Love after motherhood

Nikki Gemmell
Nikki Gemmell 

I'm sitting at the hairdresser and the woman in the chair next to me is going on and on, about her marriage, and how she and her husband have nothing in common any more, how her children are sucking the life force out of her, how there has to be more to life than this ...

I've almost reached the point of turning around, slapping her across the head with a blowdryer, and telling her to shut up, for I am sick to death, that's right sisters, SICK, of hearing women complain about their marriages. I'm sick of complaining about my own, too. There's nothing more pointless and destructive. It doesn't help that I'm reading Nikki Gemmell's latest book, With My Body, while I'm waiting for my foils to do their work.''You've been locked away for so long and your husband does not have the combination and never will, now, has no idea what kind of combination is needed; he thinks all is basically fine with his marriage. You've both reached a point of stopping in the relationship, too busy, too swamped by everything else,'' Gemmell writes.

Perhaps I should hit the woman in the next chair with the book - it's compact but would pack a hefty wallop - and then tell her to take it home and read it and take a good, hard look at herself. She might learn something.

Gemmell thinks this is hilarious when I tell her. The mother of four is in the middle of school holidays. During the course of the interview, she breastfeeds the new baby, born on July 7 - ''I've lost count of how many weeks that is'' - deals with a toilet paper issue and kisses a stubbed toe. It's chaos. But she's revelling in it. Her laugh is raucous and friendly. She's happy. Part of that has something to do with being back in Australia. Married to media analyst Andrew Sholl for 13 years, she's only recently convinced him to return home. In all definitions of the word. The family had been raising the children in London, something Gemmell describes as ''gruelling'', as much as she loved the city itself.

''I've just had this huge happiness injection,'' she says. ''I feel grateful to be back in Australia ... I've just had this craving for the light and the heat and the sunshine.''

But she hasn't always felt that way and empathised with the woman at the hairdresser's.

''I've been there ... we all have if we're honest ... I've felt like I've been drowning in motherhood, drowning in being the little wife, at home with the nappies and the washing machine and the dishes. I've certainly felt I've lost that sense of who I am and the woman I used to be and wondered how can I reclaim her. Writing this book about it, it was a relief. The protagonist realises in the end this is the life she has chosen and it's a bloody good life and why is she complaining about it, that she should revel in it and make the most of it."

That's the point Gemmell is at. ''But ask me again after another year of sleepless nights,'' she says with a laugh.

The Bride Stripped Bare
was a sensation when it came out in 2003. Written anonymously, Gemmell was identified as the author before it was published, it was tagged everything from ''literary porn'' to ''outrageously, brutally honest ... the book I wished all my lovers had read''. Gemmell would get emails from women who said they'd passed it on to girlfriends and daughters, or left it on their pillow in the hope their husbands would read it and learn something. Gemmell still refers to the book, and the repercussions as ''the world of Bride''.

What brought her back to that world? To this ''companion piece'', she calls it. The Wife is not the Bride all grown up.

''I'd entered a new phase of my life, careering into my 40s, and felt emboldened and more sure about who I am and my place in the world and more confident as a writer,'' she says.

''For years and years I never felt I wanted to dive back into the world of Bride or that territory. I just kind of felt ... I don't know ... but then things started to change, at the school gate, the wisdom of many women all around me, as we all entered a new phase of our lives, and our sexuality, as we left the baby years - that didn't work so well for me did it! - we had this interesting new world to explore. One day I had an epiphany and said I can do this, I feel confident, I feel different now to how I did in my mid-30s where, I guess, I was so kind of worried about what people thought of me. I was hijacked by cautiousness and my place in the world but I've become looser and more courageous and bolder as I've gotten older.''

Gemmell says she finds the honesty of this book liberating. ''In the early days of Bride, I found it excruciating, that those really deep honesties would be associated with me,'' she says.

''I felt I had my little family around me, my husband around me, I wanted to protect them, because people would just assume it was all about them. As time went on I found it liberating and empowering because women would come up to me and say, 'That's exactly what I think, thank you for writing my words, words I was never able to express to my husband' or whoever. Honesty is a force for good, and this time around again, it's good that we have a dialogue, that we talk about this vexed issue of sexuality.''

Gemmell says she still gets asked the question of how much the books are autobiographical.

''It is a novel, it's not non-fiction,'' she says. ''I still get asked that all the time, all the time. The way I write, I want to write incredibly honestly. There's always a kind of, excruciating to me but perhaps courageous, level of truth within my writing which opens me up to the accusation that it's a thinly-veiled autobiography or non-fiction or whatever, but it's not. It's a novel.''

With My Body is divided into four parts: the present, two parts which look back at the Wife's youth, and then present again. Most pages are taken up by her relationship with Tol, a writer she meets when she's about 17, still at high school, a ''wild thing'' with dirt on her knees and a young woman's body ripe for the plucking. (Once again, there's plenty of sex).

It's the love affair of her life, but a different love to that for a husband, passionate, sordid, dirty even, life-changing. It was a frustrating section for me, although it's at the core of the book, for enduring love, the love for a husband, can't be compared with that. I suggest that perhaps this is where wives get themselves into trouble, where the drowning starts, because we're comparing the lives we're living now to the one great love of our life or to the lives we had as carefree schoolgirls on the precipice of discovering our sexuality. Gemmell understands the frustrations but says the book is about love on many levels.

''The book is a sexy love story in one sense but I think, much more potently, it's about love between partners, about first love, about love within a marriage, love involving children, but also, potently, about love between parents and a child,'' she says. ''I wanted that to be a central theme of the book and one of my editors said that she felt the book, as much as anything, was about the love between a father and a child.''

It's the Wife's father, who, without her knowing, changes the course of his daughter's life. It's not until she's an adult, in the present, that she realises that. ''I thought it was interesting people seem to take different things from it,'' Gemmell says.

''I wanted that to be a strong part of the story, that one of the cruellest things that can befall a child is when love from a parent is withheld, in whatever way. I wanted to talk about the inarticulacy among some Australian men. Here it was a love that was never expressed but was actually expressed in an explosive action that changed everything.''

There's a minor relationship in the book between the Wife and Susan, another mother from her son's school. It's a relationship that many women will recognise, where women become entwined purely because their children are at school together.

Gemmell laughs, again, when I talk about the Susans in my own life. ''We all have them, don't we?'' she says. ''I had a Susan in my life, I kind of felt, 'Am I the only one who is driven completely bananas by this woman', but I couldn't say anything to her. I felt locked into this strange kind of relationship where she was always going to be in my life, for years and years, this woman dragging me down and getting under my skin."

''I thought I would never be a friend to this woman, never chose her as a friend ... disentangling yourself from a relationship like that is part of the process of getting our own life back

''In the book... I wanted to write about motherhood, too, that it doesn't necessarily just kind of flatline in this feeling of helplessness. We can pull ourselves out of it, we can bring changes upon ourselves which is what the protagonist does.''

What does she think the mothers down at the school gate will make of With My Body? Will they stay away and lock up their husbands or will they secretly whisper a thank you?

She laughs again, saying that will be the real test, won't it?

With My Body by Nikki Gemmell. Fourth Estate. RRP $29.99.

I've felt like I've been drowning in motherhood, drowning in being the little wife, at home with the nappies and the washing machine and the dishes.

This article originally appeared at the Canberra Times.