Monday, August 10, 2009

Wherein Nomo Discusses a Book Without Reviewing It.

So, I finished reading Loving Frank for my book club meeting this week. I'm not going to review it save this: it was a good book, well-written, and I liked it.

Wow, I'm smart.

What I do want to talk about is the subject of the book. If you haven't read it, the basic premise is as follows: Mamah Cheney is a married woman with two small children. She and her husband, Edwin, hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home. She falls in love with Frank, and realizes that she not only loves someone else, she actually never loved her husband. She leaves him and joins Frank on a trip to Berlin. She asks her husband for a divorce, which he eventually grants. Cause: desertion. I won't say much more as not to ruin the (very shocking and unexpected) ending.

I actually finished the book last week, but I've been mulling it around in my head. Mr Earth is tired of talking about a book he hasn't read, so you, my lovely readers are the recipients of my thoughts.

I absolutely believe that if Mamah doesn't love her husband, and, in fact, never loved him, then she should have left him. I've never been a fan of the whole idea of "staying together for the sake of the children". While I respect the thought and love behind to the decision to stay together for the children, I think it does them a disservice in that they spend their childhood witnessing an unhappy and unhealthy relationship. As parents, Mamah and Edwin, should have made every effort to make the relationship work. But if they tried, and it still didn't work, everyone is happier separate, no matter how hard the initial shock of separation is for the children. So in that respect, she was absolutely in the right.

What I don't understand is how Mamah could leave her children behind FOR 2 YEARS while she gallivanted off to Europe to hang out with her lover and find her calling. Both are very important things, things that she had to do to regain her sense of self. But to do them at the expense of her relationship with her children...well, it made me think less of her. Yes, she had to be with Frank, who was overseas. Yet she could have stayed with him there and come back periodically. Yes, she had to find herself, and do her important work in the world - work that would have been hard to do with small children around - but she could have done it from a location closer to her children. It would make it harder, yes, as Europe was the epicentre of the new thinking, but as a parent - wasn't she obliged to stay? Wasn't she??

It's such a hard question, one I ask myself constantly. All people, mothers being no exception, need personal fulfillment. They can't just narrow their lives up to a point where they are "mom" and nobody else. It's a recipe for future disaster. As one of the characters in the book, Else, said "I was married to a doctor...I had fine china. Lovely rugs on the floor... One day, I woke up and thought, What have you done with your gifts? You've traded them for furniture." (pg 191) That quote really chilled me, because you can hear how easy it is to lose yourself in motherhood and forget selfhood.

But I still think that if you make the choice to have children - and nobody put a gun to Mamah's head, although in the early 1900's, I'm sure it wasn't really a choice - then you must necessarily be there for the children YOU CHOSE to have. They have a right to a mother, and you have an obligation to be there. She chose to further herself at the expense of her children. It's funny too, because she criticized her idol, feminist Ellen Key, for contradicting her own ideas and saying just that.

I'm just torn apart trying to figure out just exactly what I think of Mamah. I like her. I want to support her breaking the mold, going after her dreams, and seeking her happiness. I simply can't forgive her leaving her children to do so. Desertion is a cold word. An unforgivable word, where children are concerned. After a week of thinking about it, I still don't know whether or not I agree with the path she chose. (I know I don't have to. It's just a book. But I say a book is not worth reading if you're not invested in it. I like to put myself in the heroine's position and figure out a problem from her perspective.)

What do you think? Are you even following my muddled thought process...?


painted maypole said...

i only skimmed, because this is a book that is sitting on our shelf. maybe I'll read it. it sounds thought provoking at least. ;)

Mary G said...

It's a huge topic. For one thing, there is more than one way to desert your children; some mothers work enormous numbers of hours and can spend very little time with their kids.
I, personally, am on the stick with the kids side of the argument. I chose to have children and knew that I would be giving over years to their nurture. During the time they were with me full time I did bits of things to keep my sense of self. And once they were in school I picked up the threads and did part time work, gradually increasing as they grew older. They don't think they suffered as I ask their adult selves not.
What took my identity away and trammeled my life a lot was elder care. I felt I had no choice but to leave my job when my mother presented with serious dementia because my father could not cope and I was an only child. This trauma was followed by the responsibility for care for two childless aunts.
So that's my path. I now have more freedom, but I still feel obligated to my family and friends.
Thanks for laying this out so clearly; I wager that every answer you get will be different.

Bea said...

I read a post today on duty, and it's a very compelling word for these situations like these. A duty is something that really isn't optional. It's not one of several possible choices, and it may be quite personal: in my particular situation, I may have duties that you do not have in yours. The duty of mothers and fathers to their children is an absolute, and two-year trips to Europe simply are not.

Sandra said...

I wanted to hate her. I really wanted to hate her but the author made me sympathisize with her and her need to live the truth.

BUT I am with you - leave the marriage but not your children. And as the book unfolded it became more and more painful how much her abandoning them hurt them. It was selfish and she could have found another way in my opinion. She chose to have those kids and I believe she loved them too but TWO years?!?

I'd feel the same way if it were Edwin and not her.

Can't wait for the discussion about this on Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

i felt the same way reading it

kgirl said...

Really can't wait to talk about it at bookclub. You should see how many sticky notes I stuck in this one.

I hated them both at times; admired them both at times. Had to keep reminding myself that it was the turn of the (last) century.

Denguy said...

"While I respect the thought and love behind to the decision to stay together for the children, I think it does them a disservice in that they spend their childhood witnessing an unhappy and unhealthy relationship. As parents, Mamah and Edwin, should have made every effort to make the relationship work. But if they tried, and it still didn't work, everyone is happier separate, no matter how hard the initial shock of separation is for the children. So in that respect, she was absolutely in the right."

Fuckin' A!

Denguy said...

Also, my mother had five boys starting when she was 17. She always wanted to study philosophy and she waited until her youngest child was older--he was in high school, Grade 9--before she did. She finished university when she was 42.

She didn't have to abandon anyone.

NotSoSage said...

Oh, yeah, I think I'm with you on this one. As you know, I feel strongly about being able to follow your dream, even when you're a parent, but - I don't know, maybe it's because I can't even fathom the thought of leaving my daughter - not at the expense of the well-being of your kids...I don't believe that that well-being is dependent on having one parent at home full time or any number of other things, but I do think that leaving children behind for two years will have an impact on their sense of self. I wonder how the discussion's going to play out at your book club...

Haley-O said...

(SPOILER AHEAD) Maybe if things had turned out differently in the end - the tragic, horrible end - I'd feel differently. Because the kids were starting to bond with Mamah again, and she WAS making up for lost time. But, she complicated and HURT them so much in their short lives. If things had turned out differently, I'd forgive her as they would have. But the whole thing was a mess. I agree with EVERYTHING you said. I understand her choices and respect the philosophy behind them, but I am angry and frustrated by the selfishness where her children and sister were concerned. How COULD you gallivant across Europe and Japan KNOWING your children are lost and suffering without you, and your sister is sacrificing her own freedom for YOU. I just COULD NEVER. I understand it, but I don't like it. GREAT write-up, NOMO!

Mimi said...

Haven't read the book, but HAVE been thinking about this question, just last night, actually.

What I was thinking was this: no other mammal pursues self-growth after reproduction. The whole thrust of life in the animal kingdom is: grow to maturity and last long enough to reproduce and bring those offspring to maturity. Once a mammal reproduces, it's about the survival of the offspring.

I don't want to get all biologically determinist. I don't. Particularly since I'm not terribly interested in calling this the end of my own life, now that I'm raising my daughter. But oh how hard human life can be, with all the biological drive of simpler mammals to reproduce and to devote ourselves to our offspring and all the particularly, essentially human drive to know ourselves.

I guess what I want to emphasize is that the condition for this kind of tragedy underlies all of our parenting. It's a contradiction built into the thing itself.

Kyla said...

What Sage said. Yes, we deserve to follow our dreams, but I think we have to do so responsibly. Do I want to be a doctor? Yeah. Am I going for it even though it will be difficult? Yeah. But I'm still thinking of my children and family and ensuring they are part of this equation. They are NOT expendable, no matter what my dreams may be.

Beck said...

Mmm. I really think that unless you're completely miserable or there's abuse, you should TRY to stick it out. And if you've tried and failed, well, that happens and I don't know what any marriage but my own feels like on the inside, so I don't sit around throwing stones.
But divorce hurts kids unless it's really necessary and I've known a LOT of people who have said, cheerfully, that their children will be happy if they are happy which is a bit too... simplistic.
Do I get to still have my own dreams as an individual? Of course - but as a responsible individiual, my children's needs come before my happiness. It's hard, but that's life.
Interesting post!