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Saturday, December 05, 2015

You asked, no. 1: motherhood and the arts

Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Maze of Blood
The reflections about more life (motherhood) being helpful to a writer (and an artist) might be good to have out there, too. When I was a new mother, it seemed like my hands might be tied forever. It made me scared. Two more children later, I realized how much more material I had, and how many more things I felt strongly about. Reassurance from seasoned creative mothers could be so helpful to a new creative mothers who might be feeling the panic, or helplessness. I remember looking online at the time for artist mother role models who were pulling this off successfully, and having trouble finding examples. --artist Kim Vanderheiden
I often notice writers or artists talking about how their children are keeping them from work. Just last week I read a piece by a highly successful young writer with a Guggenheim and several books in her bag. But now she has a baby and can't seem to write something she likes. Well, really, is that a huge surprise or a tragedy? I doubt it.

You know, this idea that we have to do our art every day is an idea custom-made for men. Made for men! It does not fit the average mother's life. If a mother cannot manage it, fine. She will do what she can. Mothers are needed by children, while writers and painters and so on are simply not needed by children. Not needed. At all. Oh, children might enjoy spotting a mother's book or painting in a shop or gallery, but it's not important to their lives. A mother is deep down vital to their lives.

Some of us are obsessed. I seem to be one of those. There's no particular virtue in being obsessed, just as there's no particular virtue in not being obsessed. I wrote my first book (my first published book) with my first baby on my lap. My second book was written on the landing of the stairs. We were in a condo for a year, and I could see into the sunken living room through stair railings, and sometimes I encouraged my children to play there when I wanted to write a little. I also used nap time, and I stayed up late to write.

Obviously, I wrote that book in little bits and pieces. No doubt that affected the book. And no doubt having small children affected the book. I've had people tell me that Catherwood made them cry, or made them stop reading for a week because they were grieved. Somebody told me that they were amused to see that an Amazon review of the book said it was almost too heart-wringing! Why? Because I had a son of two and a baby daughter. To love more (and in a new way) is to be bigger than before. I had more to care about, more to lose, more to feed my writing. All my intense mother-love rained down on that book. More life should never be a mistake for an artist of any sort because art craves a sense of life and energy.

But if a woman simply can't do her work with small children for an extended period, that's okay, too. She's getting bigger on the inside all the time (and I'm not talking pregnancy, though that sometimes happens as well.) Motherhood stretches us. It's joyful and wild and full of work and difficulties and exhaustion. Children sometimes turn out to have syndromes or deficits a mother never expected. And even without those difficulties, children and parents learn that the song is right: growing up is hard to do. Always. Challenges can be good for us as artists, if we don't insist on having our own way. Because children aren't about letting a mother have her own way. But they are about growing, and they will make a mother grow too. And that's good for the work.

Sometimes even the obsessed can't manage. I have to confess that it was harder for me to write something sustained when we moved back South when my children were small, and it wasn't just because I wanted to go outside and play. Some passages in life are simply more difficult than others and impossible to plan for. My children needed me in new and different ways as they grew, and they slept less. I kept writing, but I think of the years between the second and third book as years when I wrote a lot of work that I threw away later or stockpiled. Lots of poems, lots of sketches. My husband was doing some intense training that meant I didn't always have a lot of help. My father became quite ill with the disease that would kill him ten years later. And I was very sick during my third pregnancy and afterward. We also moved three times in the space of five years. I sold two houses as a result, while my husband left for new work a thousand miles away, well before the children and I moved. That was a whole lot of upheaval and change to manage.

Extreme measures can occasionally feel possible for short bursts of time. When we moved to Cooperstown, I unpacked the whole house, all but my writing room. I put my computer on my writing table and wrote a novel, The Wolf Pit. I wrote it after my three children were in bed, after I had finished the laundry, after everything else that needed to be done was done. My husband was already a grand cook, and he really took over when we moved. So I didn't have that job to do any more. Managing was still hard. I sometimes finished a night's work at 4 a.m. Then I erupted out of bed (seemingly about five minutes later) to wake my children at 7:00, in order to see the older two off to school. When I was done with my draft, I caught up on sleep, unpacked my writing room, and started tinkering and revising in little bits of time during the day. The book came out from FSG right after the tragic day we call 9-11. It got a nice national award and some great attention, but the timing was terrible, of course. I've never quite recovered from the bad timing because publishing and book-selling are governed by numbers (so thank you for supporting my in-print books.)

Now when I am not writing, I don't worry. I think of myself as fallow. I am like a field that will produce in a great explosion of spring. But perhaps it is not spring yet. Perhaps in a month I will be writing a novel, wishing to be with it all the time. Perhaps I will be having a crazy sluice of new poems. I am old enough that I have faith that what has drifted away will return again because I know my own patterns, and how I work best.

A good parallel example of how to keep going and manage to work daily shines through Luisa Igloria's post about daily writing on The House of Words series: it's here. Luisa has four daughters and a busy professional life, and she has managed at least a half hour per day for her writing for years. I don't know if she could have managed it when her children were younger. I expect if painting had been her thing, she might be doing a tiny oil painting or a sketch or a small woodcut in her bits of time, as she likes to complete something each day. And she would be, as a result, able to do better and better work on that scale, and be more ready for any bigger work as well.

We all need to have threads running to others who love what we love, and those threads can steady us and give us someone who has sympathy with our situation. People like Luisa have been important to me. I want to make beauty, do the occasional teaching gig, and be a mother, and Luisa's life is a kind of parallel to mine, except that I quit teaching full-time long ago, and so she juggles even more than I do. Luisa and I chat frequently, and we share woes and joys that come with motherhood and being writers. We're happy or sad for each other, depending on the event, and that's wonderfully helpful. I live in a place with few writers, so it's especially sweet for me. Similarly, my local friendship with painter Ashley Norwood Cooper is one where we get together to talk about a life in the arts, leaping about from children (three each) to work to goals. We live in a fairly obscure place, so it's lovely to know someone living a somewhat parallel life. I have many other friends in the arts, but knowing a good number who are trying to be mothers and also make their art feels helpful to me.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for both men and women in the arts is the fact that most of them are to varying degrees invisible as artists, so that their work is little known, or less well known than it should be. We live in a winner-takes-all time where few are pushed and promoted. Artists look around and often see that lesser work is puffed and promoted and feel that it is hard to go on. Plenty of women feel that the game is tilted toward men, but plenty of men are left out of the inner circle of marketed and promoted artists, too. A woman who feels that way and also has a few children may feel her path is just too difficult, that she is too alone in what she longs to achieve. That's another reason why constructing a circle is so important--to spend time with other people who want to bring art into the world. Because the danger with a degree of invisibility is disappearing. To know and be known by others the artist respects is a way of having the work become bright and visible, and that is always encouraging. After all, no art is quite finished without its right audience.


  1. I love this post, Marly. Even though I'm not a mother, there's much here that rings true for me.

    1. Thanks! I was relieved that Luisa liked it, since I used her as an example, and that Kim and Ashley did as well. Tricky topic, really.

  2. I love this post, Marly. Even though I'm not a mother, there's much here that rings true for me.

  3. Do fathers as writers not have similar issues? Or am I being insensitive to women's issues?

    1. The question was about motherhood. I do address men in a more general way in the post, not wanting to leave them out. Most writers have a struggle, and most of them are fairly invisible, whether they are women or men. Efforts like the VIDA count certainly attempt to highlight and address inequalities in areas such as magazine publishing and are worth a look.

      Even now, I doubt that most men have the level of home duties and child-rearing duties that women have. Oh, I know some single-parent guys who have raised a child and written at least one book, and they have my respect and affection. Meanwhile, I am very lucky that my husband likes to cook, and that he has been involved and active in Scouts, etc. Plenty of artists and writers I know don't have that kind of help.

      Frankly, I don't expend much thought on unfairness and gender. I am much more concerned with making something beautiful and strong. In the end, I don't have the time to fester over anything--three children and books keep me busy enough. And I don't think it is good for my mind. It's a crusade for somebody else. Axe-grinding is a great spoiler of books. And it's not what I feel called to do.

    2. I apologize for whatever offense might have been contained in my comment; I certainly intended nothing negative or confrontational. My mind -- not very sharp these days -- was just veering off course. Mea culpa!

    3. No offense taken! I am not the sort of person who enjoys leaping into combat, or who is thin-skinned about ideas. I think we have enough of that going on right now on campuses and in political debate.

  4. AS Byatt (and she's written one or two genuine tomes) used to compose in her head while telly programmes were playing and children were straying, then transcribe during the commercials. This would be easier in the US where there are more commercials/hr than in the UK. BBC would remain a problem - no commercials.

    Children should be remembered in the dedication, eg, "Without whose help this novel would have been finished a good deal sooner...".

    The walk to the filling station to buy The Guardian, the echt novelist's newpaper, is a fruitful time for me, the mind still relatively fresh. Then there's the terrified walk back if I've had more than two ideas, knowing how easily old age memory can cruelly drag things into oblivion. Mnemonics, mnemonics...

    1. I definitely thought very hard about my writing while doing things like laundry. Still do that! I stopped watching television before my children were born and still do not, so that's helpful.

      It's been good for me that I am obsessive and quick. But I do have fallow periods.

      Oh, yes, I know about the forgetting. That awful feeling of trying to get back to the thought that seemed so golden!

      Thanks for coming by--I've been interested in your comments that I've seen here and there.

    2. p. s. And thanks for writing about one of my poems in your Annunciation post!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.