Originally created 08/16/98

Basch's novel explores emotions of marriage, motherhood



As an at-home mother with a "secret" writing life, Rachel Basch wrote her first novel on a bedroom desk that once doubled as a changing table and was wedged between a hamper and a bathroom door. The minute she finished writing for the day, she would put away her work so her kids could color on her desk.

"Forget a room of one's own; I didn't even have a table of my own!" Ms. Basch says with a laugh.

Ms. Basch, who is 39 and has a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, poured her own intricate thoughts and emotions about modern motherhood and marriage into Degrees of Love (Norton, $23.95). It was published in April.

Ms. Basch (pronounced BASH) lives in a handsome new home in Newtown, Conn., with her husband, David Gould, a free-lance golf writer, and their children, Nathaniel and Hannah.

The thin, youthful Ms. Basch, who has just baked scones, once cooked professionally like Lily Sterne, the troubled young wife and mother in Degrees of Love.

Kitchens are pivotal places in Degrees of Love. Jack Keliher, Lily's husband, is a chef who has lost the couple's catering business. Lily has given up working side-by-side with Jack in professional kitchens to stay at home with their three young children. And the family's home kitchen becomes a place of horror when the couple's youngest child, 18-month-old Katie, pulls a pot of boiling water on herself, badly burning her feet and legs.

The fallout from this incident is immense. Lily, who was upstairs in the bedroom when Katie hurt herself, is suspected of child abuse. Her husband is furious over her neglect, and their marriage strains to the breaking point, sagging under debt, distrust and the distance between them. Their oldest son acts out in self-destructive ways after his sister is injured. And Lily's past mental instability becomes an issue during a state investigation.

This difficult subject matter is handled with subtlety and sympathy by Ms. Basch, who creates believably human characters by alternating between Jack and Lily's points of view.

"For me the book is more about marriage than it is about anything else," Ms. Basch says. "I believe you have to have parity, but parity can be a problem when one person is home all day, especially with very young children."

Lily has lost part of her identity within the marriage by no longer working, and now she must face guilt over the burned baby.

The spark for Degrees of Love came from two sources -- an article in The New York Times about a middle-class family wrongly accused of child abuse and an incident Ms. Basch knew of in which a baby was accidentally burned with tap water by an older sibling.

Ms. Basch used the story line as a launching point for what she really wanted to explore in her novel -- the emotion of guilt.

"It's that kind of existential parental guilt you wake up with every morning," Ms. Basch says. "It's the feeling that you are really responsible for another human being. Not only for their safety, but for the ongoing creation of them, especially when they're at a certain age."

Modern motherhood is no piece of apple pie. Women who have been on a career track and then have kids feel the need to "validate" their new lives, Ms. Basch says. "It's the professionalization of motherhood," she says.

"What is valid in our culture is making money, having a good job title. Motherhood is just down there at the bottom of the list," says Ms. Basch, who has been at home since her first child was born.

Motherhood is filled with ambivalence, Ms. Basch says. There are moments that are "mind-blowingly joyful" and times when "it's lonely and isolating and repetitive."

"The ambivalence is never about whether or not you love them, it is about the intensity with which you love them and then with how angry you can get at them, how frustrated you can feel," Ms. Basch says. "I remember sitting on the edge of a sandbox and feeling like my heart was going to pound right out of my chest because I had all this energy for something else, and time with children can be very slow time. I was still in my early 30s. I wanted to get out there and tear up the world, and it wasn't happening while I was sitting there at the edge of the sandbox."

For Ms. Basch, writing about motherhood was a way to deal with the mixed feelings, "which can be very unsettling because we are not told that is OK to feel ambivalent."