Five-foot-nine, my mother stands almost 6-feet tall in heeled shoes. In 1975, she graduated—at the actual and literal —top of her class at Providence College, with a degree in hospital administration. My father had graduated a year earlier. In fact, they had met in Spanish class, when my father and his football friends rigged the back door of the classroom so it would open, seemingly at random, and encourage Marita Ford to walk the length of the classroom to close it.
If my mother’s miniskirts encouraged the football team’s attendance of Spanish class that semester, they also started the romantic story of my parents’ marriage and the wild adventure of raising four children. But in 1979, children weren’t yet in the picture. My mother, following her marriage to this high-school English teacher in Massachusetts, resigned from her research job with the Hospital Association of Rhode Island—where she ventured into state hospitals and prisons to investigate the treatment of suicide survivors and gunshot wound victims—to take a position at Harvard University. Working with two public policy professors, she would investigate townships’ decisions to add fluoride to their drinking water.
Although my mother was raised in a comfortable, 17-room house in the suburbs under the protective gaze of four older brothers, she had, from an early age, what might be called a social conscience. In looking at the photos of her in high heels and suede jackets, I like to think that she had all the seriousness of a hippie but with much better taste in clothes. I can remember her writing strong letters to our aldermen when the telephone company tried to put microwave towers (often linked to high cancer rates) near our elementary school. At family gatherings, she was attentive to the shy and cranky kids, to the geriatric and hard-of-hearing.
So her new job at Harvard seemed a well-earned move. For starters, it would not require any contact with convicted criminals.
From her own, humble version of the story, it seems that my mother dove into the politics of the Massachusetts water system and swam in it. And I imagine she was proud to be making good money: more, in fact, than her schoolteacher husband.
After three months on the job, she came up for review. The two public policy professors gave her the highest possible marks. They excitedly discussed the next phase of their research, which implemented a survey my mother had designed. In the glow of their congratulations, my mother mentioned that she had a doctor’s appointment later that day. She might, she confided, be pregnant.
The following morning, my mother found a pink slip in her mailbox. When she asked, her supervisor assured her that she was indeed doing a wonderful job. But he couldn’t risk my mother . . . becoming my mother.
It was 1979. I was not yet a mewling, insomniac infant, but I had already cost Marita Treseler her research career.
My mom, who had always wanted to stay at home when she had children, didn’t seek legal recourse. Nor did she ever return to academia or policy work. Instead, she opened an informal schoolhouse in her kitchen, teaching her four kids and our friends just about anything that struck our fancy. The appearance of cicadas in the summertime; how to find Burkina Faso on the map of Africa; the explosive properties of baking soda; the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and the Talking Heads; and the steady, reliable enchantment of books and stories.
Indeed, my warmest childhood memories are of long afternoons when my mom folded laundry, my siblings napped and we told tales about two characters of our own invention. Myrtle the Box Turtle and Guthrie the Invincible Mouse ran a hospital for their fellow, forest-dwelling creatures. They also practiced socialized medicine, offering free ambulance service to whichever creature needed it. If my mother was no longer advocating large-scale healthcare policy changes, her concerns—and her flair for storytelling—were being practiced on me.
When my father opened his own business, we moved to a three-floor Victorian on the top of Heartbreak Hill in Newton. The front door was never locked. And it quickly became the after-school and summer hangout for all those five-feet-and-under. Our frequent visitors included the latch-key kids of a busy biologist, a French-Canadian kid with exotically shaggy bangs and swear words, and an industrious toddler who liked to dig up our front lawn with his Tonka trucks. All were welcome.
There are no tangible measures for a personality’s largesse or for how the generous vitality of a parent is communicated, daily and tenderly, in the best of families. If my mother dreaded that question “What do you do for a living” at cocktail parties, I think we were all glad she had no easy answer. She was there for all of us—a practical and spiritual ombudsman—encouraging our adventures and bandaging our mishaps.
Two years ago, after I got a graduate fellowship that would take me far from friends, family and familiar geography, I finally asked her. Did she ever miss working?
No, she said. She didn’t. She didn’t have any regrets. (My mother could not tell a white lie to save the soles of her shoes.) And I would have believed her completely if I weren’t making, at the same age, a very different decision. At age 24, I was enrolling in a doctoral program at Notre Dame, far from my Bostonian life and friends. And while I half-expected the dramatic change of scene, I hadn’t anticipated the difference in marital norms.
I was surprised—stunned even—in my first months of living in the Midwest to be regularly asked if I “had a husband.” Back east, the question is usually phrased differently. The two versions I knew were: “Are you single?” and “Do you have a partner?”
So when people asked me if I had a “husband,” it seemed comic. Not only could I not picture “having a husband” anytime soon, but the whole phrase seemed to suggest a measure of contented “lifestyle-ness” that I could not imagine attached to me. It was as if I had arrived on a Caribbean island wearing a snowsuit.
The question came up with enough frequency that I actually thought of buying a goldfish and naming it Husband so I could say to the inevitable question: “Yes, I do have a ‘Husband.’ He has gills.”
When I graduated from Brown University four years ago, only one of my friends had vague plans to get married. But none of my other pre-professional friends seemed to be thinking about it. Indeed, it was assumed, especially among the women, that marriage wasn’t something to consider until after one’s career was up and running, or at least well on track.
Our consensus seemed to be: Who would want the responsibilities of marriage while struggling through the stress of graduate, law or medical school, investment banking or a first entrepreneurial venture? Success, in one’s 20s, seems to require high-wire yoga: a willingness to work long hours, to travel to distant places for competitive employment or schooling, and to keep interpersonal “overhead” low so that one can find and take advantage of new and necessary opportunities. Is the trend of marrying later a product of women’s new “selfishness”? Or, our historically arrived expectation that we too can have professional identities and ones that need not brook compromises?
Many of the young, professional women of my generation had well-educated mothers who chose to barter between the joys and trials of a professional career, marriage and motherhood. Studies have shown, however, that while most married women had jobs outside the home in the late 1980s and early ’90s, they were often saddled with twice or three times as much household work and childcare as their husbands. If career options have opened widely for women, domestic gender roles have changed more slowly.
Though my mom had the leisure of the decision to stay at home (most middle-class families need two incomes), many of her peers were trying to make it “all” work. And it often seemed, from the baby-sitting I did in our neighborhood as a teenager, that the professional women who had several children had to do daily acrobatics to fulfill the demands of their careers and familial responsibilities. Some seemed to feel guilty about not spending more time with their children, though they would quickly tout their children’s “resumes”: a daunting list of after-school soccer, chess, tai chi, Spanish, math tutoring, ballroom dancing and astronomy classes that would exhaust most adults’ sensibilities.
Yet these same kids, my baby-sitting charges, often didn’t know how to play in their backyards or entertain themselves singly with books and paint, sock-puppets and a bunk-bed stage. I wanted somehow to tell their anxious parents that though I spent a good portion of my childhood hanging upside down from oak trees and mucking around a sandbox, it had not hurt my SAT score.
In reality, these kids’ highly scheduled afternoons were as much about surrogate parent-ship as intellectual cultivation. I was unusually lucky to have my mom there, on the other side of my school day, to celebrate my spelling test or re-bandage my kneecaps, which were the victims of my prolonged tomboyhood. I also got to know my mom as a person. Growing up, I knew about the books she was reading, the world events that concerned her, her interpretations of my siblings’ antics. It’s impossible for me to quantify what this time, what this connection, what my mom’s smarts and humor meant to me.
Relationships in general, familial and romantic, suffer in our tight economy of time-and-money. It was during my generation that those telling phrases “quality time,” “multitasking” and “focused attention” became part of the vocabulary of childcare. I wonder if some of the more successful, 20-something women I know have sidestepped serious romantic commitments partly because they grew up keenly aware of their own mothers’ sacrifices and stress levels.
Most of the women I knew at Brown University believed, with good reason, that they were going places. With hard work and single-minded attention, some have indeed risen to high places already: to the staff of The Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, to Rhodes and Fulbright travels, to research in Antarctica, to a ground-breaking study in Cancer Research. Not all of these accomplished women were (or are) committed singletons. No, most of us would like some version of romance and abiding emotional connection in our lives. But there is also a healthy level of skepticism about tying down too early, before we’ve earned our professional stripes.
Does all this “becoming” necessarily have to take place alone? Or in a zone of low commitment? I don’t think so, although spates of singularity can, like mountaintop monasticism, help one see clearly. With a plethora of opportunities on the horizon, I don’t think it’s unwise to have monocular time in which to view the possibilities. But I didn’t always think this way.
The marriage issue
The issue of marriage came into sharp and early focus when I was 17 years old and dating someone four years my senior. It was springtime in Paris. Brian, my childhood sweetheart, was taking courses at the Sorbonne to top off his training for a career in high finance. In five months, he would be a Boston banker and I would start my freshman year at Brown.
We had a rather sweet romance, as first loves go. While Brian was at Williams College, we saw each other about every other weekend and exchanged just under 200 letters. We discovered that we both loved books and the beach; museums and little Cambridge jazz clubs (the ones that didn’t card); long hikes through the New Hampshire woods and driving fast, in his dad’s German car, down desolate stretches of highway. Brian was from Wellesley Hills, a 6-figure zip code, which meant that he knew three European languages, had competence in piano, tennis and golf, French dining and Italian opera. As a middle-class kid raised on Saturday cartoons and pizza on Fridays, I found him a gentle ambassador to another world —and other ways of thinking.
After an accident caused me to miss a year of school, my parents had allowed me to visit Brian “unchaperoned” in Paris. We were staying in his parents’ get-away apartment. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to convince my parents, who had been reluctant to let me visit Brian at Williams College, that this situation would not be a case of “living in sin.” Or, as my grandmother would put it, “without benefit of clergy.”
You learn a lot about someone when you share domestic space. Brian, for example, was incapable of not burning the toast. And his penchant for punctuality was extreme. Sometimes he forgot that I, having had back surgery, could not keep up with the foot traffic on an urban sidewalk. But we calibrated: I made the toast; he set the clocks 5-10 minutes fast. Our strides, literal and metaphoric, found a common pace. After my small tantrum, he let me have two sacrosanct hours every morning in which I could, undisturbed, work in the study: reading, writing or simply breathing in my own mental space, without interruption.
We were having lunch in a café on the Left Bank when the question came up. A bottle of wine cast a pink shadow on the tablecloth like a tell-tale blush. Brian was tracing a rivulet on my water glass with his index finger, and it made me think of Adam’s hand extended on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel —waiting for the divine spark to set him in motion.
On the brink of a high-speed life in international finance, Brian was approaching his own moment of profound self-creation. Maybe he wanted all the spark plugs firing at once.
“We could get married,” he said suddenly. I nodded and blushed hotly. To buy a few seconds of time, I turned to look at the Parisians, who, like college kids, were taking advantage of the 10-degree weather spike to show off their new summer clothes.
And I remember thinking, as the waiter arrived with our salads, that Susan Sontag got married at 17, and it hadn’t seemed to retard her development. But I was no Sontag. I didn’t know what I wanted. I just felt a hollow, negative space inside me—inarticulate, hungry—and for something other than this miniature Parisian faux-salad in front of me.
Brian’s blue eyes caught my hesitation. He knew my answer without my having speak it.
I think, in retrospect, I was quite in love. But I also wanted what the poet Sterling Brown calls “running space.” Now, having spelunked my way (backwards, sideways and Midwesternly) into academe, into the halls of print and some literary awards, I wonder if I couldn’t have taken up my current direction while married to a financier. Would living half the year in Paris, half the year in the Back Bay of Boston really have been that distracting? Would sharing a life with someone whose professional credentials and earning power so dwarfed my own have prevented me from going to graduate school? From pursuing my own, legitimate career?
These days, I burn my own toast. I alternately enjoy—or endure
—the other, curious perks of single-dom: sleeping alone, reading alone, sometimes running alone, and seeing friends when there is time. It means greeting the world—its rash of exciting and disappointing turns—with comparatively fewer defenses, though with the background cheer of friends and family.
It is a snide truism that academics often teach and write about the things they cannot do or understand. In my graduate school travels, I have met an unethical Augustinian, a neurotic theorist of intimacy, a misogynist feminist and a peaceful scholar of the Great War. So it’s probably no accident that three of the four poets I’d like to write about in my dissertation—Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop—avoided marriage. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are also the three strongest women poets in America before 1950. Not being subsumed into another’s identity is critical for a literary artist struggling to speak in his or her own voice.
But it’s no longer 1950. I’d like to believe that high levels of accomplishment can come from _jouissance _as much as sublimation, that sharing one’s life needn’t limit it. Who knows, maybe that daydream of some novelists and academics—that someone will read our books and fall head-over-footnotes in love with us—is not unlikely.
In a marvelous poem called “The Student,” Moore argues against the stereotype of the scholar as an unemotional technician of knowledge. They’re lines that I have by heart:
he renders service when there is
no reward, and is too reclusive for
some things to seem to touch
him; not because he
has no feeling but because he has so much.
I think Marianne Moore, though she never met my mother, would have understood and admired her bookish, map-covered kitchen. And I’d like to think that Moore and my mother might both understand why, for now, I live with a goldfish.
Heather Treseler is a doctoral student at Notre Dame. Her novel, Boo Running, won the Mason Prize from Brown University. Her poems have appeared or will be forthcoming in Timbuktu, Clerestory and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.