Mothering Art And Babies

In a review of Sheila Heti’s recently published novel Motherhood for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz took a moment to consider the ways in which writing is “threatened” by motherhood:

“[W]riting depends on hoarding time, on putting up a boundary (often at home) between oneself and the immediate world in order to visit a separate one in the mind. A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.”

In response, the author Lila Byock quoted this paragraph on Twitter, adding a comment of her own:

“Have kids or don't have kids, but the dichotomy between ‘being a writer’ & ‘being a mother’ is just a scam by the patriarchy.”

Excuse me while I do a little fist pump at my desk. As of this writing, I’m five-and-a-half months pregnant, and I have no intention of letting motherhood deter my work. I know too many successful writers who are also mothers; somehow they get it done. I have my concerns, of course, both my partner and I do. He’s a composer and a university lecturer, who also jealously guards his creative time. The fact that we work in the arts may prove to work in our favour; we both have flexible work schedules, and between them and the safety net of subsidised childcare (by the state in France, where we live half the year, by the university in the UK, where we spend the other half), we will somehow carve out the time we each need to work.

Byock’s perspective is a refreshing one: maybe a knee-jerk reference to the dichotomy between writing and mothering is doing us more harm than good; maybe it’s a conspiracy kept up by male writers trying to edge women writers off the field. It seems clear that we have to keep writing no matter what, in whatever gaps we can find; maybe the imposed discipline of writing when the baby naps will be productive for the work. Maybe.

But Schwartz (who is not a mother) is only voicing empathetic feminist common wisdom; we’ve been hearing quite a lot lately about the conflict women face between creativity and domesticity, mostly in essays responding to Jenny Offill’s 2011 novel Dept of Speculation, in which she conjures the figure of the “art monster,” the (presumably male) artist who contributes nothing at all to the running of the household, leaving that to his (presumably female) partner and helpmate. “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,” Offill writes. “Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.” Offill makes an important point about the persistent imbalance in the way we think about gender roles, and reminds us that a lack of adequate family leave and childcare means someone has to stay home with the baby, and that someone has traditionally been the mother. The father’s work continues more or less uninterruptedly, but the mother gets baby-tracked at her job, and it’s not unusual for women to get discouraged and back away from their professional lives. Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous formula, lean in, urges women to do just the opposite, but to many that sounded rich, coming from a tech billionaire.

Heti’s novel is a mise-en-scène of her inability to decide whether or not to have a child; it eats away at her, much as the question did for Rachel Cusk, who wrote in A Life’s Work (2001), her controversial memoir about becoming a mother, that “it was this distraction, as much as the fact of motherhood itself, that I wanted to have within my control.”

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