Six Artists Balance Creativity and Motherhood. Results Vary.

THE BABY ON THE FIRE ESCAPE
Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem
By Julie Phillips

“Where do I want my vitality to go?” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1962, 10 years after the birth of her only child. “To books or to sex, to ambition or to love, to anxiety or to sensuality? Can’t have both.” In “The Baby on the Fire Escape,” the biographer Julie Phillips investigates the assumption in that chilling final line, exploring various ways in which 20th-century artist-mothers have attempted — often in highly fraught circumstances — to “have both.”

Phillips focuses on the intimate lives of six women born in the first half of the 20th century, “young enough to have experienced the changes that came with feminism, old enough to have mothered for a lifetime” — Alice Neel, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Angela Carter. Chapters on each subject are interspersed with shorter sections, titled “The Discomfort Zone,” where Phillips threads together quotations and anecdotes from a supporting chorus of voices, who offer pithy, usually sobering testimony on what she refers to as the “mind-baby problem”: the practical and psychological difficulty of combining motherhood with artistic (mainly literary) work. These women speak of their shattered concentration, their resentment at curtailed writing time, the ingrained societal disapproval of working mothers, the selfishness they feel on closing the door. There are also those rarer voices who describe family life as galvanizing to their creativity. Lorde saw both motherhood and poetry as “part and parcel of one’s daily living,” while Le Guin responded furiously to a friend who described motherhood as “the paradigm of brainless enslavement”: To the writer, having children was “terrifying, empowering and fiercely demanding” on her intelligence.

The question driving Phillips’s book is not whether these women were good writers or good mothers, but what conditions might enable creativity and domesticity to stand in a workable balance. The problem with motherhood, Lessing argued, is not the work itself, but the burden placed on women who are “cribbed, cabined and confined” by stifling expectations, their own desires and ambitions assumed to be secondary to their role in a (heterosexual, nuclear) family. Lessing chose to leave her husband, knowing that she would lose legal rights to her children: Her solo departure from Rhodesia for London, Phillips argues, was paradoxically the only route she could imagine toward an integrated life of activism, writing and motherhood, since staying would render the first two impossible. By contrast, Neel — a remarkable artist whose children were removed from her care or terrorized by a series of abusive partners — offers the most disquieting example of the cruelty unleashed when incompatible demands collide without meaningful support in place.

This is an uneasy book, which raises many more questions than it answers. Phillips’s own ambivalence is palpable: questioning the project, grappling with her proclivity to judgment and asking what she’s looking for. The book is primarily an inquiry rather than an argument — a miscellany of experience, conceived along the lines of Le Guin’s “carrier bag theory of fiction” — yet the group format tempts the reader to search for connections and conclusions that remain on the one hand elusive, on the other hand obvious. These artists’ experiences of motherhood depend on their support network, temperament, wealth and child-care arrangements; those who become mothers while in the process of defining themselves as artists tend to struggle to reconcile the pulls of different identities more than those with an established body of work, and the benefits (psychological and financial) that tend to accompany it. What emerges most strongly from Phillips’s study is the fact that invisible social structures have, for generations, failed women, their children and their art. We are all the poorer for it.

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