In mainstream culture, motherhood as an institution and a decision doesn’t need any defending. No one has to stand up at a PTA meeting or a political rally and say, “Hey, being a mother is a transformative, powerful act! Mothers are the beings at the core of our lives!” Nobody needs to defend the sacredness of motherhood in American popular opinion, even though it is everyday belied by our government’s family leave policies and puritanical attitudes about breastfeeding and persistent double standards in terms of unpaid work. So to whom, then, am I defending motherhood?
Perhaps to Kim Brooks, who recently wrote a viral essay for New York Magazine’s The Cut about the difficulty of balancing creative work and motherhood, and the ultimate incompatibility of the two. And maybe to the artist-mother type Brooks describes as such: “a searingly intelligent but, to varying degrees, disaffected woman with a creative or writerly sensibility who finds herself peculiarly at odds with her own domestic responsibilities or milieu or parenting culture. The narrator is trying to be an artist and a mother, a creative person and a good, nurturing parent. She is learned, restless, skeptical, critical, and self-aware. She abhors received knowledge and sentimentality and meaningless social rituals. She is, in other words, all the things an artist or writer is supposed to be….”
I am surprised to find myself recoiling at this when in theory it should describe me perfectly, or I feel that I should want it to describe me perfectly: I abhor sentimentality! I am learned and restless! I have a “creative sensibility”! And yet now, as a mother, I find all of these declarations at best pointless, at worst ridiculous.
I have always recoiled from describing myself as an artist, an anointment that seems to me pompous, entitled, and smug, automatically entitling one to an I Don’t Subscribe To Meaningless Social Rituals card. Maybe living for years in Oaxaca, Mexico, a town overrun with twenty-five-year-olds in combat boots churning out photos of themselves naked in the bathtub, gave me a visceral antipathy to the term “artist.” Or maybe a persistent skepticism about what actually qualifies as art and why it should be elevated above the everyday, why its practitioners should be shrouded in an aura of exceptionalism, has instilled in me a deep resistance to deeming my work art. But certainly after I squeezed a baby out of myself and spent months tending to it in a fervor of sleeplessness and milk, art seemed to me an absurd abstraction.
Instead of finding this traumatic, I was surprised to find it refreshing. I had spent so many years trying to figure out what kind of writer I should be, what I should be writing, working on my style, cultivating little flourishes of lyricism, bombarding editors, celebrating bylines, hunting down space for my name in big magazines. And yet at the core I think I never knew why I was writing. The blow-out thunderstorm of early motherhood ripped down that twenty-something artistic quest like so much dead wood and left in its wake the sense that very little in life matters. Me, my husband, my baby. My family. Maybe Little Dude the mutt hound, on a good day.
And yet, as a new mother, I wrote. And I needed to write. Not because I needed to make a name for myself or prove my genius, but because I needed to work my everyday experience into larger truths, to see it anew and connect it to a bigger realm. I needed to honor that everyday experience by scrubbing it and scrubbing it into polished, spot-on sentences that reflected it clearly.
It is rare for me to write this way. So much of what I had written before had an intellectual motor behind it, the wheel of my brain churning and churning out product. This writing did not. It both illuminated and paled behind the quotidian, the acts— huge, breathtaking, and so small as to be nearly invisible—of parental care.
In many ways, I think this writing made me a better mother. It made me pay attention to mothering, which I began to see as an incredibly complex, difficult, beautiful, personal, universal realm so underserved by literature; it made me see my daughter the way Annie Dillard saw Tinker Creek, the way Peter Matthiessen saw the labyrinthine ravines around the Crystal Monastery, as intricate mysteries worthy of rapt, careful attention.
“The point of art,” Brooks quotes a friend in her essay, “is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
Brooks takes this definition up and runs with it, finds in it the explanation for her own reluctance and shortcomings as a mother. She comes to the ultimate conclusion that “People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.”
My reproach to this has two levels. First, it seems absurd to plunk down any pithy explanation for why people make art. My favorite writers—Dillard and Matthiessen, Isak Dinesen, Mary Karr, Eula Biss—seem motivated as much by celebrating the everyday, by seeing it, by digging into the truths beneath it, by making sense of those truths with empathy and with an eye towards the universal, as they do by unsettling and disturbing the comfortable. Literature can be as much about showing us what we already know in clearer surprising light, or empowering us to accept it, as it can be about shooting an arrow through its heart. In short, I could begin a sentence with “People make art because…” and convincingly conclude it with a million reasons.
But more importantly, this notion that artists are inherent disrupters and mothers are inherent conformers betrays the complexity of motherhood, plays into the conservative status quo that asserts there is only one type of good mother, and she obeys meaningless ritual, has no transgressive creative leanings, is neither restless nor critical nor self-aware beyond service to husband, children, society. Brooks strongly identifies with the protagonist of the new “housewife novel,” described by critic Laura Miller as a woman who feels that being a wife and mother “seem to have taken over her identity. Yet she looks down on women like that—most of whom, she can’t help noticing, are better at being wives and mothers than she is.”
This calculation that the “better” a wife and mother a woman appears to be, the less valuable she must be as an artist (and the less interesting she must be as a person) buys into both the standard tropes about romantic artistic exceptionality and those about the inherent insipidness of motherhood (each of which have certainly served writer-fathers very well throughout history). The idea that good mothers are sheep, thoughtless adherents to the mainstream rhetoric artists so valiantly attempt to tear down, is an insult to the many mothers who have taught their children to fight racism and sexism and injustice, who have enabled their children to break boundaries and taboos, who have fought these boundaries and taboos just by starting families. It also assumes that only art can create new ways of seeing. It deprives motherhood of any power other than conformity, subservience, unthinking obedience.
Maybe if we had more examples in literature of motherhood liberated from the pot pies and sparkling countertops of the traditional, or maybe if we examined our derisive and supercilious attitudes towards the domestic and the realm of care-giving instead of assuming it pathetic, female, and sentimental, then it wouldn’t seem that art exists in such a rarefied realm. The assertion that it does, and that mothers may never be able to fully exist there or, if they do, will cease to be good mothers, impoverishes both art and motherhood. It is to subscribe to a timeworn, tired patriarchal notion that Brooks ultimately embraces in her piece, asserting that she believes strongly in the nobility of suffering. “Pain is constructive. Misery can be useful,” she writes. Yet, she goes on to explain, she does everything possible to prevent her children’s suffering, therefore claiming that art is incompatible with bland, docile motherhood.
Yet I don’t see how wanting to avoid suffering, for oneself or one’s loved ones, is evidence of being a “cautious, boring, conventional” person, as Brooks describes her altered maternal self; unless, that is, suffering is romanticized as drinking oneself into oblivion through a series of romantic quagmires, or scaling African peaks in the searing heat, or swapping stories in a foxhole with one’s beloved comrades, or any number of other traditionally male exploits that have been long been the focus of “real” (read: not domestic, not female) literature.
Brooks’ notion of suffering seems limited to that which is sought for an artistic end, nobly endured for the sake of literature; if she didn’t have children, she would embrace this suffering as a young traveler embraces thirty hours of train travel on a wooden bench. I’m assuming she wouldn’t embrace, however, famine, or the violent assassination of a family member, or disfiguring disease, inviting these in for the sake of a good story, nor do I think most people who have endured these kinds of suffering would think that wanting to avoid them was cautious or conventional. The suffering of a young struggling artist in New York City is not this kind of suffering; it is the kind of suffering that can be romanticized and longed for from the vista of a nursery rocking chair on a long hot afternoon.
If this kind of suffering makes literature, then literature is terribly limited and certainly not capable of evoking the depths of the human experience, although it is well-suited to the heroic aims of the white male, as history and the canon prove. There is plenty of suffering in the everyday life of a mother, say the mother of Tolstoy’s children, or the mother of Hemingway’s (in fact, Paula McClain managed to turn this suffering into an award-winning and best-selling novel, which takes the Hemingway legacy and renders it domestic in a twist I love and admire). But perhaps this doesn’t count as suffering, female as it is, pathologized and medicated and repressed out of existence for centuries. And although the suffering of mothers has recently become the subject of a spate of well-respected books by women, Brooks and others still seem to assume it isn’t the stuff of real literature; of, in other words, the realm of men and male suffering and male reality, the kind of suffering that must lamentably be avoided for the sake of the children.
I’m not sure I can call myself a “good” mother. It seems impossible to define what that means beyond the given of not hurting your child and not ignoring them and not yelling too much and not feeding them a diet of pure Cheez-its. I spend a lot of time with my baby. I am still breastfeeding, two years into motherhood, more out of convenience than out of some great noble conviction. I make her dishes like quinoa with black beans and kale that I’ve ground up in the blender. But I have not a cent saved up for her college fund, nor any idea where we’re going to be living next year. My husband and I sometimes get in epic fights about work and money and make her cry. I worry about a million things, legitimate and silly, and transmit some of that to her. We may not be able to afford preschool.
My sister, meanwhile, sent her kids to great daycares and preschools. They will undoubtedly attend great colleges. They go to ten different summer camps and play several sports and have a big comfortable house and bikes and nice toys and she talks to them, earnestly listens, and is endlessly patient. They volunteer at a homeless shelter each Thanksgiving. My sister is also a lawyer who went back to work at the end of each period of three-month maternity leave. Her kids eat a lot of sugary yoghurt and Lunchables. They have a babysitter after school for a few hours until my sister gets home at 5 or 6. They watch outrageous reality shows on cable. They are smart, sweet, amazing kids. I would consider her a great mom. Her motherhood is very different than mine, but I am not sure that is attributable in any significant way to my “creative sensibility,” and I don’t know how it helps any of us as mothers to insist on one notion of a good mother, especially one who meekly and blindly accepts that motherhood means giving up her own convictions, her work, her life, her radicalism, for the institution of Good Motherhood as conceived by Good Housekeeping.
Part of my definition of good motherhood involves challenging traditional notions, the status quo of comfort and safety: Of course I want my daughter to grow up comfortable, safe, happy, but I also want her to grow up aware of the violent history of white privilege in the United States. She is Latina, and I want her to know the history of her people, their contributions, their suffering. I want her to be alert to racism and sexism, aware of her own privilege, aware of the ongoing struggle of people of color, including her father. I see introducing her to this suffering, this historic and epic pain, rather then shielding and inoculating her from it (and therefore perpetuating it) as part of my role as a mother.
Many other mothers have written about this as well. In her extraordinary essay “White Debt” in The New York Times, Eula Biss writes, “my overview of slavery and Jim Crow left my son worried about what it meant to be white, what legacy he had inherited. ‘I don’t want to be on this team,’ he said, with his head in his hands. ‘You might be stuck on this team,’ I told him, ‘but you don’t have to play by its rules.’”
With each year, motherhood opens out before me in more and more complexity. It is like hiking: the peak looks so close, the summit reachable, and then I reach plateau after plateau, false summit after false summit, and there is climb after climb. It is far more complex than I had ever imagined, far harder than I could ever have known no matter how many books I read or people I talked to, and yet at the same time the personal, political, ethical, existential questions it raises make everything I wrote about and considered before I became a mother seem like so many plastic wind-up toys burbling around the kitchen floor. This is not to say that not being a mother deprives one of essential truth, but rather that personally, in my experience, I didn’t start really writing, really thinking, really understanding why writing matters until I became a mother.
Is it hard as fuck to balance writing and motherhood? Yes, of course. It is hard as fuck to balance anything and motherhood. Work. Travel. A conversation with a friend in a coffee shop. But at my most hopeful I think that writing and art are essential to motherhood and vice versa. Each accesses the most ancient, the most universal, the most complex emotions. Each requires the nurturing of a new consciousness, a new being, a new way of seeing. Each is endlessly different and endlessly dull, endlessly challenging and spiked with constant disappointment and beauty. I am heartened to hear Maggie Nelson celebrate new writing about motherhood in Jezebel: “I’ve heard a lot of people say that ‘motherhood,’ whatever that entails, is a hackneyed topic, but I actually think we’re just about to hear a lot of news we haven’t ever heard before, and I’m super excited for it.”
The “literature of domestic ambivalence,” as Brooks describes it, is just the beginning. I believe we are at the cusp of a golden age of literature about motherhood in all its depth, complexity, and potential. Whether or not she becomes a mother, I hope my daughter reads these books in her lit classes in addition to the Hemingways, the Faulkners, the Tolstoys, the old white men and their old white suffering. I hope she grows up seeing mothers not as passive compromised figures but as the writers of the future, the weavers of new worlds.