Muriel Spark and Motherhood

Bloggers may have noticed that Simon and Harriet are organising Muriel Spark week, and I will certainly be joining in. Spark is another of those sharp and economical writers that I appreciate. Although a few years ago, I became interested in her for a different reason entirely, as a woman artist who had abandoned her child for the sake of her work.

She was by no means the only one to do such a thing. Doris Lessing left two children behind her, Colette sent her only daughter to the Normandy coast in the company of a harsh and loveless nanny (of whom she approved: Colette was strong on discipline for children), visiting her once every six months or so. Rebecca West was a half-hearted single mother at best, and Martha Gellhorn was a cold, critical mother who stashed her son in a boarding school, ashamed that he was weakly.

In our era of excessive attachment parenting, such behaviour cries out for harsh judgement. But times have changed significantly. Women are permitted careers nowadays, even if they have to be geniuses of organisation and energy to manage them alongside the demands of motherhood. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, it was hard for a woman to work for a living, and art was understood as requiring a passionate commitment. Furthermore, it was natural for parents of a certain class to send children to boarding school or to leave them with servants or extended family. But the situation was one that provoked my curiosity, because of the desperation and the determination it implied, the willingness of the mother concerned to fly in the face of cultural approbation.

Muriel Spark was hopeless at choosing men, and her first husband, Sidney ‘Ossie’ Spark (she called him SOS) was particularly appalling. They married in haste then set sail for Africa, where he had a teaching job; the marriage was soon in trouble, and when she became pregnant, he begged her to consider an abortion. A son, Robin, was born, but Sidney Spark suffered from mental illness and became violent. Muriel Spark left him and took the child too. She didn’t last long as a single parent. It was the middle of the war and she was desperate to return to England for a career, so she handed her four-year-old son over to some nuns and booked a passage on a warship. A year later, her estranged husband arrived in England with the child, but Spark was in no position, and indeed, no mood, to care for him. She gave him to her parents in Scotland to bring up, whilst she settled herself in London. The rift between the two of them never healed. In fact, after a visit to Scotland, in which she deplored her mother’s drinking, the cold, dirty house and her now grown-up son’s easy belief that she would fund him indefinitely, she moved to America and refused to give her relatives her new address.

I don’t think there is any way we can honestly rehabilitate Muriel Spark as a good mother. She wasn’t; and the way she lived her life, falling out with pretty much anyone and everyone she knew well, shows that she was an awkward, hostile sort of person. But in this arena, women are always judged far more harshly than men. It’s tempting to see Muriel Spark as the villain of this piece, and dismiss her sick, violent husband as if he had no significant responsibility in the matter.

But there are other truths beyond those of personality. There have never been many viable alternatives to a mother who would rather not bring up her child herself. It is extremely difficult for a woman who would be an artist to find the necessary mental and emotional space to create when children are small (Doris Lessing wrote ‘There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very young child’). And what we would countenance in a father, even to the point of admiration – a wholehearted devotion to his work – we condemn in a mother as inexcusable selfishness. Motherhood is the cherished ideal that feminism forgot. No ideological force has yet succeeded in loosening the chains that bind mother to child, or in offering alternative circumstances for child development that are accepted as equally good.

We allow mothers to be artists on the understanding that they will be marvellous, and simply exhaust their own inner resources by working late at night or in brief, interrupted sessions, reverting to their maternal devotions without resentment or regret. Is this fair? Is it even realistic? And what about women like Muriel Spark or Colette or Doris Lessing, who proved without a shadow of a doubt that they were nightmarish mothers, and whose children probably were better off without them. Can we hear their stories and believe their choices were good ones? It is a fascinating issue because we hit such an impasse. Ideals rub up against uncomfortable reality. Must there be no alternative for mothers other than to put their creativity on ice until their children have grown?

38 thoughts on “Muriel Spark and Motherhood

    • Lilian, I’ve been thinking about that. The angel of the house was more about controlling female sexuality than creating perfect mothers – that was just a happy byproduct. I ended up looking over the quotations I had about child rearing through the ages and put them in the next post. Attitudes certainly differed over time!

      • What struck me when I was doing research for The Singing Fire was how the idea of successful mothering changed by class. For the working class/poor in late 19th C London it was very concrete: your child surviving to adolescence was the definition of success. But for the middle class, it was preparing your child’s character for successful middle class achievement. So much more nebulous, and that seems to have spread, as things often do (like bathing), to the common ideal.

  1. I wonder why Spark decided to not have an abortion of that was really an option especially since it seems she didn’t want children. Women who are well off and artists seem to have it easier than women who have to earn money from their work but still it has never been fair for no matter how you look at it. It reminds me of the Judy Brady essay I Want a Wife. Don’t we all?

    • Stefanie – wouldn’t a wife be lovely? I think, though, that there is no bigger gap than the one between no children and children. It’s simply unimaginable. I expect Muriel Spark thought she wanted to have children, until she actually found out what it was like. Plus, I expect abortion was illegal and extremely dangerous back then, and an option only for the desperate.

  2. I’ve just been reading in the Guardian about Rachel Cusk’s new memoir on her divorce, and the roasting she’s receiving from many people about it – her crimes, it seems, include being a bad mother. Some of the questions she seems to be raising overlap with what you’re writing about here: your sentence ‘Motherhood is the cherished ideal that feminism forgot’ is particularly apt here.

    I liked this too: ‘We allow mothers to be artists on the understanding that they will be marvellous, and simply exhaust their own inner resources by working late at night or in brief, interrupted sessions, reverting to their maternal devotions without resentment or regret. Is this fair? Is it even realistic?’

    • Helen, I am waiting for that memoir to come and very impatient for it. I am SO curious. I get very tired of orthodox knee-jerk reactions from people who behave quite differently when it comes to their own affairs. It’s all too easy to judge, is what I think.

  3. Have you read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher? It takes on this idea, but from a somewhat different angle. The mother there is not an artist, but she’s wholly unsuited to staying home and nurturing children, although by all appearances she looks like a wonderful mother. It’s also interesting when it comes to what this double standard about proper parenting can do to men. The resolution is a little too simplistic and mostly just works as a fable, I think, but it had some interesting things to say about what good parenting really looks like.

    • Teresa, I have heard of that book but haven’t read it yet – I’d very much like to! And it strikes me as a brave and bold work from a woman writing all those decades ago. But people don’t change, really. There will always be women who would rather do other things than mother, and they are not monsters.

  4. How time has changed. And I’m so glad about it. I mean, of course, an artist must focus on her creative endeavour, and yet, a child is a human being, needing a mother’s love and nurture… so that she/he too can live and develop his full potential and creativity. For a woman, having had to choose between the two is probably one of the most tormenting of all dilemmas. But from your post, I’m just surprised that in the old days they could choose so readily.

    • I completely agree that for a woman having to make that impossible choice, it must indeed be torment. But we don’t help if we say that only mothers can look after their babies. It’s wonderful when mothering makes mothers happy and fulfilled women. It isn’t the case for everyone though, and surely a child would be better off in the (occasional) care of someone who enjoyed children than stuck with a mother hating her role?

      Parenting has changed so much over the centuries – I ended up putting together a collage of parenting quotations in the next post as I was intrigued myself to see how attitudes alter. I do think it was always a tough choice, though, so the ones who did choose art had to be determined and often almost excessive about it.

  5. Just as Stefanie posted I wondered at Spark’s decision to give birth. Why if she was just going to foist her child off on strangers at the first sign of difficulty (and opportunity?).

    Double standards seem to be all too common, but the deciding one that goes against women seems to be the willingness of women to readily condemn others of their gender. Women who stay at home with their children versus those who work and have their children at daycare are constantly at odds with stories of how each has it worse or does the more important thing. Overall, I think you summed it up best in this line: “Motherhood is the cherished ideal that feminism forgot.” Women don’t cheer on women too much anymore, support is replaced with judgment and criticism, all the while they have taken on (not all, just a generalization) the masculine things they felt denied them. The myth of equality meaning do and act the same seemed to be turned into hating those who chose differently. That narrowing of ideas means, to my way of thinking, a terrifying limitation of empathy and compassion.

    • Kimberley – I don’t expect she knew at that point that a child would be an obstruction to her own desires. And I think abortion was illegal then, so what was on offer was extremely dangerous to women. I think you make a really important point, though, about the conflict between working and non-working mothers. I saw enough of it when my son was small and it made me extremely uncomfortable. When we all know how hard mothering is, it does seem unfair to kick those who aren’t managing well with it.

    • Well, society does encourage us women to hate on each other and position ourselves in competition. Like anything else, it can be hard for us to resist when the whole world is screaming at us that this is how we should be, that there is a ‘right’ way to be a woman and we are generally doin it rong, so need to go on the defensive against those who are positioned as doin it right. And because hey, we’re women, every way is wrong, so every woman living in a certain way finds herself in opposition with another. I mean, it makes me really sad when women end up hating on each other and competing unhealthily instead of healthily, but I find it pretty hard to judge women for this, when the society is so vocal and hateful in the way it pushes us into competition (I mean unless someone is competing with me and then the red mist comes down, all critical thinking is off).

  6. Speaking to me loud and clear here, dear Litlove. In fact, it’s like you’re speaking directly to some of my own concerns and anxieties about the impossible juggling act between motherhood and the essential pursuit of one’s (utterly inescapable) vocation. That inescapability prevents me from wholesale condemning these women, because on one hand they were simply doing what they HAD to do. It’s a minefield, but the double-standard remains breathtaking and unchanged.

    • If it’s any consolation, it is a dilemma that women through the centuries have had to face, wholly unaided by their society. I never think it’s possible to condemn anyone under these circumstances. Usually poor mothers are themselves the products of poor mothering, and it’s hard to do better at a task that has not been downloaded under natural circumstances. There is no such thing as the perfect mother (and Winnicott suggested that it would be a disaster for a child to have one), so it is surely better to think about improving the infrastructure of support in the lives of children. I’m all for the phrase: it takes a village to raise a child.

  7. What a thought-provoking post–and especially so as I am just back from a nice dinner out with four friends and colleagues, all women, all mothers, and inevitably (as it seems) our conversation turned to our children and the challenge of balancing (that idealizing word!) our hopes and expectations and the demands on us as mothers with our equally demanding work lives. We do such a good job of judging ourselves to be bad mothers because of our occasional inability to handle everything it entails and satisfy our own aspirations as well–we hardly piling on from others. But that line from Lessing would certainly have resonated with everyone at the table. There is perhaps something especially difficult for people whose work is primarily intellectual about that boredom. And yet of course we love our children madly. The conflicts would be easier if we didn’t, I suppose!

    • I confess that bringing up my small son while doing my PhD was very hard work because it was so dull. I longed to find ways to play with my child but I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about stacking cups and flash cards. When you’re in that situation, you realise how hard it is to lie to children – it’s very difficult to pretend enjoyment that isn’t there, and must send some odd messages to the child, too. But yup, we adore our kids no less for finding them dull at times. You are spot on that the conflicts would be easier to handle if we did!

  8. Oh, and I meant to say–Muriel Spark week sounds like a great idea. I have gone shockingly long without ever reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

  9. Another perceptive post from you. My own mother wasn’t the best, although she wasn’t an artist, just too childish to handle 4 children in 5 years while isolated on a farm. I resented her for years and always thought I’d do better, but now in my 30s, my husband and I continue to debate whether we’ll even have children at all, because we both would rather be writing and reading than dealing with crying infants. Your comment that women must be “geniuses of organisation and energy to manage them alongside the demands of motherhood” is so apt. I am not either of those things at all and while I love playing with my niece and nephew whenever I can see them, I must admit, sometimes they do bore me. This is an ongoing debate I have with myself, can I be satisfied without children? Will I use my free time wisely in order to write when I can? Would I go crazy with a child or be able to handle it? Almost everyone I talk to about it says of course you can have children if you want to, but maybe it’s just biology driving me, along with cultural fantasies of them being so fulfilling for women, the ultimate satisfaction in life, even more important than adult relationships or a career!

    • Carolyn – it is such a hard decision, the one about deciding when or indeed if to have children. My feeling on the matter? You’ve got to really want them. It’s hard enough to do everything you have to do when you long for a child. Plus we all contribute to the world in our unique ways, so you don’t have to do what other people promise will be great. You can follow your own path. And it’s hard to give children the love and care that wasn’t given to us, however much we want to do that, it’s not easy. On the other hand, you may wake up one morning and just know that the time is right. I’m a big believer in nature showing us the way on these sorts of questions. Trust to the unfolding – it will all become clear.

  10. Very interesting post, Litlove. I find it selfish to have children and “bandon them” and don’t understand why they had them in the first place. On the other hand… One can make a mistake… That’s what these choices sound like to me but after having made the mistake, I think they should have considered adoption. Abortion was possible, I suppose, but a big deal at the time. It’s very hard to say and easy to judge… Not easy to go through.

    • Caroline – I completely agree with you there – it IS easy to say ‘she should have done x’ and to judge harshly, but these things are not easy to go through. We all make mistakes, and conception is one of the easiest to make! The better provision we have for childcare, the less likely that children will suffer because of their parent’s mistakes, and surely that’s something we should all see as positive?

  11. This is an excellent conversation starter, Litlove. And one that I’m very interested in seeing played-out from various angles – which is why I’ve been reading so much about it, I suppose. The Stephanie Staal book, Betty Friedan’s The Femine Mystique and a raft of others. Helen has written about the new Rachel Cusk memoir recently, and I’d like to read that as well. So much to think about…

    • Michelle – it is a perennially interesting question. I haven’t read betty Friedan of the books you mention there, and am waiting for Rachel Cusk’s memoir to arrive. I read her memoir about raising small children, though, and thought it was excellent, probably the best baby book I read (and at one time, I read a lot!).

  12. This post went straight to what feels like my greatest struggle now: how to raise two boys, ages 5 and 6, and still retain enough creative independence to write. Every tiny interaction with them leaves me with a cloud of dust in my head that takes an hour to settle. After they go to school, the house still stinks of “mother.” I don’t feel very brave on the page when I’ve spent the morning arguing about long sleeves or short.

    • Melissa – that truly IS a struggle. I can remember it myself, and I only had one child. The amount of mental energy that you have to plow into about a thousand tedious and yet essential chores, not to mention the fussing and the arguments and the worry, doesn’t leave much brain space left over. A couple more years and your sons will start to be a lot more independent, so it’s a question of hanging on in there in the meantime, I think. You have all my sympathy, and encouragement!

  13. Excellent post about a significant issue. I can certainly support the women’s choice especially in an era before birth control. When woman first began to enter professions in the early twentith century the assumption was that they had to choose family and career. By then a mother’s role had come to be considered more all-consuming then it had been earlier. Working class women had both jobs and children, but no one noticed, and middle-class mothers took jobs they could fit around their childern. It wasn’t until the feminist movement of the late twentieth movement that many of us started trying to have both. We discussed this issue a lot in the 1980s, looking for viable alternatives such as more reliance on extended families and communities. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
    Combing motherhood with a writing career got special attention with some suggesting that the way our societies pampers and isolates writers is a problem. Art needs to grow out of life and work, especially out of motherhood. I willl have to look for citations, but I remember Alice Walker’s essay “A writer because of, not spite of, her children” in Our Mother’s Gardens.

    • mdbrady – I am really fond of that quote, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and think there is a lot of truth in it. It seems to me to ask a great deal of one mother to have her sufficiently emotionally balanced and well-adjusted and patient and caring and attentive every day, day in day out to provide all the emotional nourishment and caring a child needs. Spreading it over several people is surely a good idea? Also extremely interesting what you say about writers. I will have to look out that Alice Walker essay myself.

  14. Wonderful post! It’s fascinating how, despite all the progress that’s been made towards gender equality, we still have ingrained attitudes about women’s roles. Men are praised for being workaholics, despite the effect that has on family life. We revere a male writer who is moody and obsessive and shuts himself up in his study 18 hours a day to grapple with his artistic demons. The abandoned wife and kids don’t get a second thought. But if a woman with a family were to do the same thing, we’d condemn her as irresponsible. We praise women who hold down a 9 to 5 job and also devote themselves to their kids and take care of their husband and grab some time for writing at 2am while they do the ironing with their free hand. But is that healthy or desirable?

    As you say, though, abandoning the kids is not a great alternative. I have an alternative, though, to putting the creativity on ice. How about finding a stay-at-home husband? Someone who appreciates your genius and will sacrifice himself as countless women over the years have sacrificed themselves for their husbands’ brilliant careers. Hmm, doesn’t sound very likely, does it? But the women who put their creativity on ice are making a huge sacrifice, as are the women who kill themselves trying to do everything at once, as are the women who abandon their kids or choose not to have them in the first place. Can’t men be asked to sacrifice for a change? Seems not. Even in 2012, sacrifice is still a role reserved for women, not men.

    • Andrew you put this beautifully, and I can only really say Bravo! Male sacrifice for domesticity is still not seen as a good or viable idea, although I do know some househusbands who seem to have done a really good job. But there’s not a lot of recognition for this, is there? And seeing the father at the school gate instead of the mother is still awkward and strange.

  15. A post reminding me how lucky I am to be living in an age where I don’t have to have children. I would be a terrible mother and I mean that in all honesty, not as some kind of self-depreciating comment. Long ago decided it would not be a good idea for me to procreate and happily the hormones oblige by never trying to trick me into thinking it might be an ok idea after all. So, I can empathise with people like Spark, because lord that could have been me in another life. What was the state of adoption systems when she was pregnant? Any route there?

    On the whole ‘motherhood left behind by feminism’ issue, I’ve been meaning to share this link with you for ages: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n24/jenny-turner/as-many-pairs-of-shoes-as-she-likes because of your studies into motherhood. I can’t say I agree with all of it (I’m sorry, quite happy to pay taxes to support better child care, or agitate for change that allows more balanced parenting, but I’m not going to be directly taking care of anyone elses kids even for the greater good). But it’s fascinating to think about the possiblities of a world that might reimagine working structures, social structures and provide support to allow everyone to have careers and close families.

  16. This post, and the comments, were really fascinating. I have a number of friends who are both mothers and artists, and it’s incredibly hard. One of them gets time for herself by entrusting her children to the tender and eminently appropriate care of her local Montessori geniuses; another has a husband who is quite literally like another mother to the kids. But their situations (the first’s financial resources, and the second’s emotional resources) are rare. One of the many, many reasons I didn’t have children myself was that I knew I was absolutely unsuited to co-parent in the way I would have felt to be fair … I have a strange moral imperative regarding parenting, in which except for simple biology, I can’t manage to divide it in my head into mother/father, as far as how I think it should work. I really feel that most of the time, the mother is called upon to be superhuman, and often at the expense of development and expansion of her inner world … attention to which, ironically, would benefit her children.

  17. There’s so much I could say on this subject. I hope an alternative will one day be found. I worked outside the home and had a career but I have definitely not reached the pinnacles I might have if I had not had a child. I found that the women seem to make these sacrifices and that men’s careers don’t seem to be affected by their having children. I know this is a generalization but this is what I have seen time and again.

  18. Well, I think you know my opinion and I can only recommend Nancy Huston’s book again, La Virevolte. It’s exactly about this and it gives a non-judgmental vision of the dilemna. How can you know beforehand that you’ll be a good mother?

    When a woman writer is a bad mother as well, people talk about it. When a man writer is a bad father, nobody cares or mentions it. Muriel Spark lived at a time when having both a career and a mother’s life was impossible. There is no ideal solution except sharing the responsibility with a spouse or having a great network of friends. I think that in the end, the problem isn’t to be or not a good mother, it’s at least to do as best you can.

    PS: in my opinion, if you wonder if you should have a child or not, don’t have one. (I mean a general ‘you’, not you in person) You’re not ready to face the sleepless nights, the caprices, the stomach flus, the afternoons lost because of naps, the inevitable chances lost in career, etc…It’s like not answering spontaneously to a marriage proposal. If there’s a doubt, then no doubt you shouldn’t do it.

    PPS: I read an interview of an Italian feminist a couple of days ago. Can you believe this? Under Berlusconi, the parliament voted a law that allows employers to require a blank resignation letter when they hire you. Guess what? 800 000 women have signed such a letter, and you imagine what happens when they get pregnant: they are resigned. How convenient.

  19. I didn’t know anything about Spark’s personal life–how interesting. Had she had an abortion and people knew about it, she would have been criticized in a different way–in any case she would be seen as selfish I suspect. Interesting (as always!) post and discussion. I’m looking forward to reading something by her and now will be thinking about her in a slightly different light.

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