In the month after my son was born I was standing in the laundry, washing miniature jumpers in the cavernous steel sink. The window overlooked our overgrown courtyard and, at its centre, a multitude of white cotton nappies hung from the Hills Hoist like some conceptual art installation on the theme of surrender. In that moment, I knew what writing meant to me. Amid the frantic chaos that my day-to-day existence had become, my body and much of my mind taken over by the full-time business of mothering, writing became my single act of independence — a mutiny against days characterised by mere sufficiency and selflessness. My journal was mine alone, a place where I still recognised myself as the same person I was before my life got tipped on its head.
Some women bemoan that no one ever told them the truth about giving birth. It feels a scandalous betrayal, to be fooled into entering a place where you are as defenselessness and alone as one who is dying. In those shattering hours of labour, death lurks, angels descend, pacts are made.
Almost immediately after giving birth, I looked back upon myself — the self I was only yesterday — as a girl, wide-eyed with a sense of limitlessness and yet blissfully unaware of my own freedom. I was in my final year of university, living with my boyfriend in a share-house, when I became pregnant with my first child at the age of 27. As my fellow art students continued to paint with ink and turps and oil, I donned masks and confined myself to aerated stairwells where I made detailed pencil sketches of my baby from ultrasound pictures — some attempt at coming to grips with the reality of his tiny, emerging form.
Childbirth is the ultimate lesson in capitulation, performed in an altered state, the mind subjugated to the body’s will. And yet its verity is so quickly lost in the turmoil of the ensuing days that it becomes unexplainable, diminished. Sitting in my hospital bed after a 24-hour labour, ‘daddy’ sent home by the flirtatiously officious nurses, and everything deceptively white and crisp and clean, I sat weeping in a manic state of loneliness and terror, astonished that I had been left in charge of this little life, with no one checking to see whether I knew what the hell I was supposed to do to keep it alive.
Looking around the ward at the other new mothers propped up in their beds, I was reminded of an observation by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking about the recently bereaved taking on a certain look, ‘recognisable only to those who have seen that look on their own faces … one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness’. At all times of the night, women clutching mysterious bundles were wheeled into the ward. They were transferred into beds, their babies plucked from their chests and placed in transparent cots beside them, kissed farewell by new fathers with the reverence of the shell-shocked witness. Alone at last, these mothers were left to dwell in the muted aftermath, transformed into something both more and less than they were before. As I fed my own child in the dark, I watched them lying opposite, the whites of their eyes gleaming in the dark, and saw my own stunned expression reflected back at me: the look of a woman broken apart and remade anew.
In those days after giving birth, old friends visited, sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and talking about the same things we had always nattered about. I found myself gazing at them as if through a sheet of glass, their world suddenly glamorous and removed. As I was coming to terms with the fact of being everything — source of nourishment, comfort, cleanliness, survival — to a new life, my friends were still dealing with the politics of the workplace, clothes, shoes, new films, uncertain relationships and overseas holidays. Some fussed over my baby; others barely noticed him. Holding him against my chest, I talked to my friends as normally as I was able, flailing against the inevitable shrinkage of my world.
Secretly, I was more intoxicated by my son than I knew how to admit — the warm, sour-milk, fresh-bread newness of him; his proud, defiant little face. It was as if I had stepped into an alternate universe, a perfect replica of my former life but for the fact that my relationship to everything in it had been irreversibly changed.
Though my birth was an ordeal, it was rapidly eclipsed by my struggle to breastfeed. Four months of dogged determination to get right what I had assumed would come naturally sent me into the darkest, most despairing furrows of my being. Somehow, despite the presence of all-night supermarkets and powdered substitutes, my primal instincts were convinced that my son would die if I couldn’t find a way to nourish him with my own body. Already I had failed in my most basic duty as a mother. Every lactation consultant in the city was called in, squeezing my engorged breasts like hamburgers and shoving my baby’s face against them. Each one arrived with the perky conviction of Mary Poppins, rubbing her hands together and saying things like, ‘Right, let’s get this sorted’, and we’d all beam at each other with relief, only to watch the ‘expert’ retreat an hour later, shaking her head as she congratulated me on my determination and then whispered to my partner in the hallway that our child ‘wasn’t thriving’ and maybe it was time to give up. Regularly it would take 40 minutes just to get my baby to latch on well enough to limit the damage to my already mutilated nipples. It took all my strength to avoid pulling back each time his gaping mouth approached my breast, and when he did manage to begin suckling, the pain was so excruciating I frightened him with my shrieks.
Those early feeding sessions — a ritual I had previously imagined in scenes of soft-focus serenity — were a test in endurance far beyond my short-lived encounter with the pain of childbirth. I recall gritting my teeth in agony as tears splashed onto my poor baby’s desperately gulping cheeks. The hours between feeds were spent dreading the next, until I surrendered to the full-time occupation of expressing milk by hand, becoming a permanent fixture on the couch, gazing blankly at old Hollywood re-runs as I pumped myself dry. Up to eight hours of each day was spent this way, with a similar number then spent administering the ‘liquid gold’ to my son and perhaps an hour’s break in between to do everything else (including eat and sleep). Reluctantly, I let go of my naïve plans of penning articles and short stories in all that down-time motherhood was going to present.
In those early months I rarely ventured beyond the front door, except for those weeks that my baby and I found ourselves back in hospital, me hooked up to intravenous antibiotics for mastitis, which eventually became abscesses, while the midwives delighted in my chubby baby, who at six weeks old was a novelty compared to the ‘skinned rabbits’ (as one described them) that they were used to dealing with.
It was a dramatic induction into the all-consuming world of parenting.
Feminist author Naomi Wolf has described babies as enemies to equality. With the so-called ‘mother-wars’ dominating the recent feminist debate, it seems mothering has emerged, at least in the West, as the movement’s final frontier. As a young childless couple, there may be arguments about housework, quibbling about who takes responsibility for the shopping or who forgot to pay the gas bill — of course people come to depend on each other and lives become intertwined in myriad ways — but prior to having children a couple can still consist of two people leading independent lives who come together in the evenings and share breakfast before heading back out into the world.
How rapidly those couples who’ve become parents, even those that had every intention of holding fast to a model of equality, find they have collapsed into conventional roles. As writer Hope Edelman puts it: ‘I don’t remember the conversation where I asked him to support me financially in exchange for me doing everything else.’2 Softly, imperceptibly, the cards divide and fall. Even if there’s childcare involved, someone has to co-ordinate the lunches, the drop-offs and pick-ups, and the relationships with carers. And it is still, by and large, women who are confronted with the question of whether they want to hand their children over to hired professionals in order to return to work. Few mothers I know consider institutionalised childcare the only or even best answer to the ongoing problem of equal opportunity, and for artists this dilemma is complicated by the fact that creative careers rarely pay enough to readily justify paid help anyway. In Susan Johnson’s powerful memoir about becoming a mother, she wrote of her husband’s irritation at her determination to keep writing ‘… though it meant impecuniousness for us as a family’ and left him stuck in the breadwinners’ box.
When my baby was a year or so old, my partner and I agreed to both work part-time. We lived as frugally as possible, and we shared the care of our son. For a while it seemed we were approximating the ideal, even if we were always skint. My partner got a full sense of what it meant to be at home all day with a baby, the stamina required far outstripping the demands of any job either of us ever had, though we’d both worked long hours — or so we thought. He understood the circular routine ruled by a baby’s need for food, play, poo, sleep — preferably but not necessarily in that order — and why it can take two hours just to get out the door. Best of all, he and our baby developed the easy intimacy that comes of sharing daily life; and our son saw both parents engaged in work and domestic life.
And then I became pregnant again, and soon there seemed no choice but for my partner to go out and earn a living that would support us all. By that time we had two children to keep warm and to nourish and to entertain, and we wanted them to be brought up primarily by us (which now, it seemed, meant me). It wasn’t feasible to ask him to step back down a rung or two and return to part-time domesticity when our second baby was old enough to do without me for a day or two. It didn’t seem like anyone’s fault — there just appeared no other way but for me to become the one who did ‘everything else’.
This didn’t mean I avoided becoming consumed by what felt like a whole history of rage about the injustice of the situation, not just for me but for all women, across all time, who have accommodated and compromised and sacrificed in order that men and children thrive. Motherhood is no longer considered a woman’s one social and biological destiny, and yet it is proving to be the point at which many contemporary women discover they don’t have the multitude of choices they thought they had.
With this new separation of roles, when I asked my partner to do something around the house, I found myself requesting ‘help’, as if any domestic work he did was now an act of generosity. Any paid work I did only added to my already significant workload, and the childcare fees cut my income in half, but it helped me retain some semblance of autonomy and intellectual engagement.
If I felt that I had been denied the truth about anything, it wasn’t the realities of giving birth, or the potential for hellish breastfeeding troubles, confronting as they were. It wasn’t even the permanent lack of sleep, or the constant dealings with bodily fluids, though at times the house seemed over-run by milk and vomit and shit.
If anything made me feel like screaming, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?’ it was to do with the brutal fact of TIME. Prior to having a baby, I had no real concept of time. Though I had work and other responsibilities, these were chosen by me; and I could walk away if I wanted to.
As a parent, your existence is controlled by the routines of your children and the demands of relentless household maintenance. My obsession with the sheer volume and monotony of the domestic work that had suddenly become my lot was like a black hole I clung to the edge of lest I be sucked into its permanent vortex. It is almost impossible to describe the way a whole day can be spent doing little more than picking things up off the floor, only to find yourself worse off than when you started; or to count the fact that you managed a shower and a cold piece of toast as the morning’s biggest achievements.
Author Alice Munro has argued that a mother at home is not in control of her own life. The day can be shapeless; people feel they can drop in at any time, and most women feel under pressure to keep the house presentable. ‘I think women more than men are always presented with choices in which they either do what they want to do or they do good for someone,’ Munro says. Like most adults, I’d spent years with little division between the intention to do something and the simple act of doing it. Now time no longer came free; every moment alone was bought, borrowed or stolen. My relationship with my partner seemed defined by our constant negotiations over who would do what when; never again, it seemed, would we be free to just walk out the door.
To create art once you have children requires the commitment of more than one person. With kids in the mix, if I wanted to retreat, it required the co-operation of my partner. As novelist Eleanor Dark wrote, ‘The balance is elusive; the support crucial’ — a situation I found both humbling and infuriating.
Before having children, I was self-contained, discrete, in control of my actions and my external façade. As my son got older, I found myself increasingly vulnerable in public spaces, the success of each activity shaped by his erratic moods and whims. I would wake up with grand visions about how the day would run, my son and I bright and fresh with morning. As the day rolled on, my fantasy would progressively unravel, leaving a demoralising trail of spilt babyccinos, ripped library books and half-finished conversations in our wake.
I saw a homeopath one day who asked me how I felt about my child. ‘I think I’m a bit scared of him,’ I said. She looked up from her notes with a shocked expression, and I realised she didn’t understand what I meant. Obviously I wasn’t scared of him, as such; I was frightened by how exposed he made me feel.
As my son grew, walking down the street meant frequently yelling ‘STOP!’ without decorum as my expeditious toddler loped towards the road, and trips to the supermarket all too often ended with me lugging home the shopping, my son and the bike he promised to ride all the way there and back.
When my daughter was born, things only intensified. On occasions when my son did one of his regular disappearing acts in museums or parks, I had to dump my poor baby in her pram and sprint off after him before he came to some unimaginable grief. Daily I seemed to be making judgements about which of my children’s safety and comfort to put first. It left me feeling raw and disheveled, a kind of public joke: the harried, downtrodden mother who cannot control her kids.
I looked at the other mothers in the park in the hope of recognising something. But we were smiling, smiling, all noble silence. Inside, are you crushed? I wanted to ask them. Are you gazing at the planes that fly overhead with a barely disguised yearning? Are your legs restless to run? And then, do you see your child grinning proudly at you from the top of the slide and does your heart lurch? Does love storm through your body and cause you to run toward that darling face as if you’ve never wanted anything more in your life?
That is what I have come to understand about the nature of motherhood. It is irresolvable and confounding in its contradictions. And perhaps without it, I would have remained hidden to myself always — pristine and uncarved.
At times, anger and fatigue could send me so close to the edge that fantasies of my children dying and myself swiftly returned to my former life of freedom would flash through my head. But almost as quickly as I’d thought it, the vision was eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of remorse.
I would touch every piece of wood within reach, knowing of course that to lose one of them would mean the very opposite of freedom. Last night I was barking at my children to ‘Go to sleep!’ with that clench-jawed, barely restrained sense of desperation I cannot recall feeling in any other circumstance.
My two-year-old daughter, a picture of innocence, looked up at me and said: ‘Are you yelling at us, Mama?’
‘Yes,’ I said sternly.
‘Why?’ she asked, with genuine curiosity (and not an ounce of fear).
‘Because I’m hitting the wall,’ I muttered.
‘Ha, sometimes you’re funny,’ my son said coolly, not looking up from his bed, which was strewn with Lego.
My daughter cocked her head and pouted in sympathy. ‘Oh, Mama, you wanna Band-Aid?’
In those moments, my earnest pleadings made a mockery of, my defences dissolve and I love my children with a gritty, excruciating tenderness. All else falls away. While on the surface motherhood triggered in me a frantic need to grasp onto any minute that could be called mine, I was also opening out into a newfound sense of infinity. It was strangely liberating to have my children’s needs overtake my own. My ego shrank back to its near-invisible place in the cosmos and with that came an unexpected relief, a sense that I could die knowing I had done all I needed to do.
In a matter of months, what had been the centre of my world — namely, my passion for art — became so flimsy and irrelevant it seemed close to total collapse. I didn’t know if I had what it took to demand all that I had to demand of myself, and of everyone around me, in order to write. I had to rail against my own instinct to admit defeat.
Sometimes a thrilling sense of lightness washed through me: finally I was being given permission to retreat into a ‘normal’ life, free from the burden of the artistic imperative, of that constant desire to record everything almost before it’s happened. Together my babies and I floated around the house, equally delighted by their small discoveries, me vicariously reliving my own babyhood and feeling humbled by the insight that someone had cared for me with this same constancy and devotion.
As they got older, I became more and more aware that those days when I sank into my children’s routine without resistance — when I spent hours building sandcastles or reading the same book over and over again; when I let them cook with me no matter the mess, or turned off my ‘adult’ radio station in favour of Raffi and Patsy Biscoe — were our happiest. Not just their happiest, but also mine. But it was a state reliant on the denial of that niggling compulsion to always be turning my experiences into something else, something more.
A year after my first child was born, I wrote in my journal (the same ‘writing’ journal that has as its first line on its first page in red texta: ‘Whole house — clean!!’):
It is what is sustained in our life — through hard work — that creates fulfillment. It’s the stuff we don’t give up easily. The stuff we have to fight for. Day-to-day is easy; I can get caught up in all manner of small tasks. And these could make up a life. So why can’t I be happy with that? What is a life worth living but one lived attentively, with a passion for the small things? Some days those things are good. Baking a cake. Planting a herb garden. Making a picture for my son’s room. But they feel like small asides — distractions from the bigger picture, from the things I really want to achieve.
For the first time in my life, I envied women without strong ambitions outside of the home. Art was like a monkey on my back and I resented its skittish hold on me, the way it caused me to strain away from my babies, to live a split life, be a split self. I was burdened by the knowledge of what it would cost my family (financially, but more so emotionally) for me to keep writing — just as I became aware of how much it would cost me not to.
More than anything, I longed to plunge into the job of mothering in all its fullness, to wake up each morning needing nothing more than this daily existence: a life for life’s sake. It felt greedy, selfish, unworkable, to try maintaining an identity which seemed entirely at odds with the characteristics of a devoted — a ‘good’ — mother.
While motherhood was calling on me to find ever-greater resources of patience, empathy and composure, art felt like an opposing force — an uncompromising, masculine domain. By this logic, to be an artist would mean putting my babies at risk, starving them of their foremost source of attention and stimulus. My son, and later my daughter too, demanded total fidelity to their need for a mother who was present, alert to their small achievements, sensitive to their coded messages. The moment I sat down to read or to pen a few lines, their antennae seemed to twig that my energy had turned inward, and I was ambushed by demands. I felt like the writer — and failed mother — in Rosellen Brown’s novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, when she laments: ‘I had not known we were to share one life between us, so that the fuller mine is, the more empty hers.’
When I first became pregnant, a friend said to me, ‘Lucky baby, to have such a creative mother’. Five years and two children later, I have discovered that there is a vast difference between living as a creative person and sustaining your own artistic practice.
Usually I’ve felt the antithesis of that radiant picture my friend envisaged, typing with one hand while a cross baby squirms restlessly in the other, or guiltily exploiting the capacity of television to buy me half an hour to jot down a few thoughts. No matter that I once used to relish the early hours of the morning when words seeped out of me in that lush, uncritical state of half-sleep. It is no longer an option to be overtaken by the work, eating and sleeping at odd hours between bouts of creative outpourings, caught up in the obsessive drive to get it right.
I had always verged on superstitious in my belief that the first form a sentence took in my mind was its best, its truest, version, and any attempt at recovering the words later would result in a less potent imitation. Now I dragged myself out of the blankness of bone-deep exhaustion at the call of a hungry baby, and hankered for the moment when I could switch him to the left breast, leaving my writing hand free to make notes — reminders of things I would need to flesh out later, when I had that elusive moment. I learnt to store images, words, even just a feeling that might trigger a memory of something I wanted to express, and when I stole a few moments to write, my hand became cramped with the pace of my scribbling.
Frequently I stormed about the house, pent up with frustration that exploded at any small irritation. Ideas rubbed against the interior surfaces of my brain like grains of sand, chafing till I was raw.
During the day, when my baby slept, I would tidy the house and then sit at the kitchen table to pen a few urgent thoughts into my journal, constantly fighting the urge to check on him. Every 20 minutes or so, the hideous threat of cot death hanging over me, I would desperately squeeze out a few more words before running down the hallway to where my child was sleeping. There his shape would rise and fall; he was pink and warm. My words had not murdered him. Because, spun out to its furthermost consequence, this was the fear: that my baby would die because, for a mere matter of minutes, I put my own self-interest before his precious life — and implicit in this horror was the knowledge that I could lose everything, both my child and my ability to ever again place pen to paper.
Mothers are primed to respond to every sound or movement in a baby’s repertoire. When I was not with them, the world became distorted and every sound seemed like a child’s cry. How would I ever again hear myself through the din? Often my fears for my children were so overwhelming I wondered why anyone would willingly put themselves in a position of such psychological torture.
My partner could lock himself away in the study and the kids barely noticed his absence; a father’s absence is the normal way of things, after all, even if he is an engaged and affectionate dad, as my partner is. Put me behind a closed door, though, and my children would beat it down if they had the strength, hollering as they thrashed themselves against the barricade to their one guarantee that the world is as it should be. As they have grown older, I have learned to steel myself against the wailing through the keyhole, to switch off and get on with my work, but something deep inside me tightens, wincing with shame.
Upon the birth of my first baby, I finally understood the character of Eve in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play Rapture, who upon giving birth is plagued by the thought that with every choice, a million other possibilities vanish forever. In a case of not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone, all my latent ambition flared in the face of deprivation. All the fluff that can fill a day — indeed a life — had subsided.
I no longer had the luxury of caring what anyone thought of me; for months I had barely seen anyone except my partner, lactation ‘experts’ and the hospital staff. All the old reinforcements, the elements that had to be in place in order for me to write, now revealed themselves to be mere excuses, just so much procrastination. There wasn’t time to wait for inspiration to hit, to indulge in the benefits of atmosphere. All the ways I used to fill myself up — devouring novels, going to the cinema alone in the afternoon, sitting in cafés and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations — were no longer an option. Who was going to pay for me to take time out from the kids to ‘indulge’ in all those invisible steps in the creative process?
Historically, the clash between art and life has meant that ‘great’ women artists have been, with very few exceptions, childless throughout their working lives. Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter has documented the ‘either/or’ theory — that women must choose between art and motherhood — from the early Victorian era, when critics were surprisingly more sympathetic toward women writers with children than those without, as long as the children were grown.3 To favour art over children was to evade one’s authentic destiny, the moral obligations of the ‘good’ wife and mother making it unacceptable to use an artistic vocation to ‘avoid’ the responsibilities of a home life. Creative expression was legitimate only insofar as it was an extension of a woman’s nurturing role. Motherhood was a sacred calling; a life of art was a wilful transgression.
The notion that artworks by women were mere surrogates for children endured into the 20th century, with Freudian therapist Helen Deutsch making the flippant assertion that: ‘The urge to intellectual and artistic creation and the productivity of motherhood spring from common sources, and it seems very natural that one should be capable of replacing the other.’4 As Virginia Woolf famously stated, ‘Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.’5
But even she did not avoid the anxiety that writing was an ‘act that “unsexed her”, made her an “unnatural woman”.’ Anais Nin consciously avoided overshadowing her male counterparts because, she wrote, ‘creation and femininity are incompatible’, presumably meaning that independent success might get in the way of a woman’s appeal, rather than suggesting she is innately incapable.6 A century earlier, George Sand believed that in order to live as a writer, her only choice was to adopt a masculine persona and way of life. In the 1830s, Sand courageously raised her two children alone in Paris on an income made wholly from her writings, created and published as an ‘imitation man’.
By the late 1800s gender and creativity became part of an intensifying public debate in Europe with the emergence of feminism. But, while the views of the conservative establishment are predictable, more surprising was that feminists and anti-feminists alike tended to agree that, if women could be artists at all, their talent was for receptive or interpretive roles as opposed to creative originality. Such dominant ideas have prohibited women from accessing the sphere of cultural and intellectual production on equal terms for centuries. Only the most doggedly determined woman could sustain an artistic practice in the face of extreme logistical and psychological barriers. Those with children had confirmed their ‘primary’ role as nurturers, lacking the will to make the necessary sacrifices for a life of art (though no man was expected to forgo fatherhood for the same purpose). For those women without status or resources it was until very recently virtually impossible to make art alongside the demands of raising a family.
By 1929, Virginia Woolf was optimistic that we were approaching a time when external barriers to women’s art would be dismantled. ‘She will be able to concentrate on her vision without distraction from outside,’ Woolf wrote. ‘The aloofness that was once within the reach of genius and originality is only now coming within reach of ordinary women.’7 She famously envisaged a ‘golden age’ when women would finally have leisure, money and a room of their own — all the elements required for creative work, and in short supply for a mother in any era.
As late as 1972, Tillie Olsen made the contentious claim that: ‘Almost no mothers — as almost no part-time, part-self persons — have created enduring literature … so far’.8 Five years later, Susan Rubein Suleiman was still warning that: ‘At the present time, any mother of young children … who wants to do serious creative work — with all that such work implies of the will to self-assertion, self-absorption, solitary grappling — must be prepared for the worst kind of struggle, which is the struggle against herself’. 9
To be an artist means a compulsive process of self-realisation, a struggle toward the ideal that lurks at the edges of our vision. In spite, or perhaps because of, my battle to find time for creative work after having a child, I began to value it like never before. More than that, I began to write like my life depended on it. Art was the only way I knew of coming to terms with the psychic shock of becoming a mother — a role that uncovered the angriest, weakest and most self-seeking, and in turn the most tender, gracious and devoted parts of myself.
I knew that if I buried that creative urge in myself, it would only re-emerge in some ugly and distorted form; that it would not, in fact, make me a better mother but one full of bitterness and frustration — a recipe for martyrdom. Or, perhaps worse, turn me into a monster whose own thwarted ambitions have been transferred on to her children. Sometimes I looked at my baby and experienced his gaze as a challenge, as if he more than anyone would recognise all my terrible failings. I did not want his mother to be a woman who gave up, who didn’t strive to become all she might have been.
Numerous feminist texts have examined the long struggle against educational and institutional barriers that, among other things, considered art an unsuitable occupation for a woman. Many of these books have counted marriage and motherhood among those institutions that serve to limit women’s sphere of influence to the private and domestic. It hardly needs repeating that, by and large, women are still given almost total responsibility for the rearing of children without the cultural recognition of the difficulty and importance of this role.
We seem no closer than 30 years ago to creating a system that genuinely enables women and men to share equally in raising their children. Yet, despite all it demands of women and the inequities that remain, motherhood cannot be reduced to a mere institution of control. Mothers and their children are bound together in ways that defy all simplistic definitions.
In a comment that has stayed with me, writer Helen Garner once talked of ‘the terrific struggle for women’ striving to fulfil destinies beyond being wives and mothers. ‘It’s terribly sad, it’s a very sad thing — a woman trying to be an artist and a mother at the same time. It’s a tremendous clash ... ’10 She trailed off, perhaps aware of having innocently stumbled into one of those quicksand zones, where the implications of what you are saying are so enormous and unwieldy that you risk being swallowed up. ‘Sad’ was the word she used. It’s a terribly sad thing for women trying to be an artist and mother at the same time.
It is a good word, because sadness is a problem of the heart. And as much as motherhood is a political issue, it can never be only that; the predicament of the artist–mother moves well beyond the boundaries of policy and the expectations of society.
As Susan Rubein Suleiman wrote, perhaps the greatest struggle for a woman artist who has or desires children is the struggle against herself. No amount of money, no amount of structural change, can entirely resolve the fundamental dilemma for the artist–mother: the seeming incompatibility of her two greatest passions. The effect is a divided heart; a split self; the fear that to succeed at one means to fail at the other.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)