Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kasey's metaphorical baby

Kasey Edwards is thirty something and going through an existential crisis. She no longer finds her career fulfilling and she is looking for something more meaningful to commit to.

What about motherhood and family? This is not something she would have committed to as a younger woman. She was brought up, in a liberal, feminist society, to believe that motherhood was an inferior option, a "character flaw" as she describes it.

Which explains this passage in Kasey's book:

On the last day of high school my teacher asked everyone in the class what we saw ourselves doing in ten to fifteen years' time. When she came around to me I said, "Married with kids and a stay-at-home mother." The teacher and the class burst into laughter and so did I. It was obvious to everyone I was just being a smartarse ...

Later, a classmate confessed to me that she did actually want to be 'just' a mother. She looked ashamed and I looked indignant.

Not a good platform from which to launch into motherhood. However, Kasey does appear to gradually change her attitude. After meeting a woman who is dismissive of mothers, she writes,

I am shocked and slightly outraged at Karen's low opinion of motherhood, which makes me realise just how much I've changed in the last few months. I am ashamed to admit this, but twelve months ago I would have agreed with Karen's view on motherhood - a cop-out from the workforce, the loss of identity and the betrayal of the sisterhood ... I used to think that a pram was a symbol of no ambition, no status and a bleak future.

On page 189 of her book there appears to be a breakthrough:

I get into the car and instead of telling him how much I missed him, I say, "I want to have a baby." The words just pop out of my mouth as if they bypassed my brain. "I don't know where that came from," I say. "I swear, I have no idea why I just said that."

Chris smiles at me ... "I'm not surprised ... You'd make a great mother."

I am surprised how touched I am by the compliment and my eyes fill with tears.

She has finlly given herself permission, in her early 30s, to think about having a baby. However, even this is only a hesitant beginning. She notes at the end of the conversation with her boyfriend,

We agree to talk about it again in a year.

This seems a surprisingly long time to delay given her age. She is not unaware of the problems of older motherhood:

We are told all our lives that we need to do everything else first - get an education, establish ourselves professionally, buy property - but by the time we've done all that, our biological clocks have ticked. The older I get, the more I witness the heartbreak of women around me who are unable to get pregnant. And the harsh reality in many cases is that they just left it too late.

I've lost count of how many women I know who are undergoing IVF, or have tried it without success.

So why doesn't she commit herself to motherhood while she can? Unfortunately, she is still too strongly influenced by liberal notions of autonomy:

I'm prepared to accept that having kids could be one answer to being thirty-something and over it, but I don't want to accept that it is the answer. It seems so stiflingly predetermined to think that it doesn't matter who we are or what we have done with our lives up until now, we all have to breed in the end.

Stiflingly predetermined to be a mother. She has bought into liberal autonomy theory in which motherhood is thought to be a predetermined, biological outcome - a "biological destiny" - rather than a uniquely created life outcome.

Kasey also now believes that careerism is a predetermined life course for her, so she is no longer willing to commit to that either. So what does she opt for?

She decides to work part-time while writing a book. Writing is to be her baby:

Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I like to think that my friend Godfrey's metaphorical baby [being a writer] is an adequate substitute for a real one. Surely a metaphorical baby can still meet the needs that Erikson talks about, such as devoting ourselves to, and caring for, something ...

I decide to think more seriously about how I can devote myself to and nurture a writing 'baby'.

She rejects an offer from her company to pay her for writing if she works under their banner:

I'm not prepared to surrender editorial control of the book ... It won't be my baby ... I realise that I need more than just an opportunity to write; I also need autonomy. I want to have freedom in my life to do my own thing. And two days of freedom and autonomy are more important to me than two days of income.

All of which serves as a reminder of just how difficult it has become for intelligent, conscientious, middle-class Western women to have children. The ideological barriers have been raised very high. If autonomy and a uniquely created life path are the highest goods for you, then children won't be a priority - even if you have grown tired of the corporate grind.

One final point before saying good-bye to Kasey Edwards. One thing that struck me reading her book was the individualism of the culture she inhabits. Her colleagues are all looking for something to commit to, and those who are disenchanted with corporate values seem to only look to options such as work with international aid organisations.

I'm not sure this problem would have been so significant in earlier times. In a less individualistic culture the ordinary work we did was tied to something larger than our own momentary satisfactions.

Kasey Edwards does seem to have a glimmer of this when discussing one particular colleague:

Jamie has a purpose for what he does each day - to provide for his family. That means that he doesn't need to get innate enjoyment out of every single task at work because the bigger purpose - his family - is what makes working worthwhile.

She might have extended this thought. If a man was to think not just in terms of himself, but also in terms of his tradition, then he would also be connecting his everyday work to perpetuating a much larger, enduring communal entity. And if he recognised over and beyond himself the existence of a masculine "good", then in meeting his work commitments he would be connecting his own masculine self to a larger purpose.

There is, similarly, more to motherhood than just a biological destiny. A woman's heritage - of family, ancestry and nation - is perpetuated when she has children and raises them to successful adulthood. A woman also expresses her feminine identity - and connects this identity to a larger virtue - through qualities such as maternal love.

In place of this Kasey Edwards suggests a "project". Her own project has come to fruition and her metaphorical baby - her book - has been born. It's an achievement, but one that seems thinner to me than producing a human life.


  1. I am genuinely saddened by this description of Kasey's outlook on life. I used to be a project manager and people often ask me if I miss doing an "important" job dealing with millions of dollars. My answer is a resounding NO and that the life of my daughter is priceless. None of my "career" achievements (which are considerable) can match the fulfilment I feel every time I look at her. And, having written a couple of books, I can also say that it doesn't compare to the experience of nurturing a life in my womb as I am right now, once more.

    It seems to me that Kasey is frightened of being a complete woman and accepting her biological capacity. Unless she's living like a nun (which I gather she isn't), she is deliberately sabotaging her natural ability to have children... even though she can see the heartbreak of women who end that sabotage too late. She is not only clutching at an illusion of freedom and autonomy, but determined to maintain control to an obsessive degree. This is notable when she speaks about her book as a baby - something she can control - as real babies tend to take control away from the mother, forcing them to cater to the baby's needs.

    I suppose the bottom line is that Kasey's metaphorical baby is entirely her creation under her full control; while a real baby is created along with a father, with the influence of countless ancestors and society around it, and is an individual with its own personality even in the womb. Kasey may hear her body telling her to have a baby, but what she wants is a narcissistic reflection of herself that panders to her ego and makes her feel important. But what job could be more important than nurturing a human life?!

  2. Old hat, a thought provoking comment, thanks. It's true that at a critical moment in the book, when Kasey is reflecting on whether to have a real baby or a book, she decides against the baby because it's a twenty year commitment which might go wrong and which she can't walk away from. This does seem to support the idea that she wants to stay in control and that a book better allows her to do this.

  3. Awwww... how cute...

    Just wait until the little baby book says it's first word!