Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Setting the Stage: A Review of Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts

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Edited by Bee Lavender and Maia Rossini (Soft Skull Press 2004; $14.95)

Although I had always considered myself a creative person, it was motherhood that gave me focus and helped me to find my voice. After emerging from the haze that is early motherhood--sleepless nights, dirty diapers, and the like--I have found myself increasingly interested in the creative process, and specifically how busy mamas like myself find the time to do what they do. Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts provides an answer to this question and more.
In the introduction, the editors write, "We do not accept the lie that having children kills creativity. In fact, we assert that people who are raising kids have to be more creative to find enough time to do their work, to figure out ways to integrate children into their art, to strike that balance between the needs of their families and the requirements of the work." This sentiment sums up the importance of this collection. New mamas who are struggling with the day-to-day immenseness of raising children can read this book and know that, although it may not seem like it at first, there are many ways to be both a mother and an artist. Lavender and Rossini set the stage for a serious performance by an intriguing cast of mother artists.

I was happy to see some familiar names, as well as unfamiliar ones, in the table of contents. The editors clearly tried to include a variety of artists. Contributors range from cartoonists to flamenco dancers, movie critics to screen writers, rock stars to woodworkers. An interesting facet of this collection of personal essays is that many of the contributors are not writers by trade. Each woman rose to the challenge of telling her story, and many used drawings, photographs, and other artwork to supplement their narratives.

As a zinester myself, I was immediately drawn to Ayun Halliday's essay "The East Village Inky," an excerpt from her book The Big Rumpus on how she started her award-winning zine. Unable to work in theater while caring for her infant daughter, the writer/cartoonist was inspired to start "The East Village Inky" and detail her family's daily existence. Now that Halliday is the author of three books, I had to laugh when I read that to promote "The East Village Inky," she boldly invited everyone she knew from the playground to a party on the roof of her building and then passed out her zine saying, "Oh, it's just something for you to read on the toilet." Halliday uses a variety of metaphors to describe her feelings about her zine, which she confesses she often calls a magazine: "Though I sometimes feel like I'm building a sports car out of an empty refrigerator box, making vroom vroom noises under my breath as I daydream about driving it down to Mexico by referring to my outpourings as a magazine, not a zine, I can be both self-important and nonchalant." Her essay rolls along at a good speed, keeping the reader entertained as she provides us with a behind-the-scenes look at zine-building and artistic living with a baby in tow. The sample zine pages with their tiny scrawl and images of the author and her half-naked, scissor-toting offspring are the perfect accompaniment to the lively prose.

Cartoonist and performance artist Heather Cushman-Dowdee's essay "Collaboration" makes the reader want to get a studio, get some kids, and make a big mess. Like Halliday's piece, Cushman-Dowdee's essay includes illustrations and gives the reader a feel for her radical style through her alter ego, Hathor the Cowgoddess. Cushman-Dowdee writes about being a graduate student with her daughter by her side, how her doppelganger was born, and how her daughter created her own projects alongside her in the studio. She writes, "[My daughter] rarely had anyone tell her what to draw. No one corrected or urged or enhanced her drawings. She was on her own to do what she wanted--to paint, explore, mess up, and destroy as much or as little as she wanted." Cushman-Dowdee creates a vivid setting for her inspiring story with detailed descriptions of her studio, the materials she and her daughter used, and their end products.

Visual artist Lisa Peet's essay "The Rudest Muse" drew me in from the title alone. She details the struggle to maintain her identity as an artist while raising a very critical child. She writes, "I kept what I did to myself, though. Or rather, since no one else in my life took the same degree of pleasure from putting me under the microscope, I found myself keeping my freelance work out of my son's orbit." I especially liked reading about the artistic struggle from a veteran mother. Peet's story develops over a 16-year period, and we see both the author and her son develop into complex characters. Peet takes us through her many incarnations--a pot-smoking art student, an overwhelmed new mother, a birthday cake-baking housewife, a single mom, a "trained monkey," and, finally, an artist. We see her son go from nursling to tyrant to trusted advisor. Although she is presented as primarily a visual artist, Peet is also a skilled writer, and her essay is a well-written, funny, and touching look at the ways our children, our art, and our selves grow over the years.

Other highlights of the book include historical fictionist J. Anderson Coats's "The Means of Production," which is a fascinating process piece. Using the library as her setting, Coats shows us how bringing her son with her to do research turns writing into a less solitary act. I definitely could identify with the way her son viewed the computer as his rival. By finding ways to include her son, Coats hoped that she would instill in him a love of writing.

Maia Rossini's interview with Corin Tucker, the lead singer of the all-female punk band Sleater-Kinney ("Singing Things You Can't Speak") is a riveting look at the challenges of being a rock star and a mother to a five-pound preemie. The interview format allows Tucker's voice to come through, and as a reader and fan of the band, I was thrilled to hear the story behind "One Beat," one of my favorite albums.

Activist and photographer Victoria Law's innovative photo essay "Two Ways of Seeing" includes her and her toddler daughter's different perspectives of the same protest, and provides a nice break from the text. I had never thought about what my three-year-old son might photograph if given the opportunity and I would not have thought of it as art until seeing Law's contribution. I'm not ready to hand over my digital camera, but I definitely have started eying the disposable cameras at the pharmacy.

There are a few instances in the collection where quality seems to take a back seat to diversity, chapters that seem to stray from the motherhood/art balancing act otherwise stringing the stories together. Katie Kaput's essay "A Fire Well Kept" portrays an interesting view of motherhood as experienced by a transsexual dyke, but does not delve very deeply into the artistic struggle. I sensed that she had a more compelling story to tell than this one. Likewise, Lli Wilburn's illustrated travel diary ("2567 Miles") does not involve the reader in the artist's life as a mother or give any insight into her creative struggle. The pictures of her and her daughter on the road are nice enough, but lack context; they would have been better served by an accompanying essay.

Screenwriter Muffy Bolding's piece, "Talking Back to My Elders," in which she responds to several "experts," some with a "fuck you," was hilarious and ended the book on a perfect high note.

Mamaphonic's overall performance deserves a standing ovation. The editors craftily show that motherhood is not the end of creativity, but the beginning. There are sections of this compilation that I will no doubt read again and again--to cure my writer's block, quell my loneliness, or simply entertain myself. I imagine that some of the contributions that don't speak loudly to me now may take on more volume as my career evolves and my children grow. In the meantime, Mamaphonic is a welcome addition to my "must have" reading list for creative new mamas.


Stacey Greenberg , the creator of the zine Fertile Ground: For People who Dig Parenting, lives in Memphis with her husband and two sons. Her writing has appeared in Hip Mama, Clamor, and on Mothering.com. She writes a monthly column for Philosophical Mother and a daily blog.


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