While still a student in the late 1960s, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, pregnant with her first child, met a famous sculptor. She remembers that he declared when she saw her round belly, “Well, now you can not be an artist.” He was not entirely mistaken, she later realized; when she had a baby, Ukeles found herself trapped in the kind of thoughtless automated work that defines early motherhood – bottle, diaper, rock, repetition. “I was literally split in two,” she later said. ‘Half of my week I was a mother, and the other half an artist. But I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous; I’m the one. ‘”
It is creation that gets the credit, she proclaimed in a manifesto, even though maintenance “takes all that fucking time.” In an exhibition she suggested, she would do her homework at museums – cook, clean up, change diapers, install new bulbs – and elevate these repetitions, an equal part of her life, to art. Perhaps not surprisingly, no curator was willing to entertain this idea.
Among the artists in the cinema Julie Phillips’ new study of several great “mother artists” from the middle to the end of the 20th century, The baby on the run: Creativity, motherhood and the Mind-Baby problem, Ukeles is one of the few, if not the only, whose creative work fits so conveniently with her mother’s work. The intention of the week was to unite the two halves to undermine each other: “My work will be the work.” But the kingdoms are in conflict. The baby can not take care of itself, the art can not create itself, and rarely can the two be done in tandem. The old adage of “sleep when the baby is asleep” does not work when you wait for your baby to start his next chapter or a new sketch so you can work on yours. In Doris Lessing’s words: “I can not think of what is more satisfying, to have a baby or to write a novel. Unfortunately, they are quite incompatible.”
When a new baby arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your house. The first is the child. The second is yourself as a mother. She is a person whose previous worries have now been lifted as less urgent. Phillips quotes the psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser, who writes that the mother’s own self-narrative “is punctured at the level of constant interruptions of thinking, reflecting, sleeping, moving and performing tasks. What is left are a series of unrelated experiences that are still fundamentally incapable of coherence. “
In her once mocked (too blunt, too bold, too willing to admit what others only think) memories, A life’s work, Rachel Cusk wrote, “To be a mother I must leave the phone unanswered, work enchanted, events unfulfilled. To be myself I must let the child cry, must prevent her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her to think of other things. To succeed in being one means to fail in being the other. ” Here, Cusk spills the basic secret of what creative mothers need to do their jobs – they need to forget about their children in a row. They need a temporary restoration of the inner state that is solely artist, no mother.
The female Phillips documents all felt split in two. Alice Neel deposited one of her children with family in Cuba so she could move to the village and paint. Lessing also committed “the unforgivable” (her own words), leaving two of her children with their father in what was then Rhodesia. Ursula K. Le Guin, who was “grateful” for the ordinary housework that tethered her to the real world, wrote to her agent: “I go a pretty narrow path between my family’s needs and my own psychological bad areas.” The more satisfied mothers in the herd, such as Angela Carter, who had her son in the early 40s, developed work-arounds or new gear that their concentration could jump in and out of. (Even then, Carter was concerned that her stories crossed streams, that her work, which she described as “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonders,” was “somehow harmful to the baby.”) Negotiate, negotiate , negotiate.
If the mother’s first shift is work that brings in money, and the second shift, à la Arlie Hochschild, is scrubbing and soothing, the lesser-known third shift for the mother, who is also an artist, the dream state, pondering, meditation – whatever you want call it or how you want to practice it – that makes room for ideas. This is where the artist communicates with himself, in what Phillips calls “imaginative distance.” Although creative work looks active – a sliding brush or clattering fingers – dreaming is essential to it.
In an early draft of her 1931 speech, “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf (an unorthodox aunt but notoriously childless) wrote that when she imagined a woman writing, “she did not think; she did not reason; she did not; did not build a plot; she let her imagination run deep into her consciousness while sitting on top and holding on to a thin but much-needed thread of reason. ” This is the third shift: pure attention.
Some mother-artists devised methods of working on the go. Audre Lorde, like Emily Dickinson before her, wrote poetry on the scraps of paper at hand. (The biggest difference is that Lorde then stuffed the papers in his diaper bag and returned to his children, while Dickinson, who had no children, saw his dough rise.) Shirley Jackson planned “The Lottery” while she put groceries away and wrote it while her daughter slept. Author Naomi Mitchison leaned over her baby’s stroller to take notes as they walked the streets of London. When their own room was not available, some writers built one of the literal materials of motherhood.
But to get into long stretches of sustained concentration (or daydreaming) – what productivity experts would call “flow” – requires us to push our children 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 finance their education and appetite, but to do so in such an intellectually enriching way, through a portrait or a novel, a self -satisfactory product of creativity?
In some cases, the mother artists Phillips are looking for air pockets for themselves – small spaces where they could take a sip and dive back down. Barbara Hepworth, a mother of four, insisted that all artists should have 30 minutes a day to work “so the images grow in one’s mind.” Toni Morrison performed the classic writing work on her novels before her children woke up in the morning. But this work is what Phillips calls “temporary, conditional, subject to disturbance.” Imagine several paid mother artists, like Neel, whose job with the WPA Federal Art Project gave her leeway to slip into the third shift, leading to her first solo show in 1938. Imagine them without sharp baby cries from downstairs, without glances across the room to check in, without the half-strained brain that tends to toot at a hint of maternal guilt. The third shift that eludes most mothers for much of their careers is artistic brawl. (I write this with my foot on a bouncer, my hand on a screen, my intellect somewhere out to the baby sea.)
Phillips named her book for a (probably apocryphal) story about Neel as a young mother. Her in-laws claimed she once put the baby on the fire escape – a place that is public, possibly dangerous, out of sight but still tangential to the home – while she was painting. Phillips calls it “the precarious situation where the child is just far enough out of sight and mind for the mother to talk to her muse.”
As an 80-year-old, in 1980, Neel completed a now-well-known nude self-portrait. In it she faces directly towards the viewer, one foot planted in a yellow stretch of the floor, the other in a triangle of green. Right in the middle of the canvas, a place one cannot see away from, her belly is softened by age, but rounded as it must have been in the last months of her pregnancies. Celebrated and worshiped late in life, she still looks like a mother, split in two with brush in hand. Nevertheless, she has full control over her identity. She had had the last few decades all to herself.