mother is all actuality. They crush and disdain that actual parent in pursuit of the imagistic father whose value is recognized out in the world. Sound familiar? I ask.
A writer friend comes round. She brings her son, who is the same age as my older daughter. Once we carried these children in our arms; at other times we pushed them in strollers, or led them by the hand. Now he follows his mother in like a pet lion on a leash, a proud, taciturn beast who has consented, temporarily, to be tamed. My daughter has this same aura of the wild about her, as though beneath a veneer of sophistication she is constantly hearing the summons of her native land, somewhere formless and free that still lies inside her and to which at any moment she might return. The manners of adulthood have been recently acquired. There’s no knowing how quickly they could be discarded. She and my friend’s son greet each other in territorial monosyllables. It is as though they are two people from the same distant country who have met here in my sitting room. They’ve met before, often, but you’d never know: Those were old– versions of themselves, like drafts of a novel the author no longer stands by. All the same, I expect them to take themselves off elsewhere, to another room; I expect them to flee the middle-aged climate of the sitting room, but they don’t. They arrange themselves close to us, two lions resting close to the shade of their respective trees, and they watch.
My friend and I have a few years of conversation behind us. We’ve talked about motherhood — we’ve both spent a large part of our time as a single parent — and its relationship to writing. We’ve talked about the problems and pleasures of honoring reality, in life and in art. She has never upheld the shadowless account of parenthood; and perhaps consequently, nor does she now allude to her teenage son as a kind of vandal who has ruined the lovely picture. We talk about our own teenage years, and the hostility of our parents’ generation to any form of disagreement with their children. Any system of authority based on control fears dissidence more than anything else, she says. You two don’t realize how lucky you are, and the lions roll their eyes. What is being controlled, she says, is the story. By disagreeing with it, you create the illusion of victimhood in those who have the capacity to be oppressors. From outside, the dissident is the victim, but the people inside the story can’t attain that distance, for they are defending something whose relationship to truth has somewhere along the line been compromised. I don’t doubt that my parents saw themselves as my hapless victims, as many parents of adolescents do (“You have this lovely child,” a friend of mine said, “and then one day God replaces it with a monster”), but to me at the time such an idea would have been unthinkable. In disagreeing with them, I was merely trying to re-establish a relationship with truth that I thought was lost. I may even have believed that my assertions were helpful, as though we were on a journey somewhere and I was trying to point out that we had taken a wrong turn. And this, I realize, is where the feelings of powerlessness came from: Disagreement only and ever drew reprisal, not for what was said but for the fact alone of saying it, as if I were telling the residents of a Carmelite convent that the building was on fire and was merely criticized for breaking the vow of silence.
In my class at school there was a girl, a sophisticated creature, clever and sharp-tongued, well dressed, worldly, mature for her age in body and mind. She spoke of her mother, with whom she lived, with extraordinary contempt. Her mother was pathetic, a housewife, a drudge. She nagged her daughter to do this or that; on occasion she overstepped the mark so far as to obstruct her in the fulfillment of her own plans and desires. Stupid cow, she would say, arriving at school. Guess what the bitch has done now? She made these remarks so often that a kind of story took root in them, with its concomitant sense of tension that would grow toward some dark climax. She would come to class with the latest installment of the drama, and would relay the details with scathing laughter. Increasingly her own role was becoming more active, as though to show us that she was no victim, that she was about deeds as well as words. Her mother had berated her for the untidiness of her room, so she had opened her closet and, in front of her mother, carefully taken everything out and thrown it on the floor before walking out of the house to school. Her mother had made some unacceptable remark over dinner, so she got up from the table with her plate and emptied the entirety of her meal into the trash. Her open hatred of this woman mesmerized me. I was frightened of my own mother, a tense, interior fear that expressed itself in extreme self-criticism and doubt, as though she lived inside me and could see everything that went on there. I could barely see my schoolmate’s mother as a mother at all. Instead I saw her as something I could not see my own mother as: A woman, a woman in a kitchen having abuse hurled at her by this formidable child. And what I remember most clearly is that this difference — the ability to see her as a woman — enabled me to pity her.
One day the girl came to school with a slightly wild and breathless look about her and a glint of triumph in her eye. On her way out of the house that morning, her mother had confronted her about something — I don’t remember what — and had blocked her passage down the hall to the front door, wanting an answer. She had asked her to get out of the way. The mother had refused, so her daughter had punched her in the stomach, stepped over her body where it now lay in agony on the floor and made her way out of the house.
This, in any case, is what the girl said. An adolescent suddenly finds herself capable of breaking down the twin fortresses — verbal and physical superiority — of adult control. She can no longer be physically commandeered, be picked up or constrained; and with that defense she succeeds in wresting the story of life away from its authors, or at least in violating the principles of that story and turning them on their head. Adults can no longer touch her; she can say what she likes. When my children were small, I realize now, I routinely used my greater physical strength as a form of authority. If they wouldn’t come when I asked them to, I could simply go and pick them up. If they wouldn’t sit still, I could hold them still. It all seemed normal and innocent enough, but these days I look back on it with growing amazement. If I had never had access to that brute form of authority, I ask myself, what better authority might I have learned? If I had lacked the arms to pick them up and set them down against their will, to coerce them, would some more platonic parent-child relationship have emerged?
I grew up in a large family where children were treated with all the sensitivity and respect of a herd of animals being corralled by a testy farmer. Respect is something I have had to learn, like French. It feels good to talk in French; the more I speak it the more I improve. But I am also more prone to make mistakes, and to criticize myself for them. When my children reached the first wild shores of adolescence, I felt distinctly the loss of old forms of control: Suddenly we had moved into the subjunctive, the past historic, the conditional future. One day, having lunch with my brother, my daughter reached out to take a piece of bread before the meal. I told her to put it back — I wanted her to eat proper food, not bread — and she did, but shortly afterward she got angry about something else and stormed away from the table. You shouldn’t have done that, he said to me. Done what? I asked. You can’t tell her not to eat bread, he said. But I have to. It’s my responsibility. No, it’s not, he said. Would you tell a stranger sitting at the table not to eat bread? He was right: He speaks better French than I. If she’d been smaller, I realized, I’d simply have taken the bread out of her hands. But because of her age — that invisible wall that gradually rises around a person, forbidding trespass — I could no longer do so. However wrong or right it was, all that remained of me from that outdated version of authority were words.
An adolescent suddenly finds herself capable o fbreaking down the twin fortresses — verbal and physical superiority— of adult control.
Once, visiting a friend of mine, I watched as he, too, reached the impasse of that physical authority before my eyes: Sitting down to lunch, he asked his 11-year-old daughter to remove her coat and she refused. I’m cold, she said. Take it off, he said. You can’t sit at the table in your coat. No, she said. I’m cold, I want to keep it on. He asked her again, and then again, with increasing anger. She wouldn’t budge. What was he going to do — strip the coat from her body with his own hands?
Where once we mesmerized our children with our talk — soothing, correcting, steering, but also commanding, naming, judging, apportioning values, calling some things good and others bad, until the whole world had our language on it, a kind of graffiti — now they endeavor to shock us with theirs. We wanted to put them to sleep; they want to wake us up. Inadvertently, often well meaningly, we fused language with action and thereby created a fundamental confusion, a confusion that is being returned to us in the form of teenagers who have realized they can exist in the space between words and deeds, a space we once denied was there.
My younger daughter attends an all-girls school. She is 14 and has countless friends, most of them white-skinned and fair, with declarative middle-class voices and abundant shining waterfalls of hair. They move in shoals, around the streets and shops, around the park, talking and shrieking and giggling ceaselessly; their only silences are the dramatic kinds of pauses that occur in the television series they watch, silences that signify the presence somewhere nearby of a narrative event. This event, more often than not, is interpersonal, a plot twist in the politics of their friendship group, a falling out or change of allegiance, but sometimes it takes the form of a misfortune afflicting one of their number, to whom the rest offer support with hours of murmuring discussion.
Occasionally the shoal drifts in my direction and settles for an afternoon in my house. When my daughter was smaller and invited friends home, I knew I had to provide a narrative explanation of what the afternoon would hold. I made the world known to them by description; almost as if by describing it I created it, or at least maintained control of the narrative: I am mother, you are children, this is home, teatime, play. Sometimes I couldn’t bear the conscription of language to this phrase book of false cheer and uniformity; at other times it was soothing to be able to communicate in bland sentences that left my thoughts undisturbed. What was clear, in either case, was that these social rites were a fulcrum of storytelling, a place where a common version of things could be reiterated and agreement reached. The smallest child would know instantly if an adult said something not in the script. They themselves were learning to become scripted, saying please and thank you, answering the questions they were asked. I saw all of us, to a degree, as indoctrinated. In this sphere of universal values, I tried to keep hold of the thread of individuality, yet despite the irritants of this mass religion, the alternatives were unclear.
But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?
The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.
When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.
Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.
Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.
One day I go and meet my younger daughter near her school. She left an important book at home. I suggested we meet for lunch so that I could give it to her. I arrive at the agreed-upon place and see that several of her friends are there. Let’s go somewhere else, she says, appraising the situation.
The sun is shining. We find a cafe around the corner, a delightful, old-fashioned sort of place, nothing like the fashionable, crowded chain we originally decided on. The chef, a dapper man with a brown creased head like a walnut, works in full view behind the counter, singing pleasantly to himself in a light tenor. My daughter is happy, happy in the sunshine, happy to see me. I am happy to see her, too. It is as though we have absconded together from that mild prison, home; as though we have gotten away from what binds us and found each other again on the other side of it, both of us free.
She scrutinizes the menu professorially and chooses a chicken salad. I say I’ll have the same thing. We talk about her schoolwork, her friends. Lately she has become so independent that watching her live is a kind of spectacle, as though she were walking a high wire with a skill I didn’t know she possessed: I watch her from below, proudly, my heart in my mouth.
The chef is making our salads: I see him grilling the slivers of chicken, arranging the leaves, beating a dressing with a tiny silver whisk. He is so quick, so delicate. He bends absorbedly, lovingly over his creation, assembling it, tweaking it with his rapid slender fingers. Carefully, swiftly, he adds the dressing and then with a flourish rings the bell that stands on the counter beside him.
My daughter asks me what I’ve been doing, what I’m working on, how it’s going. At home she rarely asks these questions. At home she is the subject, not I.
I tell her about “Medea” and the problem of the child-killing. I tell her about the Lars von Trier film, in which the older of Medea’s children is so helpful that he arranges the noose his mother intends to hang him by around his own neck. In Euripides’ version, the children are more palpably her victims, yet they lack distinct personalities of their own. I say, A child might be sacrificed — might even sacrifice himself — to his parents’ version of things, just as he might choose to murder his parents’ image. But might not all these players be somehow liberated through this violence — cast off their familial identities and be reborn as individuals, as their true selves?
She thinks about this. Among her friends, there are some in serious conflict with parents who continue to insist on the family story. She admits now that her greatest anger at her parents has come from their failure to correspond to the image she has in her head of what a parent should be.
So will she do it? she asks at the end of the lunch. Will she actually kill them?
She’s talking about Medea. For an instant I see something in her eyes, a spark of childlike, innocent fear; and she is still, after all, a child. In some respects she always will be.
You’ll have to wait and see, I say.