What can I say about the writing of this book which isn’t already in the book itself? In this memoir, I was desperate to convey to the reader how a book is actually made, how the act of writing is also an act of reparation. I wanted to address the reader personally, to make him or her see the artifice of creation, the lie masquerading as truth. It was very freeing, even exhilarating, writing this book because it felt like my life outside the book, my actual life, was collapsing (my body was falling apart, my marriage; my children were still small, babies really, hardly sleeping, they were still young enough to need constant care, and I felt myself to be struggling for existence).
It seemed to me when I started writing that I wanted to be a kind of witness. I couldn’t find any books which told me what it felt like to be a mother, and it seemed to me that no book had been written which actually documented the struggle between being a responsible mother and being a fully cognizant, breathing human being. How did anyone manage to be both a mother and a person? Wasn’t motherhood about selflessness and my life up until this point about self-creation?
My struggle was simply the struggle writ large of every woman who has ever wanted to do something else as well as being a mother. Writing requires the whole of one’s emotional and intellectual attention, in a very intrusive way. Why had so many of the great women writers been childless? What was the cost, creatively, of choosing to have a child?
I wanted to document something of this struggle. I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, to the thousands and millions of stories of motherhood which had never been told. The only way I could do it was to tell my own story, in all its failures, so that my one small truth might represent something larger. I knew that I had to put everything in how exhausted, sleep deprived mothers, half-mad, raving, can wish foul things upon their own loved children. And how they never dare admit it out loud). I had to make a decision, very early on, about how much I was going to tell: I realized at once that unless I put as much truth in as I could, the book would be worthless.
Of course, now it’s done, everybody wants to know whether or not I feel as if my privacy has been invaded, whether I feel like the ancients did who felt like their spirits were being captured when someone took their photo. Well, yes, and no. I certainly don’t like it when people I hardly know assume they know everything about me. But I also feel that, paradoxically, A Better Woman presents a kind of false self, or at least a ‘public’ version of myself and that there is still a large uncharted internal landscape which has remained entirely private.
By this I mean that I knew exactly what I was doing when I was writing and the book was a very self-conscious, writerly act. In other words, I put in exactly what I wanted readers to know, and I feel there is a lot left out.
In a sense, too, the ‘I’ in the book was as much a creation as the ‘I’ of a novel. It is me, of course, but it is also only part of me, which is why I don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed or even ‘brave’ to have published it.
I feel a curious detachment from the ‘I’ in the book, which is perhaps the only way I could release it for publication. Everyone wants to know whether Les and I are back together (yes), how the boys are (Caspar is now five and started school in February, 2001 – the only thing I could get out of him was that his teacher, the gloriously named Ms Springfield, says she is “busting” to go to the toilet instead of “bursting” like Mummy says; Elliot is in four year old kinder, still fond of wrestling and telling me frequently, “Mummy, you’re rubbish, but you’re lovely”).
I have had a couple of hundred letters from readers since the book was first published in 1999, many of them not even mothers themselves, and the great majority of them unscathed by birth. At least half a dozen letters have come from women who have suffered birth traumas similar to mine and I have come to feel as if there is an invisible ring of hands around me, a chorus of women’s voices, all talking, at once.
This is the part where I am going to write about rage, about the terrible language of tears. This is the part where I am going to write about the fire which blazed up in our eyes without warning. One day I looked at Les and it was as if we had been scorched, burnt black by the flames. A weird, fierce hatred had been born within us, archaic, demonic. I was the siren woman who had lured him to the rocks, he was the demon lover bent on destroying me.
When Caspar screamed ceaselessly, intolerably, terribly into our ears we turned and screamed at each other. My quiet, gentle Les threw a chair against the wall and I burst into tears of helplessness, rage and exhaustion.
I read somewhere that the result of the arrival of a baby into a relationship can sometimes be like that of a hand grenade tossed in the door.
Caspar exploded in our faces, blowing up the known world.
This is how the body reacts when a baby keeps screaming and screaming: the heart of the mother begins to pound harder, thrashing about in its cage of bones, squirting out blood. The temples throb and the spit on your tongue and between your teeth dries up. Sweat springs up in the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, and every instinct in your body tells you to escape; but you cannot run. You will hear screams in the shower and in your dreams, you will hear screams through walls and through deepest sleep, you will hear screams through the very lining of your head. Your whole body will be one long scream and here is the rub: there is nothing you can do to stop it.
If you have already tried picking up the screaming baby, tried giving him the breast, tried rocking him in comfort, tried showing him his own screaming face in the mirror, tried putting him on the floor, tried putting him in his pram, tried everything in short that you can think of, your only chance is to close the door and leave the room at once.
Go out into the garden and take long, sloping strides so that your feet touch the earth and you remember again that you are a grown woman alive in a rented flat in Tennyson Street, Elwood, Melbourne, Australia, The World, The Universe, and that screaming, wailing, monstrous creature on the pillow inside is your very own infant son.
In Melbourne it was supposed to be spring, but the air and the sky still lingered in winter. We took out our jumpers and kept the heaters on and while Les went out to his new job I attempted to sniff out my new territory. But it was always Caspar’s sleep time or else once outside the front door he wouldn’t feed and we had to go straight home again. More often than not, I was simply too tired to get up from my chair.
I never seemed to get much further than the park at the end of the street once I did stand up, although sometimes I triumphed and managed to reach the giddy heights of the Acland Street shops. It felt as though some giant hand was pressing down hard upon my head, keeping me underwater. I was not just housebound, I was drowning in my own life and only through a great effort of will could I push the great hand off and make a rush for the surface.
Melbourne might just as well have been the lost city of Atlantis, so remote and inaccessible was it to me. I remember driving through its centre one night with Les, Caspar screaming in his capsule in the back, my breasts hard as rocks with unshed milk because he refused to feed from them. The city appeared like a film set, fairy lights twinkling in the trees, with grand, corporate buildings representing the public world of men. I saw a sophisticated man in an expensive suit come out of one of the buildings, and he looked sealed off, safe, remote as a distant planet from the reek and roar of earthly existence.
I thought: no wonder men are scared of us. We are all milk and guts and blood, the very jaws of life, a constant and bloody reminder of the beginning and, thus, the end.
One cold afternoon during the wolfing hour, that time of late afternoon and early evening when a baby’s sensory faculties get overloaded and he erupts like a screaming kettle, I wrapped Caspar in a rug and placed him against a pillow at the far end of the sofa.
I sat at the other end, watching him. I suppose I was waiting for him to open his mouth, but he surprised me by sitting silently where I had placed him. He looked strangely willing, so unprotected, so unwrapped sitting there, that I was shot through with a wrenching painful love.
All at once I had a shocking new awareness of Caspar as a separate human being, an emotionally sentient being with his own charter, his own needs and wants. After the intense concentration on his physical wellbeing – the constant nappy changes, the rocking to sleep, the bathing, the massages with baby oil, the rubbing of the crack behind his ears with sorbelene, the feeding, the feeding – I suddenly understood that he was also a creature of human emotions.
A feeling like embarrassment or shyness overcame me. It seemed to me that I was being introduced to a person I did not know, another person with a private interior world unavailable to my inspection. At that same moment Caspar’s personality seemed to arise from its baby fug and it struck me that the tiny human person sitting across from me might be described as peaceable, sensitive, reflective, self-possessed. He seemed to have a sense of humour too, to be friendly and interested in what was going on around him. In other words, he was a separate and complete other person with an entire human personality inside him.
Instantly I was flooded by a sense of my own inadequacies, that this new person would see them and unmask me as the fraudulent mother I was. I was suddenly convinced that I would be inadequate to the task ahead, of leading Caspar single-handedly into the waters of life, of being both his compass and his light. I did not feel honourable enough, or cut from the right moral cloth, and all my failings suddenly appeared too large.
It took all my courage to lean across the sofa and pick him up. ‘How do you do,’ I said, holding him up beneath the arms and speaking into his face. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr Webb.’
He looked back at me in all his perfection, still unmarked by the fingerprints of life, not yet ruined by a single mistake or regret. He was his own blank canvas and it was absolutely clear to me that it was not myself who was holding the brush.