Leesfragment: The Baby on the Fire Escape

23 september 2022 , door Julie Phillips
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Donderdag 29 september vanaf 19.00 zal Nina Siegal bij Athenaeum Boekhandel Spui Julie Phillips interviewen over haar nieuwe boek The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. Wees erbij - en lees je in met het voorwoord.

An insightful, provocative, and witty exploration of the relationship between motherhood and art—for anyone who is a mother, wants to be, or has ever had one.

What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge.

With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment.

As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.


The Mind-Baby Problem

Picture an artist or writer at work, and you probably imagine sustained, solitary concentration. Proust, scribbling in bed in his cork-lined room. Yeats, descending from his tower, encountering his two children, and asking, “Who are they?” Wittgenstein, who is said to have eaten nothing but Swiss cheese sandwiches for weeks on end because even changes in the flavor of his food disturbed his thoughts.
The artist may be in the midst of family life but obsessively at work, like Henri Matisse, whose painting pulled him in like a “vortex.” “He could think of nothing else,” his daughter said. She may be an “art monster,” Jenny Offill’s term for the creator who lives only for the work.
The great writer may be a detached observer, a flâneur soaking up scenes of city life. If natural beauty is his subject he may write alone in a cabin in the woods or wander “lonely as a cloud,” enjoying “the bliss of solitude.” She may agree with the poet Mary Oliver that “creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration…It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching,” or with Gertrude Stein, who warned, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
A typical picture of a woman with children is of someone whose children are constantly breaking in. Perhaps she has shut herself into a room to write. Her children have promised not to knock or to make noise. But she knows they are there because they are lying down and breathing under the door. Adrienne Rich longed in vain, amid “the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores,” for the “freedom to press on, to enter the currents of thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.” Alice Walker saw her daughter in her mind’s eye as she worked, “the lonely sucking of her thumb / a giant stopper in my throat.”
In place of the solitary flâneur, imagine Naomi Mitchison in a London park, writing on a board balanced on her pram. Think of Shirley Jackson making plot notes in the kitchen while dinner was on the stove; Toni Morrison driving to work with a pad of paper in the car so that she could write whenever the traffic slowed. Here the act of writing is not continuous but provisional, contingent, subject to disruption—and yet the words are still coming and the work is getting done.

The division between mothering and creative work once seemed (more or less) absolute. It was a physical problem, a time problem; it was also a question of selfhood. “The obligation to be physically attractive and patient and nurturing and docile and sensitive and deferential…contradicts and must collide with the egocentricity and aggressiveness and the indifference to self that a large creative gift requires in order to flourish,” Susan Sontag said, overstating things as usual, but the expectation that women (more than men, even now) should be ever present for their children does feel incompatible with creative selfhood.
Sometimes mothers had trouble giving themselves permission. Alice Neel said that until she received a major retrospective in her seventies, “I had always felt in a sense that I didn’t have a right to paint because I had two sons and I had so many things I should be doing and here I was painting.” Sometimes the judgment came from others: Neel’s in-laws claimed, on no evidence, that she had once left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment when she was trying to finish a painting. It’s a vivid image of the dangers, in their mind, of trying to do two things at once.
Maternal bliss conspires with maternal guilt to erode creative work. Margaret Mead: “[It’s] not because the baby cries, but because the baby smiles so much,” that the hours get lost. Jenny Offill: “The love you feel for your child has a way of obliterating whatever you used to think you loved.”
In 1962 Tillie Olsen could still state that almost no mothers, or any other “part-time, part-self persons,” had written books that would endure. But in or about that same year, the careers of women with children were beginning to flourish, not just in ones and twos but in numbers big enough to matter. Mothers found ways to do their work, and were recognized for it: Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize; Ursula K. Le Guin was awarded the National Book Medal, America’s highest literary honor. Alice Walker won a Pulitzer and sold millions; Audre Lorde opened a conversation around intersectionality. Angela Carter was acknowledged as one of the defining literary voices of twentieth-century Britain, and Susan Sontag as one of the great English-language critics. Alice Neel saw her art accepted into the canon.
I’ve tried in this book to trace the course of that change. I’ve tried to find out what mothering plus creativity looks like, not just in the first few years, but as part of a life story. What does it mean to create, not alone in “a room of one’s own,” but in a shared space? What kinds of work have come out of that space? What is the shape of a creative mother’s life?

This was my plan: to explore the blank spot on the map where mothering and creativity converge. I had never been able to convey the full power of my own life as a mother: I remember how empty even the simple sentence “I have two children” felt in comparison to the experience, as though I was recounting a dream that made no sense in daylight. Because I didn’t have words, I wanted others to speak for me. In investigating the lives of great women, I hoped to see my own experience with new eyes.
That blank spot should have told me something. The more I read and wrote, the more the place where mothering and creative work come together seemed not to be an intersection of identities, but a negative space, an impossible position. I read brilliant first-person accounts of mothering but couldn’t see patterns or a path. The stories of my subjects’ lives as mothers wouldn’t hang together. When I looked at the work, the mothering vanished, and vice versa. When I read essays, memoirs, and stories, I found contradictions, fragments, anecdotes, scraps of enlightenment. I encountered what psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser calls the “intractable problem of how…intellectual and maternal labor appear to cancel one another out.”…
Do mothers have inner lives? What is the subjective experience of being a mother, and why, despite a steadily growing body of writing on the phenomenology of mothering, does it still seem, on a deeper level, so unnarratable, undramatic, everywhere in practice, but in theory nowhere?
My sexuality and gender can be theorized as social and historical constructs. My vocation as a writer may originate in my childhood experience. But what about my relationship to my child, and to myself as a mother? Am I supposed to put a fence around that and call it a theory-free zone? Is it true that the mother is, as the French feminists have suggested, unspeakable in a phallocentric tongue?
Maggie Nelson writes that she rejects the “quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity.” But she also quotes the poet Alice Notley: “He is born and I am undone—feel as if I will / never be, was never born.”
Playwright Sarah Ruhl, looking at the lack of mothers as protagonists, wonders if “the experience of motherhood is unstageable—beyond narrative and language.” Then she worries that “the experience is tellable, but no one wants to see it. Mothers aren’t meant to have points of view.”
In her memoir A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk comments that “the experience of motherhood loses nearly everything in its translation to the outside world. In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify. In queer theory mothers are too “heteronormative,” while African American writing emphasizes the primacy of mothers, but often in a context of working toward the future rather than agency “in the now.”
Many writers almost reflexively protect the mother-child space, conspiring to keep it unexamined. This might be a question of the child’s privacy (“Mom, you’re embarrassing me!”) or one’s own inadmissible feelings. It might be lack of distance: Sarah Manguso asks, “Is it possible to truly observe one’s own child, as a writer must, while also simultaneously loving him? Does a mother have something like writer’s block—perceiver’s block?”
Feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva sees mother love as an “escape from representation” and its unrepresentability as its subversive power. In her famous essay “Stabat Mater” she calls mothering “a catastrophe of identity” that casts the self into “that ‘unnameable’ that somehow involves our imaginary representations of femininity, non-language, or the body.” This relegation to the “unnameable” feels not far removed from Le Guin’s cynical observation that to become a wife and mother is to turn into “a nobody.”
I find that unsatisfying, another mythification. I can’t believe that mothering is beyond representation. I think making mothers mysterious is another way of keeping them unacknowledged. It also sounds like one of my kids complaining that they can’t find their favorite shirt. Where have you looked? Have you tried looking harder?

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