The month of March was marked down in my agenda as the month when I do a good round of editing to Eye, my second and very unfortunate book. I don’t have any courses during this month, not of a lot of other work, so, I thought, what better time to get this over with, right?
Well, the month started well and I got a bunch of work done, but then this whole past week has been a very difficult one, with the smallest child down with a stubborn bug. A lot of sleepless nights (for both of us). A lot of unhealthy snacking because of sleep deprivation (just for the mother). And a lot of lethargy and inability to concentrate (for the writing mother). It’s depressing. I know that other women manage to write in more dire circumstances and I am blessed in millions of ways compared to millions of other people. Yet somehow it doesn’t help.
I have children. To my shock (no, I was not prepared for this at all) after they were born everything else came second. I couldn’t focus on work anymore. My work became them. My physical time is too broken down into millions of small shards, my own space does not exist, and my mind is taken over by small worries of the real world in which my children live, and less by the bigger, deeper facets of the human experience, that I like to write about in books.
Today is the International Women’s Day. An article in The Guardian urges women to make their artistic voices heard, to make up for lost time in a history full of oppression that only now is changing. Will that ever happen? Will we ever have, as women, the opportunity to dedicate ourselves exclusively to our work, like men have always had? Who’s going to raise our children?
Henrik Ibsen, “the father of modern drama” needed not one room of his own, but several (two or three) to walk through. During the hours when he was writing, nobody was allowed to disturb him in his rooms! I don’t even have the bathroom for twenty minutes for my own, without a child crying at the bathroom door.
Kafka, “the greatest writer or the twentieth century”, asserted that “writing and office cannot be reconciled, since writing has its center of gravity in depth, whereas the office is on the surface of life. So it goes up and down, and one is bound to be torn asunder in the process.” Replace office with children here, and it all stands perfectly true for me. And all other women writers and artists.
I don’t see a way out of this. I don’t see how we can release the shackles of our child-rearing worries and duties. I realize that my situation and experience are rather extreme. I live away from any family, and can never expect support from grandparents, aunts etc. when it comes to caring for my children. I also live in a country that considers children the sole problem of their own families, of no consequence to the society in general, so not deserving of much government support. I don’t know. I’m sure the answer is somewhere. Now I’m thinking it’s maybe in the proverbial village that’s supposed to raise a child. Maybe the nuclear family is the problem. Maybe there are many more.
The thing is that my book remains unwritten today. And I blame myself. But tomorrow the child will be all recovered and I’ll be fully rested and my mind will start working again. Then I’ll make a little more progress on the book. And even if I’ll still have to work on the surface of life, at the “office.” Even if I still won’t have any room or any minute of my own.
P.S. When I was writing this article I was looking for a particular quote from Kafka that I was unable to find at the time, but now, after several weeks I discovered where I had saved it on my computer. So, here it is:
You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind– for everyone wants to live as long as he is alive– even the degree of self-revelation and surrender is not enough for writing.
Writing that springs from the surface of existence– when there is no other way and deeper wells have dried up– is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes the surface shake. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.
During this winter vacation I read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” a book that has been on my reading list since forever. Big round of applause for this minuscule achievement! Right. Thanks. Moving on.
I knew I would enjoy the book, but it exceeded my expectations. I agreed with everything Virginia Woolf says to such extent most of the time I felt I could have written this exact same book myself. Of course, it would not have been this book, but one much worse that nobody would have read, so good that things turned out as they did in the end.
There were just a few of her ideas that I that I feel very strongly against.
For example, while I couldn’t agree more than one of the reasons why women were not able to rise to any prominence in the arts was because they had to care of house and children, and had no time of their own, I don’t know if I agree that the ones who managed to write, wrote fiction, of all genres, because it was easier.
This is what Virginia Woolf says in “A Room of One’s Own”:
If a woman wrote, [speaking of the woman of the nineteenth century middle class] she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain — ”women never have an half hour . . . that they can call their own”— she was always interrupted. Still it would be easier to write prose and fiction there than to write poetry or a play. . . . Therefore, when the middle-class Woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels, even though, as seems evident enough, two of the four famous women here named were not by nature novelists. Emily Brontë should have written poetic plays; the overflow of George Eliot’s capacious mind should have spread itself when the creative impulse was spent upon history or biography. They wrote novels, however.
I find very interesting this idea that poetry would require less interruption and more concentration than a novel. I can’t speak about history, biography or “poetic plays,” since I don’t have any experience writing those genres, but I assume they are all difficult and requiring a space bigger (physically and mentally) than a common sitting room. But poetry? Was Virginia Woolf thinking of epic poems or something like that? Because poetry is a short, concentrated form that can be written and edited in short bursts of time and creativity, with the greatest chance of surviving undamaged by frequent interruptions.
I find writing novels a much more complex and gargantuan intellectual task for which interruptions are much more damaging. The writer needs to keep in mind at all times a big number of characters, developments, themes, and needs to maintain an order and structure that can take everything off tracks if one loses their train of thought for a few minutes. What am I not seeing here?
Another idea that Virginia Woolf presents in “A Room of One’s Own” is that Jane Austen wrote better than Charlotte Bronte (despite the fact that Charlotte Bronte had more genius) because Jane Austen didn’t write out of anger.
This is what she says about Jane Austen:
Here was a woman about the year 18oo writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra;
And this is what Virginia Woolf says of Charlotte Bronte and her Jane Eyre:
One might say, I continued, laying the book [Jane Eyre] down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
I have to say that throughout the book Virginia Woolf says it over and over again that women should write like women, not like men. However, I feel that here she is defending masculine writing to the detriment of the writing that comes natural to women. She argues against passion and sentimentality, which are characteristic of the way women often think and live their lives. I don’t think that Jane Eyre loses any of its power because of its enraged author. On the contrary, that’s what makes it such a powerful piece of literature.
Of course, I am biased. I’ve loved Jane Eyre with a passion since the age of twelve, and nothing will dissuade me from worshipping it and its author forever and ever, amen.
It doesn’t feel right to disagree with Virginia Woolf. Feels a bit like a betrayal. But I do tell myself that it is fine to have disagreements and differences of opinion, because literature and genius and feminism are nuanced, complex, subjective matters that cannot be accurately painted in just black and white. And debates are always healthy and only advance an issue, rather than suffocate it. Right? Right. Unless, of course, due to the inherent interruptions of womanhood, they don’t coagulate and instead degenerate into something meaningless. Like this derailed train of a blog post. Sorry. Still braindeadly sleep deprived over here. But soon, soon, I’ll get back on course. Because, you know, I am the happy owner of a basement workspace. No more sitting-room writing for me. Soon.
What is your life’s work? Do you have an answer to this question? I often lose sleep at night thinking about this. It is basically the same question as “when on your death bed, what would you think made your life worth living?” Because it there is no higher reason for these little lives of ours, isn’t it the only option for us to create our own reasons?
I want my writing to carry a message. I know it’s not the most “artistic” of positions, if you believe that art should be only for art’s sake. I guess I don’t anymore. I do think still that art has curative powers no matter what, but what if the artist stood for something? Isn’t that even more laudable? Isn’t that even more helpful? Artists have loud voices that can help societies progress not only on an emotional, mystical, imperceptible level, from the inside out, but on a rational level, by giving words to unspoken realities and to unseen future possibilities.
I see my books as my life’s work and feminism (women’s spirituality in particular) as my message. If I manage to write convincingly about the things I believe in, I will have fulfilled all my dreams and my life’s work would be completed.
And as I write this I suddenly feel a pang of guilt: what about my children? Don’t they matter? Aren’t they my life’s work? But such thoughts are quickly refuted. I can only do so much for my children: I can love them, nurture their bodies and their spirits the best I can, but how they turn out, in the end, is their own work, isn’t it? I can’t take much responsibility for that. Maybe I’d speak differently if they weren’t doing such a great work at being really fine human beings, because that would awake the guilt-ridden mother in me who takes the blame for everything.
Now I should probably be going back to the writing table (couch) and contribute to this life’s work with more than just a blog post. Because that second book is still a good way from finished (editing seems to take longer than the actual writing of the first draft, and for good reason).
I have been thinking about motherhood. Shocker, right? Particularly about feminism and motherhood. About the expectations I had while growing up and after getting married, and about the reality of my life after giving birth to my first child. Are feminism and motherhood antagonistic? Who actually reconciles the two? The all-mighty mothers who choose to breastfeed their babies for years and then maybe even homeschool them and feed them only homemade foods that require sometimes unbelievable amounts of time spent planning and working in the kitchen? Or the mothers who choose to offer formula early and let themselves work for a career outside the home while their children are cared for by professional caregivers and teachers? Which way is without guilt or suffering? Which is without heartbreak at some point in time?
I find myself treading the middle line, where I am at home with my children but I do try to push a sort of career ahead from here, and where I choose to breastfeed for at least the first year of my children’s lives. I do feel guilty of course, wishing that I had chosen my path with a lot more conviction than I actually have.
I loved this article, The Case Against Breast-Feeding, by Hanna Rosen, in the Atlantic very much. And naturally I felt very guilty about it. Because more often than not you will find me in the camp of the “natural mamas” who cook organic foods from scratch and seldom buy plastic toys for their children’s pared down toy boxes. But this side of me struggles with the other side that wants fulfillment outside of the home, that wants to use her degree instead of letting it rot, that wants to achieve something more than just family. I do not feel that my children offer me all the intellectual stimulation or represent the whole purpose of my life. That would be a burden on them, I believe, and a tragedy for me.
Breastfeeding does not allow me any freedoms right now. And I am trying to be OK with that, because it’s only for a year. I wouldn’t do it for longer, though. I do feel conflicted about that. I know other mothers are happy to do it for several more years, and they would probably call me selfish, but after nine months and a year, I want my body back, as scarred, deformed and hormonally messed up as it is at that point. I just want to feel like myself again.
I know some women do not feel any identity crisis when they become mothers but I have, and reconciling all my roles means allowing time and energy to do things that are only for myself. That might take away from my time with my children. It might be selfish. It might just be one of those instances when selfishness is acceptable. Because I don’t want to be a victim. And I won’t allow myself any martyrdom. I hope my children won’t hate me too much, and they will see my point of view when they become parents themselves, when I hope they’ll feel empowered to choose the type of parenting that suits them best and not allow themselves to be crushed by someone else’s expectations.
Let’s wait and see how all this blows up in my face pretty soon. Because that’s how this ingrate parenting job always works, right?
I have been thinking about a recent debate regarding women authors and childbearing. Author Lauren Sandler wrote an article for The Atlantic professing that the secret to a successful writing life for a woman is to have only one child, giving as examples writers like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood and Ellen Willis. If a woman has more than one offspring, then she risks becoming more of a mom than a writer, was the assumption. The article got a lot of attention, but one of the best things that happened was that Zadie Smith replied in the comments section in an effort to disprove the theory, giving herself as proof (she has two children), but also writers like Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison.
Then, let’s not forget, there are those “studies” that somehow come up with results showing that the more intelligent a woman, the less likely she is to desire children. That might explain why humanity finds itself in such an impasse today that is produces crap research like that.
I myself am now a mother of two, so you know on what side of the barricade I wave my flag.
The problem with writing is that you are at home with every good intention of taking care of everything: writing work and house work and parenting. In the brutal reality light you realize that you cannot do everything well, not even well-enough most times. There is a lot of guilt involved, and a lot of doubt, pressure and often too few rewards, because the children will always complain, the house will never be sparkling, the dinner will always need to be made, again and again, and your inner critic will never, for the love of God and country, just shut up.
I do worry these days more than before. I have a novel that’s asking to be finished this year, and I as much as I was hoping to be done with it by now, it’s still in works. The baby, as much as I hoped for a more quiet and sleepy one (thinking that I have paid my dues with the very demanding first of my progeny) still does not sleep more than two hours at night, at almost three months now. So everything is very much uncertain. I cannot hold on to a schedule because my time is not my own right now. And when I am mercifully being offered half hour breaks during the day, I am often too hazy brained to do any proper work, and only succeed in putting on fresh clothes and feeding myself, and maybe picking up a dirty diaper from the living room floor.
So, yes, I confess without pride that sometimes, with teary eyes, I think of the past two or so years when my soon-to-be eight year old has been very independent and has given me plenty of time of my own. And then I think of the future, full of unattainable hopes, and the present full of moments that I tell myself I should be savoring, and I try to make the best of it all. This most days only means managing to not actually hate my life. That’s why I chose this half hour of blessed morning baby nap to write a blog post while still in my messy pajamas, in the middle of a living room that looks like a large, sunny diaper accident. Because one has to prioritize, and there are times when (I know you’ll be surprised to find out) I would rather write something than clean the house. Crazy as it may sound. As long as the children are fed, clothed and emotionally secure (as much as I can take care of that), I can consider my mom job done, and I feel free to do this writing thing. The sun will shine again.
I am working on the print edition of Spell of Blindness and hoping to make that available really soon (as soon as I am pleased with the formatting which, let me tell you, takes a lot of work).
I have also created a nice and long reading list for this year, inspired by my friend CJ of Imperfect Happiness. She is challenging herself to go through a long and comprehensive list of classics. I am not as brave as to embark on such a huge challenge, but I realized that I am attracted to the idea of creating a good list of books that can guide my readings throughout the year. My list includes feminist fiction and non-fiction, and several biographies of inspiring women.
I have started reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which is an essential and fascinating feminist work. Of course, it was written a few years ago, but it revived my worries about this direction of feminism that has motherhood as an antagonist, where the two can hardly be reconciled. Simone de Beauvoir never had children. I have discussed earlier on this blog my observation that many notable women either never had children or neglected the ones they had, and my worry that it was this personal choice that made it possible for them to create their work and become recognized as prominent thinkers and artists.
Personally, I do not believe in adopting a position that represents in any way a fight against nature. I think such a fight is futile, and doesn’t serve any cause or any individual. Sure, having children is a personal choice, but in a discussion of feminism, personal choices are of no consideration. I am sure that throughout my readings this year I will find the feminists that embrace their nature as women who are biologically determined to procreate for the perpetuation of the species. Having children, just like not having them, is similarly a personal choice, but when discussing the species, it appears that this needs to be a majority choice, otherwise, you know, we’ll be extinct soon, which is not a desirable effect, I think we all must agree.
So what I will be looking for in my readings will be the answer to questions like how can a woman be a mother, value motherhood as a part of her identity, and at the same time not deny herself the other opportunities of achievement that the public (work) world offers? How can a woman find accomplishment in both spheres, if so inclined, without making terrible compromises? We seem to struggle with reaching a balance, even today, with all the childcare opportunities and support from the government (in many countries) that mothers have. Is there an immutable conflict, or is there a way to make the private and public spaces easy to juggle by most women who so desire? Is it here where modern parenting (where the mother and the father share the work in the home equally) comes into play to change the old paradigm? Of course, we need to extend the discussion from there to the need of having work in the home and raising children (often women’s work) be valued as just as important in the family partnership as making money outside of the home. But that is yet another difficult discussion.
Copyright 2018 Lori Tiron-Pandit