Whatever way you look at it motherhood entails sacrifice. While the all-sacrificing mother is a reductive and unhelpful stereotype, it is a fact that as a mother you have to give up time, space, and energy for your children. This could mean stopping what you are doing every few hours to breastfeed. It could mean being interrupted by a steaming diaper. Or it could be the funneling of creative energy into fort-building, cookie baking, imagining games, and planning adventures. Having two children under five, I know all about this.
In her long poem about domesticity and womanhood, ‘Letter from a Far Country,’ Gillian Clarke imagines male critics as seagulls that disturb domestic tranquility with their shrieks. ‘Where’ they call ‘are your great works?’ and their cries are ‘as cruel as greedy babies’. Clarke questions the compatibility of the writing life with motherhood estic in a similar way to Kim Brooks’s recent piece for The Cut. ‘Surely there was no reason,’ Brooks ponders, ‘that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized.’
Of course, I sympathize with Brooks. I know how demanding it can be to balance life, work, and children. When she lists the parts of motherhood that she wants to jettison – playdates, birthday parties, parent nights, after-school activities, and worrying about standardized test scores – I am right there with her. But do these ephemeral concerns have to be an inherent part of motherhood? When Brooks rejects the exasperating aspects of parenting, isn’t she really describing the demands of bourgeois motherhood, white middle-class motherhood, suburban motherhood?
Does creativity have to be incompatible with domestic life? Once all the consumerist, competitive rubbish is cast off, what might be left behind is a more positive way of parenting that demands focus, mindfulness, and awareness of others. It’s a way of life that can be inspiring and empowering, but it entails rejecting stereotypes of creativity that are so often defined in terms of men’s lives and experiences.
Brooks is opposed by stereotypes of creativity: Byron, promiscuous and sensational, or Baudelaire walking the streets of Paris. She sees the standard of creativity in Verlaine engaging in stormy affairs, or Faulkner refusing his daughter’s demands because ‘Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.’ The trouble is that all of these personae entail an individualism that cannot be maintained well in the life of domesticity and being a good parent.
As much as I love Byron and Baudelaire, there is something tiresome and distasteful about romanticizing these men, who in order to define themselves as marked by genius, led lives that were intrinsically selfish. In Brooks’ eyes, being a parent and especially a mother means being ‘cautious, boring’ and ‘conventional.’ But what if we replaced the word ‘cautious’ with ‘mindful’? The word ‘boring’ with ‘repetitive’ or ‘cyclic’? The word ‘conventional’ with ‘steady’?
I am not trying to say that combining motherhood and creativity is easy, and in no way do I blame Brooks for the comments she makes. But I do believe that it is possible to make a productive and rich writing life as a mother, and against Brooks’ list of women writers troubled by maternity, I would list Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, and Zadie Smith. The point is that we have to try to change expectations: first we must challenge ideas about what mothers do, but we also have to defy stereotypical imaginings of what creativity looks like. The tortured male genius with the sensational life is a dead end as a productive route to creative success.