by Tomoé Hill
We have a joke, he and I: the feet. They belong to me—or rather, they are mine, but also exist as sentient, mischievous creatures of their own. There is a photo of me as a very small child, barely one years old. My father is lying on a flower-patterned sofa, face obscured by a book, and I am sitting on his legs, leaning against one of the cushions. My thumb is in my mouth, and a hand idly between my legs. I look blankly content in the way children do at that age, happy to exist and take in their immediate world. My feet are bare and slightly curled, up to no good, as he would say. We have since endowed my feet with a life of their own. Their childish wickedness is blamed when bleary-eyed, I emerge from the bedroom in search of coffee, my silent step nearly frightening the life out of him when he turns round from whatever he is doing to see me standing there, toes curling in glee at their reception, at odds with the rest of my lack of consciousness. Feet represent intuition: fight or flight, standing one’s ground, going feet first into something.
As humans, we have a saying when someone is expecting a child: the pitter-patter of little feet. All the expectations of a little life are bound up in these words. Curiosity, agency, joy, and obedience. Little feet grow up to be big and go out into the world. I remember another photo in which I am even younger: in it I am toddling in one of those walking strollers, dressed in a yellow one-piece with covered feet. On my head, my father’s comically big fur hat. In the background he is sitting against a wall of their first apartment, talking on the telephone to someone and smiling at me as I gesticulate at what I assume is my mother behind the camera. A lot of my childhood can be reduced to a Perec-esque I Remember recitation of memories of feet: plucking at my newborn sister’s as she waved them around; kicking my kindergarten teacher’s knee to prove to a scared classmate on Halloween that it was only her in a witch’s costume and not a real one; surreptitiously trying on my mother’s strappy tan leather heeled sandals, which she almost never wore; how we used to drag our feet on the pavement in to slow down our bikes; barefoot in the backyard summer grass watching ants walk across my toes; each its own observation of the world.
Last year in The Guardian there was an interview with the writer Lucy Ellmann. This became immediately controversial for her thoughts on having and raising children, which included thanking the interviewer, who had disclosed her own decision to not have children. While places like American Vogue celebrated her forthrightness and honesty as a woman in speaking on the subjects, I watched on Twitter as she was denounced as not a feminist, but somehow both a traitor to her gender and mothers. This, in particular, seemed to invoke the most wrath:
‘People don’t talk enough about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive and thankless parenthood is. Why must we keep pretending it’s a joy? Sure, there are delightful elements: children are endearing and fascinating, and if you have some, you get to play with toys again and read children’s books and remember your childhood. But illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents.
You watch people get pregnant and know they’ll be emotionally and intellectually absent for 20 years. Thought, knowledge, adult conversation and vital political action are all put on hold while this needless perpetuation of the species is prioritised. Having babies is a strong impulse, a forgivable one, but it’s also just a habit, a tradition, like weddings or putting butter on popcorn.’
Reading that last line, there is no doubt Ellmann (who is a mother) is a provocateur—whether this is for the purpose of promotion, or if she is like this in her private life as well is irrelevant to me. I don’t agree with everything she said, but I understand the logic in its essence. In this age it seems de rigeur to say something polemic in the media in order to draw attention to oneself, even if the thing one says is essentially banal, and so often the task in reading such things is to sort through a certain degree of noise. But as I watched people at fever pitch, making assumptions not just of her but of anyone who disagreed with them, dismissing them as the enemy, I thought again of feet—my reasons for never having had children, and if I was a traitor to my gender, too.
In The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, the essay ‘Worn-Out Shoes’ touches upon the two lives she leads: one, where she lives with a friend in Rome—it is not clear if she is working or writing or both—while her sons are living with and being raised by her mother elsewhere. Whoever she is with this friend is a separate Natalia to the one that is a mother: ‘… soon I shall leave and return to my mother and children … I shall become serious and motherly, as always happens when I am with them, a different person from the one I am now—a person my friend does not know at all.’ This was written post-war, but it struck me how little some things change in essence; most of all, that discontent and the desires of the self are expected to be kept separate from child-rearing, that its labour must be glorified and saint-like in its narrative. Ellmann aside, every so often we see examples captured on the internet of anonymous parents in despair: overwhelmed by parenting, in fear that an identity outside of their children is a past self, never again to be met; in fear that they will be ostracised as parents, women, humans. If the last seems melodramatic, consider how easily women are dismissed in the patriarchy. When a woman loses, does not have, or has never known a particular kind of female solidarity, there is nowhere else to go. She may exist, but in limbo without a voice.
I found myself in disbelief at the vitriol targeting Ellmann: that certain women felt so assured of their place in the world as to feel comfortable asserting that another’s woman opinion was not valid, unrepresentative of any ‘real’ feminist. It was implicit in the volume of comments—you do not dare suggest motherhood can be at times a difficult, even despairing experience if it is not due to the patriarchy, but because you feel that what your body has created is preventing—of no fault of its own—you from becoming the self you imagined. I recall something from Sheila Heti’s Motherhood:
‘Libby was so frightening last night. She said she was losing her mind. I disagreed, but I could see it, and I grew frightened, too. I saw how she might change for good—become even a little less like the person I had known. She said her brain was being wiped clean so she could learn to love a new person. … Her body was making something, she admitted, but she was not.’
Is it too easy to lose sight of those without that solidarity—or even those who do, but are still terrified—who fear they will not be able to, or have not been able to realise the completion of themselves alongside their children; to think that solidarity for one group is accessible and present in the same way for all women? If Ellmann is no true feminist—no true mother—then what of the scores of nameless women who labour with no ability or resources to reach for something else in their lives? What ear is there for the women who silently break down time and time again at the seemingly unsurmountable task of a labour taken for granted, even within their own gender, a natural burden that one dare not voice their secret—human—thoughts? What would have happened to my mother if she had not seen a therapist, been able to pour out the relatively short years of frustrations and uncertainties without the fear of judgement? Would I have returned home one day to find that I no longer had a mother?
I have had this fear of being voiceless since I was a child. There are myriad reasons I give on the rare occasions I am asked if I plan to have children or why it is I have none—thankfully, and for reasons unknown, I have mostly been spared this questioning. They are all true: as with such answers, what is true at one point is not necessarily untrue at another, rather it is just more true at a specific time than the rest. When I was a young adult, it was a question that was not a consideration in light of all the other things life had to offer. When I was married, the truth of it was that part of my appeal was that I was indifferent to the question of parenthood. I had replaced—there is really no other word for it—someone who wanted children with some urgency, and that feeling not being shared, resulted in the dissolution of that relationship. As my fraying marriage revealed its increasing difficulties, I knew if I did decide I wanted to be a parent, it would not be now; this was somewhat exacerbated by a mother-in-law desperate for grandchildren, who would hint—second-hand, through my husband—at my regret further along the line if I chose not to. When another child of hers became pregnant, any further thought of my doing the same was forgotten. I had merely been a receptacle for her own desires, and that subsequent berating, however well-meant, had only functioned as a kind of guilt mechanism. In the end, it was not me that mattered. It was my womb, its emptiness a symbol of a failure of a duty of womanhood.
After the breakup of my relationship and as I grew older, there simply were no possibilities. Theoretically, I could have a child, but that theory only becomes reality with money, and I had none, nor the prospect of any, regardless of the life I had left. Now, it is simply a matter of weighing what I want for myself in what life stretches out before me. To be selfish now is simply to want to see if I can benefit from my own labour, and that is a task which may or may not be fruitless and occupy the rest of my life. Fruitless. That all our labour is semantically analogous to childbirth is inescapable, and like my ex-mother-in-law’s words, weighted with the guilt of what is still considered a gender priority and mark of unfair competitive superiority if one is able to ‘have it all’. I know some might argue that having a child is precisely the definition of benefiting from my own labour, but my selfishness extends to wanting something that I do not have to let go and worry about in the same way. In what might feel like the ultimate contradiction, I do not want to realise I have irrevocably lost myself in tending to what I love.
If I admit the truth to myself—something I have often denied—then the reason that has been there before all the others for not having children was because I observed my own mother’s difficulties in raising myself and my sister. She and I taxed our parents no differently in some ways to other children; but the homogeneity of culture mostly renders this particular rite of passage the equivalent of Tolstoy’s happy families. We were difficult in our own way. No doubt you are all familiar with the cultural trait of taking one’s shoes off before entering a home, or upon crossing the threshold. Whether this was something instilled upon my mother’s coming from Japan or not, it was a habit of the household. There was a line of shoes just inside the front door of the house that once belonged to my paternal grandparents, given to my father and mother shortly after the death of my grandmother, I assume the reason being that he was the child who could least afford to buy one.
Once, early on in when I was trying to write and either afraid or labouring under some delusion that I should be writing fiction, I tried to write a story about my family. At the time I had no idea that there was a thing called autofiction, but I was self-conscious of writing myself fully, not knowing what I wanted to do or how to go about it other than in the most random ways. So somewhere there exists a poor story, barely veiled, about what I am now going to say. When I was nine or ten I had driven my mother to near-breakdown, by grinding to an academic halt and forging a signature on a bad weekly report. Without weighting her with the usual cultural stereotype of an Asian mother wanting her child to do well in school, she was nevertheless overcome by the action of a child who decided to sabotage herself. I, in turn, had been overwhelmed by a split desire: to be a good student, and for the first time, be accepted by new classmates. It was impossible to be both. When I chose the latter, it was quite simply taken as her own failure: the double guilt of culture and motherhood. It was the first time I was faced with the capability of my destruction—for whatever else I did not understand at that age, it was clear that in one sense, I was a product and a reflection of my mother’s continuous labour. It was also the first time I wondered to myself if this foreshadowed what was expected of me later in life.
At the time, she did not have another job. She had a degree from a Japanese university, but on coming to America to marry my father, only worked for a florist for a short period of time. Without ever asking, I think there must have been something of both a generational and cultural expectation that she would raise any children and keep house. Things changed not long after this incident. I have never known, except in fragments pieced together, what happened in the aftermath. I knew she saw a therapist, and that sometime later, she found a part-time job in the library, one that became full-time and she still holds with pride. Now, having enough of a life of complexities behind me, I understand that what she must have been working through in that therapist’s office was who she thought she was expected to be and what obligations she had to us; how they conflicted with what she wanted for herself, and what she set aside in order to raise us. On reading the Ellmann interview I wondered how many of those things my mother thought—alongside a desperate guilt at her own failure, a failure built up and sustained by a society that still wants women to practice an unrealistic stoicism in motherhood.
I remember when I was about nineteen or twenty, my mother went through a period of difficulty with my sister. Similar to what happened to me, part of it was about her doing badly at school. Out of the two of us, she had always been more extreme, more willing to get in trouble without regard to consequence, whereas out of cowardice or some unrealised sense of filial duty I always stayed just within the bounds of respecting some sort of authority. The second part of their conflict was her leaving the house—she would have been fourteen or fifteen at the time—and staying out all night with her friends, coming back in the early hours. There seemed to be nothing anyone could do: she wasn’t afraid of getting kicked out of school, as she already had been, and was now in an alternate high-school graduation program. She seemed to be doing everything just because she wanted to, not out of rebellion or boredom or some hidden trauma. Because there was seemingly nothing to fix from her perspective, there was also nothing wrong in her eyes—she appeared oblivious to my mother’s increasing distress.
I remember coming back from somewhere late one evening, my mother surprisingly still awake. In the entrance, where all our shoes were lined up, I noticed her tiny white sneakers were pointing towards the door. All the others were pointing away from it. When I questioned her, she said it was so she could jump into them and run after my sister if she came home but tried to leave again. In that moment and ever since, those shoes and her feet, seemed to be the loneliest in the world. Then I remembered the day my parents found out I had forged the signature. My mother left home—left us. She was back when I returned from school the next day, having spent the night at a friend’s house, though it was unclear if she ever disclosed the true reason for her turning up—but she had left, an unthinkable thing for children until it happens and the face of their world forever changes. In the time she was gone, my sister wept bitterly, not understanding, and I, understanding too well, knew it was not just me that was to blame. It was the weight of us—like dominos, my failure was her failure and that meant that my sister, too, could fail—and the knowledge that if our family was a set of scales, she did not realise until now that she desperately needed balance.
Balance. Ginzburg says these lines towards the end of her essay:
‘My friend has no children … In one sense she has no problems, she can give in to the temptation to let her life go to pieces; I on the other hand, cannot.’
‘So, my children live with my mother … But what kind of men will they be? What road will they choose to walk down? Will they decide to give up everything that is pleasant but not necessary, or will they affirm that everything is necessary and that men have the right to wear sound, solid shoes on their feet?’
In the former, I think of that ever-present guilt and weight. The rigidity to which we think we are expected to keep ourselves; that we should never let children see us as anything but a whole—the ability to see past, present, and future at the same time, to know an answer before the question is asked, to not never show the cracks of vulnerability, uncertainty, and dreams of one’s own. Is this the fallacy of strength that persists even now? Then I read the latter lines. If her children—or even one—had been girls, would her words have been the same? And what kind of woman have I become, childless as I am, with good shoes to spare, knowing my mother tried to outwardly to be a kind of maternal wall expected of her: solid and protective, but one that we saw the cracks nevertheless—that it was in those very cracks that I saw she was more than a mother?
Two separate thoughts which should, by rights, be one. The right to be a woman of pieces, the right for children to grow up and know that they can both give up and affirm; that the former sometimes leads to a positive latter, and the latter a realisation of the possibility of the former. We can be cracked with good shoes. After all, the roads we walk down are themselves cracked, with the traces of other lives chosen, other paths taken. What kind of woman am I? I still ask myself what kind of woman I can be. For I am still walking in my good shoes, the pitter-patter of feet none other than my own, and instead of avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk like we did when we were young, I now walk on them—to absorb the wisdom of women before me, itself a kind of luck.
Tomoé Hill‘s essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as The London Magazine, 3:AM Magazine, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, and Lapsus Lima, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater), Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University), Love Bites (Dostoyevsky Wannabe), and Trauma (Dodo Ink). Twitter: @CuriosoTheGreat
Image: Christopher Sardegna/Unsplash