Do you have any advice or strategies to share with women who are conflicted in their desire to be good artists and good mothers or feel they have to choose one over the other? And in conection with this, what does writing give you and what has it cost you?
—Marie-Françoise Theodore, Los Angeles, California
I wrote one answer to this question and just wasn’t happy with it. It’s such a fundamental question that women face in general—how do you get the right balance between work and family? Is is possible to find it at all? For myself, I was able to thread the needle a bit because the art I pursued was one I could do at home and in the time I could wrestle from my day. I think you’re right, though, to single out the pursuit of art as a particular challenge for mothers, particularly if it’s the third leg of important components they’re trying to manage—work, children, and job. Whether it’s stated or not, since being a writer or actor or painter rarely means a reliable income unless you reach the stratosphere of your profession, there’s some background sense that the pursuit of art is somehow self-indulgent and optional. Though women struggle with ongoing decisions about being working or stay-at-home moms and often make different choices at different times in their lives, there’s a critical mass of people in both camps, and plenty of people who recognize the legitimacy of either or both choices. There are also very few people who argue with a woman’s real need to support her family financially.
But art slips into this somewhat foreign category. It sometimes amuses me a little that the reaction to people who pursue some kind of artistic endeavor can be such a hot one. People are either overly impressed or they’re suspicious that there’s something counter-cultural going on, or at least counter to their culture. Sometimes there’s a background jealousy from people who had similar aspirations themselves and abandoned them. At the least, there’s often a sense that the person who tries to pursue an artistic bent professionally is selfish or vain or deluded. The irony is that whether we put artists on a pedestal or look at them with suspicion, as a species we all have a bedrock need for what art brings us. Those paintings on the walls of caves weren’t an accident. People need pictures and the feelings they stir. They need stories. They need dance and play-acting.
Here’s a specific example. It’s been a dozen years since I’ve been in China, and I know it has experienced huge changes in that time period. But the urban area I was in in central China at that time bore the marks of some of the less beneficial initiatives under Communist rule coupled with the effects of a rush toward industrialization. The trees were gone, having been cut down during the Great Leap Forward to provide fuel for backyard furnaces that were supposed to produce metal. There was a Soviet-influenced architecture that featured lots of drab and utilitarian concrete buildings. Clothing tended to feature leftover Mao suits or various manifestations of polyester. Pollution and noise and chaotic construction projects were the norm. Not only did this jar my notion of traditional Chinese beauty derived from books and art museums and film, but it left me in a state of deprivation I’d never experienced before. I realized I was starved for beauty, that I missed it as I might miss food or rest. (I should say that I did find it in the gorgeously terraced mountains and fields of rapeseed in the countryside and in the markets and in the faces of the Sichuan girls.)
I think this need for the arts of nature and life is something we all should recognize more deeply. They’re not extras but essentials. And that means that the people who write our stories and paint our pictures and make music and perform for us in various ways aren’t bit players in our lives but necessary actors. Perhaps one of the ways women can successfully combine pursuing art and being mothers is to help their children recognize that intrinsic importance of their work, not as something quixotic but as an essential part of their being and something that requires both discipline and sacrifice, things that every child needs to learn in any case, and probably best by example. Of course, the crux of the conflict between two important things—pursuing art and being good mothers—comes down, as many things do, to the apportionment of time. I’m not sure there’s always a way to get that right, particularly if it involves extended separations and absences.
But even this can have two sides. We all probably have keen memories of times when, as children, we were desperate for our mothers and, for whatever reason, they weren’t there. Perhaps it’s this fear of having our own children have similar experiences that fills so many mothers with guilt. I wonder, though, if both that childhood fear and maternal guilt aren’t inevitable to some degree. After all, one of our goals as parents—and really from early on—is to help our children toward independence, although it isn’t always comfortable. We’re eager for each developmental stage even if, in the most basic way, each new step is part of our children moving away from us. At the same time, our children both frighten and please themselves as they try new things. Maybe it can help mothers who have to be away from their children more than they’d like to see some of those inevitable moments of pain for their children as times when the children may learn things that will be steps in their maturation that strengthen them.
I have a small personal story about this. I remember once when I was about eight, maybe nine, that I was miserably sick and my mother left me at home alone because she had to go off for the day to teach. She had talked to a middle-aged neighbor who lived up the street and asked if I could call her if I needed something. The woman agreed and she was, I guess, my hole card for the day. By early afternoon I was feeling so bad and so alone that I did call her. She arrived in a very bad mood that obviously had two sources, the first that my call had interrupted something like canning, the second her thinly veiled opinion that no responsible mother would leave her child alone to go to a job that she shouldn’t have in the first place (this was the 50’s). I quickly realized there were things worse than being sick and alone and that having a hostile Mrs. Sutherland in my bedroom was one of them. Basically, I learned I was better off facing my situation myself than having to deal with someone’s anger on top of it, which was good knowledge to acquire and the basis of a new coping skill. I told her I was actually feeling better and I appreciated her coming but I didn’t need her to stay. And I did feel less sick after that. Not that I didn’t tell my mother what an awful experience I’d had when she got home. But while I surely made her feel guilty, I’d already moved on.
I’m not saying I think it’s a good strategy for moms just to teach their kids to lump it. I do think children need different levels of attention at different ages and that that sometimes means women need to honor that obligation over their work for a time. Or at the least, they need to secure good backup help that both they and the children can rely on. And if we’re still talking strategy (though I’m not offering much in that regard!), I think mothers need to be as fully present for their children in the time they have with them as they can be. More than that, as artists they need to bring their keen antennae for the things they observe for their work to their roles as mothers, being as intuitive as they can about their children’s needs. In effect, they need to make it a plus for a child to have a mother who’s an artist.
I’d like to add a note that’s tied specifically to my experience as a writer. While I was able to work at home in the time I could find in my day, there is something I know I did wrong in my children’s growing up years when I was dividing most of my attention between work and caring for them and doing the domestic chores that allowed the family budget to stretch further. The truth is I often wore myself out with all I tried to sandwich into my day. The harsher truth is that I didn’t make enough time for the social interactions outside the family that are pretty key to maintaining mental health. In retrospect, I know the combination of living an isolated life in the country and having virtually all of my time assigned to one responsibility or another was very stressful. Both my body and mind sometimes rebelled. In retrospect, I think it has to be a key strategy for a woman to pay attention to her health, mental and physical, if she wants to do her best as both an artist and mother.
I don’t know if it would have been possible, but I also think my work life might have been easier if I’d lived in a city. At the Y you and I used to go to in St. Paul, though it was just background information, there was a good mix of writers and actors and musicians along with the firemen and teachers and business people. I suspect being a part of a community like that where pursuing art is a more common expectation would have been buoying for me in many ways as a younger writer. Working in any art can be so challenging with few immediate rewards other than the work itself that just being around other people who are tackling the same thing can have a relaxing effect. It means you’re not just swimming against the tide but are part of a larger enterprise.
In terms of the last part of your question about what writing has given me and what it’s cost me, I’ll take the last part first. It’s cost me a lot. It’s meant I’ve never tested what I could do in areas where there are more certain rewards, professional and financial. It’s meant I’ve rarely known if even my published work has had any resonance with readers. It’s meant a frugal life. For most artists both validation and money are usually rare and, when they do come, short-lived. It’s the flip side of the coin, though, that makes us addicts. What has writing given me? Everything really. I mean how lucky am I? I’ve been able to do work I love for my whole adult life. I’ve been able to keep learning new things because of it, including how to write better and, on rare occasions, I’ve had words filter back to me from a distant place that I keep like gold: Fantastic. Magnificent. More Emily Meier, please. I’m laughing with embarrassed, not-quite-believing delight just to think of them. But here is the thing. To be besotted with any of the arts is truly a gift. It’s one that allows us to give gifts to others. It’s a gift we give to ourselves. And if we’re really lucky, it’s a part of our lives our children will one day come to consider a gift we also gave to them.