While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….
But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.
One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.
Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.
It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.
The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.
She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.
Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.
Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.