Monday, April 16, 2012

The Absent Mother

Then Sally and I
Did not know what to say.
Our mother was out of the house
For the day.

In the United States at the end of World War II, when their men came back from the front and their labour was no longer required, women were faced with an injunction: your baby or your job. In New Zealand in 2012, new legislation will require single mothers on a benefit who have another child to apply for work when their youngest turns one or risk losing their entitlements: your baby then your job. It’s nearly seventy years later and two countries that are geographically – if not politically and ideologically – far apart, but if there is such a thing as a Western view of motherhood, its transformation is all in these two statements, and opens up questions that invest broader social issues and perceptions. What does it mean for mothers to be there in one case, and not be there in the other? How does that differ from the kind of presence required of fathers then and now? What are the implications for the autonomy and agency of women, whether or not they are, have been or intend to become mothers?

I am not qualified to attempt to answer these questions to any great depth, but I feel confident enough to make one suggestion: that a hypothetical study of #NoMums would yield very different results from the ongoing examination of #NoDads. This is especially true if we make the two propositions literally a question of presence and absence. Earlier this year, in my own contribution to the #NoDads corpus, I examined an how-to guide on being a Great Dad that blamed the traditional absence of fathers from childcare and upbringing on ‘work, family situation or a limited understanding of the role of a father’, and sought to correct it by imparting the skills and the attitudes necessary to take full-time care of the children. But persistent throughout the book was also the sense that Great Dad’s number one task was in fact to spend ‘quality time’ with the brood: to give them his full attention, to resist the temptation to turn on the TV or let them play on the computer when they’re bored, to be a positive model of behaviour. Whereas for mothers still – it seems to me – the core requirement is to be there, to provide that fundamental presence that anchors and defines childhood, as well as ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the home and the constant monitoring – sometimes via appropriate agents such as teachers and sitters – of the children's activities and whereabouts. And this presence of the mother is demanded at the same time as the economy, the state and society require of her that she be out of the house, working, reducing her burden on welfare and on the family resources and yet – because Rosie’s choice is always wrong – never gain proper, meaningful personal independence.

Which leads me straight – well, straight-ish – to The Cat in the Hat. Let’s call it a stop in that journey, a snapshot from a time and a place in which this maternal presence might have been understood in a particular way. Although I hasten to reassure that I don’t intend to take the book as a sociological document or index of its time. If nothing else, Theodor Seuss Geisel was too programmatically weird, as well as too politically subversive, to counsel that always questionable move. So take what follows simply as an entry for the yet to be commissioned book on #NoMums, or as an opportunity to reflect on a small gallery of images.

The first one is this: a house on a hill on a cold rainy day. A boy and a girl stare disconsolately through the window at the greyness outside. And right off the bat – this is page one of The Cat in the Hat – I wonder what it is that the children are looking at. And I know (although having by now read the book approximately a sesquillion times I cannot honestly say that I remember feeling this way when I opened it for the first time) that they are alone in the house, which will be confirmed in a couple of pages. ‘Our mother was out of the house / For the day.’ Two lines that suffice to signify that the children are alone since who else by the mother would be with them? But at this stage they are just looking outside.

The year is 1957. The place is a house on a hill outside of an unspecified town. The boy and the girl in the window are latchkey kids, a phrase that had been known to the American public at least since 1944. Home alone and instructed not to open the door to strangers, children such as these were synonymous even then with neglectful parenting but at least they were thinkable and not an absurdity. The book begins, in other words, with a scene that is within the realm of the ordinary.

The second image come forty-six pages and roughly two thousand words later, and is this one:

The first glimpse of the mother returning, a sight that brings consternation to the children and their petulant pet goldfish who are by now surveying a house thrown into total chaos by the Cat in the Hat and his impish companions, Thing 1 and Thing 2. So that second image must be paired up with a third one, representing the outcome of the rupture of the domestic order in the mother’s absence:

Conversely, the reappearance of the mother signals to the children that they must put everything back in its place. Even if the chaos wasn’t their fault – it doesn’t matter. Mum cannot be allowed to see what the house got up to while she was away. The resolution to this potentially catastrophic crisis is brought about by the cat, who returns atop his miraculous tidying machine and swiftly picks up all the things that were down, and puts them away. So the order is restored just in time for the mother to open the door and speak her only lines:
Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?
At which point the book ends, tantalisingly, with another question: what would you do if you were thus confronted – would you tell your mother about what went on? And in that question the value of her absence is suddenly transformed: for it illustrates how her spending the day in town, which at the outset seemed to have left the children sad and bored, is what made possible their secret world of play, and the irruption – with a BUMP! – of the bringer of lots of good fun that is funny. It’s like when other people are not in the frame and Calvin’s limp stuffed tiger is turned into Hobbes: it takes an absence, and more particularly the absence of adults, and even more particularly of the primary caregiver, to achieve that kind of transformation.

What complicates this reading a little is that in both The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (where, to make the premise look even worse, mother leaves for the day putting the children in charge of clearing a whole lot of snow) is that Sally and her brother don’t seem in fact to be having that much fun. Their dominant emotion is growing apprehension at the mess that the cat is making. In the first book it’s the cluttering of objects; in the sequel it’s a single pink icing stain that travels from the bathtub to mother’s white dresses and from there to a wall and to Dad’s ten dollar shoes, then to the rug in the hall, to Dad’s bed and finally to the snow surrounding the house. Apart from the wonderful invention (‘The thing that takes spots off a dress / Is a wall!’), the stain puts the children’s anxiety in sharper focus. Clearly it is not it that bothers them – it’s the thought that mother will see it.

Now perhaps what they fear is that they would be blamed for it, for having eaten cake in the bath and so forth (if you take the standard approach: of course the Cat in the Hat, like Calvin, is a product of the child’s imagination, etc.), but I think that more fundamentally that stain, like the clutter before it, is a sign of transgression, of all the things that the children get up to – or fantasise about – unbeknownst to their parents, and like all such signs must disappear in timely fashion so that the children can resume their place by the window and give again the outward appearance of having missed their mother terribly.

In the last scene of The Cat in the Hat Sally and her brother are composed again, and smiling. They are the image of those ‘abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls’ of the primers lamented by John Hersey and to which The Cat in the Hat was a direct response. Thus if on one hand we may interpret the children's reaction to the cat as the interiorisation of a set of rules or proper behaviour and domestic decorum imparted to them by the mother (hence the goldfish's increasingly shrill protestations about the things that absolutely cannot be done while she's away), her absence is both what enables the children to transgress those rules and – crucially – to practice dissimulating their transgressions. But if that is the case then it is almost as if she had planned it that way all along, and that final question upon her return were part of a ritual, a test of disobedience. Thus in that closing image the absent mother – I don't know, what would you say? – may just have become the unlikely wise parent.

Look, she is back

Dr Seuss. The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957.
–––––– The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. New York: Random House, 1958.