The tension of being both a mother and an artist

While still a student in the late 1960s, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, pregnant with her first child, met a famous sculptor. She remembers saying it, seeing her baby bump, “Well, I guess now you can’t be an artist.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, she realized later. once she had a baby, Ukeles found herself trapped in the kind of mindless automated labor that defines early motherhood – bottle, diaper, rocker, repeat. “I was literally split in two,” she said. said later. “Half my week I was the mother and half the artist. But, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous; I’m the one.'”

It’s the creation that wins the glory, she proclaims in a manifesto, even if the maintenance “takes all the fucking time”. In an exhibition she proposed, she would do her housework in museums – cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, installing new light bulbs – and elevating those repetitions, an equal part of her life, into art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no curator was willing to entertain this idea.

Among the artists in biographer Julie Phillips’ new study of several major “artist-mothers” of the mid to late 20th century, The baby on the fire escape: creativity, motherhood and the problem of the baby-mind, Ukeles is one of the few, if not the only one, whose creative work aligns so practically with her maternal work. Ukeles’ intention was to join the two halves, to subvert one into the other: “My job will be the job. But the kingdoms disagree. The baby cannot take care of itself, art cannot be created, and the two can rarely be done in tandem. The old adage that “sleep when the baby sleeps” doesn’t work when you’re waiting for the baby to start their next chapter or a new skit so you can work on your own. In the words of Doris Lessing, “I don’t know which is more satisfying, having a baby or writing a novel. Unfortunately, they are quite incompatible.

When a new child arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your home. The first is the child. The second is yourself as a mother. He is a person whose old concerns are now dismissed as less urgent. Phillips quotes psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser, who writes that the mother’s own narrative “is punctuated by constant interruptions in thought, reflection, sleep, movement, and task completion. What remains is a series of unconnected experiences that remain fundamentally incapable of staying coherent.

In his once-mocked memoirs (too direct, too bold, too willing to admit what others only think), The work of a life, Rachel Cusk wrote: “To be a mother I have to leave the phone unanswered, the work undone, the arrangements unfulfilled. To be myself, I have to let the baby cry, prevent his hunger or abandon him at night, forget him to think of something else. To succeed in being one is to fail in being the other. Here, Cusk unveils the fundamental secret of this creative mothers need to do their job – they have to forget about their children, at times. They need a temporary restoration of the internal state that is all artist, not mother.

The women documented by Phillips all felt cut in half. Alice Neel dropped off one of her children with her family in Cuba so she could move to the Village and paint. Lessing, too, 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 ordinary household chores that tethered her to the real world, wrote to her agent: “I walk a rather narrow path, between the needs of my family and my own badlands psychological.” The more satisfied mothers of the bunch, like Angela Carter, who had her son in her early 40s, have developed workarounds or new gears to get their focus in and out. (Even then, Carter worried that her stories would cross streams, that her work, which she described as “gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder,” was “in some way detrimental to the baby.” ) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

If the mother’s first shift is the money-making job, and the second shift, à la Arlie Hochschild, is scrubbing and calming, the third less mentioned change for the mother who is also an artist is dream state, daydreaming, meditation – whatever you want to call it or however you want to practice it – that makes room for ideas. This is where the artist commune with herself, in what Phillips calls “imaginative distance”. Even if the creative work seems active – a slipping brush or snapping fingers – daydreaming is essential.

In an early draft of her 1931 speech, “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf (an unorthodox but notoriously childless aunt) wrote that when she imagined a woman writing, “she wasn’t thinking; she did not reason; she was not building a plot; she let her imagination sink into the depths of her consciousness as she sat above clinging to a thin but all-needed thread of reason. This is the third shift: pure attention.

Some mother-artists have devised methods for working on the fly. Audre Lorde, like Emily Dickinson before her, wrote poetry on every scrap of paper at hand. (The main difference is that Lorde then stuffed the papers into her diaper bag and turned to her children, while Dickinson, who had no children, watched her dough rise.) Shirley Jackson planned “The Lottery” while she was putting groceries away and wrote it while her daughter was taking a nap. Writer Naomi Mitchison leaned on her baby’s pushchair to take notes as they strolled the streets of London. When a room of their own was not available, some writers constructed one from the literal materials of motherhood.

But getting into long periods of sustained focus (or daydreaming) – what productivity experts would call “flow– demands that we take our children away from our working mind. Fully. The implications become moral rather than practical: what kind of mother forgets her children, not only to bring home money to fund their education and appetite, but to do so in such an intellectually rewarding way, through a portrait or a novel, a satisfying product of creativity?

In some cases, the artist-mothers examined by Phillips were looking for air pockets for themselves – small spaces where they could take a sip and dive back in. Barbara Hepworth, a mother of four, insisted that all artists should have 30 minutes a day to work “so that the images grow in their minds”. Toni Morrison has performed the classic writing move of working on her novels before her children wake up in the morning. But this work is what Phillips calls “provisional, contingent, subject to disruption.” Imagine more mother artists with salaries, like Neel, whose work with the WPA Federal Art Project gave her the free space to slip into the third shift and led to her first solo exhibition, in 1938 Imagine them without high-pitched baby cries from down the hall, without glances across the room to check in, without the half-cocked brains likely to goof off at a hint of maternal guilt. The third change, which eludes most mothers for much of their career, is the fallow art field. (I write this with my foot on a bouncer, my hand on a monitor, my intellect somewhere at sea baby.)

Phillips named her book for a (probably apocryphal) story about Neel as a young mother. Her in-laws claimed she once placed the baby on the fire escape – a public, possibly dangerous place, out of sight, but still tangential to the house – while she was painting. Phillips calls it “the precarious situation in which the child is just far enough out of sight and out of mind for the mother to have a conversation with her muse.”

At 80, in 1980, Neel ended a now well-known career nude self portrait. In it, she faces the viewer directly, one foot planted in a stretch of yellow ground, the other in a triangle of green. Directly in the center of the canvas, a place from which one cannot look away, is her belly, softened with age, but rounded as it must have been in the last months of her pregnancies. Celebrated and adored late in life, she still looks like a mother, cut in half, brush in hand. Nevertheless, she is in full control of her identity. She’d had the last few decades to herself.


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