Many years ago I wrote a novel about two brothers whose mother abandons them at a young age. Toward the end of the novel, the mother explains to her now grown sons her motives for leaving them: “What I had, I did not want, and that was the life I had made for myself, the life of a wife and mother.” When I wrote those words, I was years away from being a mother myself, and yet in my heart I knew how this expression could be true, that a mother could wake up and realize she did not want to be that person anymore, but someone else. Perhaps it was the fact that my own mother kept a suitcase under her bed and periodically threatened to pack it up and use it; perhaps it was a preview of the feeling I would have when my newborn daughter was handed to me, of being trapped in my own life. But surely other women have this thought: what if I just got up and left?
Enter Maria Housden’s book, Unraveled: The True Story of a Woman Who Dared to Become a Different Kind of Mother, Housden’s story of how she came to leave her husband — and her three children in his custody — to pursue a bohemian life of writing, art, and travel. Told in a back and forth narrative that covers “10 days and 10 years,” the book’s first half begins with Housden arriving alone for a ten day private retreat. She has come there with her marriage in disarray and still grief-stricken over the loss of her three-year old daughter, Hannah, to cancer several years earlier. The real story of Unraveled starts with this death (a story told in Housden’s first book, Hannah’s Gift: Lessons from a Life Fully Lived .) With Hannah’s death, Housden’s empty marriage and suburban life come crashing down. She stops believing in God, cleaning the house, and cooking dinner for her husband. A comical scene midway through the book has her burning incense and reading about reincarnation only to have her tired husband come home to a dark, messy house and no dinner. “You’re crazy,” he shouts at her. “All this hocus-pocus incense and reincarnation shit. I’m sick of all those crazy friends of yours hanging out here too.”
In a better marriage, perhaps Housden would have been able to regroup and recover, to express her grief and find a way to move forward, but the marriage was in trouble even before Hannah’s death and it is in the quiet of the retreat that Housden realizes she has never been alone or made her own decisions. Her life is more circumscribed than the most Stepford of Wives (her husband Claude makes his demands very clear: a clean house, pressed shirts and sex on demand) and so the Unraveling that results is bound to be more intense.
Housden emerges from the retreat ready to divorce her husband, giving him primary custody of their children, and to pursue a simpler life. These are the nuts and bolts of Housden’s story — the path of a budding writer, an unfulfilled, sensual woman with needs and desires who strives for an identity apart from that of a wife and mother — but it is also the perennial story of how a woman’s choices often require drastic, rather than simple, change. Housden’s husband wants to see the children every day and put them down at night. Her hand is also forced by economic issues: she has no income of her own and can’t afford a place nearby. The “small settlement” she obtains from her ex-husband funds a one bedroom apartment in a less expensive town. With little economic independence to speak of, Housden’s emotional independence becomes all the more necessary.
These socio-economic truths exist between the lines of Housden’s story and are not issues she addresses directly. Rather, the story Housden tells is a metaphysical one of finding a self and an identity apart from that of Mother. This journey comes to fruition thanks to the arrival of her future second husband, Roger, whom she meets on that self-same retreat. Roger is a middle-aged Englishman whose look and smell reads “Man.” With his sartorial grace and worldly travel, Roger seems to have stepped out of the pages of “Bridges of Madison County” (a reference Housden herself makes later in the book, when trying to explain her decisions to a fellow Wife-Mom in her neighborhood), except that he’s holding a fountain pen and a journal rather than a camera.
If Roger appears like a knight on a white horse, rescuing Housden from a brittle, loveless life, then he is. It’s here that Housden’s story disappoints; we’re rooting for her to find love but the whole gestalt of the book hinges on her independence and this meeting, no matter how destined or metaphysical, feels like a setback from the journey of self-discovery we crave and anticipate. It’s also here that the reader becomes aware of the limitations of Housden’s prose. The effect of Housden’s first book, “Hannah’s Gift” lay in the simplicity of the telling. The facts of Hannah’s short life and her untimely death from cancer were told without artifice; in that book, Housden’s prose stuck to the details, sometimes grim, sometimes lyrical but always simple. That book’s front cover speaks to this simplicity: a pair of red shoes against a white background. Hannah’s favorite shoes, the shoes she demanded to wear through her first cancer surgery over the doctor’s objections.
Without the grounding spirit of Hannah and her red shoes, Housden veers into sentimentality. In the place of concrete, telling images, Unraveled gives us moments such as this:
I could feel my body unlearning its usual routine, reorienting itself to the track of the sun across the sky, to the rhythm and heat of the summer days. . . . I felt a heightened sense of awareness, a deeper, more natural relationship with everything around me. Here, although I felt as far from my other life as I could possible be, I felt closer than ever to the woman I’d always been.
Roger’s arrival turns the prose from violet to purple:
He was a strong-looking man, about fifty years old, with a kind, laugh-lined face, large, long-fingered hands and silver-gray hair cropped short. . . . My heart was a mirrored pool as we gazed into each other without words, filled with a sense of joy and delight. And although I had never seen his face or his form before, in that single, timeless moment I felt as if I knew the heart of this man and recognized both my separateness and my connection to him.
Roger looms large over the second half of the book. He provides her with a place to live rent-free on the West Coast so that she can fulfill her dream of being a writer, he gives her inspirational books of poetry, and he introduces her to his wonderful bohemian friends. While we don’t bedruge Housden her happiness, it’s hard not to wish that her struggle for individuality and self-expression weren’t, in the end, tied to yet another man.
Housden’s book reminds us that there still just aren’t many examples of an “in between” life for a woman and mother: a life fully realized that includes the day-to-day minutia and frustration of raising children, of balancing what we need with what they want, of learning to accept the inherent compromise of motherhood. As mothers, we really are either Mother Teresa or Medea. Unraveled might have been an even more compelling story had Housden addressed the impossibility of this “in between,” the questions that remain both unspoken and yet unavoidable: Why don’t women who are mothers deserve to be fulfilled? And why doesn’t society allow that to happen?
Still, the allure of the story lies in Housden’s sacrifice, the pure and potentially devastating act of walking away from it all. In that regard, Unraveled remains a fascinating story of one woman’s journey to find her true self while also making a terribly difficult choice that could be at the heart of many a mother’s fantasy life.