On Trying to Create Art When the Baby’s Crying

A new book explores several major “mother-artists” of the mid-to-late-20th century, and how they managed to be both.

Images of children intercut with a piece of text
Getty; The Atlantic

While still a student in the late 1960s, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, pregnant with her first child, encountered a famous sculptor. She recalls him declaring, upon seeing her round belly, “Well, I guess now you can’t be an artist.” He wasn’t, she later realized, entirely wrong; once she had a baby, Ukeles found herself trapped in the kind of mindless automated work that defines early motherhood—bottle, diaper, rock, repeat. “I literally was divided in two,” she later said. “Half of my week I was the mother, and the other half the artist. But, I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous; I am the one.’”

It’s creation that gets the glory, she proclaimed in a manifesto, even though maintenance “takes all the fucking time.” In an exhibition she proposed, she’d perform her domestic work in museums—cooking, cleaning up, changing diapers, installing new light bulbs—and elevate these repetitions, an equal part of her life, into art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no curator was willing to entertain this idea.

Among the artists in the biographer Julie Phillips’s new study of several major “mother-artists” of the mid-to-late-20th century, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, Ukeles is one of the few, if not the only, whose creative work aligns so practically with her maternal work. Ukeles’s intention was to join the two halves, to subvert each into the other: “My working will be the work.” But the kingdoms are at odds. The baby cannot care for itself, the art cannot create itself, and rarely can the two be done in tandem. The old adage to “sleep when the baby sleeps” doesn’t work when you’re waiting on the baby to start her next chapter or a new sketch so that you can work on yours. In the words of Doris Lessing, “I can’t think which is more satisfactory, having a baby, or writing a novel. Unfortunately they are quite incompatible.”

When a new child arrives, it’s as if two strangers have moved into your house. The first is the child. The second is yourself as a mother. She is a person whose former preoccupations are now quashed as less urgent. Phillips quotes the psychoanalytic theorist Lisa Baraitser, who writes that the mother’s own self-narrative “is punctured at the level of constant interruptions to thinking, reflecting, sleeping, moving, and completing tasks. What is left is a series of unconnected experiences that remain fundamentally unable to cohere.”

In her once-derided (too blunt, too bold, too willing to admit what others only think) memoir, A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk wrote, “To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other.” Here Cusk spills the foundational secret of what creative mothers need in order to do their work—they must forget about their children, in stretches. They need a temporary restoration of the internal state that is all artist, no mother.

The women Phillips documents all felt cleaved in two. Alice Neel famously deposited one of her children with family in Cuba so that she could move to the Village and paint. Lessing, too, committed “the unforgivable” (her own words) and left two of her children with their father in what was then Rhodesia. Ursula K. Le Guin, who was “grateful” for the ordinary housework that tethered her to the real world, wrote to her agent, “I walk a rather narrow path, between the needs of my family and my own psychological badlands.” The more content mothers in the bunch, such as Angela Carter, who had her son in her early 40s, developed work-arounds or new gears for their concentration to pop in and out of. (Even then Carter worried that her narratives were crossing streams, that her work, which she described as “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder,” was “in some way damaging to the baby.”) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

If the mother’s first work shift is the labor that brings in money, and the second shift, à la Arlie Hochschild, is the scrubbing and soothing, the less-mentioned third shift for the mother who is also an artist is the dream state, the musing, the meditation—whatever you want to call it or however you want to practice it—that makes space for ideas. It’s where the artist communes with herself, in what Phillips calls “imaginative distance.” Even if creative work looks active—a gliding paintbrush or clattering fingers—reverie is essential to it.

In an early draft of her 1931 speech, “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf (an unorthodox aunt, but notoriously child-free) wrote that when she imagined a woman writing, “she was not thinking; she was not reasoning; she was not constructing a plot; she was letting her imagination down into the depths of her consciousness while she sat above holding on by a thin but quite necessary thread of reason.” This is the third shift: pure attention.

Some mother-artists devised methods to work on the fly. Audre Lorde, like Emily Dickinson before her, wrote poetry on whatever scraps of paper were at hand. (The major difference is that Lorde then stuffed the papers in her diaper bag and turned back to her children, while Dickinson, who had no children, watched her dough rise.) Shirley Jackson planned out “The Lottery” while she put away groceries and wrote it while her daughter napped. The writer Naomi Mitchison leaned on her baby’s stroller to take notes while they walked the streets of London. When a room of their own wasn’t available, some writers built one from the literal materials of motherhood.

But to enter into long stretches of sustained concentration (or daydreaming)—what productivity experts would call “flow”—requires that we push our children from our working minds. Fully. The implications turn moral, rather than practical: What kind of mother forgets about her children, not just to bring home money to fund their education and appetite but to do so in such an intellectually enriching way, through a portrait or a novel, a self-satisfying product of creativity?

In some cases, the mother-artists Phillips examines sought out air pockets for themselves—little spaces where they could take a gulp and dive back down. Barbara Hepworth, a mother of four, insisted that all artists ought to have 30 minutes a day for work “so that the images grow in one’s mind.” Toni Morrison performed the classic writerly move of working on her novels before her children woke in the morning. But this work is what Phillips calls “provisional, contingent, subject to disruption.” Imagine more mother-artists with salaries, like Neel, whose job with the WPA Federal Art Project gave her the free space to slip into the third shift and led to her first solo show, in 1938. Imagine them without sharp baby cries from down the hall, without glances across the room to check in, without the half-cocked brain, liable to blunder off at a hint of maternal guilt. The third shift, which eludes most mothers for much of their career, is the fallow field of artistry. (I am writing this with my foot on a bouncer, my hand on a monitor, my intellect somewhere out to baby-sea.)

Phillips named her book for a (probably apocryphal) story about Neel as a young mother. Her in-laws claimed that she once put the baby on the fire escape—a place that is public, possibly dangerous, out of sight, but still tangential to the home—while she painted. Phillips calls it “the precarious situation in which the child is just far enough out of sight and mind for the mother to have a talk with her muse.”

At 80 years old, in 1980, Neel completed a now well-known nude self-portrait. In it, she directly faces the viewer, one foot planted in a yellow stretch of floor, the other in a triangle of green. Directly in the center of the canvas, a place you can’t look away from, is her belly, softened by age, but rounded like it must have been in the last months of her pregnancies. Celebrated and adored late in life, she still looks like a mother, divided in two, paintbrush in hand. Nonetheless, she’s in full command of her identity. She’d had the past few decades all to herself.