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London Evening Standard: Motherhood need not spell the end of literature

From the London Evening Standard‘s Sebastian Shakespeare:

There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall, wrote Cyril Connolly. Britain’s latest Nobel Laureate for Literature, Doris Lessing [at left], would doubtless agree. Lessing abandoned her two infant children (both under five) after leaving her first husband. “I had these two children and just couldn’t afford to keep them,” she said. Her two prams were not only enemies of promise but became emblematic of female poverty.

Some of the best female writers of the 20th century found it difficult to combine motherhood and creativity. Dame Muriel Spark walked out on her son when he was six to write novels and seek fame and fortune. She eventually cut her estranged son out of her multi-million pound will, leaving every penny of her assets to the female friend she lived with for 40 years.

Colette, who never wanted children, hardly ever saw her daughter, whom she left in the hands of an English nanny. She chillingly, albeit rather brilliantly, described children as “those happy unconscious little vampires who drain the maternal heart”. And as for Virginia Woolf, well, we all know what happened to her. The author of A Room of One’s Own, who argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, ended up without children and committed suicide.

My wife, who is writing a book, recites this litany of names above as proof positive that motherhood and creativity do not go hand in hand — and the reason why she is putting procreation on hold. And Lessing’s Laureateship is now the icing on her anti-natal cake. Doris has set my breeding programme back by five years. However, for every bad egg there are plenty of examples of model literary mothers. What about Toni Morrison (1993 Nobel Prize winner), who continues to collaborate with her musician son Slade on children’s books?

Motherhood, far from being a hindrance, can be a spur to creativity. Look at JK Rowling, one of the most successful writers of the modern (or any) era, worth £500 million, who was a single mother when she embarked on writing her Harry Potter books.

Connolly’s maxim is not only out of date — in my block of flats I can’t keep a pram in the communal hallway — but plain wrong. The whole point of the perambulator is that you should push it around. JK Rowling took her baby out for a walk in the pram because it was the only way to get her child to fall asleep while she scribbled away in various Edinburgh cafés. You could argue that there is no better friend of good art than the pram in the mall. And, if you are lucky, the little blighter might actually get round to reading your book as well. At least that is what I’ll be telling my wife. Will my argument change her mind? I’ll get back to you.

Sebastian seems to be trying to convince himself, doesn’t he? I don’t feel comforted. Is this little piece uplifting, or just depressing?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. mewsing #

    Love this. It is virtually impossible to have a creative life while trying to be the perfect mother. You have to prioritize one and let go of illusions.

    Please feel free to share your thoughts with us on

    Have a nice day.

    October 7, 2009
  2. i’ve written my best stuff SINCE becoming a mother. yes it’a frustrating, aggravating, in the way of writing, and everything else, but it is also what greater connects me to humanity and makes me a better writer – when i’ve had enough sleep.

    i may be speechless when i look into even the teen’s eyes, and fall in love with him all over again just like the moment i gave birth to him, but at times, that unbelievable feeling of connectedness makes be a better writer, more intouch with human emotion and the capacity to hurt the most those we love, the necessary push and pull of negotiating the world and human relationship, the emotion i feel being what pushes another mother to infanticide, yet i use it to understand and write about how a character could do that. or how deeply the loss is felt when when amother loses a child to kidnapping, an accident, how do we all come to termas with it.

    i’m using extremes for example, but the value of motherhood enhancing art is indispensible to me as a writer, as i think it was for mary casat and all of her touching paintings of mothers and children.

    October 7, 2009
  3. Cathy, I couldn’t agree more. I am a much better writer (and a much more disciplined writer) since becoming a mother. This argument that you can’t be both rather infuriates me. And there are plenty of women writers who are successfully doing both. Motherhood and writing both demand patience, and I would argue that the lessons in patience I have learned as a mother help immeasurably with the patience I need as a writer.

    October 8, 2009
  4. I think being a parent has made me a better writer in a variety of ways. And I know it’s possible to do both (I do), but I am also aware of how lucky I am to have resources at my disposal for finding time to write. I have tried to teach full time and to parent well and to write and I was too exhausted (physically, creatively, emotionally) to do them all, or any of them, really, well.

    And like Cathy points out, sleeplessness is murder for my creativity.

    October 8, 2009
  5. Kristine #

    I do NOT believe you have to choose between motherhood and creativity. In my case, becoming a mom has been the best thing to happen to my writing.

    I may not have all the time in the world to write (heck, I didn’t have unlimited time even before I had a baby), and I may have to sacrifice days–or weeks–of writing because my daughter needs me, but do I feel I have to give up my writing to be a mom or give up my daughter to be a writer? No Freaking Way.

    So there. 🙂

    October 8, 2009
  6. gaijinmama #

    Motherhood has enriched my writing in ways that I could not have imagined. Even before I had children, I thought, “I need to have children before I can write from the point of view of a mother.” While I don’t believe now that that’s entirely true, in writing about motherhood, it helps to have experienced it.

    Japanese writer Noe Ito (1895-1923) married three times and gave birth to seven children. Maternity seemed to have no effect on her literary and political ambitions. She wrote her first novel just after the birth of her first child, and went to lectures with a baby on her back.

    October 8, 2009
  7. Brittany Vandeputte #

    I think it depends 1) on the temperment of your child(ren), 2) the spacing of your children, and 3) the amount of extra help you have at your disposal.

    For me, while I have written some tremendously wonderful stuff since becoming a mother, and am far more connected to the universe because of my motherhood, my boys *have* completely obliterated any chance I might have at a writing life right now.

    That has much to do with temperment and sex. Boys are probably louder, more rambunctious, more hands on, and demand more physical interaction (and intervention) than their female counterparts. Just as I cannot take either boy shopping because they constantly try to dive headlong out of the stroller or shopping cart, I can’t zone out in front of a piece of writing because they will attempt to dive bomb the dogs or shave the cat. Having them 21 months apart didn’t help matters. And having no family close by to give me the occassional respite doesn’t help at all either.

    Neither of my children can fend for himself at all yet and both of them compete violently for my attention. When I write, I make everyone’s life a living hell. I’m constantly frustrated and pissed off that they’re interrupting me. They’re constantly hurt and puzzled about the laptop baracade that prevents them from connecting with mommy. They hate each other when one manages to sneak in a moment with me, and instead of fostering happy harmonious family love, the writing breeds nothing but anger and resentment.

    It was a huge sacrifice to put the writing aside, but unlike Lessing, my desire to be a mother was stronger than my desire to write. We are all much happier for it–and I know the writing will be there for me again in the future.

    October 9, 2009
  8. brittany, it does get easier when they get older than you preschooler and toddler, which is why i am particularly frustrated at having #3 so late. I am aware it is my choice to do so, but i really miss having blocks of time where i did not have to be certain my kids were not going to kill themselves, each other or the cats or dog.

    i thoroughly agree about child temperment, as having a child with autism is a lot of hands on work, moreso when he was younger. i’m sure gaijinmama above can agree that having a special needs child makes for a full time parenting job, above and beyond even.

    but i must disagree re: the gender assumption. c is a very easygoing child tempermentally, but she is just as much trouble in the curiosity range as any other very bright toddler. if i don’t keep her occupied, she is a hazard. i’ve also a lot of experience taking care of other people’s girls and boys, and the spaz factor is prevalent in both genders. few and far between is the kid who acts like a reasonable adult more often than not. they are a respite in daycares, preschools and classrooms.

    October 9, 2009
  9. No, we do NOT have to choose between motherhood and our creative impulses. In fact, that’s what keeps us alive and growing, in my estimation. Otherwise, we lose ourselves quite rapidly. I think it’s a good lesson for our children to see us at work at something, especially something creative. They learn that Mom has something all her own, that they are not the absolute center of her whole universe – and this perhaps puts a bit less of a load upon them, insofar as they do not shoulder all of the responsibility for mother’s welfare, sense of being, and day-to-day existence.

    Like many mothers here, I, too, found a great surge of creative energy after having children. Rather than sucking all of that out of me, they actually enhanced what was already present, and added another dimension to my thought processes, helping to develop my personal self-examination and philosophy of life as a gradually aging person in the midst of a profound renewal. Yes, they helped me with all of that. Would I have experienced this without them? Undoubtedly not, although whatever I might have experienced without children would perhaps be as invigorating a journey as any other. Just different, I suppose.

    The article is sad, but also inspiring. It encourages me that I’m doing the right thing by following my path – whether it be with children, or not. (I’m keeping mine around, however. 🙂

    October 9, 2009
  10. alisonwells #

    Hello everyone,

    I think that as a writing mother I realise that you have to move forward a lot slower that you would like to, very similar to when you go anywhere with your small children. Certainly the temperament of your children can affect things and the constant hands on demands of small children can be so physcially and emotionally draining. I understand where Brittany is coming from. I had two boys close together and now have 4 children under 9. The youngest is almost 2 so I feel I am finally getting my ‘Head above Water’ (blog). Sometimes kids are like a maelstrom and you are trying to find the quiet space inside it. And right now I am also just trying to be proactive, to turn to mothering positively instead of resentfully, feeling frustrated that I can’t spend more time doing my own thing. Walking slower can make you take note of things, like my baby at eighteen months finding wonder in the texture of a pebbledashed wall. Put your notebook/sketchbook in the kitchen, do what you can, keep hold of the thread and know you will find your way back to creativity in tiny incremental baby steps.

    October 26, 2009
  11. Nicely put, Alison. (And welcome to Studio Mothers!)

    I do think there is a cyclic nature to our common situations. Liz Hum wrote an excellent response to our general conversation here:

    October 26, 2009

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