Why don’t you treat men this way? The false dichotomy of “mother vs. artist”

This post of on combining art and motherhood made the rounds this past winter. There were a lot of responses, public and private. Two of the more recent responses made me feel like revisiting the issue:

1. The Divided Heart is a more honest exploration of what it’s like to be a mother and an artist. I’m sorry, but I think you are over-compensating and it shows. For decades, women have been quite open about how combining great art and motherhood is almost always an impossibility. One blog post on the matter from someone who sold one play is not going to convince society.

2. All due respect, Natalie [sic], but people like you lure promising artists towards breeding, and the results are almost always disastrous. I wonder if you’ll change your mind when your kid is on the therapist’s couch, discussing the ways in which mum neglected him so she could make her Art, and he almost certainly will be.

So to address all that:

Who the hell are you to argue that women can be both mothers and great artists? You’re nobody! But it’s not about me.

The idea that you can’t reconcile being a mother with being great artist is, today, a peculiarly Western concept. In many other parts of the world, women just get on with it.

One of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, was a mother. Nobody goes around wringing their hands on her behalf. One of Russia’s greatest painters, Zinaida Serebriakova, was a mother – and, once again, people really didn’t make a big deal out of it.

One of Ukraine’s greatest living writers, Natalia Vorozhbyt, is a mother. Vorozhbyt is also a friend, and knowing her well enough, I can honestly say that she doesn’t have time for the kind of self-doubt I see expressed in certain lifestyle publications on the subject of art and parenting. It’s irrelevant to who she is. It’s irrelevant to most of my female friends from this part of the world, truth be told. In fact, having been raised mostly in the West, I was the one weirding them out with my, “You guys, I’m pregnant! WILL I WRITE AGAIN?!” bullshit.

Within a year of moving to Russia, I was producing my husband’s first movie. By the time we began editing, we were new parents. We were exhausted. We fought all the time. I had a full-time job as the deputy editor of a newspaper on top of it – i.e. I made the money that financed the adventure. It was a horrible time. But the one thing I’m grateful was that my husband never went, “You can’t do this.” Some of that was selfishness on his part. I have always been a work horse, chomping at the bit – why not use it? But it also made me realize that I was stronger and more resourceful than previously thought,

The first time we went out to a cafe to work, I froze up when Lev started fussing. Alyosha, my husband, calmly went around the table, took the baby, helped get him into his sling and latch on to the tit, and said, “Now you can keep working.” Yes, I get it, not everyone’s like this, but my point is that you can always do more when you don’t pathologize motherhood and when the people around you don’t pathologize it either.

Numerous other women have pointed out how they can’t make great art and be mothers at the same time. Who are you to contradict them? Personally, I never set out to “make great art” or “write great plays” or whatever. It’s not up to me to judge my own output. All I know about what I do is that I can’t not do it.

I love the writing in “The Divided Heart” and think Rachel Power makes a lot of great points and catalogues important experiences. But I also think that the “fundamental dilemma of the artist mother”, as she puts it, is a dilemma that most people face, one way or another.

How many men do you know who have given up on their dreams because they have a family to support, and earning a steady income is what Real Men (TM) do? I know plenty.

Or how about the fact that my husband recently had to delay an important project because of his father’s ill health. Nobody went, “Fathers and sons! It’s always one or the other! A fundamental dilemma!”

My husband’s decision was seen as an absolutely normal, human response to a difficult situation.

But when a woman drops everything to take care of her child, we see it as a “woman thing,” not a human thing.

It is Power’s thesis that every mother who is also an artist must “struggle against herself.” I think a lot of that depends on the community you’re part of. In Moscow or Kiev, no one tried to make me feel guilty for writing after Lev was born so I didn’t think to feel guilty.

It was in conversation with former classmates and blog readers and friends in London and New York (Paris was always an exception) or whatever that I suddenly realized that people expected me to feel guilty. They thought I was “trying to have it all”. I thought I was just being myself.

Ultimately, I don’t think you choose the creative life – it chooses you, no matter who you are. That’s why the conversation about “choice” often feels superfluous to me.

You deny the magic bond that exists between mother and child! You monster! There is a reason why so much of our great art centers on a single theme: madonna and baby. It’s not just because “zomg sexism and the male gaze.” The physical aspects of biological motherhood alone make it a unique experience.

But I don’t like it when this cool stuff is used to put me in my place. There is something demeaning about that, both to mother and child. The great bond you have with your child can be exhausting. But it also makes you see the world differently – and there is a great deal of value in that, artistic value and value in general. This is why creating life is not just a burden but a privilege.

breastfeeding in crimea
Me and my little pest/privilege in pre-annexation Crimea, when I wasn’t writing. As photographed by Alyosha.

You just don’t want to admit that motherhood is hard! I have frequently written about how hard motherhood is. I try to see the humor in these stories, I hate being all woe iz me all the time. Lack of sleep in particular results in a lot of unintentional comedy.

The thing is, life’s hard. The important stuff in life is especially hard. And any situation that involves taking care of helpless dependent is mega hard. But what can you do? Well, once again, most people just get on with it.

You’re just saying this because your kid is not yet in therapy, talking about his horrible, selfish writer mother! Here’s a fun fact: My mother spent seven years doing nothing but taking care of me. She gave up on her dreams of being a lawyer. She’s a talented painter, but she didn’t paint during that time. And I still spent years on the therapist’s couch talking about my horrible, selfish mother.

Most parents fuck up. And most kids need to vociferously reject their parents. It’s a normal part of development, of becoming an adult and the hero of your own story. It happens to artists, it happens to plumbers, and it sucks sometimes, but that’s life.

Artists are selfish and motherhood is selfless, THAT’S the conflict. I think it’s a conflict that rests on a number of huge generalizations. While it’s perfectly normal to say, “I’m too selfish to be a mother,” just as it is perfectly normal to say, “I’m too into motherhood to do art,” not everyone fits into these categories. Also, the categories shift over time. Either way, there is never a crowbar separation between those aspects of your life that make you who you are. At the end of the day, you are always going to be just you.

You think women who say they couldn’t be both artists and mothers are LYING? No. I trust women. I wish their decisions didn’t have to be vigorously defended, but hey – that’s systemic sexism for you. In fact, I’d rather spend more time focusing on systems of inequality than I would on the idea that “motherhood is just very special and that specialness is a pathology which nothing can alleviate, so just grin and bear it, sister!”

banya serebryakova
A painting by Zinaida Serbriakova, one of Russia’s greatest artists. She had four kids. Be still, my divided heart.

Your stupid blog is going to fuck up other women’s lives! They’re going to think they can have it all! But they can’t! Adults can make choices and own them. “Having it all” is just another bullshit slogan designed for a consumerist society. Nobody “has it all.” We all do what we can. When we’re lucky, we also do what we love. That’s it.

You won’t shut up about this stuff and this means you’re overcompensating! Sure. When you’re in my position, you frequently overcompensate. As draining as it is to be a mother – motherhood has its grand rewards. Dealing with condescending, presumptuous assholes has no rewards beyond trying to analyze them to satisfy one’s morbid journalistic curiosity.

Ultimately, artistic dilemmas were nicely summed up by Bob Dylan when he sang, “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do is do what you must.”

At first glance, it’s not very reassuring. But when you think about it, it kind of is.

15 thoughts on “Why don’t you treat men this way? The false dichotomy of “mother vs. artist”

  1. I am someone who want to be a published writer and a father someday. Thank you for sharing!

  2. The actress Meryl Streep is an American example of combining motherhood and a creative professional life. I think she has four children.

  3. Is there any particular reason why you felt you had to illustrate your post with a painting of naked bathers and a photo that prominently displays your breasts? I don’t have an issue with breastfeeding, but seems like there is a time and place for it. Some mothers go overboard.

  4. “I don’t have an issue with breastfeeding, but seems like there is a time and place for it.”

    You mean like as an illustration to a post that addresses the difficulties and joys of biological motherhood, specifically mentioning the physical side? Man, if only I had just written 1500 words on that…

  5. Samuel C.:

    Do unclothed women seriously trouble you? If so, why? How would you react to ancient Greek and Roman statuary and frescoes? Ancient art portrayed a lot of nudity, both male and female. How would you react to the statue called the “Venus de Milo” which shows a half-nude Venus? And what about Renaissance portraiture and statuary?

    I seriously think you’re engaging in performance art because your objections are so cliché.

  6. Samuel C.:

    Do unclothed women seriously trouble you? If so, why? How do you react to ancient Greek and Roman statuary and frescoes which often portray both male and female nudity? Or, for that matter, how do you react to classicizing Renaissance statuary and portraiture which imitate classical nude forms?

    I seriously think you’re engaging in performance art because your objections are so cliché.

    (Apologies if this is a duplicate post)

  7. All I said was that it’s a little bit too much. I assume she is a thinker as well as a blogger, so maybe not display her breasts? Men are not going to respond thoughtfully when a woman’s breasts are so obvious. It’s a suggestion, not an attack.

  8. “Men are not going to respond thoughtfully …”

    How do you know? Are you yourself that easily distracted? Again, are you yourself unable to react thoughtfully when looking at classical nudes? What about anatomy atlases?

    But it’s noted that you’re making a suggestion, not an attack.

    I still think you’re playing with us:)

  9. Samuel C.:

    One final point and I’ll get out of here. There’s a line to be drawn between PICTURES of nude women and flesh-and-blood encounters with real, live women in real life. A picture of a nude woman shouldn’t be too distracting, depending on the context. A flesh-and-blood encounter with a nude woman in real life could very well be distracting, again depending on the context.

    Just something to consider.

  10. {Ignoring Sammy boy if that’s alright}

    Nat, you talk about not feeling guilty when you wrote, but what about guilt and parenthood in general? I think it’s such a big part of being a parent, for men and women. But men are not supposed to talk about it, so they don’t. Seen as weak, I guess (my husband, who read your post, confirms it).

  11. “Is there any particular reason why you felt you had to illustrate your post with a painting of naked bathers and a photo that prominently displays your breasts?”

    Hiya, I’m curious. Is there any particular reason why she shouldn’t? I interpreted the photo in the context of thoughts on motherhood; not a “display” of breasts, which the picture clearly isn’t since one is covered; and the other is feeding a baby.

  12. I didn’t start writing seriously until after my first two kids were born. Their being around gave me the focus I’d lacked before, and the need to carve out a little space for myself and my brain, and a new kind of belief in myself, and also a kind of inspiration… Yes, I zone out sometimes when I could be interacting meaningfully with them. But I think kids ought to be capable of daydreaming their own way through a few moments at a time – so I try not to feel guilty.

  13. Women are closer to Nature than men, and that is the main thing that has kept humanity alive to this day on this aggressive modern World we have created. No Woman should feel ashamed of being herself no matter what her multiple roles: daughter, mother, partner, wife, healer or killer. No Woman should be ever be harassed by fundamentalist fools who try to belittle the only meaningful source of life, warmth and beauty reserved for humankind. Cheers to you Natalia!

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