Women are told that their artistic life ends when motherhood starts. But Anna Knox knows that isn’t the case.
I was living in Saudi, trying to finish a novel I had started on the UEA (University of East Anglia) Creative Writing programme when I first learned I was pregnant. My partner and I had been ambivalent about having children, but as we aged, I argued — why not just see what happens? Well, what happened happened very fast and nine months later I found myself back in New Zealand nursing a newborn along with a strong conviction that in six weeks I would be back at my desk, sending out the completed draft of my novel. I was absolutely determined that my child would not affect my work.
Last year, when my second daughter was two, I read Shelia Heti’s Motherhood and I remembered about that old novel, closed-up in a metaphorical drawer in my mind, and in a file on my laptop, last modified October 2013. I remembered the year I spent trying to carve out ‘writing time’ for myself to finish it. I remembered kneeling pregnant on the living room floor in our Saudi house folding laundry and being terrified that when the baby was born, I would never write again.
Motherhood is a thinly-disguised fictional/philosophical account of a female writer in her thirties trying to decide whether or not to have children. She does this by examining her own, her partner’s, and society’s justifications and motivations for and against child-bearing and rearing, especially in relation to the creative practice of writing. It is a beautiful, funny, indulgent, navel-gazing work of and for a socio-economically and culturally privileged elite – the crisis of deciding whether to have children being one not all women will recognise.
The prose in the opening pages had me near tears with excitement that this type of astonishing writing is publishable. It had photos of artworks in it! And of knives! There were conversations with coins! But by the end of the book I was also riled by the deeply flawed assumption at its heart – namely, that art and motherhood are enemies.
Heti’s narrator pays a lot of mind to her partner, Miles, who already has one kid and really doesn’t want a second. He tells her that “one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both, because both art and parenthood take all of one’s time and attention.”
Heti isn’t the first to let this assumption go unchecked. In creative discourses, motherhood is often regarded as the greatest limitation a female artist (writer, musician, etc) can experience; it’s seen not as something to facilitate or necessitate art, but to obstruct and deny it. While it is reasonably well accepted (if still contested) in most professions that women can be committed to both a career and motherhood, when it comes to artistic ones, the idea that if a woman has children her art will suffer, and vice versa, is rarely challenged. “I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise… There are successful artists with children. They’re called men,” artist Tracy Emin stated, in a 2016 interview. This might seem on the surface like a strong, feminist assertion, defending the right of a woman to pursue her ambitions, but the raw argument is that motherhood weakens art.
Heti’s narrator takes the idea even further, suggesting motherhood weakens women themselves into some sort of useless state: “It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties – when you finally have some brains and skills and experience – from doing anything useful with them at all.” I regard this view, now, as inherently repressive, deeply patriarchal, and an insult to mothers everywhere, artists or not.
I didn’t think this way five years ago, however. For that moment when I was pregnant, folding washing, and in the first three years of motherhood, I feared and then grieved the loss of head space and time to write. My novel was forgotten and I saw my child as the cause of this.
In the short few months when she slept for more than 30 minutes during the day, I hurriedly got down some notes for a non-fiction account of living in Saudi, but it was a mess. The only viable writing I did was some paid copy for a marketing company. I was on Heti’s (partner’s) page, completely. If I’d read her book at that point, I might have felt doomed to never write anything worthwhile again.
But when my second daughter was born, for some reason – probably sheer exhaustion – I found myself writing anyway, standing at the kitchen bench jiggling her in the front-pack, or lying her on my chest while I stretched around to the notebook on my knees. This time, I embraced the strange chemistry and psychological effects of sleep deprivation, nursing, and the emotional and physical labour of bonding with a small baby, and used it to write.
I did it for the first year of her life, often on four hours broken sleep a night. The result was a strange, experimental non-fiction prose piece (not unlike parts of Motherhood) that renders memory, like a child’s, as an eternal experience of the present. I enjoyed writing it more than anything I’ve ever written and I could never, ever write anything like it again – unless I were to have another baby (not happening).
This experiment gave me some notion of the redundancy of separating my mother-self from my writer-self, those two that Rachel Cusk possibly refers to when she writes in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother: “I am surprised to discover how easily I have split in two… Like a divided stream, the person and the mother pay each other no heed.” But it wasn’t until I encountered the work of New Zealand artist Rebekah Rasmussen that I really understood the possibilities of those two collaborating.
At the opening of Rasmussen’s It was past your bedtime but we stayed up late at play_station in Wellington last year, someone helped me get my sleeping baby in the stroller down the stairs while my five year old ran to join the rest of the children playing tag through the warren of rooms, always almost toppling the artworks. The vibe was joyous and very loud as I perused the exquisite installations and sculptures made from popcorn, straws, clay, and pipe-cleaners and the vibrant, messy paintings in fluoro paint and biro on the walls.
Rasmussen undertook her fine arts degree with a newborn in tow, and has navigated her way through one residency and several shows with first one, and then two small children. Her studio is her two-bedroom apartment. The first time I visited, her baby boy was sitting on a pile of paintings that were stored under the couch, scrunching them with his fingers, while her daughter was at the kitchen table which was covered in goop, clay and glitter as well as the beginnings of her mother’s new sculpture.
Rasmussen wasn’t always as confident in her approach. When her daughter was born she doubted she could continue her art practice and get any traction in the art world. “History doesn’t really support the mother/artist thing – unless it’s the subject being painted,” she says.
There was a turning point where she traded in the idea of what a successful artist looked like and chose to just make things because she loved making things. “Everything kids do is experimental, so I just did the same,” she explains. As her daughter got older, she found a way to be present with her and present in her art practice, simultaneously. “Now I guess I can’t tell when I’m parenting and when I’m making art.”
Encountering Rasmussen’s work made me realise that the motherhood Heti is writing in response to is one that has been sucked dry by the lips of a society bent on achieving gender equality by dressing women as men and saying the job is done. I started seeing motherhood as the creative process at its best, as inherent to art as war or religion or sex, and as rich with sensibilities and source material.
I was challenged to start exploring the influences of motherhood in my own practice, and to be as interested in them as I am in other aspects of identity and construction in art, rather than regarding them as something to be battled, or avoided, or even ashamed of. A reviewer of Cusk’s book cautioned that as soon as journalists become mothers, “their children started to crawl into their writing”. But why shouldn’t they?
In Motherhood, Heti writes: “The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly.” On a practical level, space and time are obviously necessary to write, or make art, but it seems to me that Heti’s womanly problem is in fact more of an economic one. Her narrator is locked into the idea that you cannot come and go from your art, that you must be actively producing at all times. The narrator fears that if she has children, her production will decrease, reducing her market value.
Even if the kind of integration Rasmussen manages to practise isn’t possible for a writer, the fact is, time is long, and childhood short. Heti’s narrator seems to have forgotten just how short. If for a few years a writer or artist doesn’t actively produce, it doesn’t mean she isn’t actively developing her practice. The work is still going on all the time throughout those years, growing in ways you can feel the agony of but not see the results of, much like a baby outpacing the universe with her unstoppable development from cells to moving, communicating individual, her bones fusing together, her arms reaching over her head trying desperately to touch her hands together. There’s no time for reflection when you’re growing like this, no capacity for stepping back and analysing what you are going through. It’s a time outside of time, a fully present moment where experiences are everything, and it lays the groundwork for the life, and the work, that’s to come.
And before you know it, the kid’s in school.
Practical arguments aside, I think there is a much deeper fear at work here, and it’s a familiar one, at the root, perhaps, of the assumptions we make about motherhood and art. I think what Heti’s narrator will never be liberated from, and what decides her, in the end, is the fear that her children will consume her, but also, that without children, she will be incomplete. What she will never know, with quiet and enormous relief, is that they are neither an impediment nor a missing part but a new thing entirely, and entirely surprising.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.