Books

This Novelist Abandoned Her Toddlers. I Wanted to Know Why.

I found a different Doris Lessing in her letters.

Black and white photo of a slightly smiling Lessing standing in what appears to be a kitchen
Doris Lessing on Oct. 14, 1957. Daily Herald/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

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When I first started looking at the lives of mother-writers and mother-artists, I said I wanted to write about creative women who left their children. I was thinking of how, when my own two children were small, every move I made away from them was a shock, both to me and to our fragile balance as a family. Motherhood challenged and changed my sense of an independent self, and I imagined I could understand that field of tension by looking, among others, at Doris Lessing.

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Lessing was said to have left her first two children behind in her home country, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1949, when she went to London with the manuscript of her first novel. For choosing her vocation over her motherhood, she has been both vilified and celebrated. British writer Lara Feigel takes Lessing as a model for escape from the constraints of married parenthood and, as she writes in her memoir Free Woman, learns from Lessing that “it was more important to live fully than to live contentedly.”

But when I actually looked at Lessing’s life, I didn’t find either heartless abandonment or a bold dash for freedom. Unsurprisingly, the author who brilliantly laid bare the dissatisfactions and self-deceptions of mid-20th-century women’s lives, and whose 1962 novel The Golden Notebook explored the rifts between women’s personal, public, and creative selves, had a much more complicated story.

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In her memoir Under My Skin, Lessing writes that in 1943, at age 23, she sat down on her suburban lawn with her two toddlers and explained that she was leaving them. Not daring to say she planned to write, she said she was going to fight racial and economic injustice. She thought she was doing the right thing, believing, from experience, that mothers were inevitably frustrated and judgmental, and that only if her children weren’t mothered at all could they really be themselves.

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In the ardent, funny, wry letters that she wrote in her 20s, when she was separated from her children and dedicated to sexual, political, and literary self-discovery, she tells a different story. She writes of enjoying motherhood and of wanting to be with her children, who were not the only obstacle to her freedom. Neither wholly independent nor consumed with guilt, she tries on paper to work out how to be a mother and remain at the center of her own story.

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In the reading room of the University of East Anglia, I scrolled through image after scanned image—over 100 letters in all, many of them six or eight or 10 pages, signed with her childhood nickname, “Tigger.” This enormous outpouring of thought and feeling was sent, between 1944 and 1949, to two friends, John Whitehorn and Coll MacDonald, whom Lessing had met when they came to Rhodesia for Royal Air Force flight training at the end of the Second World War. Although Doris had a new husband, Gottfried Lessing, she had briefly slept with Whitehorn, running off with him from a party to make love in the grassy veld—a scene she would later write into The Golden Notebook.

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But Lessing’s interest in Whitehorn is intellectual as well as romantic: With him and his friend MacDonald, she can talk about literature and try out her own voice as a writer. The future author is very much present in these letters, not only in her astute observations of herself and others but in her increasing seriousness about her vocation—though she’s still joking when she writes, “One of these days you will be able to say ‘the novelist Tigger. Of course, I know her very well!’ ”

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Almost immediately motherhood enters into the correspondence, in the age-old way: On Jan. 17, 1945, three weeks after their night of love, she tells Whitehorn that she hasn’t “miscontracepted” and isn’t pregnant after all. She’s irrationally disappointed, she observes, and is trying to dispel the feeling by remembering in detail what it’s like to be woken by a crying child and never to have time for herself.

The overwhelming nature of her maternal feelings is a recurring theme in the letters, as is her fear of—and desire for—being overwhelmed. She often writes about her two children, John and Jean, now living with their father, Frank Wisdom. She confesses that she had them for the wrong reasons—married at 19, when she had just left her parents’ farm and was looking for company and an adult life; immediately pregnant with a child she wasn’t ready for but didn’t know how to prevent. She explains that she felt that she was losing herself in her marriage and had to leave, yet she still fantasizes about another child and tries to spend more time with John and Jean.

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Along with others’ belief that motherhood means total devotion to one’s children, she feels limited by her own view of her mother role, especially her conviction that it can never go together with intellectual work. Part of her wants to write and be an activist, while another just wants to stay home, cook, sew, and have babies: “These two things don’t fit together, you must admit.” When a friend marries, she comments, “I can’t think which is more satisfactory, having a baby, or writing a novel. Unfortunately they are quite incompatible.”

Yet is also occurs to her that the problem is structural, and possibly generational. Her English grandmother had had a nanny, and her grandchildren, she predicted, would have affordable day care. It was her contemporaries who were so disappointed: promised career success, stuck with babies. “I haven’t yet met a woman who isn’t bitterly rebellious,” she wrote, “wanting children, but resenting them because of the way we are cribbed cabined and confined.”

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I found her in the letters not trying to get away from John and Jean, but arguing to spend more time with them, an uphill battle against her first husband. The problem was that under Rhodesian law, a woman who left her marriage lost all rights to her children. At the time of the letters, Wisdom was just starting to allow her to visit them again, after a full year in which he had kept them from her.

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In March 1945, Doris describes to Whitehorn how she has phoned Frank to ask if she could have the children for Easter. First, he accuses her of “neglecting” John and Jean after the divorce.

Me. Since I was forbidden to see them at all it is difficult to see what else I could do but neglect them.

He. Still, it showed lack of feeling.

Me. Apart from … staying married to you I couldn’t do anything else.

He. Precisely.

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He tells her to come to his office, where he lectures her for an hour on her political views, her “bohemian” lifestyle, and her culpability in leaving him, then suddenly relents and says yes. “Complete collapse of me, but that’s all right,” she writes, adding that by then she hardly knows how to care for her children, what they like to eat, what they wear. When she asks her son if he would like to come with her, “he gives me a considering look for some time and then says ‘I don’t see why I should, do you?’ ”

If her son’s coolness hurts, she doesn’t say so; instead she writes glowingly about her children’s brains, her son’s independence, her daughter’s beauty. But there’s resignation in her words too, when she says she adores 5-year-old Jean, “an affectionate and sensitive infant. I wish I could have her, but I can’t, so that’s that.”

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What works best with Frank, she tells Whitehorn, is to make tearful appeals to maternal feeling and her natural rights to the children of her body. But she refuses to stoop to the same pseudo-biological arguments about mother love that are used to keep women in the home. Mother-writers of her generation had to guard against sentimentality; they had to set limits, too, on their partners’ demands. Doris’ second husband, Gottfried Lessing, respected her time more than Frank had. A fellow activist in Rhodesia’s tiny Communist Party, he admired her political skills and didn’t expect her to make him his tea. He shared her Marxist disapproval of the bourgeois family and commitment to gender equality—and, since they weren’t very compatible in bed, agreed to her request for an open relationship.

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But when she left her job as a typist to write a novel, he drew a line. He made it clear to Doris (she complained to Whitehorn in March 1945) that he didn’t think any writing was worth doing that didn’t serve the Revolution. How was lying in the bathtub reading poetry supposed to advance the class struggle? What good to anyone were her second-rate sonnets? She replied that she didn’t know but didn’t plan to let that stop her. To MacDonald she reported the following exchange: “Do you think, I say meekly, that Lenin would have liked Virginia Woolf? No, says G firmly.”

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Doris realized she was stuck in yet another marriage where she couldn’t think her own thoughts. She told Whitehorn that Gottfried claimed, “ ‘When people have a relationship such as we have, love outside marriage is a betrayal.’ Well, I agree with him, except I am horrified and frightened by his saying that, when half the things I think I can’t tell him, because he disapproves.”

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Writers court disapproval, and so do mothers. Writing about other women’s mothering has at times made me feel deeply, inexplicably uncomfortable, as if I were trespassing in dark corners of the collective unconscious. In the letters, I see Lessing experiencing that same trepidation and pushing against it, thinking through the experiences she would use in her autobiographical novels Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage, with their pathbreaking honesty about motherhood. When Whitehorn said she was writing too much about children, she informed him that that was his problem and went on being a mother and writer both—especially after February 1946, when she told him she was expecting another baby.

In Under My Skin, Lessing describes her third pregnancy as her and Gottfried’s deliberate decision, though to Whitehorn and MacDonald she wrote that it had been an accident, the result of an ill-judged experiment “with a newfangled form of contraception.” She half hoped for a miscarriage; but she also hoped the new baby would make her feel less “lost” without John and Jean. Ultimately, she told Whitehorn, she couldn’t help but give in to the excitement of bringing a new life out of “limbo.”

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She still censored herself: Her account of childbirth, in the letters, is stripped of the sensuality and wonder that would animate the birth story in A Proper Marriage. And others judged her: One day at breakfast, 6-year-old Jean asked if she was going to give the new baby away, like she had done with them. When Doris denied that she’d “given them away,” John replied, “That’s what Frank says.” The conversation left her “feeling as if beaten all over, like steak.”

Yet she began to see that it was possible to be a mother without losing herself. Gottfried was an involved and helpful father to their son Peter, and Doris had access to day care and time to work. With Peter in day care every afternoon from about age 1 and Lessing making steady progress on a draft of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, she was able to find a balance between her vocation and care.

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I ended up seeing Doris Lessing not as a great advocate of freedom, but as a brilliant writer who had both lived and described the entanglements and self-deceptions of motherhood, bringing feelings that had seemed “natural” into the daylight realm of political action and change. Her story of radical independence turned out to be, when I looked more closely, a false front for a much more complicated narrative of selfhood and mothering, one in which mothers learn to live with divided hearts, to reshape motherhood around their vocation, and to love without losing themselves.

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Essay adapted from Julie Phillips, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, W.W. Norton & Company.