A priest stands on concrete steps of the Greek Orthodox church, welcoming people into the golden cavern.
I can hear the church bell ringing from up the street, lying on my mattress in this borrowed room, winter light touching the curtains. Grey dawn slinks in: here is a chest of drawers, a clothes hanger, a small desk. My mother slept here before me, my Nan before her. This is no family estate, no ancient timber home. This is a spare bedroom in my auntie’s house. This is where the women in my family come to stay when they leave their husbands.
‘I am the dream of my grandmother,’ Ijeoma Umebinyuo wrote. Her debut poetry collection, Questions for Ada, examines womanhood from a feminist, postcolonial perspective, from a time when grandmothers could not grasp what their granddaughters now have at their feet. Like Umebinyuo, my questions can grasp at only the edge of dreams: what did my Nan dream of? What kept her awake when early dawn peeked in her window? I know she never slept well.
She was here in this room when she tried to leave Grandad at age seventy. Perhaps she, too, heard the village call of the church bell, watched the light play on the wall.
Nan, clouds of perfume, shades of blue, standing at my door on school holidays. Nan in an op-shop, handbag over shoulder, sifting wool. Nan, frowning and silly, dressed up as a clown. Nan, a hospital bed, her papery hand in mine, her body somehow shrunken yet expanded, as if her borders were softened, as if she were spreading like a pool of liquid.
There is no pristine maternal role in our family. Though we are no strangers to love, the mothers in my life knew their sacrifice. The ritual of feeding a family was done with care, kindness and joyless resignation. Floors were mopped with heavy sighs.
These are the things I received from my line of mothers: stories, a love of words and colour, and a desire for freedom. If we inherit the sins of the fathers, then we receive the mistakes of the mothers.
Her father, from whom she received her last name, was killed in the middle of World War Two; family lore said he stuck his head out of a bomb shelter 'and got it blown clean off'. Born Maureen Chapman, she grew up with the contented loneliness of an only child, as her mother worked long hours, refusing to mention her slaughtered husband. Trying to survive. Little Maureen found refuge in books, found life and truth in stories that took her far away from a cold and empty house.
When a woman marries, she is expected to abandon her family name in order to take on her husband's. To die to her old self. We obliterate women, Rebecca Solnit writes, in the manner that history is written:
‘Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history...Names erased a woman's genealogy and even her existence.’
We belong to the fathers. Male surnames are passed down to children: proof of paternity, a claim to lineage. Predating family names, naming was patronymic; Ali Mohammed meant Ali son of Mohammed. This tradition, of naming children after their fathers' first names, continues in different forms across the world today.
The call came at 7.00am on a Saturday. I was tying on my apron, getting ready to begin a barista shift. Still sweating, I put my helmet back on and cycled to the city hospital.
Six months after a cancer diagnosis, twelve months after vomiting black muck onto the sitting room carpet, twenty years of swallowing daily painkillers, fifty years after meeting a tall handsome man at a dance hall whom she would love and resent, Maureen's liver was failing.
Her family surrounded her. A holy scene, twelve heads dotted around a white bed altar. We knew what to do with a terrible, primal certainty: blanket her in goodwill and kindness and warmth. At the beginning and at the end, all is love. The mysteries of consciousness. Could she hear the words we whispered over her? Did she hear Carol say, 'We will look after Dad,' or Jacqui speak with a deep velvet voice to the doctor, or see Ken's wild silver hair, his eyes, transfixed on her face, catching her hand whenever it flew up in distress?
Consciousness is still a mystery, but Nan knew when we were all in the room. Because that is when she left it.
It was 1954 and the taste of rations were sandy in everyone's mouth. Maureen met Ken at a Yorkshire dance hall. He was tall and handsome with a natural singing voice. She was sixteen in a low-collar that revealed fine collarbones and a skirt nipped in at the waist. Her body was lithe like a dancer's and he saw her from across the room.
When Ken was conscripted to National Service, he wrote her letters from Germany, S.W.A.L.K scrawled on the close of the envelope. Somewhere on the continent, he had both forearms inked with black anchors: ‘Maureen’ on one, ‘Mum’ on the other. Emotional anchors to the women he loved, who loved him. This black magic cast a spell upon the women in our family: it became our responsibility to anchor men with incomplete hearts.
They were married in September 1957 and my mother Jacqui arrived next April. It was exactly one month before Nan’s twentieth birthday.
Marriage is a commitment between two people. Marriage is a vow to sleep together, live together, raise a family together. Marriage is a house you build together. Marriage is ‘a constant rhythm of adaptation between two people’. Marriage is an exercise in selflessness. Marriage is forever.
This is what I know: the history of marriage between a man and a woman is based on ownership. Women were property: given, gifted, stolen. If our families were powerful, we were part of a business agreement; if we were poor, as so many more were, we were offered as workers. Domestic workers. Sexual labourers. Within a marriage, a woman and her body were not her own. She could not refuse her husband. For hundreds of years, rape didn't exist between husband and wife, and in Australia, the criminalisation of marital rape only happened across all states by the early 1990s.
This is what hurts: marriage became a way to control women. Kindness, intimacy, shelter; a warm house nevertheless built on a foundation of oppression.
Is it possible to hold this heritage in one hand, and stroke your husband's hair with the other?
Margaret Atwood's debut novel, The Edible Woman, published in 1969, deals with the pressure to wed. At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Marian, becomes engaged to her long-term boyfriend Peter. ‘Of course, I'd always assumed through high school and college that I was going to marry someone eventually and have children, everyone does...’ she mused.
Marian begins doing inexplicable, strange things. She hides beneath a bed. She kisses a strange man and conducts a half-hearted affair. She begins dissociating from her body. Eventually, she can no longer eat meat, then vegetables, then much at all, an act that can be read as solidarity with food as prey, and as resistance to feminine roles.
At this point in the novel the narration moves from first-person to third; ‘I’ becomes ‘Marian’ and ‘she’, signifying her loss of agency, the way she has sunk slowly from herself like a body into a black lake. Finally, Marian bakes Peter a cake in the shape of a woman and serves it to him on a platter. ‘You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you ... This is what you've wanted all along, isn't it? I'll get you a fork,’ she says to him. Peter flees, ending their engagement. Her appetite returns, and she eats the cake.
Names form our identity. I never saw myself as bowing to pressure, when I signed my new name on my marriage certificate. But neither did I question it.
I walked down that aisle on my father's arm (who wore, spectacularly, a bowler hat and a waxed moustache). And I took my husband's name. I was so distracted by the story of our love that I missed the structural reality. My transition of identity – moving from my father’s house to my husband’s – was signified by surname. I thought that because I chose freely, patriarchal power was nullified. But, in reality, I was passed from one male authority to another.
Early in their marriage, Maureen and Ken lived in a row of terraced cottages, lines of identical buildings that housed the working poor. Across Britain, many of these residences didn't have hot water, and were marked slums by the government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the house where Maureen gave birth to two of her three daughters, sometimes the pipes froze. Sometimes the milk was delivered solid.
Ken worked jobs at train yards, in steel works. He told me he would ride a bike through the snow. He told me he shovelled shit. Maureen's work was to quiet the children, to cook the dumpling stews, to ensure they were all clothed.
In 1965, the government only charged ten pounds for air tickets to Australia, and children flew free. On the other side of the world were work opportunities, warm weather and, maybe, happiness. With three children under seven, Ken and Maureen flew towards the sunshine.
Like Nan, I was sixteen when I met my husband. As if my story were written decades ago. Not in a dance hall in Hull but a youth group in suburban Adelaide. At church I found a spiritual life, a place to belong, and a boyfriend who played guitar.
‘With this ring, I thee wed.’ The act of encasing a finger with a gold band. The teary giggle, catching my lover's eye. I married at twenty-two. At the same age, Nan was already pregnant with her second child. My wedding wasn't shotgun like hers, but rather a logical progression, what I believed to be a step into the land of grownups. I’m not the only one who saw it this way: Briohny Doyle's Adult Fantasy (2017) is one of many books discussing the changing markers of maturity for millennials. Sociologists, she writes, define reaching adulthood as a series of milestones: marriage, career, home ownership, children. In a society bereft of ritual, a wedding is a public statement of adulthood.
‘Everything I am I give to you. Everything I have I share with you’. An enormous pledge. One cannot lay out the cost of a life lived in service, itemise the forsaken elements of self at this portal between old life and new. And oh, I wanted to give him everything. Nothing terrible was ever demanded. My new husband didn't sit on the edge of the marital bed, cradle my hand and say, like Bluebeard, ‘Now that we are alone in this place you must do as I wish’. But in a complex mix of structural and personal dynamics, I surrendered my autonomy.
‘My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead,’ Jenny Offill's narrator says in Dept of Speculation (2014). ‘Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't ever fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’
Women’s lives are still expected to be lived in service to others. Care work and house work; economies depend on our unpaid physical and emotional labour. In Offill's novel, the protagonist's unfulfilled creative career lingers over her marriage like a ghoul. When she takes on more paid work, her gentle husband expresses dissatisfaction because the garbage never gets taken out. Women, you see, have responsibilities.
I never felt comfortable in my husband's name. It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot: Heinrich with its sharp letters and harsh sound, a family that holds tight to blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end. Claiming a space as a feminist writer while belonging to my husband by namesake made me feel like a hypocrite. Nevertheless, throughout my marriage I remained a Heinrich; I didn't want to abandon the humble ground I'd gained as a writer, and I wasn't sure if Schebella ever fit, either.
Lately I've been buying plane tickets, arriving at new places. Introducing myself. The stutter, halfway through a handshake. This boot no longer fits.
'When I got married, I didn't even know how to cook,' Nan told me while frying onions and mince in her cold kitchen. She would pick my brother and I up from school on Thursdays, ply us with sweets and begin making dinner, served at 5pm because ‘Grandad gets very hungry’. A favourite of mine was crepes, served for dessert. The dining table positioned so we could watch the last of the cartoons before ABC News. Nan would make the batter before teatime, whisk it in a plastic jug with an old fork, and leave it to rest next to the sink. She fried them in hot butter and slipped them pan to plate using a steel spatula, where we'd squeeze lemon halves and sprinkle sugar. Only when our bellies were full would Nan serve herself.
I had a room of my own in our last house together. It had a bookshelf, a desk, a window that overlooked a terribly large lawn and a failed vegetable patch. There was the basil, undisciplined and gone to seed, bare patches where the carrots should have sprouted by now, and a line of sunflowers, taller than me but long dead, black and bending like weary soldiers.
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf alights on that vital phrase: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write’. In order to create, she writes, a woman must have independence, and receive an income of 'five hundred a year', which signifies guaranteed material wellbeing.
Revisiting this text felt electric. I clung to it like a drowning woman. In most heterosexual couples and families, daily acts of care and service are done primarily by women. Annabel Crabb's 2013 examination of women in power, The Wife Drought, began with the question, ‘Why aren't there more women in parliament?’ The answer was simple: being a politician is an incredibly demanding job. Men can do it because they have wives, partners who arrange their domestic lives. Cooking dinner, caring for children and the elderly, staying home for an electrician's appointment.
A 2013 government fact sheet showed that between heterosexual couples who both worked full time, women did an average of 7 hours more childcare and 4.2 hours more housework per week than their male partners. What women need to get into the upper echelons of power, Crabb says, is a wife. Yes, I had my room. But if the door was open, I could see the laundry. I could see the kitchen.
Grandad insisted on cleaning out Nan's room immediately. My mother and aunties dismantled her art room, took down her drawings, emptied jars of buttons. I took a painting. It wasn't until weeks later that I stuck it in an old frame and leant it against a wall and really looked. A settee, a crocheted rug, and the detritus of family life lying across it: a toy rabbit, a coloured ball. The debris of children.
But there, in the background, a doorway half obscured: Nan's Room. Through this visage you can see her desk, her pencils, her art. This was hers.
In my household, there were always reasons why. I was still at uni, he was working full time. My hours were more flexible. I wanted to eat dinner every night. My hands withstood hot dishwater better. He just didn't have the headspace for it all.
I was never expected to do the housework, nor were we without attempts to bring balance. But writing this, I still feel a hopeless fury. We returned, predictably, to the pattern of our parents. The mistakes of our mothers.
One Christmas he gave me three beautiful notebooks. The two notebooks labelled ‘Scribbles’ have long been filled; the third, with 'Recipes' in cursive on the front, has one handwritten page (cauliflower with tahini, in case you were wondering). The rest of the pages are blank.
I don't want to denigrate caring – service birthed in love is humanity's most noble act. But other forces are at work. I cleaned and cooked first with the hope to create a beautiful home together and then, with growing resentment because who else would do it? Nan's spirit blew through the house. Who would fold my umbrella? Who would lick my stamps?
A memory, not mine: A family celebration with a smorgasbord, Ken's favourite. Nan had gotten her licence. She was fifty-two.
My twin brother and I are one, maybe two. I can see us now, in this regurgitated vision: chubby round things with dark curly hair, a mess of tomato sauce and spaghetti in highchairs.
Nan: permed curls, dark eyeshadow. She had been inspired by the 1989 film Shirley Valentine, in which a middle-aged housewife found freedom. Shirley went to Greece, and Maureen went to the registration office.
What kind of obstacle was it for Nan, to have her movement so restricted? And now, what did freedom taste like?
In her little blue sedan, whose loose muffler echoes in my memories, she got behind a steering wheel. After years of being driven by Ken, in her twilight years Maureen drove herself.
‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’
This is Simone de Beauvoir responding to Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’
Traditionally, a woman did not have independence because she was the property of her husband. Her time did not belong to her; her primary role was to care for and serve her family. This is reflected today in the idea of 'work flexibility' being overwhelmingly associated with how employed women balance their caretaking duties.
'Freedom', de Beauvoir writes, 'is one of the conditions most necessary for what we call genius to flourish'. The word she uses for freedom, in the original French, is disponibilité, which translates to availability.
Being creative is not incompatible with marriage. But relationships cost. Marriages cost. They cost time and thought and care and planning and listening and praying. The goal of married life becomes to move beyond selfishness, towards selflessness, and the flourishing of your partner. In my back room, with its view of the overgrown garden, I always had the thought: what will he think? Of my words, of my thoughts, of the life I want to live. I allowed his opinion to dominate my mind; I built a fence for my wild desires. I relinquished my availability to possibilities – I did not have disponibilité.
‘The five hundred a year,’ Woolf wrote, ‘stands for the power to contemplate...a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.’
I never got that lock installed. I belonged to myself, but I also belonged to him.
When Maureen retired, her hands became her own.In vast church halls warmed with modest bar heaters, Maureen met with elderly women wearing knitted cardigans. Crocheting, watercolours, felt work. Once I drove Nan to the Adelaide Hills to teach a guild about zentangling, a zany form of random needlework. In these groups, Maureen found friendships contingent on proximity, like the ones that disappeared when work stopped. She offered to teach me crocheting, but I never had the time.
When my brother and I spent afternoons after school at Nan and Grandad's, we drew. She would open the door to her room, dust dancing silently on sunbeams. There were coloured pencils, a hundred pattern books, a thousand balls of wool. Sparkling threads, textures she'd foraged in op-shops. A wonderland of colour.
She did the food shopping every Wednesday, even after she retired.
The only time I ever saw Grandad cook was when Nan went on a trip to England – we ate ham steaks fried for breakfast after an early Saturday at Trash and Treasure. Released from the servitude of the working class, freed from the demands of motherhood, Maureen's hands became her own. But they were still tied to a woman's demands.
I want to write. I want words to rain down on me. I want to live in castles made of stories. I want to be a burning fool drunk on ideas and hypnotised by sorrow and hope and desire and perfect sentences. I want to lock myself away, to retreat from the world for months in silent country towns. I want to burst out again for birthday parties and to kiss beloved ones on the cheek, hard. I want to fly across oceans. I want to go where I am called.
I do not want to cook dinner. I do not want to mop floors.
I have been called selfish. So be it. I am only admitting to desires that men have followed for centuries. And for too long I tidied my wants away, placed them neatly in a high cupboard and locked the door. Hoping if I sat quietly in the corner like an obedient child then desires of my heart would be granted.
I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want.
My name is a stranger's skin.
In 2016, German artist Sophie Bandelin took moulds of people's bodies to create new silicon skins. Different participants then pulled on these skin suits. Baggy in some places, tight in others, Bandelin took photos of her subjects clothed in the skins of strangers. Heinrich. Straight. Blunt. Anger, close to the surface. This is the heritage of my current surname.
It no longer belongs to me – if it ever did.
Helen Garner has had three husbands. Her surname, with which she has achieved worldwide prominence as a writer, is not her most recent husband's name. Nor is it her father's name. It belonged to her first husband. ‘I feel that Ford is my child name,’ she said in an interview, ‘Garner is my grown-up name.’
I am no longer the same as the woman who married at twenty-two, holding balloons and the hand of a man I expected to lead me. It is time to search for my grown-up name.
A month after she died I am ready to look through her sketchbook. There are three in total: one small and black, one large with hard white pages, a medium one of creamy card. I pour a cup of tea, take a breath, turn a page. Watercolours of old houses, crumbling ruins encountered on caravan trips. Nan would sketch while Grandad fished. I think of her hand holding the pencil, her face in repose in the orange Australian dusk. Smiling, I begin to flip through sketches of birds, buildings, faces, trees – and then a blank page. More blank pages. Opening the other two, they are the same. Nan began notebooks, and then abandoned them. They are unfinished.
And so. Opening my book labelled ‘Recipes’, I tear out the first page. And I take up my pen.
Down the street from the Orthodox Church, there is a cemetery. Every day I ride my bicycle through this place, flashing past rows and rows of stone monuments. Sometimes I sit on concrete steps and weep, the sky stark above me.
Only when I removed my ring did I realise how much I used it as a touchstone. My left thumb would search the point where the ring finger meets the palm; it used to come up against a gold band that would remind me that I was worthy. Here in the cemetery, I read the headstones – Henrietta May Turner, beloved wife of Frances, mother to George and Lucy – I am reminded that, in death, our lives are recorded by who we love. Love brings meaning. Love brings purpose.
Now that my ring finger is bare, who am I? What brings me meaning? This is the problem with freedom. Sartre wrestled with it, as did de Beauvoir. When you have freedom, you have to make your own choices. You have to make your own purpose.
An imbalance of emotional labour doesn't just impact women's relationships, but also their work and creative life. Men have been the predominant creators of art for centuries. This is not merely due to a woman's natural disinclination to pick up a paintbrush.
Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1970: ‘Men were thinking, writing, and creating, because women were pouring their energy into those men; women are not creating culture because they are preoccupied with love...for millennia they have done the work, and suffered the costs, of one-way emotional relationships the benefits of which went to men and to the work of men.’
My marriage was at many times delightful. But it was not an even exchange. And it is impossible not to wonder how many words are unwritten simply because I was ‘preoccupied with love’, because I spent tears and time on a relationship that did not give me what I required. ‘Love, perhaps even more than childbearing, is the pivot of women's oppression today,’ Firestone wrote. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, revealed how the division between man and woman is at the basis of domination, exploitation and inequality. The book has been criticised since its publication, but when I read the chapter on love, I went wild underlining passages. ‘Thus her whole identity hangs in the balance of her love life’. Underlined, despite my shame. ‘She is allowed to love herself only if a man finds her worthy of love.’
I think of a pile of notebooks on the ground, fallen open. Their empty pages.
Emotional labour. I found this concept hard to understand until after I left. bell hooks explained it best, in her book about romantic love in modern society, how it operates within the context of heterosexual relationships: 'In patriarchal culture, men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.'
What is the work that love demands? Is it familiarity with emotions, the inclination to nurture, the sympathy and empathy that we associate with the feminine, that is rewarded in girls? That is beaten and humiliated out of boys?
Laurie Penny explained this in her 2016 article 'Maybe you should just be single', that men feel entitled to romantic love, while women know that love is work. We are trained from a young age to cultivate our unruly bodies to a pleasant, marriageable shape; once we sign up to a romantic partnership, our job is to soothe and smile and be solely responsible for emotional wellbeing.
The natural state of a marriage, I was told, was for each person to submit to the other. To put the other's needs before your own – and this is work. An equal partnership creates a sun-drenched garden of mutual service.
But like a watering can, you can only pour for so long if you remain unfilled. Romance movies tell you all you need is love. They don't tell you what to do when you discover that love, alone, is not enough.
Perhaps Maureen dreamt of a lock on the door to her room: the door that was always open, with its view of the kitchen, of the laundry, of the children's toys. Following the tradition of the father, the name Omer will vanish from this family with my mother's generation. Maureen's existence will be erased.
I am who I am because of the women who have come before me. Whose courage, cut short, has become mine. And so: Omer will be my name. It is a strange skin that will take time to become my home. But in this act, I honour the line of the mothers. I claim the dreams of my grandmother.
Louise Omer writes about religion, feminism, and books. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Australian, and The Saturday Paper. In 2017 she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship Recipient and was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman.