The Great Escape

A grudging salute to an absentee mom

Finally, an American mother who stopped her yammering and found a stunningly simple solution to the work-life balance problem: she left her family—her husband and three small children! And now she has written a memoir about it: Unraveled. She is Maria Housden, and while I waited for her memoir to arrive, in its plain brown wrapper, I wondered what had made her do it. Certainly some sort of substance abuse had to be involved, a Judy Garland-like hitting of rock bottom. Or maybe the decision was triggered by a Fear of Becoming Andrea Yates self-diagnosis. Perhaps this was a serious psychotherapeutic memoir, the kind sometimes co-written with an M.D., who stands quietly in the authorial background, calm hands steadying the writer's pen, providing reassurance and possibly a medical Web site (sponsored by Oxygen? Lifetime?). I thought of Brooke Shields's Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, and Marie Osmond's Behind the Smile: My Journey Out of Postpartum Depression (co-written with Marcia Wilkie and Dr. Judith Moore)—except in this case the journey would be one that propelled the mother through the family, beyond it, and right back into single life.

Or perhaps I was imagining such hellward-spiraling narratives only because my own escapes from family have had such a random, seamy, slumming quality. I find I'm the sort of harried working mother who has difficulty scheduling in a bit of rest amid the Ptolemaically complicated interlocking gears of professional and personal life. The clock of woman is strange. You go along for four days, or sixteen, or twenty-five, in some hidden, hard-to-divine algorithmic pattern, heaping more and more little things on your already crowded plate (the playdates, the craft projects, the teeny-tiny little muffins), and then on Day 26—Saturday—the whole thing collapses, and suddenly there you are, a character straight out of Cheever, lying in a hammock from 10:00 a.m. on, swilling cosmopolitans while re-reading William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist … "A book where there are actually compelling metaphysical reasons children behave the way they do!" I recall yelling back at the house on that fateful day, which my family so cheerfully remembers.

So yes, I'm a C+ mother, but … leave the family for good? Who would go that far? In two to three business days I'd know.

My first encounter with Unraveled was disorienting. The cover is an inspirational sky-blue, the triumphal subtitle is "The True Story of a Woman Who Dared to Become a Different Kind of Mother," and the first quotation that leaped out at me on the back is "'Unraveled does for mothers everywhere what M. Scott Peck did for truth seekers in The Road Less Traveled.'—Mark Matousek." Whether or not you are a truth-seeking fan of M. Scott Peck, you could be forgiven for wondering how much insight the former Interview editor Mark Matousek can claim to have into mothers everywhere, as he is famously gay.

The psychological impulse to leave turns out to be rooted in Housden's processing of grief: she had lost her three-year-old daughter Hannah, several years earlier, to cancer. The passages dealing with Hannah's illness, written as flashbacks, are moving and spare, the epiphanies and surprisingly uplifting transformations fully earned. Housden—a stay-at-home mother at the time—depicts herself standing sentry weekly, daily, hourly, over Hannah. As the situation becomes ever more hopeless, Housden (then named Maria Martell) and her husband, Claude, abandon painful experimental treatments to honor their daughter's wish to die at home, "in the bed that smelled like mom and dad" … a stout-hearted, recognizable three-year-old's phrase that had me weeping.

Tissues in hand, I decided that because of her unflinching service to this extraordinary child—and the fact that she has written about the experience with such precision and ultimate optimism (her first, best-selling book, Hannah's Gift, being, in my subsequent estimation, a jewel)—Housden is a mother who deserves a major sabbatical, if not actually carte blanche. When, after a year involving surgery, chemo, and a bone-marrow transplant, despite all your efforts, your three-year-old dies in your arms, I think the maternal fuses must be blown, the machine topped out, the illusion of parental omnipotence shattered. Your mothering henceforth will be different, more Buddhist-detached, with that bird on the shoulder asking not "Is today the day I'm going to die?" but, even more unimaginably, "Is today the day my child's going to die?" Few mothers can ponder that question with equanimity; Housden has lived it. And so the Dr. Laura-like moral censure of Housden for leaving her three surviving children—in their own home, with their clearly devoted father and an aupair, a decision even the publishing staff was divided over—is no ax I have the stomach to swing.

But as I finished Unraveled, I was weeping again, this time in frustration. Because now, horribly, I was being moved to unintended laughter by some of the writing, and was finding the confluence of emotions quite nauseating. Although grief over loss is the book's emotional back-story, the forward action involves Housden's escaping suburban housewifehood and traveling to an artists' retreat to gingerly spread her wings and write (in this case to write Hannah's Gift—so in a sense this second book is a tale about "the making of" the first). Embarking on this familiar type of women's—or womyn's—journey felt like entering a bit of a seventies time warp. It was not just the prose style, in which the present is in regular type, and the dreamlike past is in italics. In which a tiny ladybug's progress across a journal page is a metaphor for one's own. In which the narrator observes, "I was a secret being kept hidden until the time was right, ripening and waiting for the external world to change before I could be revealed." In which the epilogue's title is "La Mère (The Mother), La Mer (The Sea)." Secrets ripening, feelings upwelling, the ebb and flow of the maternal self being like the tide—it all seemed less than daisy-fresh.

Then there's the Fair Haven, New Jersey, split-level Colonial that Housden is fleeing, which recalls the 1950s ones long ago dissed by Betty Friedan. (Claude's "rules" for the marriage include that dress shirts be washed and ironed the same day; when Housden falls short, he rails, "I expect you to take pride in this house. I want results! Trying is not enough!") Similarly old-school is Housden's girlish awe of career women.

Siobhan owned a very successful public relations agency in Los Angeles, had traveled the world extensively, and never had children or married. To me, she was the epitome of what was possible when a woman is unapologetically ambitious about her work and dreams, which is what I was wanting more and more to be.

This startled me, since so many Siobhans I know in Los Angeles admit to feeling not so much boldly self-actualized as stuck in a Sex and the City episode that will never end, even though, grimly, the show itself has. (Former Sex story editor Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo's best seller He's Just Not That Into You, which is easily readable in sixty-second bursts, has been traveling from bathroom to bathroom in my circle over the past year. Although drink-coaster light, this roundup of female excuses for why men aren't calling—ending with a rousing exhortation to love one's own tasty, lingerie-clad self!—has for me a dark underside, leaving open as it does the very real possibility that some of our frothiest and most fabulous may be destined for a lifetime of solo apple martinis. Sixty years old will be that foot in the Jimmy Choo.) But here's the next turn: although old Maria Martell feels that spurning domestic wifehood is necessary if she is to pursue her dreams, her fate is not exactly to be single either. Enter, to the artists' retreat, Roger Housden—English writer, photographer, and explorer of such exotic places as Africa and India. Although he's fifty-three and she's thirty-five, the two speak a similar metaphysical language. He is given to utterances like "Beauty, Beauty, you are the sun." And later, when he asks in wonder, "Who are you?," she elatedly replies, with typical Boomer math, "I am the second half of your life." Roger exudes boyishness and a kind of heady European sophistication; personal details given include both that he wears clogs and has a medicine kit containing Eternity cologne and a tiny bottle of tea-rose oil. Often seen sweaty and wearing only running shorts, he is described rapturously as having a "mossy, musky" scent. This was when my horrendous attack of the giggles began. The mossy, musky scent, combined with the clogs … it was too much. I raised my hands in protest, as if to ward off the inevitable tantric sex, but here it came anyway.

Soft, moist mouths, bellies rising and falling, swollen, oozing, trembling, I had felt my heart, petal by petal, gently opening. I had been both in my body and outside it as he entered me, as we stared into each other, eyes wide open. "We are there," he had whispered, his eyes filling with tears. Later, he had gradually unwound his body from our embrace and, kneeling at the foot of the bed, pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, then lifted and kissed my feet.

At the thought of leaving the unhappy, washed-and-pressed straitjacket of her marriage and making a new, more bliss-filled, yogic-flexible life for herself, Housden realizes that she fears losing connection with her children less than she does the condemnation of friends and community. That insight is freeing. She grants Claude the primary custody he requests (Housden takes the kids on alternate weekends and in the summer), reconnects with Roger, and eventually moves from the suburbs of New Jersey to Roger's redwood-canyon-view tree house in northern California. The two embark on a whirlwind life of writing, dining, and traveling, and are married, eventually, by a Tibetan lama. Her book sells immediately, for $250,000.

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Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace, and her new solo show, Mother on Fire, opens this month at the 24th St. Theater, in Los Angeles.

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