Slow-motion hysteria

Nine comic tales of motherhood, the oldest profession of all.

Nov 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

Dorrie, a harried yet highly effective stay-at-home mother of three young children, is peeling carrots in the title story of Getting a Life, a powerfully funny collection (set in and around London) that renders the conflicting pulls of motherhood and self-expression. Her oldest son, Martin, who has just started school, says, “I’m not eating those carrots. No way.”

“Carrots are very good for you,” says Dorrie. “And tomorrow I’m going to pack some carrot sticks in your lunch box and I want you to eat them.”

“Hey yea right,” gabbles Martin. “Hey yea right get a life!”

For the most part, the characters in Getting a Life are women trying to squeeze some life out of existences ruled by jobs, mortgages, and caring for young children and husbands. One exception is Jade, a teenager fresh out of school for the summer (in the opening story, “Golden Apples”), who vaguely imagines the fabulous life she will have by definitely identifying the life she won’t.

Her own mother, Nicola, a high-powered career woman and mother of four, is not her role model: “She would never be like her mother, making timetables and lists and endless arrangements, lost forever in a forest of twitching detail with her tense talk of juggling and her self-importance about her precious job and her joyless ‘running of the family.’ No, life was not some sort of military campaign; or, at least, hers would not be.”

Nor can she ever imagine herself to be like the neighbor she meets on the street with one small child screaming in her blue Volvo, the other on the sidewalk, having “stuck a lentil” up her nose. The mother, waving a pair of tweezers, enlists Jade’s help. Jade “… stared crossly at this overweight figure ahead of her, ludicrously top-heavy in its bulky stained sweatshirt and sagging leggings … her hyper-aesthetic teenage eyes observed the mother’s ragged cuticles, the graceless way her heels stuck out from the backs of her sandals like hunks of Parmesan, and the eyes which had dwindled to dull pinheads.”

True, these different mothers — one driven professionally, the other consumed by the needs of her children — represent two extremes. Yet, after reading Simpson’s stories, we see that Jade’s expectations (“She was never going to go dead inside … she would make sure she was in charge at any work she did and not let it run her”) seem as hopelessly romantic — and in need of a reality dose — as if she were idly waiting for a knight in shining armor.

In “Café Society,” Sally, a former research student whose youngest son never sleeps through the night, has “a drinker’s face, but her lusterless gray skin and saurian eye come not from alcohol but from profound lack of sleep.”

Simpson’s meditations on motherhood soldier on in a vein established by fine and varied contemporary British novelists: A.S. Byatt has one of her heroines, a former aspiring Wordsworth scholar turned homemaker and clergyman’s wife, crushed and electrocuted by the family’s toppled-over refrigerator. In Margaret Drabble’s early novels, heroines tethered to beds, nurseries and kitchens find that birthing and caring for children requires a sort of surrender, what she has called a “warm sense of defeat.” Drabble’s characters garner inspiration from their children to earn an income and cultivate self-respect by making wry insights, finishing a thesis or writing a book of poems. But the nine stories in Getting a Life are set in a different cultural and economic climate.

Simpson captures a world in which conspicuous productivity (income, professional stature, fitness) has replaced conspicuous consumption as a trusted, esteemed social value. Work does not mean the occasionally penned review or essay or a half-day office job, but “a 10-hour day at a full hour’s commuting distance from their babies.” And taking children on a picnic at the beach now necessitates several serious side jobs: Slather them with sun block, direct them “not to roll down the grassy slope because of pesticide” and drill in an awareness that “the sea is full of viruses.”

Fathers lurk at the rim of families to varying degrees. Nicola and her husband Charlie have equally demanding jobs, but it is tacitly expected that she be the one to schedule sitters, lessons, appointments, vacations. Dorrie’s husband, Max, is put off by the physical and emotional closeness she shares with their children, and is not around enough to witness her skills at disentangling fights, cooking healthy foods, playing games. When the two go out for an anniversary dinner, he reflects “wrathfully” that his wife “was starting to get a double chin … Here he was on his wedding anniversary, sitting next to a fat woman.”

Both Dorrie and Nicola are expert at their jobs; both pay a price for their decisions. Dorrie, “patient but intensely bored,” works hard to satisfy her children’s “seamless cycle of nourishment and devourment.” Capable as she is, she receives no social or romantic reward. “Once she’d stopped bringing in money she knew she’d lost her right to object.”

Nicola’s triple type-A personality fits in with the calibrations of the culture Simpson so acutely presents. Nicola, cut out to function in perpetual overdrive (“Stress! … The danger was, you got too good at it”), earns a high salary and is rewarded, at least, with a certain, proud autonomy and social respect.

In “Café Society,” Frances, a mother of three who finally decides, after a string of incompetent nannies, to freelance (“no sick pay, paid holiday, pension”), considers that there must be mothers, “extraordinary women, heroines, in fact,” who can seamlessly have “it all.” She, not counting herself among them, wonders, “But what about the strugglers? The ordinary mother strugglers?”

Lynn Crawford writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].