A womb of one’s own : motherhood and the female writer

English literary critic Cyril Connelly once wrote “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”, giving credence to the theory that having young children negatively affects an artists’ ability to create art.

This idea persists, referred to in interviews, articles and even a TV documentary, further validating the claim that children and creative fulfilment do not combine well.  Even as recently as 2016, a New York Times piece reviewing the publication of a new Shirley Jackson biography asked why women writers and artists have always struggled with the ‘ever-pressing conflict between being an artist and being a wife and mother’.

But I would question whether the two really are as incompatible as we’ve been led to believe.

As a mother of two and a writer, it’s certainly been a challenge over the years.  With constant interruptions and demands on your time, as well as exhaustion from sleepless nights, Virginia’s Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own becomes just wishful thinking.

But I’ve begun to realise that the times when I’ve written some of my best work have been in the middle of doing the necessary, every day stuff.  The days I’ve returned from a wander in the park with my children, scurrying to my notebook to pen an idea that won’t leave me alone.  Or musing over a sticking point in my writing whilst preparing a family meal.  Domestic, family life has often coalesced with spurts of creativity.

Having a family has informed my writing, too.  When I carved out tiny pockets of time to write whilst the children were tiny and all-consuming, I felt everything poured out of me, and the writing was richer for it.  This left me wondering if, conversely, motherhood can actually be a positive influence toward a woman’s art, leading me to read up on some of the female writers I had looked up to over the years, to see what their take on it was.

For some, their strong views on motherhood and domesticity versus their art were obvious, such as Sylvia Plath, who not only commented on these issues in her poetry and novel, The Bell Jar, but directly in her journals.

Plath constantly questioned that art and motherhood could be in any way compatible.  Outwardly, a golden girl of the fifties, with her bleached-blonde hair and an astonishing number of dates and boyfriends, she also enjoyed academic, artistic and athletic gifts.  But the crisis of her childhood was her father’s death in 1940.  Reading her journals, it’s clear she was internally driven and divided between competing desires for marriage to the perfect man, and her resolve to become an important poet and novelist.

Plath eventually graduated summa cum laude from Smith and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University.  It was there she met and married English poet Ted Hughes, but continued to ask herself ‘why was I so unmaternal and apart?’ fearing a conflict between maternity and creativity, saying, ‘After I had children, I would feel different, I wouldn’t want to write poems anymore.’  She refers to married women with children feeling ‘brainwashed’.

Despite her worries and fears, Plath turned out to be a loving mother, writing some of her best, most prolific work after the births of her children.  Far from curtailing her creativity, in other words, Plath’s becoming a mother could be seen to have enhanced it.

For other female writers, it was more about their portrayal of women within their work that felt like a representation of their own experiences as wives and mothers, such as the work of short story writer Grace Paley, (1922-2007), a New York writer portraying the everyday nuances of the social, cultural and political ideology going on around her, writing from the point of view of the everyday people (mostly other mothers) she came into contact with.

Beginning to write in the 1950’s, she had fifteen years between her first and second story collections, doing the important business of raising kids, as she famously put it, and becoming a feminist and activist.  Something which strikes me is that this choice, to put family and children first, working on writing in the background, is often seen as a negative; that perhaps the writer or artist isn’t really ‘serious’ enough.  But how much richer her writing is for the experiences she brings to her stories.

In Paley’s second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, eleven of the seventeen stories include women without husbands.  Many centre on Faith Darwin, Paley’s alter ego, a reflection of Paley at different times throughout her life, but I found that Faith also represents the ‘every woman’; the conflicts often faced of unreliable male partners, children, and later, middle age and menopause.

‘I needed to speak in some inventive way about our female and male lives in those years…I was a woman writing at the early moment when small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building in the second wave of the Woman’s Movement’, Paley commented.  In an interview in 1980, she described her subject as ‘the dark lives of women’.

As a big fan of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), I was interested to find that she had some outspoken views on motherhood and creativity.  Researching Alcott’s own life, it’s easy to see that Jo Marsh, surely her greatest creation, is a representative of herself.  Raised in a family with financial difficulties, like Jo, Alcott had to work to help the family.  But it was writing that was always in the background for her, and Little Women is loosely based on her life growing up with her three sisters.

An abolitionist and feminist, I was interested to learn that Alcott, by the early 1870’s, had announced her alliance with American Women’s Suffrage Association, having long pondered issues of women’s creativity, independence and domesticity.  Deciding that marriage and writing were incompatible, she stated, ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe’, a wonderful quote and one of my favourites.  She often felt she was driven by ambitions her society coded as masculine. ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body’.  She never married, nor had any children of her own.

Alcott went on to write novels exploring the tension between the domestic angel in the house and female artistic ambition.  It’s believed that Alcott hadn’t wanted Jo, as her representative in the novel, to marry, but the demand of the publisher and public forced her to create the German professor she goes on to marry.

Despite feeling a hunger and ambition to write, like Jo Marsh, or indeed like Alcott herself, my experience of women’s lives around me of my mother’s generation were tied to their duties in the home.  I wondered whatever happened to the second wave feminist revolution in the English suburbs in which I grew up.

When I discovered The Millstone in my twenties, I was surprised to discover that ardent traditionalist Margaret Drabble (1939-) presented her protagonist Rosamund Stacey as a PHD student who has fallen pregnant in a single sexual encounter with a man.  A particularly subversive subject when it was first published in 1965.

Rosamund can be argued to be a truly free-thinking woman.  She keeps her baby, becomes a single parent, and still completes her PHD.  She is revealed as self-disciplined and courageous.  Though she is brought to admit that she has lost control of her own destiny in the novel by her pregnancy, humbled by her own body, and making connections with the legions of other pregnant women she sees, this forces a reluctant realisation of femaleness upon her.  This is further revealed to her by the startling strength of love she feels for the child.  ‘I was trapped in a human limit for the first time in my life, and I was going to have to learn to live inside it’, she says.

Literary critics commented on Drabble’s novel that for Rosamund,  ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a place to have a baby, leading her to test her strength and resilience, and to ultimately bring clarity. Drabble appeared to find in this novel a female resolution to the feminine conflict between biological and artistic creativity.  Her portrayal of the single mother working on her PHD thesis ultimately results in her working ‘with great concentration and clarity’.

Adrienne Rich, (1929-2012), in her Of Woman Born, stated “Woman’s status as childbearer has been made into a major fact of her life.  Terms like ‘barren’ or ‘childless’ have been used to negate any further identity.  The term ‘nonfather’ does not exist in any realm of social categories.’

Rich goes on to say that ‘Once in a while someone used to ask me, ‘Don’t you ever write poems about your children?’ For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself’.

This echoed my own experience: far from wanting to document my experience as a mother, I wanted to assert myself on the page as a woman in her own right.  A woman getting to grips with her own skin, mind, ideas.

But this idea of conflicting demands can have a strangling effect; the guilt inherent in many women’s psyche of needing to do it all.  I strongly believe there is a social and cultural issue of guilt on women which sometimes leads us to accept unfair treatment or inequality, because deep down, sometimes we fear we actually deserve it.  If we decide to give time to our writing, we might be seen as neglecting our children.  If we neglect our writing whilst we care for our children, as Paley did, we can be seen as not a real artist; not fully committed to our art.

Betty Friedan (1921-2006), said in her Feminine Mystique, ‘I never knew a woman, when I was growing up, who used her mind, played her own part in the world … and had children.’  Luckily, we’ve moved on a lot, but I believe women still often carry the residue of questioning themselves over their individual choices in a way that men often don’t.

Margaret Atwood, (1939-) in her essay ‘The Curse of Eve – or What I Learned in School’, states: ‘Writers, both male and female, have to be selfish just to get the time to write, but women are not trained to be selfish’.  Referring to female writers such as Plath and Anne Sexton, she says extreme versions of the perils of women and creativity are cited by reference to their suicides, but that there are alternatives, citing Alice Munro as one such example, whom manages to successfully combine marriage, motherhood and writing.

My travels in motherhood, and the riches these have brought into my life, far from permanently stunting my creativity or writing ability, have enriched and enabled me to commit to it.  My ideas and confidence may have stuttered and simmered in the background for a while, but they were always there, just waiting for me to pick them back up, and when I did, I made the most of every minute, knowing time was limited.  This, I think, is something that is of benefit to anyone raising a family with limited time resources.

I’m a big believer that when you have all the time and space in the world in which to create, the more you give in to apathy.  Having a limited amount of time in which to work often focusses your attention on getting the words down.  Working to the deadlines of school drop-off and pick-ups in which to write and edit work; scribbling in notebooks as I wait for them in parked cars; observing them as they grow and change: all these have led me, I believe, to being a more dedicated writer.

Far from Connolly’s ‘pram in the hall’ being a deterrent, I have found the challenges and joys of raising children to have given my writing insight, poignancy, and meaning.

Image: Jenna Christina



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