This post has been in the works for over two weeks, eked out in bits of stolen time, back-burnered by the bigger priorities of mothering, essay writing, and paid freelance projects. This morning I set up my toddler with Cheerios and Daniel Tiger, but she was back in thirty seconds talking to me about her toothbrush and the cats and the zipper on her shirt, asking for milkies, please. There I sat for a few stolen minutes–why do I always feel like a thief?–trying to shape my thoughts around A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Mom, Kim Brooks’ article in New York Magazine.
When it was first published, the subtitle read: “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” Interestingly, it now reads: “Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?” I suppose “domestic life” is more all-encompassing? Either way, I was eager to read this piece as the writer-mom juggle is my current life story and the reason I began this blog. I expected to be shouting an internal hell, yes as I read Brooks’ essay, so I was surprised when I found myself countering her.
First, I think “enemy” is a little harsh. When I’m searching for time, undistracted moments to get the words down while simultaneously juggling the demands of caring for a young child, I see domestic life not as the enemy but as a competing priority. It’s the entire reason I began this blog: to find time each day, to stay tethered to myself, to recover my writing voice, to connect with other writers, to see if I can hack this thing amidst the endless demands of motherhood and life.
Here Brooks encapsulates the recurring thought in my head before I became a mother, the reason for so many stops and starts with writing and art throughout my 20s and 30s:
“…a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer…”
Guess what’s also thankless, involves untold hours, can’t be monetized, and is largely undervalued by our culture? Motherhood. And perhaps it’s this kinship between art and motherhood that makes them feel so incompatible. Doing both doubles the frustration of working long, unpaid hours that are also invisible to the outside world. Brooks turns to other writer-moms for answers, asking, “Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?”
“Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
“Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.”
Again, I see kinship. Art is all of those things, subversive, destabilizing, undermining, and so too is motherhood. What else subverts your entire existence the way motherhood does? Becoming a mother destabilized my life. It undermined what I thought I knew. Nothing else has taught/teaches me so well how to make meaningful art like the journey through motherhood. It’s the making of art while mothering and managing domestic life, the limited time, the depleted energy, the distraction, that presents challenge. There is also the rarely-mentioned matter of economic resources. It reminds me of some of my favorite advice on writing from the author Joy Castro:
“Be happy with small. Some days you can only write a little. Some days you can’t write at all. Leisure, class, and the absence of family responsibilities have a great deal to do with who manages to find time to write every day. I was a no-book writer for several years, and then a one-book writer for several more. Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. Do what you can, and persist.”
Don’t flagellate yourself if you’re not one of the lucky ones. I spend more time in this state of self-blame than I care to admit, perpetually trying to carve out writing time while also feeling like I’m failing at every turn. Then the brilliance of Aya de Leon sliced through my failure rumination with Portrait of the #WriterMom as a Member of the Working Class. This is the essay that made me shout hell, yes.
“Because domestic labor (raising children, keeping house, doing the emotional work of relationships) isn’t seen as labor, women are robbed of the ability to see ourselves clearly for the labor we do in families: most mothers are part of the working class. Although there is great variety in the conditions of our lives, we spend most of our time engaged in arduous, entry level labor. Yes, we love our families, and it has its rewards. But it’s work. We do the work of raising people for the society. Our labor is consistently exploited. No pay. No labor unions. No national policies to support us.
Contrary to popular myth, artists are also part of the working class. Not the artist identity, but those of us who are actually busy steadily making things. This is another delusion of our society. Artists are associated with privilege and elitism. To be sure, in our society it is a privilege to be able to work with one’s mind and to be able to put one’s visions out in the world. But the actual doing of the art is work. For most artists, this work is either unpaid, or very poorly paid. Few of us can make a living. We often work in terrible isolation. We have few unions and guilds to protect us except at the highest levels. Our labor is also consistently exploited.
Although the labor conditions of motherhood and artists are both bad, the system maintains its power by teaching us to blame ourselves. Mothers spend a great deal of time feeling anxious and guilty that we’re not doing it right. Artists spend a great deal of time feeling insecure, discouraged, or fraudulent. Both groups would be served by understanding that these labor conditions are so terribly under-resourced that they set us up to fail or to always feel like we’re failing. If our lives as moms or artists aren’t going well, we are taught to believe it’s our personal deficiency, when it’s actually a function of the society’s structure.”
While I was the person making starts and stops with writing and art during my 20s and 30s, settling for office jobs that felt much safer, de Leon was “the type of artist who hustled.”
“In my life, I’d already had to learn to make a living from my creativity, because, prior to having kids, no one was going to underwrite my creative career. Not my parents, not my partner. Not any wealthy patron or institution. I have certainly learned to hustle even harder as a mom…”
The learning curve has been steeper for me. I’m learning the hustle now, and motherhood is my teacher. Mothering steals almost every hour, and yet nothing else has taught me so well about the art of time management, about fine-tuning my own habits in order to find every spare pocket of time. I had no idea how much free time I had, nor such an acute awareness of time escaping, until my beautiful baby subverted my life. As much as caring for my child seems to drain every resource, as inefficient as it feels to edit while breastfeeding and rolling balls of play dough, motherhood also serves as catalyst and companion. Not since my 20s have I been so eager to describe, to capture, to explain, to story-tell. I would argue that, for everything motherhood steals from us, it gives back twofold. Eventually Brooks arrives at this place.
“Despite everything, I have to say that having the kids grew me up in a way nothing else could have. And basically, I needed ten years of mothering before I was like, Whoa, hey, this is what I’m meant to write. And now I’m working on a novel that I love and it feels like the kids gave me that by remaking me.”
Motherhood literally reshapes our brains, our bodies, and our emotional lives. The new me, the writer-mom me, is the writer who wakes at 4:30am and spends nights at the library, the writer who finishes, the writer who submits her work, the writer who bears rejection, the writer who finds her courage again and again.
(Post 99 of 365)