Aftermath – Marriage and the Feminist

I have just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s most recent book which reflects on the breakup of her marriage.  This book caused quite a stir when it was published in early March – some critics felt it was too self-indulgent, others bemoaned the poor husband and children having their stories so publically aired.  I began to read it with great anticipation, however, largely because her previous ‘memoir’ on becoming a mother had been such a fascinating read because it was so bold in the sense that she had not pulled any punches about the reality of pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood.  But also, I couldn’t wait to read the book because I have been through (several) moments where I have wondered – would I be better off alone, without my partner – would I be ‘freer’ – to parent and manage the day-to-day as I wished, without compromise and sometimes ‘giving in’?

The first half of the book had me completely hooked – the questions she explored, the imagery she invoked when thinking about marriage and separation where brilliant.  The second half of the book did not keep my attention in the same way, I think I felt she started to experiment a little too much with the forms of writing she was using (becoming too literary perhaps for me – something I had felt about her fiction writing) and some ‘scenes’ did not leave me with a very clear idea about what point she was making.  However, I just want to share with you some of the key questions she has left me mulling over:

  • Rachel Cusk and her husband at some point after having their children decided to ‘reverse’ their roles – she became the breadwinner of the family while her husband stayed at home full-time with their two daughters.  She writes, ‘we were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes’.  My partner often wishes he could give up work and stay at home full-time – he is much more of a ‘homemaker’ than I am – but as for Rachel Cusk, I know such an arrangement would not work, for me at least; I don’t want to give up on my work or on the time that I have looking after my children during the week.  Is equality within families about a 50/50 split?  It depends on the couple and on the individuals in the relationship I think.  As my partner always argues – you can’t split every task and role down the line!
  • The generational transmission of gender roles and values is also something Rachel Cusk considers – although she did not follow her mother’s path, she did not comfortably embody the norms of her father either.  Following on from that train of thought – I wonder how my children will view and challenge the norms that their parents (i.e. me and their father) have embodied?  Are more and more children slowly experiencing various versions of greater sharing of income generation and caring responsibilities within families so there are more backcloths from which our children can forge their own future trajectories – which may be more equal?  I think fundamentally, Rachel Cusk’s book has made me think again, even more critically about what ‘equality’ in family life could look like?  While it can be something that a family unit negotiate, isn’t it something we need to further reflect on more collectively?  No matter what degree men begin to share responsibilities around childcare, housework etc., are their understandings of the experiences of women, the reasons we continue to fight for ‘equality’ shifting enough?
  • Throughout the reading of the first chapter in the book – I was left wondering – how are these ‘dilemmas’ lived out / managed by women who do not have children or are not in relationships?  Are they ‘freer’ to ‘choose’ (choose what?)?  Are children – both a joy but also the burden that keeps so many women in sometimes, in my view, a worryingly similar position to that of their mothers?

Finally… read the second chapter – as it wonderfully depicts the break-up of a relationship with a slowly developing tooth-ache which eventually requires ‘extraction’!

Claire Maxwell, GEA Executive Member

One thought on “Aftermath – Marriage and the Feminist

  1. Gosh, yes, Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath. It definitely raises some interesting questions.

    In the period before my own marriage broke up I thought a lot about the question of whether and to what extent it is possible to be a married feminist. This was partly in the context of my own marriage, which was pretty traditional in many ways: although I worked full-time for almost all of it I was largely responsible for the children, and was certainly the default carer if my husband was away (as he frequently was), worked unsocial hours (again, a regular occurrence), or simply had something better to do. So I did feel quite a lot of the time that I was passing on to my sons an example of marital arrangements that I didn’t really believe in, and I found this problematic, especially towards the end. On the other hand this made it much easier for me to remain the main carer for the children after we separated, which was definitely what I, and they, wanted.

    This seems to have been part of Rachel Cusk’s problem on separation, and one she articulated in her much criticised statement that the children were hers, and, by implication, hers alone. I think this part of the book has been misunderstood by her critics, possibly because most of the press extracts seem to have been so appallingly patched together that they don’t really make sense, and partly because this statement is such an easy stick with which to beat her, and, by association, other feminists. I think, though, that what she meant to say was that, despite the parental equality that supposedly comes with feminism (or does if one’s partner will co-operate), she still felt, when the chips were down, that the children were her children, that she wanted to be the main parent in their lives. And of course this is, on a rational level, hypocritical, but I think Cusk is simply trying to show us how, emotionally, this is what happens. However much one calls oneself a feminist, the idea that one’s children would mainly, or at least half the time, live with their other parent is amazingly hard to bear, and for many people it calls out the gut reaction she describes. I think that this is also the case for many men, and this is borne out by the research I’ve been doing around divorce. So in many ways Cusk’s reaction is neither feminist nor non-feminist, but just human.

    That said, one of the things I found puzzling about the book was that I could never quite work out what her husband’s role was in the family. She says quite explicitly that they swapped roles and he became the main carer for the children while she worked, but the last section of the book is told from the point of view of an au pair who appears to do most of the childcare for both of them, so it’s unclear whether he actually gave up work to be a full-time parent. If he had done so, it’s quite strange that he didn’t manage to maintain this position, particularly as what evidence there is about him in the book (and there’s not much) suggests that he would have wanted to. Usually in UK divorces, the person who has been the main carer for the children remains so, to give the children stability. So how did Cusk manage to reclaim that role, especially given, as she tells us, that her husband was a lawyer, who, as her solicitor informs her, knew what he was doing?

    Cusk’s book is very strange in places, but the chapter directly about the break-up of her relationship is beautifully written and searingly evocative. It manages to portray the dislocation produced by separation in ways that, for me, rang extremely true. There are so many things that are both small and enormous, such as the abandonment of the family dinner-table, the children’s crying, the emptiness when they are not there. Even after five years apart, when one of my own sons visits his father I shut his bedroom door at night so that I don’t feel the room’s yawning emptiness.

    I agree with Claire that Cusk’s book raises questions about what equality in family life might be like. However, in itself it doesn’t provide enough evidence to answer that even in terms of Cusk’s own relationship. Furthermore, Cusk herself doesn’t really do much exploration of these questions; as Claire says, for the second half of the book she seems to be exploring narrative form as much as anything else. Questions are raised, somewhat obliquely, in the first chapter, and then dropped, almost as if, however overtly honest, Cusk can’t actually bring herself to the openness required to answer them.

    There is research into some of this stuff, of course, much of which suggests that what passes for marital equality is a mutual accommodation in which each partner tells the story of their relationship in such a way as to make it feel equal. Deals are done, which may look incredibly unequal from outside, but which feel fair to those involved, at least until other things go wrong. In my own case, one of the problems was that I stopped believing my own narrative, which is why I started to ask how it was possible to be a married feminist – and, indeed, when I first began I was uneasily aware that it might not be possible to dwell long on these questions and stay married. Maybe it is easier to be a married feminist if your partner is a feminist too, or at least understands and supports the ideas – but that, too, is probably part of the overall relationship dynamic.

    I do think we need to carry on thinking about these issues. For me, dealing with my own marriage and its aftermath was one of the periods when the personal was, and is, most searingly political. Trying to be a married feminist in the midst of a fairly traditional marriage was hard and strange and frequently felt hypocritical. I kept it up as long as I could and, in fact, this mismatch between ideals and reality was not what finally divided us. I find this debate more psychically possible now than I did when I was married, but I don’t think I’m really any nearer a resolution.

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