Liz Jobey that leaves the mother’s partner out in the cold. She lies awake while they sleep soundly together; she is isolated, guiltily resentful of the baby that has taken her place in her lover’s arms.
The baby has the power. It is the plain stark truth of the matter. I can see it as I watch the two of them. Tiny puffs of power blow out of the baby’s mouth. She transforms the adults around her to suit herself. Many of the adults I know are now becoming babyfied. They like the same food. They watch the same programmes. They even go to bed at the same time as the baby; and if they have a good relationship they might manage whispering in the dark. Very little fucking. Very little. I’m trying to console myself here. It’s another day.
This grim, painful humour is part of Jackie Kay’s strong literary voice: she is able to make us feel both the seriousness and the absurdity of a situation; the ways in which we are fools to our own desires, ambushed by emotion in the face of reason. In response to the baby’s dominion, the jilted lover acts, in order not to be passive. Only when she is far away does she realize, ‘that the baby has engineered this whole trip. The baby wanted me to go away. She wanted her mother all to herself in our big bed.’
One of the biggest changes in family life since the 1960s has been the gradual break-up of the nuclear family. These days, children grow used to having four parents – two biological ones and two stepparents – along with step-brothers and sisters. In 2007 the marriage rate in England and Wales dropped to its lowest since records began in 1862; in America, there has been a thirty per cent decline in marriage over the past twenty-five years – and separations, between couples whether married or not, have become accepted as part of life. When John Updike’s novel, Couples, was published in 1968, the dizzying choreography of partner-swapping in a small New England town made marriage seem irrelevant, if not redundant. Updike said he was writing about sex as the ‘emergent religion . . . the only thing left’, but it was the arrival of the contraceptive pill that reduced the practical risks of adultery and allowed women to enjoy sex as carelessly as men. Towards the end of the novel,