The Great Escape

A grudging salute to an absentee mom

It is true that I am a person who prefers, most of the time, to remain petals-closed. My emotional orientation is not tidal. So I had to know: Was it just jaundiced me, or was Unraveled as much of a New Age white upper-middle-class fantasy howler as I thought it was? Test reads by other mothers, trusted friends, revealed that if anything, the book seemed more of a Rorschach inkblot: women reacted, often weepily, to the individual strands that most resonated with their own experience—grief over a lost child, gloom of a collapsing marriage, hope of finding new love midlife, even the simple desire to break the domestic doldrums and start some fresh new creative journey. Which made me think, "My God—could this be the fable my generation of mothers actually deserves? A kind of The Bridges of Madison County meets Jonathan Livingston Seagull?" (Or, rather, Joanne Livingston Seagull, in which Housden is the one gull bravely taking flight from the cawing, flapping, land-bound Flock Council of disapproving suburban minivan moms.)

"And what if it is?" an unsettling voice answered.

"Oh, my God," I thought. "Is that my New Age inner voice? The one that's going to rip me from my closed, cynical mind-prison and take me on some gauzy Celestine Prophecy—like voyage to … ? Ahhhhh!!!"

And in that moment, as if with an electric shock, my entire mind and being were hurtled back to the summer of 2004. A cavalcade of images passed before me: the Republican convention, the Athens Olympics, and, as inevitable as the wind-lashed tides of Cape Cod, Oprah's Book Club. That summer OBC was spotlighting Anna Karenina—Western literature's reigning absentee mother.

Oprah had confessed that she'd always had a fear of Anna Karenina, chiefly because of its prodigious length. Hence she and her viewers approached their summer's reading of Tolstoy's novel like an arduous long-distance run. I remember the post-read show as though it were yesterday (although my recollection has been aided slightly by a Nexis transcript) …

Narrator: "They came from across the globe, Oprah Book Clubbers ready to take the Anna Karenina 2004 Challenge. Eight long sections, 817 pages, twenty-three complicated Russian names. The only thing to fear was fear itself. They would battle the elements, summer heat, busy family schedules, obstacles at every turn. Some would stumble, exhausted from reading. But could they pick themselves up and press on to the final chapter? Could they do it? Could they read Anna Karenina in just one summer? Could they conquer Tolstoy?"

Group of people (in unison): "Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna."

The opening guest of the Book Club episode was one of Oprah's all-time most requested: the Music and Passion—meister himself … Barry Manilow. (Alternate haunting question: Does each generation of females get the romantic hero it deserves?) Manilow led in by singing, to the tune of "Copacabana," "Her name was Anna, Anna Karenina … The hottest broad north of the Kremlin!" The final comment came from Will & Grace's Megan Mullally, who was most intrigued in her reading by Anna Karenina's mental unraveling: "Of course, now she'd just, like, take some Paxil and it'd all be good. But … they didn't have those mood stabilizers back then, apparently."

Which is to say that Oprah and her army of Lady Reebok-shod women did, chapter by chapter, "conquer Tolstoy," practically trampling him.

And is that a bad thing?

One of Anna's few descriptions of happiness comes early in the book. Recognizing young Kitty Shcherbatskaya's coquettish excitement before a ball, Anna says,

"O yes, it is good to be your age … I remember and know that blue mist, like the mist on the Swiss mountains … That mist which envelops everything at that blissful time when childhood is just, just coming to an end, and its immense, blissful circle turns into an ever-narrowing path, and you enter the defile gladly yet with dread, though it seems bright and beautiful … Who has not passed through it?"

Anna will enter the bright, beautiful defile one last time to triumph at that ball, not in the quadrille (which Vronsky dances with Kitty) but, specifically, in the mazurka (which Vronsky boldly decides to dance with Anna). From that blissful, Swiss-blue-misted high point the path indeed grows ever narrower for Anna. But in the twenty-first century, of course, the apex of female achievement has extended far beyond the mazurka; upper-class—or upper-class-contending—women are no longer trapped in ballrooms like great fluttering swans. And although Anna and her sister adulteresses Emma Bovary and Tess still mesmerize us by plunging spectacularly netherward through their societies, heat tiles flying for all to see, in modern times a transgressor's extravagant death by train, arsenic, or even that deliciously gothic twist from the court ladies of Imperial China—eating one's own jewelry—no longer cuts it. Yes, there are still taboos to be broken; but in post-feminist, post-twelve-step times then comes epiphany; rehab; meeting of the sympathetic psychotherapist, sociologist, or—if need be—pioneering death-row lawyer; followed by possible adjustments in medication, six-figure advance, book tour, Self magazine contributorship, spot on Oprah. There's no female pariah who won't get pardoned eventually, or even hired for a Monica Lewinsky-style hosting job on Fox, if she gets her tale right.

Since women's empowerment will not tolerate tragedy (Thelma & Louise's ending was decried by progressive female critics), other genres have necessarily arisen. The 1989 Broadway hit Shirley Valentine, about a forty-two-year-old British housewife who leaves her husband to have a fling with a Greek, played successfully to audiences as a heartwarming, comedic feminist tale. Driving the zeitgeist now is the notion of mothers as brave warriors in the unfolding drama of capitalism. In our female-rage anthologies by overstressed working mothers bitterly wrestling with husbands and playdates and deadlines, it seems the worst thing that can happen between a woman and a train is for her to miss it (again!) and have to call the nanny (again!). New studies by female professors at Harvard and Yale constantly compare the economic plight of today's working mothers with the economic circumstances of endless other demographic groups: single men, divorced fathers, childless career women, American mothers before the multi-generational family broke up, French mothers, tribal mothers from seventeenth-century African villages … Typical solutions proffered include corporate flex time and petitioning our government—which, "unlike Denmark's," does not provide universal day care.

All good and well (certainly I am grateful), but hovering ever beyond, like Anna's blue mist on Swiss mountains, is that elusive thing called happiness, even bliss—a thing that sometimes seems to have gone out, along with rope belts, in the 1970s. Mock Jonathan Livingston Seagull if you wish, but consider that the fablelike feel-good best seller of our time is a business book: Who Moved My Cheese? Still puzzling over what, exactly, Mark Matousek was thinking when he mentioned The Road Less Traveled, I flopped open our old water-spotted 1978 copy and read,

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.* …
Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others.
*The first of the "Four Noble Truths" which Buddha taught was "Life is suffering."

Buddhism and motherhood may be a tough fit; it's hard to imagine today's white-knuckled über-moms adopting a non-Western, Zenlike detachment from their parenting: "Will Dylan be admitted to the summer-session AP English preparation course and then get in early admission to Brown? Maybe yes, maybe no. I leave it open to the winds." But Housden has a line that must resonate for all: "I felt certain that it was time for me to create a new container for the simpler, more creative, and less angry life I knew I wanted to share with my kids." And, in fits and starts, her life works for her. The weekend/summer mothering Housden describes is full of beaches, sandcastles, baths, picnics, moments of wonder in the garden. Ironically, her book is rife with a maternal happiness unusual to hear of in these times. Which is partly the inherent beauty—or guilty upside, however you see it—of being the noncustodial parent. It's no accident that the category of parents who typically report the most parenting satisfaction—who feel they're doing the best job—is divorced dads.

In these divorce-heavy days, maybe ceding primary custody will turn out to be the new frontier for Women Who Work Too Much. Never mind universal day care—how much better to release the kids to hands-on caregivers who truly love them: their dads. Many men today can cook or at least order takeout, and know where and how to hire domestic help, perhaps with refreshing clarity and less anxiety than ever-conflicted mothers. The weekend/summer schedule really opens up a lot of time for mothers to make partner if need be, or to exercise, or to write a book. Regardless, the times we live in suggest at least a reversal of Tolstoy: among two-career couples in the chattering classes, it is unhappy families that are now alike. The happy are unique, peculiar in their rarity if not actually custom-built. Which makes me think, "Oh, if only Anna Karenina had lived today." There would be no boredom (I see her thriving in any of the hip metropolitan Sex and the City jobs); she'd hold her Vronsky secure, Ashton Kutcher-like; there'd be bouts of the Kabbalah, instead of morphia, and the edges would be smoothed with Paxil; she'd have a house in freewheeling California and could still enjoy the sparkle of media favor. And she would not have to wait 126 years—as so many of the rest of us upwardly aspiring women feel we are doomed to—to get on Oprah.

Presented by

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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