The tension of being a mother and being an artist

The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who was pregnant with her first child, met a famous sculptor while still a student in the late 1960s. She recalls that when he saw her round stomach, he declared, “Well, I guess you can’t be an artist now.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, she later realized; When she had a baby, Ukeles found herself caught up in the kind of mindless automated work that defines early motherhood—bottle, diaper, skirt, repetition. “I was literally split in two,” she later said. “Half of my week I was the mother and the other half the artist. But I was like, ‘This is ridiculous; I’m the one.’”

It’s creation that gets the glory, she proclaimed in a manifesto, though maintenance “takes all the damn time.” In one exhibition she proposed, she would do her housework in museums—cook, clean up, change diapers, install new lightbulbs—and elevate these repetitions, an equal part of her life, to art. Perhaps not surprisingly, no curator was willing to cater to this idea.

Among the artists in biographer Julie Phillips’ new study of several major “mother artists” of the mid-to-late 20th century The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind Baby Problem, Ukeles is one of the few, if not the only one, whose creative work so practically coincides with her maternal work. Ukeles’ intention was to connect the two halves, to merge them: “My work will be the work.” But the kingdoms are divided. The baby cannot take care of itself, art cannot create itself, and seldom can both happen at the same time. The old adage “sleep when the baby sleeps” doesn’t work if you’re waiting for the baby to start his next chapter or sketch so you can work on yours. In the words of Doris Lessing: “I can’t think of anything more satisfying, having a baby or writing a novel. Unfortunately they are quite incompatible.”

When a new child arrives, it’s like two strangers have moved into your home. The first is the child. The second is you as a mother. She is a person whose earlier worries are now set aside as less urgent. Phillips cites psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser, who writes that the mother’s own self-narrative is “punctuated at the level of constant interruptions in thinking, reflecting, sleeping, moving, and completing tasks. What is left is a series of disjointed experiences that essentially remain disjointed.”

In her once derided (too blunt, too bold, too willing to admit what others only think) memoir, A life’s work, Rachel Cusk wrote: “To be a mom, I have to leave the phone unanswered, work undone, agreements unfulfilled. To be myself I have to let the baby cry, forestall its hunger or leave it alone at night, forget it to think of other things. To succeed at being one means to fail at being the other.” Here, Cusk shares the fundamental secret of what creative moms need to get work done—they need to forget their kids at times. They need a temporary restoration of the inner state that is only an artist, not a mother.

The Phillips women’s documents all felt twofold. Alice Neel famously placed one of her children with a family in Cuba so she could move to the Village and paint. Lessing also committed “the unforgivable” (her own words) and left two of her children with their father in what was then Rhodesia. Ursula K. Le Guin, who was “grateful” for the mundane housework that connected her to the real world, wrote to her agent, “I walk a pretty fine line between the needs of my family and my own psychological wastelands.” The happier ones Mothers in the group, like Angela Carter, who had her son in his early 40s, developed workarounds or new gears to toggle their focus on and off. (Even then, Carter worried that her narratives were crossing streams, that her work, which she described as “gothic tales, cruel tales, miracle tales,” was “in some way harming the baby.”) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

If the mother’s first shift is the work that makes money and the second shift, à la Arlie Hochschild, is the scrubbing and mopping, the lesser-mentioned third shift for the mother, who is also an artist, is the dream state that broods , the meditation – whatever you want to call it or practice it – that creates space for ideas. Here the artist communicates with herself, in what Phillips calls “imaginative distance”. Even when creative work looks active – a slithering brush or chattering fingers – reverie is essential to it.

In an early draft of her 1931 Professions for Women speech, Virginia Woolf (an unorthodox aunt but notoriously childless) wrote that when she imagined a writing woman, she “didn’t think; she didn’t think; she built no conspiracy; She lowered her imagination into the depths of her consciousness as she sat aloft, holding on to a tenuous but necessary thread of reason. This is the third layer: pure attention.

Some artist moms have developed methods to work spontaneously. Audre Lorde, like Emily Dickinson before her, wrote poetry on scraps of paper that happened to be handy. (The main difference is that Lorde then stuffed the papers into her diaper bag and turned back to her children while Dickinson, who had no children, watched her dough rise.) Shirley Jackson planned “The Lottery” as she put away groceries and wrote it while her daughter was napping. Writer Naomi Mitchison leaned on her baby’s pram to take notes as they walked the streets of London. When a room of their own was not available, some writers built one from the literal materials of motherhood.

But entering long periods of sustained focus (or daydreaming) — what productivity experts would call “flow” — requires us to push our kids out of our working minds. Fully. The implications become moral rather than practical: What kind of mother forgets her children, not just to bring money home to fund their education and appetite, but to do so in such an intellectually enriching way, through a portrait or a Roman, a self-gratifying product of creativity?

In some cases, the mother artists Phillips studied were seeking pockets of air for themselves—small spaces where they could sip and dive. Barbara Hepworth, a mother of four, insisted that all artists should set aside 30 minutes a day to work “so the images grow in your mind”. Toni Morrison took the classic writing step of working on her novels before her children woke up in the morning. But this work is what Phillips calls “preliminary, conditional, error-prone.” Imagine more mother-artists on salaries like Neel, whose job at the WPA Federal Art Project gave her the freedom to slip into third shift and led to her first one-man show in 1938, down the hallway without glances across the room to check herself in , without the half-crazy brain that could easily stumble away at a twinge of maternal guilt. The third layer, which most mothers miss for much of their careers, is the fallow field of art. (I’m writing this with my foot on a bouncer, my hand on a monitor, my intellect somewhere out in the sea of ​​babies.)

Phillips named her book after a (probably apocryphal) story about Neel as a young mother. Her in-laws claimed she once placed the baby on the fire escape — a place that’s public, potentially dangerous, out of sight but nonetheless tangent to the house — while she was painting. Phillips calls it “that precarious situation where the child is just far enough out of sight and mind for the mother to talk to her muse.”

In 1980, at the age of 80, Neel completed what is now known as a nude self-portrait. In it, she faces the viewer directly, one foot in a piece of yellow ground, the other in a green triangle. Right in the center of the screen, in a place you can’t look away from, is her belly, softened with age but rounded as it must have been in the final months of her pregnancy. Celebrated and adored in late life, she still looks like a mother in two, brush in hand. Despite this, she has her identity fully under control. She had had the past few decades all to herself. The tension of being a mother and being an artist

Jessica MacLeish

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