Not long ago, I watched Lost in Living, a film which aims to explore what happens to the creative impulse when a woman becomes a mother. From the lofty viewpoint afforded me by – to date – six years of motherhood and, um, several hundred hours browsing Mumsnet’s talk boards (delightful as it is, that place could be used to define “time sucker” – ideal for a procrastinating writer), I laughed out loud when two heavily pregnant young women – one artist, one writer – were talking about how life would be once their babies were born. You wait, you just wait, the little voice in my head said. To be fair, both women were expecting changes: the artist was predicting that her output would slow and the writer worried about how she would get her daily three hours writing done. Both had correctly predicted the practical hurdle to their creativity that their baby would pose. And, all credit to them, this was more than I did when in the same situation (I hadn’t then discovered Mumsnet). However what neither had guessed – and, really, how could they? – was how their status as best friends bonded mainly over their artistic lives would change as the tentacles of parenthood grew stronger.
In contrast to these two young women, the film also shows two older women – their families now grown. Again, one is an artist and the other the writer, Merrill Joan Gerber, who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves. It was the interviews with their adult children that I found most illuminating. Of course, there are parallels with any pursuit (many professional jobs, for example) that take both a parent, and that parent’s attention, away from a child for long periods of time. And yet there are things peculiar to the arts that are questions worth asking. How many of us would really like to have our lives depicted in our mother’s books? And how many would not feel some resentment of a mother who prioritised locking herself away to paint pictures that, at least at the time, brought little fame and less money? Can writing, and its artistic equivalents, achieve equilibrium with family life?
Unless, god forbid, our children predecease us, motherhood ends only with our deaths. With the birth of the first baby, that’s it: motherhood is the job there’s no resigning from. At first, it tends to assume a pre-eminent, crushing importance, which squashes everything else. But slowly, slowly, most women want their “me-ness” back. It seeps out in different ways for different people: first post-baby trip to the hairdresser, the pub or a swim; then, perhaps, a return to work or a much loved sports club. Isn’t writing just an extension of that?
Oh, I wanted the trips to the hairdressers and the pub, the swim and, hell, even the return to work. But I was….greedy….I wanted to keep putting dozens of different lives on paper. And writing requires the sort of time, space and, crucially, head space that few other pursuits do. I snap at people who interrupt me when I’m writing and sit on my chair, twitching, waiting for them to leave the room. If what I was doing was regular paid employment, I could justify it more easily (‘Don’t you want your swimming lessons?’ ‘What about the roof over your head?’). I can’t even say that I write because I have to; that it makes me a nicer person and a better parent. Any adult listening to such an explanation would surely see that as pure selfish indulgence and ask why I hadn’t learnt better self-control; a small child simply wouldn’t understand.
However, my daughter is only four and my son six. How can I know how they will respond to what I do(n’t do)? In my gloomier moments, I think, well, what does it matter anyway? Phillip Larkin was right. Whatever path I take, I’ll f*ck them up. That’s the job description, right? And on other days when I’ve had more than five hours’ unbroken sleep, when the sun hits the Acer in my garden at just the right angle to show off its glorious redness and my tea has brewed for precisely the right number of minutes and seconds, there’s nothing that could make my life better. I have my family, I have my writing and, in combining the two, I am treading a path already well laid out by others and, I hope, showing my children a valid way to be happy.