The Time Traveler’s Wife

For the second time I participated in the online book group, this time reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This book is just amazing in its treatment of loss and hope. If you haven’t read it already, go for it.

Here are the questions I chose to answer (My answers are in italic)

Clare endures a lot trying to create a child.  She keeps trying, regardless of the fact that she continuously miscarries, continuously wakes up covered in blood, and knows that her child could have the same “problem” as her husband.  What drove her to continue down this road and why do you think Henry participated?

The urge to procreate is so powerful. One aspect of this is the desire to see your partner reflected in their child. This urge is all the more powerful for Clare, who is continually losing Henry when he time travels and who also has a feeling of foreboding as an event in her childhood presages Henry’s premature death.  “My body wanted a baby. I felt empty and I wanted to be full. I wanted someone to love who would stay: stay and be there, always. And I wanted Henry to be in this child, so that when he was gone, he wouldn’t be entirely gone, there would be a bit of him with me.”

For me, this quote encapsulates the incredibly complex and sad contradictions at the heart of the book. Henry is never truly there. It’s his time travelling which leaves Clare alone, and at the same time causes her to miscarry. Her longing for a piece of him can’t be filled, as she can’t hang on to his child (literally)

There comes a point where Clare has had enough. But then Henry’s knowledge of the future enables his later self to tell her that he has seen them with a child. So she keeps on trying. Why does Henry go along with it? Perhaps because he knows his time with Clare is limited. Because he hopes the child can be “cured” of the time traveling. Because he wants her to be happy. Because he wants to be a normal father.

Eventually Henry is overwhelmed by terror of the consequence of continuing to try “Clare. The next time you miscarry, it’s going to kill you and I’m not going to keep doing something that’s going to end up with you dead. Five pregnancies… I know you want to try again, but I can’t. I can’t take it anymore, Clare. I’m sorry.”

Henry then has a secret vasectomy. But his younger self visits Clare, and unaware of  his eventual decision not to carry on trying, makes Clare pregnant.

The present and future intersect frequently in the book.  Often the result of these minglings is that information about the future is hinted at or revealed early but the actual experiences cannot be altered or prevented.  If you could have known about the struggles you’d face on your path to parenthood, would you have wanted to know?  Would you go back and warn or prepare yourself, even though you’d be powerless to change the outcome?  Why or why not?

It’s tempting to think that knowing the outcome would make the path easier, but would it? I don’t yet know whether I’ll have a second child. Each time I have miscarried, a little voice has whispered “Maybe next time” What I do know, without knowledge of the future, is that regardless of the final outcome, the tragedy has already occurred. The loss of innocence, of optimism. The realisation that the worst CAN happen, even over and over. The pervading sadness that has filled the last two years. My son was 18 months old when I first conceived again. 2 1/2 years of his life have seen me obsessed with having a successful pregnancy. That time can never be regained. 

Henry touches on this sort of regret when he says “…I worry that we aren’t paying close attention to the here and now… (time travel) is an altered state, so I’m more… aware when I’m out there, and it seems important, somehow, and sometimes I think that if I could just be aware here and now, that things would be perfect.”

For me one of the very powerful themes in the book was the handling of loss. For Henry, the death of his mother is the event that not only begins his time travelling, but acts as the pivot around which his life revolves, ever after. He’s unable to let go and move on. “My mother’s dying… it’s the pivotal thing… everything else goes around and around it, and I also – time travel to it. Over and over”

Miscarriage, especially recurrent miscarriage, is a different type of loss to bereavement. When you lose a parent or someone close to you, if you are not a time traveller, you are forced to move on, to adapt to the change. Losing a baby is something you can revisit. Especially if you are blessed/cursed with the ability to conceive again easily, you are always trying again, trying to erase the sadness and failure. It’s the hope that in the end, a pregnancy will succeed, that forces you on.

The point does come when we begin to grasp, even without foreknowledge of the future, that our efforts are likely to be in vain. It takes an incredible strength to accept that fact and stop reliving the same experience.

Due to his ability to time travel and jumps into the future, Henry knows that he is going to die.  Yet in the beginning, he works hard to try to create a baby with his wife.  This situation obviously benefits Henry in that he gets to parent Alba for a bit before he dies.  This situation also benefits Clare since she wants to be a mother.  Yet Alba grows up without her father yet with his extraordinary abilities—abilities that were a difficult adjustment for Henry growing up.  Do you think he acted in the best interests of his child when he helped create her knowing that he would not be around to help her understand her ability to time travel?  Do you think it is truly possible to take the feelings of a child in mind prior to creation as well as fulfill your own need to parent?  If you had been in Henry’s shoes, would you have created this child knowing she would be able to time travel and you would not be there to help her understand this anomaly?

This question is as hard to answer as whether it’s “right” for deaf parents to use PGD to select a deaf child. Henry can’t be sure whether his condition is actually a step in evolution. Maybe in time all people will time travel.  Clare desperately wants the child, despite the fear she will share Henry’s condition. It’s Henry who is optimistic that a “cure” will be found while Clare refuses to let Alba be subject to experimentation.

Henry knows that he will die young. He’s unable to stay with Clare. He can only leave a little of himself, his child.  He is in terrible conflict about whether they should continue trying to conceive. He even has a secret vasectomy, only to be foiled by his younger self, who is ignorant of the high stakes.

Unlike a normal parent, Henry is aware that his younger self will continue to appear in Alba’s life from time to time.  He is also able to teach her skills she will need to survive.

For those who struggle with fertility on into their forties, it must be a concern that their time with their precious children may be truncated. We do NOT know the future. Any of us may die young, totally unexpectedly.

Is it wrong to try to conceive in the wake of cancer, with one parent diagnosed terminally ill, when either parent is in their fifties, sixties? Is it so easy to set a limit?

My mother died when she was 43. I am now almost 42. Of course, I have a fear that something will happen to me and my child will be left alone. But we can’t live our lives under such a shadow.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is such an amazing book, and raises so many questions. Thank you to the book group for recommending it!

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/ .  You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein.

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~ by drownedgirl on April 15, 2007.

7 Responses to “The Time Traveler’s Wife”

  1. Very powerful answers…

  2. Wow.

    There is so much here that made my heart stop. This quote: “What I do know, without knowledge of the future, is that regardless of the final outcome, the tragedy has already occurred. The loss of innocence, of optimism. The realisation that the worst CAN happen, even over and over. The pervading sadness that has filled the last two years. My son was 18 months old when I first conceived again. 2 1/2 years of his life have seen me obsessed with having a successful pregnancy. That time can never be regained.” It’s a scary fact of secondary IF that few consider until they’re in it–how their existing child is affected by their sadness. And it’s overwhelming sometimes to hide everything in front of the people who make me feel the loss the most acutely.

    Your point about how miscarriage is a loss that you can relive again and again and again vs. the death of a loved one which is a final act? That sent chills down my arms.

  3. I had never thought about how miscarriage could be such a recurrent loss, tying into the time travel theme until reading your post. But it is so true that with any IF treatment, there can always be “a next cycle”–gives us both opportunity and more chance for loss.

    I also thought about how deaf couples have used PGD to try to select children with the deafness trait. Henry’s time travel may have been a curse, but it gave him something to share with his daughter.

  4. Thanks for sharing such important ideas here — particulary this: “Losing a baby is something you can revisit…you are always trying again, trying to erase the sadness and failure. It’s the hope that in the end, a pregnancy will succeed, that forces you on. The point does come when we begin to grasp, even without foreknowledge of the future, that our efforts are likely to be in vain. It takes an incredible strength to accept that fact and stop reliving the same experience.” … it’s what I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the past several years. I’m going to write about it later today. Good to “meet” you…

  5. “…I worry that we aren’t paying close attention to the here and now… (time travel) is an altered state, so I’m more… aware when I’m out there, and it seems important, somehow, and sometimes I think that if I could just be aware here and now, that things would be perfect.”

    There are times in my life that this has so rung true. In a previous relationship, I spent so much of my time planning for the future that I ignored all that was happening in the present. It was only when I took a good hard look at the here and now that I realized that I’d wasted 8 years of my life waiting…I wish for those years back now.

  6. I love your answers to the last question.

    Also what you say about paying attention to the “here and now” in the second question. It’s hard to remain “present” all the time, yet it is important.

    Bea

  7. […] was a theme in a previous book club choice, the Time Traveler’s Wife and made me think a lot, then, about the issues for those of us conceiving with donor eggs or […]

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