Since having a baby, I have never felt more creatively inspired, and never more frustrated. “The fire is still on, I’m just on the back burner,” I might say – one of the phrases in the artist Andi Galdi Vinko’s transcendent photo book, Sorry I Gave Birth I Disappeared But Now I’m Back.
It chronicles motherhood in all its strange, visceral, leaky realism, as well as its naturalistic beauty. Recently, it has become a visual bible for me, as I wonder what it is to be on the back burner, or even to disappear, at a time when the tension between caring and creating has never felt more acute.
In order to do both, you have to, it seems, put the proverbial baby on the fire escape. It’s probably apocryphal, but this is what the painter Alice Neel’s inlaws claimed she did in order to work. I’ve been savouring the book, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem, these past months. It looks at how celebrated female artists and writers, such as Neel, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker and Ursula K Le Guin navigated the demands of motherhood into the need to create. The author, Julie Phillips, tried to find a common thread between how these women made it work, but instead was confronted with “a negative space, an impossible position”.
Whether it is relying on a network of “othermothers” for support, having a partner who does their share or more of the care, going it alone, building a career first, or finding success late – there is no easy way to be an “art monster” while also trying to raise a child.
In the absence of societal encouragement or approval, women have had to find their own ways through that tension, some of them not always admirable. Some, like Lessing, lost access to their children. The common narrative continues to be that she fully abandoned them without looking back – which says it all, really. Others had strained or distant relationships with their offspring. But many flourished, too, as did their children.
What these women all needed, Phillips concludes, was time. How they achieved that differed – Toni Morrison got up to write before her children woke, Le Guin didn’t, because hers would always stir when she did. But, heroically, each of them endeavoured to find ways around it. Barbara Hepworth claimed that taking as little as half an hour a day for herself, “to allow the images to build in one’s mind”, was enough to maintain her artistic consciousness while caring for triplets.
They also needed a sense of self. It is so easy to be entirely sublimated by motherhood, to allow your self to be annihilated. To demand boundaries, to assert that you have a right to make art: that requires strength and conviction. It is, as Phillips has it, a hero’s journey.
To put the baby on the fire escape is not to literally leave your child out in the cold. But it is the ability to put the baby out of your mind for the time required to create something else. That’s not to say you’re immune to guilt. It can feel like a constant tug of push and pull, the need to be present for your child versus the desperate need to create. It is far from easy.
Many women know this – it is the tension at the heart of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood, in which her narrator eventually decides not to sacrifice her artist self through motherhood. There was a time when I feared every baby might be a book I didn’t write. The proverbial “pram in the hall” as the “enemy of all good art” still haunts so many of us, though it is a nonsense. Furthermore, as Vinko and a long line of female artists before her have shown, the experience of motherhood also lends itself to groundbreaking works interrogating and interpreting it.
I left my baby to write this, when all he wanted was to nestle close to me and feed and sleep. While writing, my body has literally ached for him. This will ease with weaning, but that knowledge sits with the fact that I will only have so many of these days, and that I have never, not since he was born, been fully present for him, because there is a treacherous part of me that will always need to write. I believe that I have the sense of self to do it, but sometimes it can feel exhausting. The temptation to put down one’s pen, or one’s paintbrush, can be immense, but, as the Swedish artist and writer Emma Ahlqvist writes in her book My Body Created A Human, “I don’t want my child to grow up having the pressure of having a parent who has given up everything in their life for them.” She concludes that, “Having limited time has made me realise what I really need in my life, and that is to make art.”
Of course, in order to keep going as a mother and an artist, you need an art world, or a publishing world, that is hospitable to both mothers and works about motherhood. Hettie Judah’s How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers and Other Parents is a manifesto for change at every level, from art schools to studios to institutions and beyond. As she writes, “When an artist discovers she is pregnant she should not immediately be gripped by the anxious prospect of having commissions cancelled, abandoning her studio practice and losing sight of a fruitful career. Parenthood should be the start, not the end of things.”
The (updated, jauntier) Postman Pat theme song came on automatically after some nursery rhymes and I thought the baby was going to explode with laughter. He was in complete hysterics, particularly when the cat appeared. It was gorgeous to see, especially as he’s been having a tricky time recently.
Sleep, food, bottles – you name it. Teething and tummy trouble have combined to make the past few weeks a bit miserable for the little one, for whom only the breast will currently do. It’s understandable, and I’m treasuring our remaining breastfeeding time as much as I am feeling the frustration of the steps back, but I’m also keen to get some proper food into him.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author of The Year of the Cat, which will be published in January 2023