“Here’s your glasses cloth,” I said, treading carefully. “I’ve washed it for you. Your glasses look so much better when they’re clean.”
That was it. In a last minute panic, he hit the roof.
“Shut up, you shit!” He stamped his foot as if he couldn’t stamp it hard enough. “What business is it of yours if my glasses are clean? Just stop interfering and get out of here!” And he threw the bag to the floor as I darted out the bathroom door.
If I’d been a newlywed, I’d have dissolved there and then. “My husband is leaving for a five-week work trip and he’s swearing at me in the bathroom!” But I’m not a newlywed. I’ve been with my husband long enough to know that however much he hates me telling him to clean his glasses, we’re married in a way that survives sudden flare ups in the bathroom. I have no guarantee that we won’t break up in time, but it won’t be over an optical cleaning cloth.
We knew when we moved from Melbourne to London, and then on to Hobart, that John would have to travel for work. We knew this wasn’t perfect, neither for the planet nor our children. A good friend stuck her neck out, having paid dearly for a marriage based on distance, to say that we were making a big mistake. However, every marriage is different, and I felt confident that ours would last. I’d taken various risks across my life – and this was one of them.
In the first few years living in Hobart, John traveled to Melbourne for a couple of nights most weeks. He’d arrive home tired, slightly hung over, and glad to be back. But after a year or two his teaching load shrank and his trips became fortnightly, and more recently monthly. Then he went global. His work trips were international rather than interstate. His sights both shrank and expanded. He stopped humoring me that he liked bushwalking, or making Sunday a family day, at the same time that the postman delivered boxes of his books to the door, translated into Portuguese, Turkish and South Korean. He worked long hours in his wooden temple in the bottom of the garden, hating to be disturbed. ‘This is my office,’ his look would tell me, all the while forcing himself to be mild-mannered. His daily to-do list, faithfully ticked off with his fountain pen, lengthened. Towards the end of March this year he started muttering something about a three-week trip. The next I heard it had mushroomed into four weeks, and then – disregarding our daughter’s warning about trying to do too much – five.
When John first floated the idea of five weeks apart I felt sure that it was too long. Wouldn’t our relationship start to fade, sour – or quietly unravel? I imagined the worst. Especially once it became clear that his five-week trip would be bookended with a week either side to prepare and recover. If, I asked myself, he could manage for that long on his own, would he ever want to return? And assuming he did come home, wouldn’t he secretly prefer to be sailing the seven seas, building up his reputation and eating out as a matter of course? More to the point, wouldn’t our marriage be in tatters by his return, reduced to rushed email exchanges about utility bills and our son’s refusal to submit homework?
But I was catastrophizing and I knew it. Our marriage, though far from perfect, had the odd crack. But it had endured so far. And I had no reason to think that this occasion would be different. Besides, I had little time to fret. I was extremely busy with my own work and our children had become demanding in adolescence. Even more importantly, I had no desire to hold John back from what looked like his next step.
A week before John’s departure I burst into tears in our bedroom. (So much for my maturity, I thought to myself afterwards.) He, I spluttered, would be attending a spring conference in a castle in the middle of a Swedish forest. I would be toilet training a puppy, raking autumn leaves, hovering over our son as he resisted homework, and cooking hearty meals. He would be walking to work along canals in Amsterdam, while I would be changing the vacuum cleaner bag in South Hobart. How, I cried through salty tears, could I not envy him? What, I spluttered, if he decided not to come back at all?
“Don’t be ridiculous,” John said, standing by the door. He was quiet, torn between hearing me out and attending to an urgent email on his phone. He didn’t try to console me. He didn’t say, “I wish you were coming too.” (Actually he had voiced this longing when his trip was first floated, but not now that his itinerary was full to bursting.) Even so he wasn’t without sympathy. And he could easily have walked out of the room.
He, I felt, accepted the way things were. In his mind we had made a choice. We were living the life we wanted to live, with two wonderful children in a house that we both adored. A life that, sadly, didn’t extend to shared business trips. However I might feel at that moment – face down on my pillow, wet with tears – our life together was finally coming together.
Three minutes passed, nothing much more was said, and John left the room. Knowing that as soon as I got off the bed housekeeping would claim me, I stayed on the bed. For some reason the house was quiet. The wind picked up, causing branches to dance across the window, one tapping on our thin pane as if asking to be let in.
Why have I always been beguiled by the idea that life is elsewhere? Perhaps that’s what I felt at that moment, caught unawares, unprepared for the strongly rooted present that I found myself in. It was what my husband seemed so adept at defying. I had spent so much of my youth refusing to embrace a feminine future, refusing to accept that a man’s and a woman’s future might be in any way different. Year upon year of refusing to conceive of a home-based role as creative, substantial, and chosen – as anything more than second best.
To be fair, nothing in my education or surrounding milieu had led me to aspire to a life with children in the middle of it. Just like every young woman I knew, I was keen to pursue a career, not a family. Having a family, if I ever got round to having one – and a question mark hung over this – would complement my life. It never occurred to me that it could ever become my life, much less that I might fall into traditional gender roles with a husband who eschewed housekeeping and traveled for work.
Instead, leaving my childhood and family behind in Adelaide, I set out to see the world. And yet, all the while that I was caught up in my competitive London life, there was something that I failed to notice. I failed to notice that the times when I was most truly satisfied weren’t when I was striving for things in the world (a PhD, a lectureship, travel, a book), but when I was absorbed in doing things at home that left me feeling whole (cooking, drawing, writing, walking, and babysitting two special children).
By the time the possibility of having a child came on to my radar, seven years into my relationship with John, it was in the same vein as toying with applying for a new job, or starting a second book. I had no sense that having a family might change me at a level deeper than any job or book could go. And that I may well not recognize myself at the end of that journey. Instead I gave myself five – at most ten – years of intense involvement with family. After that, I told myself, I’d be free to take up my independent life pretty well where I’d left it off.
However, my calculations were skewed or just wishful. Because my journey with family, with the people I love most in the world, is on course to last twenty years – a full decade longer than the measly ten I once earmarked for it.
Before we had children, I’d already accepted John’s view that life is unfair – that the meek won’t inherit the earth, and that tax laws will never be reformed in the ways Karl Marx suggested. Similarly I knew that John and I wouldn’t be dividing childcare duties straight down the middle. I knew that he felt his strengths lay elsewhere. Though his commitment to family would be total, I knew this would never translate into any sort of roster. He’d already made it clear that the life of a public intellectual would be difficult enough for him, without trailing a petulant wife. And not because he was an arrogant chauvinist, but because he was both ambitious and insecure.
In some ways, John was difficult to live with when our children were small. He dropped dirty socks, lost interest in cooking, and regularly left our bed unmade. But in another sense he was very good to live with. For all his domestic neglect, he empathized with my experience in a way that many of my friends looked for in vain in their partners. He persuaded me that being true to my beliefs about looking after our two children would strengthen me. He helped me to feel that, despite my devotion to them being all consuming, in years to come this intensity would lift – at which point I wouldn’t regret my investment in them.
John keeps a photo of me, taken twenty-five years ago, on his study mantelpiece. I’ve never asked how he feels about it; I’m pretty sure neither of us have ever mentioned it. It’s just there, leaning against the wall, occasionally in need of a dust. It isn’t framed, it’s not wildly flattering, and yet it’s very much the way he sees me. Honest, unflinching, with my dark brown eyes and squareish face. If you look hard at the photo John is in the background, looking over at me in the shadows. Blue-grey eyes, round horn-rimmed glasses and thick brown hair over his twenty-something face. Sometimes when I’m cleaning his study I can hardly bear to look at it, perhaps for fear that we’re no longer those people. And yet, of course, we are. Age is yet to weary us. And I find this comforting.
The flip side of the coin, which I think explains a lot, is that the day my first child was born I became intensely domestic. I discovered that I really did care about the quality of our home life. It wasn’t just that I’d been thrown into it. Starting a family realized a potential in me that had been there all along. Like coming out of the closet, I could finally be open about what I’d loved all along. It may sound like a line from a magazine, but I took real pleasure in closing the curtains at the end of the day and expanding into our little world.
I slowly realized that what, in my younger days, had looked from the outside like settling for less, wasn’t that at all. There was a power in the domestic that, in my ambivalence about its value, I’d been blind to. But now that I was in it – now that I was making my own bread and curtains – I was experiencing domesticity first hand. It turned out to be more satisfying than I’d ever have expected. Not totally satisfying – what would that be? – but truly satisfying.
Above all I wanted our home life to be meaningful – and not just warm and attractive. I wanted it to have a rhythm, depth – and even a quiet splendor. And I also wanted to open it to others, to be genuinely hospitable. Yes, I moaned about the work involved in realizing this vision – especially at 6pm when friends are expected for dinner – but at a deep level, I’ve always felt that it was worth it.
And then it happened. I can’t remember when it was, but I gave up trying to change my husband. As if overnight, I stopped nagging. I stopped expecting John to share the domestic load and just accepted him as he was. I gave up my hope that he’d suddenly turn round and start helping in the kitchen. I finally twigged that he’d only ever do the washing up if I didn’t ask him to. I accepted the differences between us that family life had so rudely unearthed. After that, everything was much easier, simply because I’d stopped nagging. I was a lot nicer, and he was a whole lot nicer back.
Had I backed down? Perhaps. Certainly I was tired of a cycle of bickering that went nowhere. Besides, I hadn’t stopped loving him, which meant that separation wasn’t an option. Nor did I believe that being married to anyone else would necessarily be easier. Knowing me, I’d probably just encounter different problems with someone else. In any case, the devil I knew was the man I loved.
Our arrangement wasn’t ideal, but in the main it worked. This is something of what I’m trying to convey here. When you start a family with someone, you have to find ways of looking after your children that chimes with what you and your partner are actually like. You have to find ways of living together that fits with what you’re both like as individuals. This, in my experience, goes deeper than money, career and worldly values. Having a family, in my life, has been a daily lesson in what John and I have been able to bear.
Being a wife and mother for a good many years has softened me. These days I care much less about winning arguments than was once the case. Without wanting to sound flip, I’m more interested in being happy than in being right. I’ve learned that finding patience within myself is better – it has a better outcome – than pointing the finger. Overall I’m more interested in understanding the people I love than in judging them. Judging John was easy. I could do that in a snap. Understanding him was harder, took longer, and involved leaving righteousness behind.
Years ago, in my first book, I wrote about Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness. It’s a story that opens with the heroine Masha, a naïve girl, and ends with her married and with a son, recovering from a failed love affair. Masha’s husband is considerably older, and Tolstoy makes much of the differences between them. Masha is drawn to the bright lights of the city, tantalized by the sense that life is elsewhere. Sergei, by contrast, finds contentment in the beauty of the country, the demands of farm life, and the emotional ties of home.
After a few years of marriage their love remains strong. However they both recognize that they’re more taken up by their life together, than by each other. There is less passion between them than when they enjoyed long afternoons courting in the estate’s walled orchard. Keen for this intensity to return, Masha can’t bear that it doesn’t. Even more, she hates that Sergei doesn’t mind its passing. Instead he accepts that their feelings have changed, and urges her to accept it. But she can’t.
Towards the end of the story, everyone goes out for a walk, leaving Masha alone in her childhood home. She is assailed by memories and, with them, her girlhood ambitions. But then her memory falters and, as dusk falls, stops altogether. Masha is left feeling that her life, minus her girlhood hopes, isn’t worth living. How, she asks herself, can she go on loving a husband who no longer wants to be the center of her existence? How can she be proud of their life in the country, given that she has slipped and fallen?
Dark clouds gather. Masha sits down and plays a sonata, which forces her to stop thinking about herself. Halfway through the piece her fingers slip from the keys and she again imagines her future as a blank, as a nothing. A few minutes later she takes up the sonata – stops wishing for an audience – and plays it right through.
During the final bars Sergei appears at the door. Clouds break, lightning flashes, and they enter into a long painful conversation on the veranda. As Masha berates Sergei for letting her follow her whims, for allowing her to betray him, big drops of rain fall. He admits that he’d let her be tempted by another out of his own hurt, because she’d dismissed his love as less passionate, albeit deeper, than before.
When there seems nothing more to say, they fall silent. Then, one by one, the rest of the family comes in, wet, for tea. Masha’s baby is brought in by a servant and put into her arms. She takes up her son, looks into his eyes, and sees in them his need for her, and her love for him. She also sees, thanks to her husband’s sincerity, the woman she wants to be. With this she’s able to let go of the past and embrace her life in the country. (It’s a novella, after all).
When I first read this story, for my PhD in my late twenties, I was convinced that Tolstoy’s ending was melancholy. Masha was putting a bright face on a tragic marriage. She was making the best of things. At that point in my life I had no inkling of the changes that family life might have in store for me. I instinctively identified with Masha’s girlhood longings, rather than the kind of maturity that marriage often demands.
However, now that two decades have passed since I first read Family Happiness, I read it in another light. I still experience Masha as vulnerable and brave. But brave for being honest, rather than brave in her melancholy. Brave for recognizing that her heart has changed, and that loving her family, and their life in the country, is the happy ending she seeks. And finally, brave for being able to accept change with an open heart, knowing that settling isn’t the same as submission, and is not at all the beginning of the end.
For all our wrangles, what saved John and me, as a middle-class couple with children, chimes with the unfolding of Tolstoy’s novella. Ultimately we were able to stay together not because romantic love pulled us through when times were tough. Because it didn’t. What pulled us through – and we may still break down – wasn’t some amazing insight or self-knowledge. Rather, it is our continued willingness to endure each other. Somehow we’ve found it in ourselves to love each other as the individuals we’re striving to be, even when we feel cross with each other for the parents we’ve become. If we hadn’t been able to make this distinction, I expect we’d have given up long ago.
Over the years John and I have let each other down. He’d have dearly liked for me to wear a Chanel suit and to do fancy things in the bedroom. I’d have dearly liked for him to take over the household accounts and to show more interest in the kitchen. But even without these things, we both accept that life is complex, and that love is a very long journey. As much as we may fantasize about a partner who complements our vision of the good life, we know that demanding this of each other is futile. Equally, we both accept that any solution premised on changing each other’s personality – “if only you were different” – is doomed.
But despite all this, we’ve managed to believe in each other – even when we’ve had doubts about ourselves. I’ve believed in John’s work, even when he hasn’t. And he’s believed in my determination to keep our family buoyant, even though this has meant putting up with me throwing myself on our bed, before he leaves on a long flight, and wondering whether it’s all worth it. John and I still love each other. Under pressure we don’t show it, and sadly we’re often under pressure. However we both know it’s still there. In the middle of the night, the hand still slips on to thigh.
In my experience, family life has been infused at a deep level with two distinct feelings –love and panic. Firstly and most importantly, a well of love that never runs dry. But also a subterranean panic that is never far from the surface. For John, this is expressed in his fear that domestic life will waste his intellectual promise, leaving him bleached and sixty on some windswept Australian beach. For me, it’s present in my ever-present fear that family life and worldly success are somehow exclusive. Having been at the heart of family life for sixteen years, I now understand how easily a couple’s rolling-boil quarrels can spoil their golden intentions of youth. I completely understand why so many good families end in tears and court. Because it takes enormous courage – plus grace, and quite possibly good fortune – to transcend the resentments of long relationships, and to see one’s partner in a rounded way beneath.
Life is more difficult than I ever imagined when I was young. It’s perhaps this realization that separates my younger self from my mature self. Having a family has brought home to me that some problems, possibly the most important ones, don’t have answers. Except to live graciously without them. We may disagree on other fundamentals, but John and I both agree on this.
As it turned out, life didn’t stop when John left Hobart for Europe. Alex and Emma have missed him a lot and yet have hardly missed him at all. From their near-daily emails to him, short jolly replies have bounced back. Our new puppy has kept Emma busy, focused and buoyant. Yes, she’s missed John reading to her at night. And Alex has missed John’s input with math homework. And other things, too. However they both accept that their lives are full even without John in them. Yesterday, Alex fell off his bike at the traffic light in the rain, and the world didn’t come to an end because I couldn’t contact John.
And me? Without wanting to boast, I’ve enjoyed having over a month off from marriage. It’s been revealing, in a good way, to experience my life without my husband in the middle of it. Is this disloyal? I don’t think so. I’m almost certain that he feels the same. Marriage and family life do such weird things to my personality, that it’s been a relief to step back and to focus on myself for a while. Yes, it’s been lonely at times, but not nearly as lonely as feeling disconnected to a husband who is in the next room watching a film that you don’t want to watch.
In my psychoanalytic days, which in some ways prepared me for the trench warfare that family life can occasionally descend into, I was drawn to the title of book by Edmund Bergler called The Unhappy Undivorced. My interest, back then, bordered on anthropological. It didn’t occur to me that the stories that fleshed out this book could ever be mine. I would never sit silent in a restaurant, opposite my long-time husband, aching to speak over the invisible wall that daily life had built up brick by brick and that there never seemed enough time to take down. I would never collapse into talking about our children, all other topics seemingly out of bounds. But of course there are times when this is my marriage – whether or not my husband travels. Sometimes life is just too darned difficult for us to feel interested in each other in the light, seamless and curious way that true intimacy assumes.
When I was younger, I had no premonition of how strategic my experience of love might one day be. What, you may ask, might I need to be strategic about? Here’s my quick list. How to foster my husband’s ambition – his sacred fount – while making sure not to extinguish my own. How to start letting my son – who has fallen in love with crewing on tall ships – go, without telling him in no uncertain terms that he’s too young to leave St. Petersburg to fight against Napoleon. How to stay tuned to my daughter, without overly identifying with the loss of her brother’s company and the preoccupied air of her father. How to make my family’s rumpled beds and not feel demeaned by doing so, knowing how much a loving and attractive home matters to me and without being put off by the ‘life’s too busy to dust’ lobby. Finally and perhaps most importantly, how to come to terms with my dawning awareness that half of the work of bringing up my children involves letting them let me go. One day, not so terribly far away, they too will travel.
When I was younger, I just assumed that personal conflicts could be resolved, that my early hopes would translate into reality, and that on reaching maturity my life would come together in a fluent and composed way. Without being totally naïve, this is how I imagined my life would pan out. Perhaps I’d read too much nineteenth-century fiction, but I really did think this. These days, my hopes are less lofty. But then again, these days the experience of family love is real to me. It sits beneath everything I do, like the prickle of horsehair with which old leather sofas were stuffed.