In a review of Sheila Heti’s recently published novel Motherhood for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz took a moment to consider the ways in which writing is “threatened” by motherhood:
“[W]riting depends on hoarding time, on putting up a boundary (often at home) between oneself and the immediate world in order to visit a separate one in the mind. A mother must make herself always available. A writer needs to shut the door.”
In response, the author Lila Byock quoted this paragraph on Twitter, adding a comment of her own:
“Have kids or don’t have kids, but the dichotomy between ‘being a writer’ & ‘being a mother’ is just a scam by the patriarchy.”
Excuse me while I do a little fist pump at my desk. As of this writing, I’m five-and-a-half months pregnant, and I have no intention of letting motherhood deter my work. I know too many successful writers who are also mothers; somehow they get it done. I have my concerns, of course, both my partner and I do. He’s a composer and a university lecturer, who also jealously guards his creative time. The fact that we work in the arts may prove to work in our favour; we both have flexible work schedules, and between them and the safety net of subsidised childcare (by the state in France, where we live half the year, by the university in the UK, where we spend the other half), we will somehow carve out the time we each need to work.
Byock’s perspective is a refreshing one: maybe a knee-jerk reference to the dichotomy between writing and mothering is doing us more harm than good; maybe it’s a conspiracy kept up by male writers trying to edge women writers off the field. It seems clear that we have to keep writing no matter what, in whatever gaps we can find; maybe the imposed discipline of writing when the baby naps will be productive for the work. Maybe.
But Schwartz (who is not a mother) is only voicing empathetic feminist common wisdom; we’ve been hearing quite a lot lately about the conflict women face between creativity and domesticity, mostly in essays responding to Jenny Offill’s 2011 novel Dept of Speculation, in which she conjures the figure of the “art monster,” the (presumably male) artist who contributes nothing at all to the running of the household, leaving that to his (presumably female) partner and helpmate. “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,” Offill writes. “Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.” Offill makes an important point about the persistent imbalance in the way we think about gender roles, and reminds us that a lack of adequate family leave and childcare means someone has to stay home with the baby, and that someone has traditionally been the mother. The father’s work continues more or less uninterruptedly, but the mother gets baby-tracked at her job, and it’s not unusual for women to get discouraged and back away from their professional lives. Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous formula, lean in, urges women to do just the opposite, but to many that sounded rich, coming from a tech billionaire.
Heti’s novel is a mise-en-scène of her inability to decide whether or not to have a child; it eats away at her, much as the question did for Rachel Cusk, who wrote in A Life’s Work (2001), her controversial memoir about becoming a mother, that “it was this distraction, as much as the fact of motherhood itself, that I wanted to have within my control.” Heti vacillates:
“On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them – but what is there to lose? The love, the child, and all those motherly feelings that the mothers speak about in such an enticing way, as though a child is something to have, not something to do. The doing is what seems hard. The having seems marvelous.”
Where Cusk decides to take the plunge, Heti decides against it, after much wrestling with the decision. I don’t use the wrestling image casually; the reference to Jacob and the Angel is explicit, and Heti’s Judaism informs much of the novel, to the point that one entry in the “pro children” column is the importance of repecoupling the world with Jews after the Holocaust. Instead, she decides that her work will be her legacy. “My religious cousin, who is the same age as I am, she has six kids. And I have six books. Maybe there is no great difference between us, just the slightest difference in our faith – in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.” But the question of whether the child would keep Heti from work is actually a red herring; what is keeping her from having a child goes well beyond any havoc she fears it would wreak on her creativity, and has more to do with her sense of self and which parts of it need to be supported or sustained.
The relationship between freedom, motherhood, creativity and the self is also at the core of Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, a memoir written through the lens of the author’s infatuation with Doris Lessing, and Anna Pruchinskaya’s A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother, a collection of fragmented, free-associative essays about being a writer contemplating motherhood. Early on in Pruchinskaya’s book, the following words appear across an otherwise blank page: “Does it help to know this was written while I was pregnant?” They are an invitation to us to consider the degree to which pregnancy informs not only writing that is explicitly about mothering, but our work in general; the answer is ambiguous: yes, no, maybe?
These are two very different approaches to life-writing. Where Pruchinskaya is oblique, Feigel is direct. There’s a straightforwardness to her writing – it almost feels like it comes from another decade. Pruchinskaya’s essays are short, ruminative, and self-aware, full of fragmented sentences, blending text and image; they are more in line with the kind of first-person writing we’re seeing so much of lately. Her aesthetic project could be summed up in this one question: “What is the project of personal essay writing if not gathering stories in service of […] sharpening unruly, associative segments?” She sidles up to issues like pain, compassion, mindfulness, working associatively rather than addressing them directly, and she never lands where you think she will. She consults an array of wise women on the subject of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood – Alice Walker, Anne Carson, Ina May Gaskin, her Russian grandmothers (or, as she calls them, her “amulets”) – asking: “How are women’s stories told? Who hears these stories? What do these stories do?” She answers her own question: “To talk about ‘women’s stories’ is complicated, and has its own history, and it is not one thing but a collection of theories as diverse as the stories they attempt to describe.” Even the same woman may offer different stories of her own pregnancy, her own experience of birthing, as she retells it to people she knows, and to strangers. Pruchinskaya rejects the idea that her account of motherhood would be “representative” of anyone else’s; and indeed it seems to me that the formal inventiveness of these essays underscores this unwillingness to represent Motherhood in all its forms.
Feigel, too, considers the importance of freedom or constraint for writing, but again the implication is that motherhood does not necessarily need to be seen as interfering in the relationship between freedom and art; it is more a question of perspective. Certainly she feels herself to be judged when she travels without her son, and misses him terribly too; the bonds of motherhood chafe, but they also allow a new kind of freedom to infuse Feigel’s life and writing. “Can mothers and their children somehow free each other at the same time as they are mutually restricting?” Feigel asks. “It had not worked for Lessing, but . . . I persisted in hoping that it might work for me.”
Lessing, famously, abandoned her children in the pursuit of her own personal freedom and in the service of her political commitments, but this is not the whole story; after abandoning her first two children she went ahead and had another one with her second husband, and even in her subsequent affairs – for instance with Clancy Sigal – she would long for yet another. Feigel is not convinced Lessing is any more free after she has abandoned her children. This is a more complicated image than the dichotomy Byock protests; it is not children in and of themselves that constrained Lessing in Zimbabwe, but the prescriptive structures of family life.
“I am interested only in stretching myself,” says Anna Wulf, the heroine of Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook (1962), “in living as fully as I can.” Lara Feigel is enthralled by the novel, an “exploration of the artistic and sexual life of a ‘free woman’”, whose voice captured Feigel’s attention so completely that it drowned out everything else. One summer, when there were too many weddings, with Liberty bunting diligently sewn by the women in the family, the virginal symbolism, the smug assertion of monogamy, Feigel finds herself rubbed up the wrong way, less on feminist grounds and more because of the “apparent assumption that this remained the only way to live.” “[T]his was not what we’d had in mind when we read Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence in adolescence, aware that we had once thought of love as something freer and more radical.” The rest of the book is spurred on by the question of what other ways there might be to live and to love. Unlike Emily Witt in her 2016 memoir Future Sex, where she asks a similar question before heading out to take part in orgies at Burning Man, Feigel confesses to being too “irritatingly sane” to do things like attend orgies or drop LSD in the service of her research. Instead, she wants to discover how to live with more freedom even in the midst of relationships one might think of as being inherently shackling: marriage and motherhood.
The philosophical pursuit of freedom and the desire to become a mother again (she is already mother to a little boy when the book begins) are the twin motors driving the book. Similarly, Doris Lessing, having abandoned her two children in Zimbabwe, later came to want more children in her new life in London. How Feigel reconciles her desire to be a mother again with the desire for freedom is one of the more interesting aspects of her book. She already has one child, with whom she experiences the usual conflicts and difficulties, but he never seems an impediment to her working or writing life. She is privileged and lucky, she recognises many times in the book; she can afford childcare, and she has an active co-parent, who is willing to look after their son while she escapes to various locations to research and write: LA, Suffolk, Dartmoor, Zimbabwe. After a lifetime of striving for the next thing, and the next thing, having achieved “child, husband, house, job and book,” she wonders: what now?
After a miscarriage she struggles to cope with the disappointment and grief. “In the wake of the miscarriage, I had now reached the destination and had to wander around and locate myself in my new surroundings. It was the wandering that had to become the source of interest and pleasure, rather than the forward progress.” A friend tells her: “‘You are dangling’”, borrowing an image from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man. “‘Real life is dangling.’” The desire for clear decision making and the tidy myth of easily-obtained freedom (whether through abandoning one’s children, having an affair, leaving a partner, or dropping LSD) is one of the book’s strongest themes and, by grappling with Lessing’s choices, and their outcomes, Feigel discovers a means of enjoying her own unresolved state, and of using it as a spur to creativity.
Feigel put off having children when she married her husband at age 26, a time when she saw motherhood as “necessarily entailing” a renunciation of her identity. She looks to the writers she admires – Woolf, Bowen, Murdoch – and notes that few of them, if any, had children. Motherhood posed a threat to her sense of self, and she wasn’t ready to take it on until she was ready to change, “to soften, to lose the mental clarity I prided myself on”. Consequently, she spends her first pregnancy trying to protect herself from being changed in any way by it, or by her son, once he arrives. It is only during the second, ill-fated pregnancy, that she comes to discover that pregnancy itself can be freeing, like “an escape inwards […] a retreat into a form of embodiment that was experienced from within and that left me impervious to the workings of the outside world. Here was a new kind of liberation, gained through renunciation of other desires.” Freedom, she found, came only when she was willing to let motherhood change her.
Which doesn’t mean she manages to resolve her maternal ambivalence, a state which she finds difficult to admit to, “because we know that this is a life we have chosen and because we are surrounded by women in their thirties and forties who are struggling to conceive, or younger mothers who don’t have the economic possibilities that I had to make the experience less exhausting and more pleasant. Certainly, I find it hard to write about my moments of ambivalence about the child I so much wanted; I can hear both my privilege and my ingratitude in these sentences.” Pruchinskaya also considers the issue of ambivalence about becoming independent enough from the baby to go back to work. She turns to the philosopher Sarah Ruddick – “‘There is a time for composing and a time for maternal thinking and, on happy days, time for both’” – and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “‘Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up’ […] The way I have written since the baby: between naps, between feedings, while standing and bouncing, while the fog of the night settles into the fog of the morning.” She writes the day the baby is born; soon afterward she is writing regularly again.
The fragmentary structure of Pruchinskaya’s essays seems like a formal embodiment of her preoccupation with borders – labour as an “edge,” a “frontier”: “Perhaps at the edge of our capacities, we find the space to come into our own.” Perhaps, she wonders, “we make the opposite choice: the terrain of not motherhood is a frontier. Each edge has its own maker.” To be pregnant is to perch on a “precipice”; she repeats to herself a phrase from the midwife Nancy Bardake’s book Mindful Birthing: “‘You and your baby are balanced on the edge of birth.’ When the baby crowned I felt that balance, and I felt the ridge. I hadn’t known it then, but the ridge was the place where the plates on the top of his head bowed above his soft spot. I wanted to push him through quickly; maybe I didn’t ‘want’, I urged. When I look back at the labour, I regret that I did not stay in that liminal space longer.” This echoes Feigel’s notion of “dangling,” which also implies an edge or a precipice, and a necessary coming to inhabit an unresolved state. Mothers (and fathers) must find the freedom in ambivalence. Sheila Heti must dwell in the ambivalent freedom of having chosen not to have a child; Feigel, Pruchinskaya and myself, in the ambivalent freedom of having chosen to have one.
In the end, Pruchinskaya decides, “Probably the division between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ is artificial. Every experience divides. Every thing can look different after something new. Motherhood doesn’t necessarily alter one’s capacity for compassion, or one’s views on motherhood, I decide. The ants who have climbed somehow into the light fixtures look different moment-to-moment, too, no matter whether one’s become a mother.” Asked by a co-worker if she is in a “love-bubble” after her baby is born, she says, “Maybe I am. I say that my feelings are many and complicated. I say that there is a lot of motherhood literature for a reason, on both sides of the issue, the motherhood side, and not. Some people find themselves in the situation of mothering. Choice is a range. For myself, I can say that my desire to have children is splintered. Had I known then what I know now, I still would.”