The choice we don’t want to make.
An excerpt from the beautiful new book ‘The Creative Doer – A Brave Woman’s Guide from Dreaming to Doing’ by Anna Lovind.
For a long time, I didn’t realise that so many of the women artists I admired didn’t have kids. Like Virginia Woolf, Oprah, Natalie Goldberg, Ann Patchett, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Helen Mirren, Elizabeth Gilbert, Georgia O’Keeffe, Coco Chanel, Joni Mitchell (who gave her baby up), Arundhati Roy and Jane Austen.
I didn’t even think about it until I had my first child and it struck me how little prepared I was – and how little I knew about how to combine motherhood with a creative life. I looked at these brilliant women and the realisation that none of them had walked that path was disheartening. What did it mean? Wasn’t it possible?
I started looking for women who had done what I was trying to do – combine a creative career with motherhood. I found poet Sylvia Plath, and my heart sank as I read about her heroic but losing struggle to survive as an artist who also found herself a single mother of two young children. Everything about her story confirmed what was held as true at that time; that the conflict between a woman’s artistry and her female identities (wife and mother) is too strong – even, potentially, deadly.
I read The Red Shoes, Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Margaret Atwood, whom I deeply admired, and found the same conflict described; a talented young woman trying to find a way in a culture that positions womanhood and artistry as antithetical, particularly a woman’s family life and artistry.
Atwood, however, rejected this position and went on to prove it wrong. She had her marriage, her child and her career as a writer. She cautioned us though, saying that it was possible because she was able to support herself financially through her writing. Had she needed to add a second job to the mix, it wouldn’t have worked, she said.
When I searched, I found many women artists who had kids. Like Toni Morrison. Patti Smith, Audre Lorde, Alice Munro, Vanessa Bell, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Tori Amos and Meryl Streep, among many others.
Many of them did brilliantly. Some of them actually had the second job Atwood cautioned against and managed to make it work. Did they have to work harder? No doubt. Did they pay a price for wanting both? For sure.
There’s a reason so many of the women artists we know don’t have kids. We already face challenges and obstacles simply because we’re female in a male-dominated arena. Having children complicates matters to such an extent that, depending on your individual circumstances, your financial situation, your support systems etc. it might simply become undoable.
Today we can get help. There’s equal parenting, day care and baby-sitters and we have a better chance of creating a structure that allows us time to devote to our craft than our sisters from a hundred years ago. And then the kid gets what feels like the tenth cold in a month and our neat structure is fucked. Because in an overwhelming majority of families, the mother still carries the main responsibility for the daily care of the children. She is the one who is expected to, and who will, stay at home, forsaking other ventures to tend to her littles. It is implicit in the question always asked of a professional woman: “How do you balance your work and family life?” According to our cultural script, it’s still up to her to balance it.
Is it an option for a woman to discard her parental obligations in pursuit of her art? Men do it, have done it throughout history without anyone raising an eyebrow. What happens if a woman chooses to behave the same way?
Women are still socialised from an early age to please, to place the needs of others before their own and to derive their sense of value primarily from their relationships. Can someone raised like that choose the life of the artist if that choice means she neglects her children? Of course she can, but it’ll cost her a lot more than it would a man, personally and professionally. It’ll require her to go against upbringing and cultural expectations and others will judge her for it. Hard. She will judge herself too. A male artist gets away with it, a female doesn’t.
Very few women can or will make that choice, and honestly, why would we want to?
What I’m interested in is what does devotion look like if it doesn’t mean forsaking everything and everyone, including your kids, for art?
Margaret Atwood gave us one clue when she told us only so many things fit onto our plates. I still haven’t found all the rest of the clues, but I’ve found a few, in the safe spaces we create together, in the consistent and persistent doing of our work, in the brave telling of our stories.
They say that those who tell the stories rule the world. For far too long, men have told all the stories. This is changing, but the male narrative is still the norm. It’s time we tell our own stories. It’s time we centre ourselves in the narrative of the creative life. Because if you can’t fit into your own idea of an artist, something is wrong with what you’ve been taught. The idea needs to change. We need to claim the right to re-define what a creative person looks like. (I know for sure she looks a lot like you.)
When presented with the male view as the only view, we can then say, No, actually, this is what it looks like from where I stand.
We need every aspect of the world explained and shown to us from a woman’s point of view – or from women’s point of views, rather, because it’s not a single story. We need our articles, our novels, our photographs, our inventions, our paintings, our craft and our discoveries. We need the stories of our sexuality and our sisterhood, daughterhood and motherhood. All of it needs to be shared and told and heard, and consciously woven into the story of our human experience.
Anna Lovind is a writer who believes in women’s creative freedom and the power of our voices and stories.
Through her writing, courses and workshops she has guided thousands of creative women to go from dreaming to doing. She is the author of The Creative Doer, and co-founder of Write Your Self, a teacher training for people who want to use writing as a tool for healing. Anna lives in the deep forests of Dalarna, Sweden, with her man, their two kids and a dog. Learn more on her website.