Cyril Connolly, editor of the literary magazine Horizon, said in his book Enemies of Promise in 1938 that: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ It’s a statement that’s been oft-quoted ever since. But do children diminish creativity or enhance it?
It was only in 2014 that the proportion of women with children in the workforce was more or less the same as women without children, and this doesn’t even account for part-time roles where mothers dominate. And women still, to this day, do the vast majority of childcare. So one wonders whether, in 1938, when women were even less equal, Connolly was really up to his neck in nappies, dinners and parents’ evenings.
But it’s a point echoed by many women writers too. Doris Lessing, who left two of her children in what is now Zimbabwe to become a communist activist and then a literary author, said: “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” And Rachel Cusk, in her book A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, reflected on the impact of motherhood on her own creativity and freedom by saying:
“…it is when the baby sleeps that I liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life. These liaisons, though always thrilling, are often frantic. I dash about the house unable to decide what to do: to read, to work, to telephone my friends.”
Cusk resolved her creative dilemma by writing full time while her husband looked after the children. Doris Lessing, after moving to London with her third child Peter, wrote many books while being a single mum. There is always a way; something echoed by Olivia Browne, a visual artist based in Wivenhoe, Essex, who said: “Ultimately, you will make time for something if you have the drive to do it.”
But perhaps creative women find it easier to adjust to motherhood by throwing off convention. Lara Feigel, who wrote a book called Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing, speculated that perhaps Lessing was able to bring up her third child because, as a single mother with incredible creative productivity, she lived outside of conventional domestic relationships. She also lived in London at the time, which was, and is still, home and refuge to free women.
Until very recently, female writers and artists lived beyond convention to satisfy their creative needs, often opting to not have children at all. In recent years, that has changed, and more women combine motherhood and creative passions. But still, normativity intrudes. Cusk, who was simply reflecting honestly on the competing demands between herself as a writer and her children, was roundly attacked by other mothers and commentators. So perhaps it is the imposition of social norms – the notion of stable domesticity, putting the child first, being the perfect mother, having the accoutrements of middle-class success – that is tying creative women in chains.
Lelia Ferro, a writer and poet, reflected in the imposition of social norms for her own creative development:
“My ex-husband and my family both think I should go back to work and not do my creative writing PhD. Despite this, and the financial hardship, I carry on regardless.”
No-one is asking women not to work anymore – but they are asking them to not aspire to greatness.
My own creative journey reflects all of the constraints of motherhood. Pre-child I was an ethnographer digging about in semi-criminal and subcultural worlds. Post-child I no longer had the time for that level of immersion, and I reflected more on the nature of personal risk. A desire to think and write remained. But with the demands of motherhood – cooking, washing, playing, the school run, class meetings, extra-curricular clubs, the endless, endless driving and the grave responsibility for emotional care – deep and sustained insight eludes.
The unsatisfying resolution lies in external childcare, but it is expensive and often patchy. What’s the solution? Ferro argues that we need a change of thinking:
“I went to an Essex women’s history festival recently, and I was apologising for being late due to childcare – I was one of the speakers hosting a creative writing workshop. A woman pointed behind her to a girl who was about nine, sat on a chair with an iPad. She said, “that’s my childcare.” I think that sometimes children have to put up with your schedule and be involved where possible. The more of us that do it, the more acceptable it will be.”
Grumbling about the pram in the hallway is not the whole story, however. There is a more complex tale to tell about how children inspire creativity.
My own experience is that children can offer much-needed insight into what I’d broadly describe as the human condition, in that only by observing people from their first moments can you really understand them. Children also puncture hubris and inflated egos with a high-precision laser (“I bet only one person has read your book, mum,” mine said recently).
They don’t give you time to worry about perfection, completion, impact and all those other anxieties that are the precursor to procrastination and professional paranoia, because you’ll be too busy playing footie with them, pushing them on the swings or making the tea. And much like needing to make money from words, the sheer discipline of making every minute count is a positive pressure.
My writing practice certainly changed when my daughter arrived. I learned to compartmentalise my thinking so that I could create chunks of writing that could be produced in a few hours, to be loosely laced together at a later stage. I evolved out of being an academic and the model of ten-year research agendas to being a journalist. And though I write books, they are like collections of thoughts rather than grand theories.
This fragmentation of working practice that comes with motherhood is echoed by Browne. “My practice is different now,” she says, “as I have a studio at home and my children are getting older. Before the studio, I would work at the kitchen counter, often breaking to get meals done. I often wonder if the fragmented style of my collages at the time were a reflection of my working methods?”
But maybe how we think about creativity is wrong. When we think about the creative process, we imagine it as one of deep vocational immersion – the path of the intellectual pushing at boundaries and making strides into the unknown. Then we envisage a great tome or work of art, with multiple book launches or opening nights, followed swiftly by notoriety and fame. A person surrounded by admirers won through endless late nights at parties and pubs.
Of course, this is an unrealistic picture anyway. Writing, for example, is an ebb and flow, and there is so much writing out there that success is only ever provisional. But also, not surprisingly, the person in that fantasy picture is more likely to be an unencumbered man, not a woman with children. And networking is a huge challenge, as Ferro observed:
“A lot of my work is about collaboration and contacts, and it is not always easy to get to book launches, festivals or workshops. Next month I have an artist’s residency in Southend and, as a single parent, I am drafting in a lot of help to cover me.”
Can we think about creativity differently when children are in the picture – a career that will perhaps be longer, more fragmented and meandering, and more collaborative? Does this more mediated picture offer a more productive and less fraught route for everyone’s creative career? Perhaps our problem is more how we think about artistic practice. It is almost as if we have absorbed wholesale the notion of a solitary man against the mediocre world notion of creativity depicted in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.
Because creativity is also a social function. Both Browne and Ferro reflected most extensively on how their creative practice impacted their own children.
“Less time with children,” says Browne, “is not necessarily bad parenting. I support the idea of ‘healthy neglect’ (Haim Ginott) and how it can spark creativity in kids. My daughters have, on occasion, come to sit alongside me while I work, making their own collages.”
Ferro also revealed the impact of her poetry on her own daughter. “I want to show my daughter the possibilities, so she feels like she has permission to follow her dreams,” she says. “She is getting into poetry at school, and the fact that mummy does poetry is something normal to her. I hope to show her the value of creativity above consumerism – although she will probably grow up wishing we were rich and resenting the fact we don’t have expensive holidays!”
The way that mothers automatically think about the impact of their work on their children is telling and points to a very different way of ‘doing art’. Like Browne and Ferro, I believe that once the very early years have passed, being a role model for creative ambition can only help young children imagine new horizons for themselves.
Rather than pitting women against men, and women and men against children as we pursue our artistic drive, perhaps what we need is a radical change in perspective and practices. And this way of thinking redefines creativity, not as a solo endeavour, but as a social practice that everyone can benefit from. Let’s not fret about the pram in the hallway. How about a small chair in the auditorium instead?