Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
“We Have Deeper Selves to Write From”

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Traditionally, motherhood has been considered an impediment to artistic creation, the two roles thought to be incompatible. Indeed, the artist hero, in 19th and 20th century European and American fiction, has typically been portrayed as an ivory tower type who avoids all responsibilities, including the domestic, in order to develop "his true self and his consecration as artist" making him the polar opposite of the mother, commonly viewed as a selfless, nurturing figure (Beebe 6). A most eloquent spokesperson for the plight of the writing mother is Tillie Olsen in her book Silences. Echoing Virginia Woolf, she observes that "until very recently almost all distinguished achievement has come from childless women" (31). While she acknowledges that the increasing number of women who combined writing and motherhood in the 1950's and 60's suggests new possibilities for women, she remains fearful, believing that the basic conflict between the two roles still exists for women: Motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible. Children need one now . . . [and their needs have] primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity . . . Work interrupted, deferred, postponed makes blockage, at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. (32-33)

In her essay "Writing and Motherhood," Susan Sulieman traces the history of oppositional discourse on writing and motherhood, the view that a woman can be either a writer or a mother, not both. Referring to Showalter's study of Victorian women writers, she notes that women in that time period were expected to give priority to domestic responsibilities and to postpone writing until their children were grown, not to try to do both at the same time (19). According to psychoanalysts like Helene Deutsch, artistic creation and motherhood come from the same source, so since creativity can be fulfilled in motherhood, mothers have no need for creative expression in art, until their children are grown (Sulieman 19). Reversing the priorities, Nina Auerbach, for example, applauds novelists Austen and Eliot for having avoided motherhood and moved instead into a broader, more intellectual world (Sulieman 20).

Others articulate this conflict. Reviewing her own experience as mother and writer, Adrienne Rich describes the struggle she felt: "But to be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination" (43). That this conflict persists is evidenced by the recent media attention to Sylvia Ann Hewlett?s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, a work that explores the reverse situation--the plight of women who develop their professional lives at the expense of motherhood (St. John A1).

Is this the only way to look at the relationship between motherhood and writing? Must the two inevitably be in conflict? Wondering if there might be an alternative view, Sulieman suggests asking today's writing mothers themselves about what it is like to hold these two roles (20-21). The inquiry is timely, for we now have a larger number of writer-mothers than existed in earlier generations. (For example, Florence Howe observes in the introduction to No More Masks! that "unlike previous generations half of [the poets in Part II of the book] are mothers . . ." (xxxvii) and Erica Jong observes, "Mine may be the first generation in which being a writer and a mother is not utterly impossible" [41]).

This essay describes a study that responds to this call for dialogue with writer-mothers. Following Sulieman's suggestion, I sent questionnaires, in 2000 and 2001, to more than 150 women selected randomly from a list of 226 provided in "Writers Included, Volume 5: Supplement," of American Women Writers. I had determined that these women were mothers by cross checking biographical information about them in Contemporary Authors. In the three-question questionnaire, writers were asked to describe the effects of motherhood on their writing and also to relate other obstacles and support they had experienced in their efforts to become writers. Fifty women responded, forty-five answering my questions directly and five sending me published articles in which they had discussed the issues I was investigating. In contrast to books like A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood, in which twenty-five artist and writer mothers speak freely about their experiences, this study asks a common set of questions of a larger group of writer-mothers and analyzes their responses, looking for themes and patterns.

What follows is a profile of these fifty writer-mothers, describing first the complex mix of factors in their early lives and relationships that both enabled and limited their development as writers, support from childhood families and teachers, gender-related obstacles in establishing their careers, support from husbands, and then culminating in their reports of a deeper, broader creativity that resulted from motherhood, in spite of its demands on their time and energy All comments from the writers that are not otherwise cited have come from the responses on the questionnaires. Short biographies of the writer participants are provided in an appendix.

Themes in the responses of writer-mothers

Supportive ties: Childhood family and education
More than half (twenty-seven) of my respondents report support from their childhood families, most often parents, but on occasion, grandparents, aunts, and others, in their writing development. Indeed, of those who mention childhood families, more than 80% find them supportive in comparison with 18% who did not. For many, parents provided various kinds of enrichment that facilitated their literacy: buying them books and reading aloud to them (Nancy Willard, Helen Vendler), giving literary gifts for special occasions (Mitsuye Yamada received from her father on her "twelfth birthday . . a leather-bound, gilt-edged book of poems by Christina Rossetti" [16]) and taking them to literary events (Sandra Gilbert's father took her to poetry readings when [she] was in high school). Nine writers mention family members who themselves wrote (though not necessarily for publication), or were teachers or artists: Nancy Willard's mother wrote stories and had been a high school English teacher, Helen Vendler's mother and grandmother wrote poetry; Mitsuye Yamada's father was a member of a poetry writing society, Jean Fritz's mother was a former Latin teacher who was "always interested in words"; Linda Ty Casper's mother wrote textbooks and essays for magazines and asked her daughter to do some of them, Nancy Mairs' aunt was an actively writing poet who critiqued her niece's writing; Jane Yolen's father was a journalist, her mother a short story writer (though she had sold only one story), Nessa Rapoport's grandmother wrote a column and grandfather wrote religious commentary.

Particularly striking are recollections of family support of their writing even in their earliest years: Lynne Sharon Schwartz describes her father, in the midst of shaving, stopping to listen to a story she had just written (Reader 8), Sandra Gilbert's mother "would transcribe the verses [she] dictated practically from [her] crib ," Judith Rossner's mother "encouraged [her] from before the time when [she] could write," Ruth Jacobs' aunts "admired [her] childish poems and encouraged [her] though they were uneducated women," Nessa Rapoport's mother cried in response to a story Nessa had written for a writing contest, and this reaction made her daughter decide then and there to become a writer.

More than a third (nineteen) of my respondents also mention teachers who encouraged or supported their writing aspirations; of those who talk about teachers, the vast majority (86%) describe them as encouraging; just a few refer to teachers who were unsupportive. A few cite teachers in the early grades: Rebecca Goldstein describes being accorded the role of "school poet," composer of poetry for special occasions; Naomi Shihab Nye recalls a second grade teacher who made poetry the center of the curriculum. A dozen or so refer explicitly to high school, college and graduate school teachers, either identifying particular teachers (sometimes naming them) or describing particular ways teachers had helped them (giving them advice about writing, getting their work published, getting jobs for them). Interestingly, seven cite supportive male teachers, for example, Rosellen Brown who says her "encouragers" were "teachers, mostly, and mostly male" who took her seriously and "prodded and praised at times when those were, jointly exactly what I needed."

As a group, my respondents were well-educated. All but one of the women in my study for whom information was available had attended college. Seventeen of them graduated from selective single-sex colleges, like Barnard, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Sara Lawrence, Wellesley, and Wheaton. Twelve others attended particularly well-respected liberal arts colleges or prestigious universities.

Obstacles in their paths: the constraints of gender
Yet even with that promising beginning, with the encouragement of family and teachers and a good education, the women in my study also met up with some difficulties as they pursued their writing ambitions. In particular, two thirds (thirty-three) of my respondents, across the age range, describe obstacles to their writing (other than motherhood) that have a gender dimension. Most frequently mentioned, twenty-two women refer to this, are what some feminist scholars call restricted gender "scripts" for women (Bem 81), cultural expectations for them to hold traditional female roles, to be wives and mothers or, if they had to work, elementary school teachers, not professional writers. Again and again, the women talk about obstacles to their writing in these terms: "gender and expectation" (E. M. Broner), "cultural customs" (Lois Lowry), "expectations" (Joanne Greenberg), "women in my culture . . . were discouraged from any form of life except stay-at-home marriage, spinster-daughter-living-under parental roof, or the convent" (Helen Vendler), "contrary to social expectation" (Nancy Mairs), "programmed to marry early" (Judy Blume [204]), "never brought up to think of myself as a professional" (Lynne Schwartz), "just had to be pretty, good, and quiet, nothing was expected" (Rebecca Goldstein). Linda Pastan expresses it well: "The world's expectations (and my own) for the perfect 50's wife kept me from writing for a very long time. I call it 'the perfectly polished floor syndrome.'" In more specific terms, Sandra McPherson recalls, "My parents said I should not be leaving my daughter alone in order to write poems."

A few experienced prejudice directly. Lois Gould recalls rejections from newspapers from Boston to New York: "Every city editor scoffed at the notion of a "girl reporter," despite my lucky name (superman's girlfriend)." For Nancy Willard, "The prejudice against women in the PhD program was so evident that when I sent out my work to the quarterlies, I used my initial and my last name, so that the reader could not tell the gender." In contrast to the supportive male mentors described earlier, a few had teachers who actively discouraged them: Alicia Ostriker recalls, "A distinguished visiting poet who looked at her work and said 'you women poets are very graphic, aren't you . . . with a slight shiver of disgust" (126); and Maxine Kumin tells that after her instructor, a well-known male writer, made disparaging comments about her poems, she "put them aside for several years" (45). Several writers experienced resentment and jealousy from acquaintances and intimates.

Also detrimental, especially for the older women in my study, was the belief, articulated years ago by Virginia Woolf, that the subject matter women had access to, their life experience, was trivial or minor and not worth writing about (qtd. in Olsen, 29), or that their writing was necessarily inferior to that of male writers. Comments like Rosellen Brown's, "I think I?ve suffered a bit, as have most women writing, from the biases that have seen my subjects as domestic, therefore trivial . . ," are made by eight writers in the study.

In addition, eleven writers across the age ranges lament the lack of models, examples of successful women writers: "I didn't know any women role models until I became one myself," says Carolyn Kizer, born in 1925; "No woman I knew in my growing up years, in most of my college years was a professional writer . . . No one ever expected a woman to be a professional writer," states E. M. Broner, born in 1930; Lisa Alther, born in 1944, comments on the "Lack of role models of women writers who also raised healthy, happy children"; Nessa Rapoport (born in 1953) observes that "No mothers had interesting jobs; they all stayed at home," and Joy Harjo, born in 1951, notes that "There weren't really role models" of Indian women writers. Seven comment on the lack of support and networking available to them, or, even worse, resentment or jealousy from acquaintances and intimates or general opposition from what both Ruth Stone and Jean Valentine characterize as "the male world."

Husbands: the unexpected resource
On the other hand, husbands, in my study, prove to be more enabling of their wives' writing than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. In her survey of the female artist novel, Linda Huf observes that men, usually husbands, act as obstacles to women's creativity: "In every woman's kunstlerroman there is at least one man . . . a would-be domestic dictator who through his strength or weakness prevents the artist from working" (9). Yet, the women in my study for the most part portray their husbands differently, as helpmeets and supporters. Almost half (twenty-three) of my fifty respondents refer to their husbands as sources of support for their writing. Only two women in my study describe their husbands as definite obstacles, calling them jealous, competitive, or indifferent. Two others who bring up difficulties related to their husbands still characterize them as helpful in some respects. The twenty-three who mention their husbands as sources of support, refer to them with warmth, using sentiments like the following: "gave me the encouragement and support I so badly needed" (Linda Pastan), "an immensely supportive husband" (Rosellen Brown), "The best and most consistent encouragement I got was and is from my husband" (Joanne Greenberg); "It was my husband who cheered me on when the critics savaged my early plays" (Tina Howe).

In addition, the husbands of eleven women gave specific kinds of help. Six husbands helped with the actual writing, acting as readers and critics: "he literally for more than a decade read every word I wrote" (Adrienne Kennedy); "[he] was "first reader" of every word I wrote" (Sandra Gilbert); "my first reader, he always says the same thing: "it's wonderful, I can't wait to read more." He's my first encourager" (Nancy Mairs). A few spouses gave other kinds of career help, one encouraging his wife to take classes (Adrienne Kennedy) and another staying with the kids so she could attend a writing conference (Mary Jane Auch). Lois Gould's husband urged her to submit essays to New York Times, and Natalie Babbitt's husband wrote a story for her to illustrate to get her started in her career in children's literature. Two husbands provided extra financial support and/or childcare to enable their wives' writing: "I have a husband who took several jobs so I could spend time writing, not making money" (Patricia MacLachlan); "[my husband] does most of the cooking, shopping which allows me more time to write" (Maggie Stern). Perhaps the fact that the husbands of eight of my participants were themselves artists or writers enabled them to be supportive of their writing wives. As Mary Jane Auch puts it, "A graphic artist himself, [my husband] understood my need to pursue what often looked like a hopeless career choice."

Motherhood: challenge and inspiration
Motherhood, the factor that Olsen, Woolf and others consider the greatest obstacle to women's productivity as artists, turns out to have surprising benefits, for my respondents, which offset its challenges. In fact, of the forty-eight women in my study who describe the impact of motherhood on their writing, forty-three (90%) find that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks or that benefits and drawbacks are about even; only five women (10%) mention more drawbacks than benefits. This is not to say that difficulties do not exist. Indeed, two thirds (thirty-two) of the women in my study refer to one or more of the obstacle cited by Olsen.

What Olsen calls "foreground silences" (10) and other kinds of delays are described by some of my participants. Two women did not start till their mid-fifties when their children were grown and married (Theodora Kroeber, as reported by her daughter, Ursula Leguin and Ruth Jacobs); one stopped writing entirely after marrying and having children for about a dozen years and another for eight years (Edith Konecky, Nancy Mairs). Two did not begin serious writing until their children were in school or old enough to be cared for by sitters (Gloria Goldreich, Tina Howe). Six observe that motherhood slowed them down or interrupted their writing life.

Five speak of lack of time to write: "time is a casualty, an excruciating problem. It takes time to do serious work" (Nessa Rapoport) or of writing shorter works because of time constraints (Joy Harjo, Maxine Kumin). They describe squeezing writing into small, odd time periods: at night instead of in her preferred time of morning (Ursula LeGuin), at seven to nine in the morning when the kids were small (Joanne Greenberg), when the children were in school, not on weekends or in the summer (Natalie Babbitt), or in evenings or weekends because of need to maintain a job as well as to care for the child (Valerie Martin).

The "distraction" and "interruption" that characterize mothering, according to Olsen (19), are referred to by ten of my respondents: "[children] inevitably distracted me and took time" (Diane Johnson); "to have to stop in the middle of a paragraph to pick up a child from school is a major deterrent" (Maggie Stern) and "daily crises" (Sandra McPherson).

Some writers report experiencing physical or emotional strain from trying to combine the two roles. In Anne Tyler's words, "I felt drained; too much care and feeling were being drawn out of me" (7). For Lynne Schwartz, "the particular imaginative energy that goes to writing comes from the same place that rearing children comes from. . . . it was always a tremendous struggle." And, Alicia Ostriker comments, "Your time, energy, body, spirit and freedom are drained" (130). Other describe feeling frustrated and guilty: "I felt pulled apart" (Jean Valentine); "At times I was desperate and frustrated" (Rebecca Goldstein); and "For years I fluctuated between guilt toward my daughter when I was writing and resentment when I couldn't be writing" (Lisa Alther).

A few comment on financial strain: having to work overtime (Helen Vendler), "the pressure to make money [leading] to my doing a lot of writing that I would not have otherwise chosen to do" (Barbara Ehrenreich), "teaching four sections of freshman composition per semester" to support her daughter (ValerieMartin), and working at odd jobs to provide for her children (Joy Harjo). However, in spite of the above challenges, almost all of the women (forty-five of the fifty women who answered the question) report at least one positive effect of motherhood, in content, focus or enrichment, on their writing.

In contrast to Olsen's observation that not many women writers in recent times (1950's and 1960's) "have directly used the material open to them out of motherhood as central source for their work" (32), half of the women in my study (twenty-five) report that motherhood and children are an important source of content in their work: [motherhood] "helped me define the kind of writing I wanted to do," (Jean Fritz), "provided me with subject matter" (Doris Grumbach), and "enriched [my writing] with subject matter" (Linda Pastan). "I drew on my own family experience as a resource" (Lois Lowry), and "I wrote about [my children's] lives," says Vanessa Ochs. For Barbara Ehrenreich, children were "a constant source of topics," and for Maxine Kumin "a sourcebook for my work."

A few offer more detailed explanations. For Valerie Martin, watching children grow up "allowed [her] to observe first-hand the enormous variety of human response to ordinary life, and this is the study of the writer." Even more emphatically, Tina Howe says, "my plays are a response to my gender. I write about wives and mothers and daughters and sisters. If I didn't have a family, I wouldn't have a body of work." And Lynne Schwartz comments . . ."I think my writing was immensely enriched by having children. Being a mother and family life are such a central part of a lot of what I've written."

Some speak in specific terms of their children's influence on particular features of their writing. For example, "I listen to their use of language, and how they describe things, and that helps to shape the story and my characters," says children?s writer Maggie Stern; "My daughter's remarks inspired titles, always a difficulty with me," observes Linda Ty-Casper. Their children's lives, for some, inspired events in their books. "Even now I am working on a book which began with an observation by one of them," says Patricia MacLachlan, a children's writer. And "Occasionally, an incident with my children inspired a scene in one of my books" (Mary Jane Auch, children?s writer). Their children, for a few, appeared as or influenced the development of characters in their books: [they] found themselves as characters in my books (Patricia MacLachlan); ""My Body Remembers Singing" is claimed by both to be about them, exclusively" (Linda Ty-Casper); "She's me and not me," [her daughter] Adrienne said of one protagonist, "partly me and partly you" (Valerie Martin).

Six attribute particular works to the experience of motherhood: "poems about [my daughter] and myself in The Spaces Between Birds" (Sandra McPherson); "Dealing with your Descendants," a chapter in a longer work (Harriet Jacobs); "My Body Remembers Singing" (Linda Ty-Casper); the novels, Four Days and Mothers (Gloria Goldreich); "a book about being a working mother when this juggling act was still a rarity" (Lois Gould) and "three of the first essays I wrote" (Nancy Mairs).

And a few attribute choice of genre to motherhood: short, light verse for Maxine Kumin because "A small poem is infinitely portable. The strictures of rhyme and meter could be sorted through in my head while doing the daily chores . . ."; conversely, novels for Ursula Le Guin because "a novel has its own momentum, and you can put it away until tomorrow without losing it" ("Ursula" 247). For Helen Vendler, a college professor, the need to earn extra money to support her son stimulated her to take on "all the reviewing [she] could get," and as a result she developed a reputation as a critic.

Some observe that motherhood made them better organized and focused: "It focused me, made time more valuable, and thus, more at my service" (Anne Bernays); "My time for writing was so precious; I never wasted a minute. There was not time for 'writer's block'" (Rebecca Goldstein). "What I had to do when my three children--who came along at more or less two-year intervals--were small was to learn to manage my time and prioritize" (Jane Yolen); and "being a mother taught me a good deal about managing my time" (Nancy Willard).

Particularly noteworthy, twenty-four women claim that motherhood enhanced their personal, emotional development, which in turn, they believe, benefited their creativity and writing. They describe their growth, using various kinds of imagery. Several speak of being broadened and expanded: motherhood "broadened my perspective" (Judith Rossner); "provided me with understanding of minds other than my own and a wider horizon than I would otherwise have seen" (Doris Grumbach); "enlarged my understanding of life, human history, etc." (Diane Johnson).

Many talk of becoming deeper. As Rebecca Goldstein puts it, "the feminine aspect of life (motherhood) opened me to a different, deeper creativity. I attended to the emotional and the unconscious--things you needed to be a novelist." Nessa Rapoport observes, "Having children deepened me as a human being; being a mother made me more human, gave me more to say, was humbling. I would have been a lesser writer and person without them." For Gloria Goldreich, "motherhood so deepened me on every level that it penetrated everything I wrote thereafter." Naomi Shihab Nye, recalling Anne Tyler, speaks of having "deeper selves to write from" as a result of motherhood.

Some tell of being enriched: "[my daughter] provided me with the heights of delight and depths of frustration, the experience of which has enriched my understanding of human nature and, no doubt, spilled over into my writing" (Lisa Alther); "[motherhood] also enriched my life to the point that I had something to say" (Katherine Paterson); "it enriched [my work] with both subject matter and emotional resonance" (Linda Pastan). Two refer to nourishment: "It fed me as a human being and so as a writer" (Jean Valentine); it "fed my work and connected me with parts of my own experience that might never [have] been awakened if I had not had a child" (Nancy Willard).

A few describe other kinds of benefits. Kim Chernin observes, "The birth itself opened a creative vein that hasn't closed since." Helen Vendler reports, My emotional life has contributed, I am sure, to my capacity as a reader of poetry; and motherhood has been a crucial(and rewarding) component of that emotional life. It also develops irony & humor, useful qualities in a writer and teacher." And Sandra Gilbert reports being "energized by maternity" to write more and more "ambitiously."

As an extra boon, for about a dozen writers, their children contributed to or shared in their mothers' writing process. Some children took an interest in their mothers' writing; for instance, Jean Fritz's daughter "shared my interest and involvement with each book, and Adrienne Kennedy's children "were such engaging companions and my writing interested them." A few children were readers and critics of their mothers' work: "my children read and commented on my work," (Patricia MacLachlan); "[they are] useful in-house critics. . often the first people I'll show a draft to (Barbara Ehrenreich); [I now have] two terrific critics (Rosellen Brown); and "I test my stories on my kids" (Maggie Stern). Some children acted as supporters: "it was my children who urged me to write the next one because they had such a blast sitting in the theater, waiting for the lights to go down" (Tina Howe), and "my children were the ones who were the most encouraging of my writing" (Rebecca Goldstein).

And so, putting it all together, the experience of contemporary writer-mothers has been complex: a good deal of encouragement from family and teachers in their early years, frequent discouragement from the general culture as they moved to adulthood, support and concrete help from spouses, and benefits, as well as challenges, from motherhood, both in content and in emotional depth, and the bonus of offspring who contribute to characterization and plot and act as readers and supporters.

In contrast to Olsen's pessimistic portrayal of decreased accomplishment for writer-mothers, the women in my survey give a more optimistic account, indicating that motherhood has enhanced, if not the quantity of their writing, its quality. While admitting its challenges in time and energy, they are even more eloquent about its benefits, for their development and for the writing itself. My respondents appear to have found the way, called for by Adrienne Rich, of "[uniting] the energy of creation and the energy of relation" (43). Given the many women who report on using motherhood as a source of their content, and the greater number of mother-writers in this generation, we should also be seeing in literature more numerous and richer pictures of mothering, children and family life than before.

Finally, in contrast to the ivory-tower male artist described by Beebe, my respondents, in describing motherhood's enhancement for writing, seem to represent a different model of artist, one in which writing comes from and is nourished by relationships and community, in which a rich and deep emotional life facilitates, rather than impedes, the creation of art. In her essay on female kunstlerromane by women writers, Rachel Du Plessis defines such a new form of creative accomplishment: one in which the fictional art work "has its source in human ties and its end in human change. can only be made with an immersion in personal vulnerability" (103) And Ursula LeGuinn observes, "To me, an art grows organically out of its society at its best, so you don't cut the connection . . . An artist who is working in grand isolation doesn't know anything about [relationships], is aloof from it, and this may impoverish the novel" ("Ursula" 245, 249). The comments of the women in my study provide abundant evidence of these kinds of connections, with parents, husbands and children, and the enrichment they yield both for their own development and for their creative work.

Copyright held by the author. First published in Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Vol 4.2, pp. 19 - 36, and reprinted here with their permission.

Lois Rubin is Associate Professor of English at Penn State, New Kensington Campus where she teaches composition and multi-cultural and women’s literature. She publishes articles about composition research and pedagogy and contemporary Jewish women writers.

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