sex class housing
is it enough like this as I am
is the human visible through above &
completely in the material determinants
— Denise Riley, Marxism for Infants
What happened? In January, I went mad. In February, I discovered I was pregnant. In March, I had an abortion. That’s it. It’s May now, and I can point to a series of weeks in the 2020 calendar which came to their own private conclusion, just in time for the rest of the world to close in on itself. In this time, which felt like a pool of static charge, not a movement of current, I read two books, Happening by Annie Ernaux and Time Lived, Without Its Flow, by Denise Riley. The first is an account of the author’s backstreet abortion in the early 1960s, while a student at the University of Rouen. The second, an essay on the mutation of time in the aftermath of the death of the author’s adult son. Neither is anything close to an account of what happened to me, nevertheless I read Ernaux and Riley together in an attempt to find the blindspot of these two works. Between them, I think, in the shape taken by the blank space of unlived experience, I might see the outline of my own happenings. Or, perhaps, more simply, I read Ernaux and Riley to find out how to write about what happened to me.
In a lecture in Japan in 1966, comprehensively titled ‘Woman and Creativity’, Simone de Beauvoir dismissed the outputs of most women’s literary endeavours as ouvrages de dame. These are petty, trifling works constructed by women who lack the means for real engagement in and with the world, the capacity to act upon it and thereby to change it. Women, for the most part, says de Beauvoir, ‘write to kill time’. The phrase stunned me when I read it, pinned me to the sofa one late night in April. I wondered if it was a particular choice on the translator Roisin Mallaghan’s part, but I couldn’t find the original text of the lecture anywhere online (since then I’ve decided it doesn’t matter). I was, and remain, shaken by the shift of meaning in a familiar idiom where ‘killing time’ might no longer signify wasting it, but rather being rid of it, stopping it dead. And if such a temporal execution were possible, what then? Life lived in an eternal present tense? That’s a familiar precarity, the fear of looking ahead, the imperative to experience ‘now’, underlined with a knowing pressure to maximise for a future whose arrival can’t be depended upon. Really, I wondered, who kills time better than the tenant? A pseud’s etymology (or perhaps a paranoiac’s) points us, pleasingly, in the same direction.
‘Tenant: middle English, from the Old French, literally ‘holding’, present participle of tenir, from Latin tenere.’ Tenant –en tenant—holding: firm / —staying in one place despite. Holding up well! So well-meaning friends said to me, in the midst of a pregnancy with no conceivable end. Staying put for a while! My partner and I exclaimed in delight when we, a week before I became pregnant, signed the 18-month lease on our new flat. Tenancy is a life in suspended animation. A holding place for someone else’s capital. You can live in the present, but, just like the colour of your walls, you can’t change it. A real fucking ouvrage de dame.
Pregnancy, the unsought-after sort (I won’t go as far as to say unwanted, because desire played its part at every stage), introduced me to the urge to kill time, in the non-de Beauvoirian sense. During those weeks, I wanted time to stop dead. Physics, sadly, conspires with human biology to make this impossible, and a series of medical professionals never cease to remind you of the fact that time is, generally, not relative. A pregnancy, in the eyes of abortionists and midwives alike, is a way of counting time. The days until your maternal deadline, when the term is up, the womb vacates and you’re back on the baby market. You can choose to end the cycle early, but one way or another it will end. My memories of this period are of counting, and now, two months after, I continue to tally the weeks and days. No one else is aware of your system of new measurements. It’s not just Tuesday, you want to tell your colleague when she jokes about forgetting where we are in the week, it’s the 6th Tuesday of the first 12 weeks, one of 40 Tuesdays with developing weight. By the time next Tuesday comes around, or even tomorrow, the baby inside you will be larger, readier, nearer to birth. But then you remember you may not make it that far together, that this might in fact be one of your baby’s last Tuesdays. So instead you smile and joke, time flies!
Despite this counting, the situation of my pregnancy never seemed to develop. In the worst of my service jobs, I would only let myself look at the time when I was sure at least an hour had passed, but whenever I glanced at the checkout computer screen or my smuggled-in-pocket phone, the intervening period had taken up only a handful of minutes. Even if time were moving on, nothing had changed, I was still stuck. The reasons not to have the baby—including the one I couldn’t really believe would ever emerge—did not resolve themselves. Temporary contract, temporary home, temporarily pregnant. Temping all round. The temporariness of the first two infected the last. It seemed laughable to me that the world wouldn’t become stable with the arrival of a baby, but, facing the facts, it wouldn’t. Rent would still have to be paid, I’d be returning to work after six weeks of maternity leave because it would be impossible to pay bills, food, anything, least of all childcare (80% of my monthly salary) on the slowly tapering amount of money after that point. Then, when my contract ended, I’d be looking for work with a six-month-old. Then, I’d be living the rest of my life, as a mother. None of this felt like it could actually happen. I entertained it like I sometimes entertain the question ‘which house would I have’, when I walk down a fancy London road. I knew people did it, that people managed it with far less, but I had no idea how to make it happen for myself.
Considering whether to continue a pregnancy is living in branched time: what we have now, what we might have in our two futures. Pregnancy at twenty-nine is complicated by other ideas of time too: the realisation of it running out, at some stage. Then this fear is undermined by feeling ridiculous: aren’t I still, basically, a baby myself? But in reproductive terms, I am genuinely unsure of whether I’m still young or not, clueless about how hard it becomes to conceive over the decade’s watershed and then deeper into your thirties. At the time I wrote in my notebook that it is an ‘age at which people aren’t sure whether to congratulate or commiserate.’ It’s a year older than the age at which my mother had me, and I wondered if that meant I was living on borrowed time already. That I should have repeated the cycle by now—who did I think I was, leaving twenty-eight, baby-less? Of course it was my turn, my term, my time.
I worried too, that I was having the experience to write it, that I wasn’t living it as it happened but as an editor a few months hence. Was this solipsism or self-protection? Are they different expressions of the same thing? Riley, in her account of grief, tells us that ‘[y]ou can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity’. But I did have interest in it. Writing had always been the future towards which I felt my life moved, until the possibility that the future was actually motherhood beckoned stronger. In fact, this certainty has often stopped me from sitting down and getting on with the work of writing in the present because I believed one day it would just happen. So writing became associated with the future and by throwing myself into the activity during pregnancy I was attempting to move out of the purgatory of the present. One which wouldn’t budge until I decided, one way or another what I was going to do. ‘I want you, I can’t have you,’ I wrote again and again, circling my own indecision about the kind of life I hoped to lead, avoiding the one I already led. In conversations over ‘my choice’ writing became opposed to the baby. But there were so many examples, heroic ones, of women who’d done both; one of my oldest friends texted me, ‘think of Denise Riley!’ though she might equally have pointed at Ernaux. Maybe the baby had been the condition of these women’s writing, I wondered? The extra impediment that forces greatness? More likely, it had been a massive pain in the arse. Exhausting and absorbing and slowing.
Thinking of Riley’s experiences of young motherhood exacerbated my frustration with the present too. What had been achievable for her, even with great difficulty, seemed impossible for me. Or was I not trying hard enough? How much had the terrain shifted, since the early seventies, when it came to state and local support for young families, or working conditions where low pay did not act as a barrier to maternity (the affordability of rent and childcare surfaced again and again, an irresolvable error in all my calculations)? In my idealised conceptions of motherhood I had always imagined a communal space, where friends and neighbours could share the tasks of parenting alongside other work that fulfilled them. Most of my friends in London do live communally, but in expensive flatshares with carousels of housemates, engaged only in the collective work of paying rent on time. Having a young child in this type of housing seemed nightmarish, even if it were possible. The only other solution was to move to a cheaper part of the country, where we would be isolated from our friends and made to enact a lonely nuclear model I had always hoped to escape. Reading Sam Solomon’s book Lyric Pedagogy & Marxist Feminism: Social-Reproduction and the Institutions of Poetry revealed to me that Riley, even as she succeeded at motherhood, experienced her own failure of idealism as a result of her circumstances. In an essay for the socialist-feminist newsletter Red Rag, published in 1975, she wrote,
‘Everything turns on the housing question as the most visible uniter (‘home’) of structures of money and class. It’s in respect of housing that my single motherness pushes me back hard into the most overtly conservative position. I’d hoped to live more or less communally with people I cared for and could work with (without pushing the commune ideology too far; mutual support / convenience not necessarily entailing good politics). But I never found / co-made such a group […] The obvious solution to having a child alone is to live with people; but there are always a majority who can’t or so far haven’t had the massive good fortune of making it work, who cannot be consoled by the diminishing prospect of true communism. Though we know the utter brutal irrationality of living alone.’
It seems no less irrational, though undoubtedly less brutal, for couples to raise a baby alone as it is for single mothers. Yet the neoliberal conservative model of family life, predicated not just on home ownership and stable employment, but on the renouncement of any extra-familial support, remains itself a luxury. In those weeks, I longed for a mortgage.
It is taboo to speak of how much it hurts. Firstly, there is the physical pain of an abortion. I hadn’t been briefed to expect contractions, but they came, on the third day. I screamed into a pillow and discovered the miracle of controlled breathing of my own accord, dizzy with the spasms. The booklet given to you by the nurse with your set of six pills (two for swallowing orally in the examining room, four for inserting vaginally in the clinic’s dirty bathroom, then getting home as quickly as possible before it starts) tells you to expect heavy bleeding for anything up to two weeks. That you will see large clots, some the size of lemons. That you may feel a larger lump of tissue leaving, but not to worry, this will likely happen while you are on the toilet. As soon as I read that I determined that my lump of tissue would not be flushed away. I, who wanted my baby, would not dispose of its remains like piss and shit. I’m not entirely sure what I planned to do with this mound of foetal cells and womb-lining—put it in a shoebox and bury it like a pet?—but I never had to deal with this eventuality. The largest of the lumps fell into the toilet bowl, just as the Aftercare Instructions said it would, and I flushed, and I went back to bed with my hot water bottle. After the bleeding stopped, I read the NHS guidelines for all the weeks of pregnancy I wouldn’t experience. Foetal size is expressed in fruit: I almost made it to apricot.
Aged 23, a student in Rouen, Ernaux at least knew what she didn’t want. Her capacity for writing, the promise of an intellectual life, ‘lived among books’, waned with every day she carried a foetus inside her. Some days she was able to ignore her nausea, the feeling of a parasitical presence, and pretend she was alone in her body. But, as the weeks advanced the issue became more urgent, time couldn’t be outrun. Ernaux’s experience and account of her abortion is so different from my own, and yet there are familiar elements. Mine was not criminalised, nor did it cost me anything except the time to recover and the price of painkillers and thick ‘super absorbent’ sanitary pads. Ernaux was alone; I love and live with the father. Nevertheless, even today, a legal dance occurs when one wants a baby that one knows can’t be had. In the examining room the nurse asked me to sign the release form, declaring the continuation of the pregnancy a risk to my own health. It wasn’t my mental or physical health I was worried about, I tried to explain, it was that one part of future had arrived too soon, in advance of the rest. She seemed worried I had rushed my decision, and told me you know, there will never be a good time. A few minutes later it was done.
At one point in Happening, Ernaux goes on a ski trip, throwing herself over with abandon trying to stop her pregnancy with a brutal ‘accident’. At work, as I waited for my choice to arrive, I would try and pick up heavy boxes of books, hoping exertion would choose for me. It didn’t, but in other ways the work itself did. The uncertainty of my employment made a baby impossible, limited my choice so that keeping it became the position I had to justify. Other reservations flooded my thoughts too, doubts over my own ‘readiness’ for the job of mothering. Reflecting on the birth of her first child in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich describes her disbelief at finding herself one day promoted to motherhood, ‘Nothing could have prepared me for the realisation that I was a mother, one of those givens, when I knew I was still in a state of uncreation myself.’ But in those weeks I moved through the world with a pride unlike any I have ever known, identifying other pregnant women on the train through their ‘Baby on board’ badges, excited to be part of their club. Rich articulates this too, the peaceful sense of reconciliation with a version of womanhood which brooks no opposition, is radiant and joyous for all, the happy and expectant mother:
‘The atmosphere of approval in which I was bathed—even by strangers on the street, it seemed—was like an aura I carried with me, in which doubts, fears, misgivings met with absolute denial. This is what women have always done.’
Except some don’t. Some who aren’t women do. And denial meets its limits when exposed to a number-crunching realism, the sudden fear that you would let your baby down in ways you have yet to even imagine. Denial is vanquished when, in the Superdrug vitamins aisle, another woman reaches for the folic acid and smiles at you. She is one of the club, but you will throw most of the packet away. A waste. So you leave without making a purchase.
Secondly, there is the pain of loss. This is more mystifying than the arrival of the physical pain, which you are told you will experience as something like ‘a bad period’—an analogy clearly meant to naturalise the experience, to make it seem just one extreme iteration of menstrual life, rather than its dramatic interruption. Riley discusses the reticence she felt to claim her grief as of significance compared to that of a widow, or the mother of a murdered or suicided child. If Riley, mother of an actually born child, who actually died feels wary of describing her feelings as grief, then what am I playing at? I wondered this then and still do. Didn’t I just exercise my right to self-determination? Riley, as if answering my panic, continues,
‘Still, you needn’t have erected some dubious hierarchy of grief in order to wonder what’s particular to losing a child, of any age, and why this loss feels so different in kind from your experience of other deaths. And this question demands more than the obvious observation that the stronger the love for the dead, the sharper the loss. Perhaps what’s specific is this: that with the death of your child, your own experience of time may be especially prone to disturbance because the lost life had, so to speak, previously unfurled itself inside your own life. You had once sensed the time of your child as quietly uncoiling inside your own, then when that child is cut away by its death, your doubled inner time is also ‘untimely ripped’. Yours, and the child’s. The severance of the child’s life makes a cut through your own. You as its mother can no longer be present to yourself in the old temporal way. A sculptural imagination rises to grip you; the hollow of the old shelter for the living child has now been gouged out of you. It was the space of the child’s past, which used to lie like an inner shell enveloped by your own time. That child you had, alone, when you were young yourself, a child you grew up with, nested like a Russian doll whose shorter years sat within yours, gave you a time that was always layered. Then you held times, in the plural.’
A child at any age. What distinguishes a foetus from a baby? In my case, desire. The stronger the love, the sharper the loss. Wanting it gave it life and that life had unfurled inside my own, if only for a brief period. Then it was gone and there was only an imaginary, sculptural space at which to gesture, an imperceptible emptiness, a hollow. Not the space of anything’s past, nor, now, anything’s future.
A week later I wanted to go back. I wanted my time again. I wanted to have made another choice, while knowing that I had made the best one available to me (like anything ersatz, this prize was no consolation). I told a friend I had wanted a time-travelling foetus, not a dead one. I wanted my baby inside me again, but for it not to grow any more. Just to live on within me, paused until a moment I could restart the process—when this temporary life was a part of my past. When a child didn’t mean the end of work I had yet to even start. I had never, never, before experienced the harsh continuation of time so brutally. Why wouldn’t it go back? When, in the wakes of other deaths, I grieved for dead adults it had been a heavy loss, but there was something tangible to grieve. It was abrupt, harsh, destabilising—but the absence was solid. Instead, I grieved an impossibility I wanted returned to me.
Ernaux is an expert at extracting the moment, the image, the memory from its context, in allowing her reader to examine it cut free from the tangled vine of history from which it has grown. For Riley, the stoppage of time is connected to an ineffable experience, a recurrence in her writing, in which maternal life shapes the conditions of language and is in turn shaped by the conditions of history, materialism, class. In her recent essay on Riley’s work, Helen Charman asks ‘is there such a thing as a collective maternal elegiac voice?’ Reading Riley and Ernaux together, attempting—feebly—to join my voice to theirs has been like asking to join the chorus. Can the maternal collective sing together, across decades, form a lyric of the moment of pregnancy, one harmonised with the moment of loss? Could this lyric overlook the agency and chance at play in each of our situations, the relevance of class and income and housing? If so, it would be like living in an eternal, blissful, present. The children would never die, the contract would never end.
To abort is not the same as losing a living child to death, nor is it the same as a miscarriage (though they can be more alike than we admit). I know this. I know this acutely in the moments I am most full of grief, because I have nothing to grieve. There’s no real absence in my life, my home, where the baby once was. We never prepared for the baby as expectant, excited parents would have, a little further into the pregnancy. Bordered by our circumstances, there was never space for that baby. So I’m not left with an empty cot or a grave, just a test I won’t throw away. Two ghostly red lines that were a form of spectral communication—you can’t see me, but I’m here. It never had a personality I can miss, or hair I could keep a lock of (or, like Riley, wash from the basin days after its death) and the madness of missing it is entirely self-generated because who, exactly, did I think I had been talking to when I addressed it under the covers, before my partner came to bed, or on the train to work, pretending to listen to music? In my journal at the time I wrote: ‘would we be friends?’ The baby resided in the conditional, not yet (un)realised. I wanted to reside in a version of the present where that baby could have been. One where choice was based on desire, not conditions. I wanted a different present, a better tenancy.
The passivity de Beauvoir identifies with ouvrages de dame is not a necessary condition of women. She knew, as do we, better than to associate a natural mode of agency (or its lack) with a particular gender or identity. Rather it is a result of women’s conditions and conditioning by the world. One can choose to overcome it, she says. The opposition between two movements, one in favour of choice and one in favour of life, started to seem hilarious during those pregnant weeks. What is life without choice?! That’s one of the more bizarre elements of pregnancy—doing nothing, refusing choice, causes something huge to happen, creates a whole new life. Stubborn passivity characterised those weeks, spent willing the months to wash over me. Another line from my notes in that time: ‘strap me down until it’s done.’ Carve out a choice in negation, realise that not acting is a choice in itself (de Beauvoir made the choice herself, famously, as a signatory of the Manifesto of the 343). Choice is the embodiment of the responsibility de Beauvoir speaks of in that essay, from which springs an engagement with one’s material conditions. The responsibility to change the world is a heavy one though, and in abortion it’s unclear what it would mean. Change your world so a baby can be part of it? Abort your pregnancy so you can continue to try to change the world unencumbered by the responsibilities of maternity? Dames-d if you do, damned if you don’t.
June. Because nothing has changed, and no one else is counting, I have become desperate. Something happened, didn’t it? I want to shake people, disclose, make them know that I was close, really so close to living in another present. That I can’t stop thinking about the ‘now’ I was about to inhabit, about where I’d be—pregnancy is described as a journey, always, on online forums. And of course, how difficult it would be to be living that ‘now’ now, yes, but also the taste of steel and blood that comes from even acknowledging its possibility. When you have been pregnant, even briefly, you know how much of yourself there is to give up and how quickly you will do it. That’s the hormones, I can hear doctors saying, but don’t I make those hormones myself? I was mad, I am reminded, in that period. I was living in the wrong time, clinging to a baby I couldn’t have, acting as though accepting this was equivalent to a death. Just what am I so upset about now?
For Ernaux, the event began with sex and ended with publication. I would like to find an end in writing this too. For Riley, there is a need to communicate through the unsayable, to lay out a system of philosophy that addresses the unthinkable, to find others in the dark, to rhyme with the structure of their experience. I would like to be less alone with my strange grief too.
It has been three months now and it (the pregnancy and the abortion share a pronoun, one arc of narrative) could have happened yesterday or last year. Time was so distended in that moment, every day contained its own multiplication. People are saying similar things now about the lockdown and I feel like throwing open my arms and yelling, ‘welcome!’ If, on 31 December 2020 the clock ticked forward into 2030, 2040, or even just rolled back to 0000 I would not be at all surprised. Overall, the lockdown has been very convenient for my grief, even as it has made the grief of others impossibly complicated, disturbed all our rituals of commemoration at a time of unprecedented need. I can look at the difficulties it presents for so many and still feel relief for myself, because grief is, above all, selfish. I’m sorry. I was getting ready to emerge into a week, a month, a routine. Then everyone else stopped instead. I showed all the willingness to do the hard thing, make my comeback, then at the last moment it was cancelled. Like my pregnancy, or my understanding of it, the lockdown does not develop. There is no known endpoint yet, and this is how I felt about my ‘condition’ too. That, in October, a child might have emerged from my belly seemed ridiculous, even as every day that reality drew nearer.
There is a counter philosophy to Einsteinian relativity, little discussed in the history of science and much maligned. Known as serialism, it was developed by J.W. Dunne, an early aeronautical engineer, who posited that time does not flow from point to continuous point but instead consists of contiguous, parallel moments. Occasionally, a glitch or stutter, a brief arrestation in our human experience of time allows us to look across from the present at an event we are yet to experience. To us this feels like a premonition, but it is just an insight into the real nature of things, in which everything exists in the present tense. Serialism is the time of tenancy. Serialism is the time that ridicules choice, yes, but elevates it too, to a moment at which all futures become possible and can be seen, lived, at once. Looking back through my notebooks, I see that in March, I was able to write the future from the interminable present: ‘I know I am having an abortion not a baby. This is as far as we go, for now’.
Caitlín Doherty is a writer, historian and poet.
TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.