Letter from London: We Are Family

Medea musing on the murder of her children, print from Pompeii, 1869. Source: New York Public Library.

The artist has been talking a lot about family lately. I don’t mean her family, or my family, or our family, but family, straightforward — or maybe not so straightforward — family.

This fresh interest is borne out of reading in one sitting the novel ‘Still Born’ by Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, the writer’s fourth and, according to the artist, one that digs deep into the desire to have children and the desire to be child-free. (Translated by Rosalind Harvey, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, whose offices are only a mile away, and whose bright though deliberately plain blue or white covers are emblematic of a thinking palace of sorts.) I’ve just been reading less up to the minute Saul Bellow whose main character Ravelstein says writers are supposed to make us laugh and cry: ‘That’s what mankind is looking for.’ It seems that ‘Still Born’ reminds us they are also there to make us think.

Initially, if you can bear with me on this one, our own family planning was non-existent. After marrying at an exquisite location in North Wales overlooking the mountains of Snowdonia, our guests went home and we returned to our largely creative but self-interested ways in London. Then a close and dear family member of mine endured a particularly traumatic time, and it made me, it made us, reevaluate everything.

As a result, we committed to stepping out of our selves and trying for a family, amusingly enough, in the first instance, on the English-Scottish border, as if our two principal camps needed somehow represented here. (It had Union written all over it.)

Spoiler alert: one of the two women in ‘Still Born’ gets sterilised. The other however quite likes the idea of motherhood. Of course, it is the sterilised woman who also ends up looking after a child.

Men, the artist tells me, are not a huge part of the tale, though there are references to the obscenely high number of murders of women in Mexico by men.

English writer Rachel Cusk’s ‘A Life’s Work’ upset the patriarchal view of motherhood. (She once did a book with the artist, by the way.) It upset the well-established status quo among mothers by its frankness about motherhood. Cusk herself has said she was shocked by the savage response to it from other women too. The experience even obliged her to doubt herself as a writer and a parent, she has since said.

The artist and I took a long walk in bright morning sunlight and discussed the parenting gaps between the sexes. Having children, for a lot of us men, can be the moment we discover we are for this duration largely peripheral, certainly once the ‘act’ is committed and conception has taken place — all the way, in fact, to when the child is born, or, alas, is ‘still born’.

I don’t believe I was entirely discouraging during the artist’s pregnancies. I remember cooking lots of food for us, when she wasn’t wandering outside to smell soil in the garden.

It was as if we were both stoking the engine of some preternatural train hurtling us down the track to some unknown destination. But, of course, it was the artist doing the real work all along. I was just taking in the view, with the sun on my face. It may have become more equal later on, but it was always the artist carrying the baby, it was still the artist who absorbed the physical costs and honest-to-goodness risks of being pregnant — certainly until those first few months of parenting were over.

A recent Swedish study on who in a relationship makes the actual decision to have children found a greater tendency of matriarchal rule in couples with children, and a greater patriarchal rule in couples without. Maternal ambivalence, according to the artist, is another interesting theme here, and one which we do not hear much about much, as if it is a slur somehow on the sanctity of procreation, a mad slash at the masterpiece of life.

What I realise still interests the artist is the myriad of contradictions in being a mother: ‘What struck me most about pregnancy was that you didn’t know what the journey was going to be. That’s if you could even get pregnant in the first place. It’s by no means a safe journey,’ she told me. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 287,000 women died during and following pregnancy and childbirth in 2020. The artist acknowledges it can’t be truly known how many have died, and that the figure will probably be much higher. Three-quarters of such deaths are because of infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia), complications from delivery, and unsafe abortions. The artist said: ‘It’s not like some fantasy about simply having baby showers and lots of cuddly gifts. It can be highly dangerous giving birth. And how do you fund a child with serious illness from birth, for example?’

Andrew Tate came to mind in our discussions about men’s roles in the whole architecture of heterosexual relations today. His name also cropped up because of the controversial interview he had just given in Romania to BBC correspondent Lucy Williamson. Watching it, we had found ourselves sickened by this new trend towards a kind of re-denigration of women, a deep misogyny. This is not just in the reckless wake of popular figures like Andrew Tate but also in things like the INCEL movement whose involuntary celibates contribute to such an online world of hate. A British woman has since accused Andrew Tate of raping her. Indeed, choking her until she lost consciousness. It is highly problematic that so many boys and men in this country are fans of Tate’s kind of clunky belief in male superiority. He has even boasted on camera about women being stuck in his house while he gets to travel the world. (‘And of course, they don’t go out, they’re not allowed out,’ he has said on film.) There was also unsettling video of him allegedly beating a woman with a belt, though the woman has since claimed this was innocent footage.

Tate is also said to be a Muslim convert. I have many Muslim friends. This kind of behaviour does not tally at all with a faith which states quite clearly and openly — despite highly publicised aberrations that are cultural rather than religious — that in the eyes of God, men and women should be equal and are allowed to fulfil the same roles.

‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch,’ wrote unmatchable American poet Sylvia Plath, shortly after the birth of her first child. It was the artist reading ‘Still Born’ that had now fully set me going.

I found my way to Paul Bloom’s ‘The Sweet Spot’ about what becoming a parent actually does for our happiness. Bloom points out perhaps unsurprisingly that having kids is bad for one’s wealth, an assault on one’s own standard of living. What was more interesting to me was what Bloom felt parenthood meant for one’s happiness.

He suggested that this was a more thorny and complicated issue than people realised. If people wanted to be happy, seemed to be his gist, it was best to remain childless, though he did of course acknowledge that having children is an experience far deeper than happiness per se. And for that I know we are both truly thankful.

They say that we come into this world alone. We don’t. We come into it having already spent months with our mothers. In many ways, I am a terrible example of someone when it comes to family. This is because my own circumstances were very much askew as a boy, as I know I have intimated here before. The person I grew up closest to was adopted, for instance, and I never knew my parents either. It was an unusual, though not unenlightening, set-up.

One of the studies mentioned by Bloom asked 900 employed women to report back each day on their activities, and to say how happy they were doing them. It deduced that being with children for these women was less enjoyable than watching TV, shopping, or even preparing food. It also claimed that when a child was born, a parent’s happiness decreased for a long time. This was alongside a decrease in happiness with one’s marriage, which is described as something that doesn’t usually recover until children leave the house.

Bloom is a great writer as well as celebrated psychologist. He also talks about ‘memory distortion’ and suggests we tend only to remember ‘the peaks and forget the mundane awfulness in between’, by claiming there is no high like the one gained from having children. It could even be argued I am guilty of this right now.

I wonder if we are pre-conditioned to sell life. I accept there is far more to life than happiness. As I write, the artist is stuck on a bus in traffic. She has just messaged me. She says she is surrounded by a thick line of black 4x4s back from half-term, choking up the traffic as they drive VIP children to school each day, miles from where they live. The drivers of these vehicles were slamming their palms on their hooters or car horns at regular intervals, bewailing their own obstructions.

As a family, the best thing we were able to do for our children was to stay in London and get them into a local state school. I have said this before but the true value of a comprehensive education is that everyone is there — it is like a Dickens novel in this regard. In other words, no one is left out.

Well, maybe not everyone. Maybe those who cannot cope with the idea of mixing with people considered beneath them all are left out.

Peter Bach lives in London.