I believe that books come into our lives at the exact right time, and The Baby on the Fire Escape by Julie Philips is proof of that. How fitting that I just finished reading one of the best books on creativity, motherhood, and identity just as the door is cracking open to show me what the future looks like after five years of being a stay-at-home mom and struggling writer. R is headed to preschool on Tuesday. It’s just one day per week, a mere three hours, but the symbolism of it staggers me. The infant and toddler years are filled with so much joy and wonder, but, as Louise Erdich explains, “In the face of mother love, one’s fat ambitions, desperations, private icons, and urges fall away into a dreamlike before that haunts and forces itself into the present with tough persistence.” I still tried to claw out writing time, but I didn’t want to admit that my brain had changed.
The women in this book explain what I’ve been struggling to define the last few years more eloquently than I ever could. I truly connected with the author when she said, “Early motherhood asked more of me emotionally than any experience ever has, sometimes insisting on my capacity for bliss and tenderness, sometimes leaving me despairing at my limitations. Motherhood challenged me and revealed me to myself; in that sense it was like writing, only more so, but it also, for long stretches, made my work nearly impossible I felt more myself in one way, lost to myself in another. To regain my footing, I had to learn about this new place; I had to undergo a psychic transformation.”
Moving back to the PNW and restructuring our lives has been hugely beneficial to my creative side. One of the points in this book is that the second thing a creative mother must have (along with time) is self. “She requires boundaries and the conviction that she has the right to make her art. She needs not to give away too many pieces of her being.” This, however, is almost laughable with very young children. The mother and child are one and the same for the longest, shortest time. “One day as I am holding baby and feeding her,” Louise Erdich writes, “I realize that this is exactly the state of mind and heart that so many male writers from Thomas Mann to James Joyce describe with yearning—the mystery of an epiphany, the sense of oceanic oneness, the great YES, the wholeness. There is also the sense of a self-merged and at least temporarily erased—it is deathlike…Perhaps we owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand that they wanted to be women nursing babies.”
I am under no illusion that I should be comparing myself to such incredible artists. The biggest factor I struggle with, as Clarie Dederer explains, is that “Creative work is a series of small selfishness. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family…The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one… The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.” I have trouble giving myself this permission, especially because it is the selflessness of my husband and family members picking up the slack that allows me to do it.
My New Years goal this year is to be deliberate in where I place my energies and thrive in a space where motherhood and creativity converge. It will be a place of constant interruption, but also deep reflection. For now, it might only be three hours per week, but this is just one chapter in a long life story. My kids are only little once.
Taylor (and Conor, W,& R)