The question of what effect domestic life might have on creative work, both in the abstract and in my actual life, first dawned on me 14 years ago, when I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was 23 at the time, years away from motherhood and thus confident that my desire to have a family and to be a writer would seamlessly coalesce. The first flicker of doubt occurred when my professor invited the entire workshop to a gathering at his home.
We knew that he had a wife who was pregnant and two children under the age of 6. But we knew it in the way we knew he had a mother or that he came from California. Our time with him was devoted to issues of literature, the forms and functions of fiction, writing practice and craft. We saw him as a writer, a reader, a professor and man of letters — all other biographical information was background static — until, that is, the evening we stepped inside his house.
“It smells like milk,” one of my friends whispered.
We’d been expecting a home of books, music, spirited discussion, a salonlike extension of our teacher’s office. Instead, the space we entered was cluttered with makeshift blanket forts, crayons, containers of half-eaten apple sauce, highchairs and cradles and strangely shaped pillows and other unrecognizable contraptions we could only assume related to the care of small children. His wife greeted us, beautiful and exhausted. Our teacher came down the stairs, slumped forward like a defeated animal. There was a child doing something on the floor, another calling from the bedroom above our heads.
“Something’s wrong,” I whispered back to my friend. “Something is going on here.”
The thing going on, of course, was Parenthood, in all its unliterary, unromantic glory. I might have feigned incomprehension, but I knew well enough what I was seeing. I also knew I’d never see my teacher in quite the same way again.
The second moment of doubt occurred a year later and involved a classmate, a woman in her 30s who entered the program a year behind me. She arrived in Iowa pregnant and gave birth on the first day of her second semester. A few weeks later, she came to workshop cradling an infant who mewled and suckled at her breast as we talked of characterization and suspense.
“I don’t like it,” a male friend said to me after class. “Workshop is no place for a baby.”
“You don’t like babies?” I asked.
“I like them well enough. But there’s a time and a place. And this is not the place. You bring a baby into a room of adults and suddenly everything is about the baby. What’s the baby doing? Is the baby happy? Is it going to cry? Who’s holding the baby? Who wants to bounce the baby on his knee? It’s distracting. This is our work. It’s not a nursery. Why am I the only one who feels this way?”
“You’re an asshole?” I suggested.
“Probably,” he said. “But I think I’m right on this.”
We wandered toward a local bar and joined our other childless writer friends for the usual marathon of drinking, gossip, and thinly veiled boasting. “You know I was only half-serious about what I said before about the baby,” he said at one point. I didn’t hold it against him. Deep down, I felt the same.
The idea that writers, artists, inspired and creative people make bad spouses, parents, homemakers, partners is nothing new. It’s a trope that has served the (usually male) writers of the canon well. The mythology of the self-destructive artistic genius, the undomesticated bohemian, the visionary who is also, incidentally, or perhaps inevitably, a jerk, fundamentally unsuited for family life, goes back to the Marquis de Sade, and it’s not hard to think of 19th- and 20th-century examples: Byron is reported to have slept with 200 women in the course of one year, declaring after his wife gave birth to his first child that he was in hell, then impregnating his half-sister. Baudelaire longed for escape from “the unendurable pestering of the women I live with.” Verlaine tried to light his wife on fire. Hemingway married four women and after one ceremony reportedly asked a bartender for a glass of hemlock. Faulkner’s 12-year-old daughter once asked him to not drink on her birthday, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”
“The Great Men’s marriages were their wars,” writes Kate Zambreno in Heroines, her memoir of marriage and literary obsession. T.S. Eliot’s marriage, she points out, produced the state of mind that catalyzed “The Waste Land,” and Flaubert once wrote to his mistress, Louise Colet, “Don’t you feel everything is currently dissolving into the humid element — tears, chatter, breast-feeding? Contemporary literature is drowning in women’s menses.”
Although it’s easy to dismiss such pronouncements for their obvious misogyny, women writers, too, have often struggled with domestic obligation. Doris Lessing notoriously abandoned her family in Africa to return to England and stated, “No one can write with a child around … There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” Muriel Spark, Rebecca West, and Anne Sexton were equally ambivalent about their role as mothers, and, as Rivka Galchen notes in her forthcoming book, Little Labors, many other women writers — Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. — opted out of motherhood entirely.
As I aged, married, inched closer to the world of domesticity, I’d feel reassured whenever I learned that one of the contemporary writers I admired also had a family she hadn’t abused or abandoned (at least to anyone’s knowledge). Why should it be so hard to walk this line, now that domestic burdens were distributed more evenly between men and women, now that parenthood had been stripped by machine and innovation of much of its drudgery and transformed into something more elevated and imaginative? Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized.
I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.
There is a whole new genre of literary fiction that is dedicated to this conflict between the parental and the artistic, a genre which I’ve come to think of as the literature of domestic ambivalence.
I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.”
The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice. After that, I read widely within this genre, which includes Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, and Hellen Ellis’s American Housewife.
In an essay called “Ladies of Leisure: The Resurgence of the Housewife Novel,” the critic Laura Miller describes the female protagonists in this new brand of novel: “Unable to sleep, a woman sits at the kitchen table or walks her neighborhood by night. She is 37, maybe 36. She is a wife and mother, roles that 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. She used to dream of art or writing or some other creative endeavor. Now, she takes pills. She’s bored. She’s anxious. She’s guilt-ridden. She’s exhausted and frustrated and probably depressed.”
What can I say other than: It’s me.
These books vary widely in form, tone, quality and theme, but they all feature the interior dialogue, observations, and at times self-effacing rumination of 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, but in some particular and vital way, these qualities are not serving her well. Nonetheless, she almost never feels free to say any of this directly. Instead, she softens and obscures the language of her discontent, assures us that, despite her doubts and objections and misgivings, she loves her child(ren)/home/partner. Or at least, she is unwilling or unable to escape them, and at times even revels in the intensity and all-consuming nature of her new role within a family, within the world. I love being a mother. I love my child. I love my life, she insists. She says this in a hundred different ways, in both plain language and lofty prose, always, always, before letting loose any criticism or complaint about the institution or actual experience of motherhood.
It may sound as though I am being critical, but the truth is that these books, individually and as a whole, rescued me from my solitude, my desperation, my creeping sense that in choosing the domestic path I chose, I’d forsaken the possibility of leading a fulfilling creative life. Only in reading them, did I begin to see that perhaps Flaubert’s “humid element” could itself be the stuff of literature and of art, that my failure to understand this earlier pointed toward a disturbing blindspot. As Galchen sums up, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”
Having children, entering the realm of parents and parenthood, changes our relationship to the world in ways we could not have anticipated and might not have signed up for. Before I had children, for example, I believed strongly in the nobility of suffering. All interesting, worthwhile humans suffered and struggled and overcame adversity of one sort or another. Pain is constructive. Misery can be useful. I believed this the way I believe the sun rises in the east. Then I had children, and I slowly began to disbelieve and disavow it. I would sit with my son through countless hours of doctors appointments and occupational-therapy appointments, I would sing with him through Mommy and Me music classes, I would babyproof his world into submission, I would nurse him until my nipples bled and deprioritize my marriage and friendships to suit his needs. I would send him to the best private school we could afford, though I knew this is the reason the public schools were failing. I would become a cautious, boring, conventional person on his behalf, all so that he would suffer and struggle less than he might otherwise. I would do things no self-respecting writer or artist would ever do in order to become a better parent.
Then one day I decided to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance. I bought a notebook and some colored pens and got very serious and very official. I think what I wanted to do was not just to map out and organize my time (which all writers do in one way or another), but also my mental space, the available real estate of my mind and the things that drained me of emotional or intellectual energy, the parenting activities or affiliations that felt, in some way, un-writerly. In blue ink, I wrote out the parts of my maternal identity that I could not sacrifice or change, the things I knew I had to do in order to live with myself. I wrote in blue that I would feed my children, bathe them, care for them when they were sick, read to them, and bring them to and from school. I wrote that I would love them and talk to them and try to see them as human beings, worthy of respect. I put a circle around these actions, a bright blue wall. Then, in red ink, I began writing all the other things I did, worried about, argued about, or obsessed over on a daily basis as part of my life as a mother. The white noise of parenthood. The low-level, chronic hum of anxious agitation. I wrote about playdates and birthday parties and parent nights and after-school activities and fund-raisers. I wrote about music lessons and dance lessons and swim lessons and soccer and Little League. I wrote about high-fructose corn syrup, about screen time, about standardized-test scores, about their academic performance and their social-emotional development. The list went on in this vein for seven pages.
When it was done, I called my writer-mother friend, Gina Frangello, to meet for a drink. We sat down, and I showed her the list, how much of my life I was giving over not just to caring for my children but to the act of capital-P Parenthood.
She read it, laughed, but having three children herself, didn’t think it was in any way exceptional. “Old news,” she said. “We do motherhood differently now than it used to be done. We do it in a way that’s problematic for having an adult life, much less being an adult who wants to create art.” Much less, I think, an adult who wants to create art but who has no way of making money from said art to pay for child care to continue art-making.
I asked her if she thought this was why so many frustrated writer-artist-mothers were funneling their creative energy into parenthood now, becoming the CEOs or artistic directors of their children’s lives in lieu of other creative work.
“Sure,” she said, then added how there’s also the fact that actual creative work is so miserable: “You know, a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer and it was so impressive when they were 23 and now they’re 33 and they still don’t have a book out … Well, sure, it’s great to say parenting is like my art and make beautiful Rice Krispy Treats with little candy unicorns on them or some shit. I mean, why not? I love Rice Krispy Treats. I have to finish this book in a few months, and it’s like hitting my head against a cement block. Give me the fucking Rice Krispy Treats.”
I knew this feeling too, but it didn’t feel like the full answer. I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind: Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?
She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
I don’t know why it took me by surprise when she said this. I knew it to be true. I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says,, “Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.” Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.”
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.
Or, as Offill writes in Dept. of Speculation, “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.” It makes perfect sense, but for a writer intent on using language to break down boundaries, explore taboos, trespass over the line of what is polite and pleasant and suitable for discussion, how could building a wall around oneself and a few select others be anything but disastrous?
Of course, as the heroines of the literature of domestic ambivalence always insist, I love my children. I love my husband. I love my family. I want to believe that with a different standard, a different model, I could truly do both. So I decided to be the least possible parent I could be while still living with myself — I would be a little bit less of a mother so that I could continue to try to be a writer.
I would stop worrying so much about the playdates and birthday parties and parent nights and fund-raisers and lessons and test scores and high-fructose corn syrup. And two or three times a year, I would run away from my family entirely and go to live for a few weeks in places that call themselves writers’ colonies, but which I prefer to think of as islands of secular monasticism. As a mother of small children, I am an anomaly on these islands, which of course makes me enjoy my time there even more. There, I get to be, temporarily, a person whose identity has not been transformed by her role as a mother.
My friend Jason, who is also a parent and a writer, says he would never, ever, go to one of these islands. He says, “I don’t see how I could possibly go somewhere and have two or three weeks of this wonderful idyllic life where I’d think, this is actually what my life should be like, and then to go back to the chaos of my actual life.”
To me, a few weeks is better than none at all. Still, I am conflicted about what I am giving up on the parenting side. I think of my friend who earned her M.F.A. in photography from the Art Institute of Chicago and shortly afterward got married and had babies. She talks to and respects and lives and breathes her children. For the first nine months of her daughter’s life, she wore her everywhere. She tells me she wants to put all her energy into making the best little people she can make, human beings that feel loved and valued and seen. I see her doing it, and I want to be her. Every time I’m around her, I think about how she is a better mother than I am or could ever be.
But when I asked her about her photography, I could hear the pain in her voice. “I’m not doing it,” she said. “I just can’t. I can’t get the space. Even when I have a few hours, it doesn’t work. They’re always with me, even when they’re not.” I think she’s going to say something like “It won’t be like this forever,” something stoic and accepting. But instead, she says in a voice that is pure anguish, “There are moments when I feel like I’m dying a little more every day. I feel like a fish that’s been caught and then abandoned on a dock, lying there, flopping and gasping, each gasp weaker than the last.”
Her experience of sacrifice and loss might seem extreme, but among the women I spoke with, it wasn’t uncommon. What was more unusual were women who were willing to talk about ways in which they accepted that their devotion to art made them, at least at times, less of a parent. One of those was writer and mother Zoe Zolbrod. Like me, she has two children. Like me, she is about to publish a book she struggled to write through the early years of motherhood. We talk about the various challenges of writing, parenting, working a day job, stealing time. “The truth,” she says, “is that I think I’m a better mom when I’m not writing. I’m not writing right now and I’m enjoying the kids more. I’m better at home when I’m writing less.” When she’s engrossed in her work, it’s different. “My eyes glaze over or something when I’m going off into that other place, and my daughter notices it and doesn’t like it. Like we’re sitting on the floor coloring together. And I’m getting in my zoned-out space and she’s always watching to see when I do that. ‘Don’t make your face like that,’ she says. She just watches me really closely, and she’s less satisfied with what I can’t give her. She senses that I’m keeping something to myself. It never feels like it’s enough.”
I don’t want to believe it — that parenting itself makes art hard, that you must always sacrifice one for the other, that there is something inherently selfish and greedy and darkly obsessive in the desire to care as much about the thing you are writing or making as you do about the other humans in your life. What parent would want to believe this?
Perhaps it’s this unwillingness that leads me back to the beginning, back to the classmate who had her baby during her second semester at the Iowa workshop, a woman named Gallaudet Howard.
I reach out to her through a Facebook message, and she is eager to chat. The baby she nursed at Iowa is now a teenager. He has a younger brother. Their lives seem busy, bursting, chaotic, joyful. When I ask her about family and writing, she first echoes what other women have said. “When I’m writing,” she says, “60 percent of my mind is elsewhere, like, 24 hours a day. And the little-spoken fact is — that elsewhere, that place my mind is when I’m writing, is as compelling to me as the people I love. Which is pretty brutal to say out loud. But it’s kind of true. I cannot be present to my family in the way they need and also be fully present to my writing. And that’s okay. Life works that way. But it means that if one part of that equation is really cooking, the other part tends to not get much attention. And then … guilt.”
When I ask her what it was like to be the only person in the workshop with an infant, she responds with equal forthrightness. “I remember coming home from the hospital with my son and thinking, I’m fucked. That space I needed to create just ceased to exist.”
I am nodding as she tells me this, resigning myself to the idea that these two threads will never truly be entwined. Now as ever. Then, she goes on and pulls out the thread, leaving me with something much messier but also more true. “But,” she says. “But, but … Here’s the thing. Despite everything, I have to say that having the kids grew me up in a way nothing else could have. And basically, I needed ten years of mothering before I was like, Whoa, hey, this is what I’m meant to write. And now I’m working on a novel that I love and it feels like the kids gave me that by remaking me.”
“By teaching you about intimate human relationships?”
“Yes, and also by teaching me not to fear pain so much, to understand, experientially, that pain and joy are inextricably linked. That all the priorities we get handed by our culture are basically bullshit. And that we are not in control. That’s one of the major things parenting is teaching me, the balance between letting go in writing and practicing craft, the balance between being ferocious with my imagination and rigorous in my practice. Shape and chaos. Learning to shape chaos.”
“It feels like your husband and children gave you that?”
“Of course,” she says. “Who else?”
Kim Books’s first novel, The Houseguest, was just published. Her forthcoming Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear will be published by Flatiron/Macmillan in 2018.