“Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?” – The Cut
“The Parent Trap: Can You Be a Good Writer and a Good Mother?” – The Guardian
“Science suggests that women may become more creative after having kids” – The Atlantic
“Why can’t great artists be mothers?” Women in the World
“Motherhood is no threat to creativity, author Zadie Smith says” – The Telegraph
We’re used to seeing headlines like these because whether a woman can have children without losing her creative self is a subject that refuses to die. Though it was a man, Cyril Connolly, who said “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” and though we live in an age of shared parental leave and a pregnant prime minister (hurrah!), this is still a question that is asked much more frequently about motherhood than fatherhood. And in continuing to ask it we’re failing to examine the systemic sexism at the heart of both parenthood and the arts.
There’s been a great deal of discussion lately about “art monsters” and how gendered criticisms of parenting fit in to current concerns about assault and harassment in the world of cultural production. When Amanda Palmer announced her pregnancy, she received a message from a “Worried-but-Still-Devoted” fan asking if those who supported her on crowdfunding sites were paying for new music or for a new baby. She described it as “a pregnant artist’s worst nightmare,” and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine her husband Neil Gaiman receiving the equivalent from those who buy his books. But it’s not just fans or critics who worry motherhood will affect their favourite artists’ outputs; it’s often female artists themselves.We leave little room for women to admit they’re less than 100 percent mothers, or that having children isn’t their whole world.
Feminist performance artist Marina Abramović, whose work I dived into when researching my latest book, told German newspaper Tagesspiegel that she thinks it’s motherhood that makes women less successful in the art world than men. “It’s simple,” she said, “Love, family, children—a woman does not want to sacrifice all of that.” Similarly, Tracey Emin, coming from the contemporary art world, told Red magazine that being a mother would have compromised her work. While men can be both parents and good artists, she said, mothers are too “emotionally torn.” Seeking a compromise, Lauren Sandler suggested in The Atlantic that women can be mothers as well as writers, but only if they stick to one child. All three of these women have faced criticism for their statements, sometimes from high-profile artists and writers who are themselves mothers (and thus manage to prove their point empirically).
However the question is posed, the discussion quickly descends into a polarized argument about whether it’s possible to “have it all.” Those with children claim it is, while those without say it’s not. Occasionally someone from the latter camp switches sides and dramatically denounces their younger self, explaining that childbirth has delivered them from naiveté into experience. Their reversal inevitably concludes with the oft infuriating yet inarguable point that a woman cannot possibly understand motherhood until she experiences it. The defining characteristic of this argument and the thing that keeps it going is that it’s almost impossible for either side to say anything to convince the other.
Perhaps this is why it’s become such a popular topic for novelists. Fiction is one of the few places where we do get to see women struggling with maternal uncertainty. In the crime and thriller genres in particular, we’re allowed to delve into the lives of problematic, disturbed and unsympathetic female characters. Narratives involving disappearances and murders (like mine!) are uniquely positioned to examine and critique traditional family roles by violently disrupting them. Recently there have been some excellent books by female authors utilising this genre this to make us seriously question our attitudes towards maternity. In Little Deaths, Emma Flint gives us Ruth Malone, a single, sexy and sexually active mother whose appearance and behaviour cause both the police and the press to jump to conclusions when her children go missing. Laura Lippman makes clear in the very first pages of Sunburn that her main character Polly has up and left her husband and three-year-old daughter in the middle of a beach vacation, and that this is an abandonment she has been planning for some time. Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby opens with the shocking words “The baby is dead” and immediately we’re told it was the seemingly perfect and perfectly maternal nanny, Louise, who did it.
By depicting their protagonists as clear-cut mother-monsters from the outset, these authors risk alienating readers who cannot see past their actions. However, by exploring these topics in fiction, they also allow us to set aside the instinctive outrage or disgust we might feel encountering the same women on the pages of newspapers. Whereas in life we’re quick to judge the neglectful, abandoning, overly sexual or murderous mother figure as singularly monstrous, their fictional counterparts are afforded our patience and attention, perhaps even our identification. These authors allow us to consider such women as people as well as mothers, which is something we need to start challenging ourselves to do in life as well as on the page.
In the real world, the thing those on both sides of the argument seem to agree on is the idea that if a woman is a mother then that should be the thing she is first. Emin argued she chose not to have kids because, “I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist.” The only significant difference between this and the statements of women who tell us it is possible to “have it all” is that the latter claim they’re able to be 100 percent mother and 100 percent artist. Both sides perpetuate the idea that women must succeed as mothers above all else. Perhaps they can be successful artists, but only if, like Hein Koh when she posted the ultimate “multitasking mom” image, they’re also managing to breastfeed both of their twins at the same time. The stories of those making it work are almost always: “Look, I’m an artist, but see, my kids are fine; I haven’t fucked them up by continuing to make my art.”
A notable exception is Lara Feigel, whose exploration of the life and work of Doris Lessing, Free Woman, takes a critical look at how the late author was judged for abandoning two of her three children and examines her own feelings towards being a writer and new mother. Feigel notes that during the sixties and seventies there was a much greater understanding and a more open discussion of what psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called “maternal ambivalence.” Since then, though, there has been an increasing focus on the needs of children taking precedence over those of their parents and this seems to have closed down the conversation and turned the admittance of that ambivalence into one of our society’s ultimate taboos. What both impressively accomplished mother-artists as well as “art-monsters” Emin and Abramović appear to tell us is that there are only two acceptable roles for women: Good Mother or Not a Mother.
Male artists, on the other hand, do not have to be 100 percent fathers before all else. We forgive them for being mediocre or even bad fathers in a way we never would a woman. Our bookshelves and art galleries are littered with works by men who have abandoned or neglected their offspring. In 1952, Hemingway’s youngest son wrote to him to say, “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons…Which do you think is the most important, your self-centred shit, the stories or the people?”Plot points involving pregnancy and child-rearing are often held up as proof of how effective the stories will be at evoking a sense of suffocation.
History, of course, has chosen Hemmingway’s stories, but it’s rarely so clear-cut for female authors. Accounts of Lessing almost always linger on the point that she left her 10-year-old son, John, and 6-year-old daughter, Jean, in Rhodesia to pursue her writing career in England. She is often quoted as saying “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children,” and “No one can write with a child around,” but few journalists pay attention to the fact that she was forbidden custody of John and Jean, banned from returning to Rhodesia until 1980 and that her youngest son, Peter, lived with her for most of his adult life. It’s easier to paint her as terrible mother; 100 percent artist. Similarly, in relation to their children, Enid Blyton, Muriel Spark and Rebecca West are all accused of madness, absence and abandonment. Their achievements as writers must, it seems, be weighed against the maternal cost.
Much is being discussed at the moment about whether we can separate the art from the artist, whether it’s okay to enjoy good work (Annie Hall, House of Cards, Rosemary’s Baby) made by bad people. The same no doubt should be asked about artists who are bad parents, but at present it seems to only be asked of mothers. This double-standard is even more apparent when artists use their art to talk about the struggle between creativity and parenthood. In contemporary literature, we’ve seen praise heaped on Karl Ove Knausgård for his autobiographical novel series My Struggle. In the second, A Man In Love, he examines the difficulties of juggling writing and fatherhood, often detailing his shortcomings in the latter. Questions have been raised about the ethics of Knausgård writing about his family in such detail, but he’s received nowhere near the level of personal criticism Rachel Cusk did for her pregnancy and motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work. “Frankly,” one reviewer told Cusk, “you are a self-obsessed bore: the embodiment of the Me! Me! Me! attitude which you so resent in small children.” “Pure misery to read,” another wrote, “From the way she writes about her first child, God alone only knows how she allowed herself to bear a second.”
“To be myself,” Cusk writes, “I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other.” This seems the very opposite of the message of Hein Koh’s Facebook post showing her breastfeeding her twins while working at her laptop. Which is no doubt why Cusk was accused of selfishness, postnatal depression, and exploitation. Again, fiction seems like a much safer place for writers to explore these ambivalences and ambiguities. The domestic noir genre prides itself on exploring the darkest edges of family life; and, at the point of marketing these books, plot points involving pregnancy and child-rearing are often held up as proof of how effective the stories will be at evoking a sense of suffocation. Why then is it so horrifying for a writer like Cusk to admit to the suffocation in non-fiction?
A huge part of the problem is that the structure of the question of whether motherhood kills creativity is based on the premise that as soon as a woman has a child she is expected be so overcome by her natural instincts that her previous devotion to her work will wane. Rarely do we flip the question to ask if an artist’s creativity will impact her maternal instincts. As such, we leave little room for women to admit they’re less than 100 percent mothers, or that having children isn’t their whole world. It seems unlikely that either Abramović or Emin would have felt the need to make their statements if they were male. The only reason for women with their level of professional success to defend their life choices is that we still live in a society where a woman without a child is perceived as lacking.
What would a world look like where we respected a childless woman’s ability to feel “complete”? Where both men and women were free to personally negotiate how they divided themselves between their work and their offspring? And where we allowed both sexes the space to admit, in life as well as fiction, that having children is complex and hard and not always everything it’s cracked up to be?