On the bookshelf
“The baby on the fire escape: creativity, motherhood and the problem of the baby-mind”
By Julie Phillips
Norton: 320 pages, $28
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Juggling motherhood and creative work can make a person feel both iconoclastic and failed. “The Baby on the Fire Escape”, Julie Phillips’ formidable group biography and exploration of what she identifies as a “baby-mind problem”, focuses on mid-twentieth-century women , when “motherhood has gone from an accident to having to be a choice.
Phillips deftly moves through key moments in the lives of his subjects – Alice Neel, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Louise Bourgeois, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Smart, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and many others – and asks them (and us) : how do you give time, and even less to creativity, in the face of parenthood? Ostensibly liberated, women artists aspire to make room for the imaginary and the domestic. The fact that attempting to do both still feels like driving without a map speaks to how slow and difficult social change is.
Reading these women of the last century brought me back to my own experience. Even before the pandemic, I spent my days as the primary caregiver for my two children, then wrote and edited late at night. This “balance” of work, the women told me in no uncertain terms, simply could not be done. Some shamed me for what they saw as putting my intellect on the shelf instead of putting my kids in daycare. Their warnings resonate with Phillips’ idea that, for some, writing in motherhood can feel as terrifying as leaving a baby in an emergency exit.
I just wanted to see if it could be done, and a surefire way to make something possible is to tell someone it can’t. After a long career in book publishing, being independent at the pinnacle of full-time parenthood was a creative life experience – finding a rhythm while doing what mattered most to me. At the time of the first COVID-19 lockdown, I was fully prepared for what most parents blindsided. I had — and this is also Phillips’ theme — another notion of time.
The subject is also personal for the biographer. Phillips’ concrete plan “to explore the blank spot on the map where mothering and creativity converge” stems from her inability “to convey the full power of my own life as a mother.” For reasons beyond simple parenting fatigue, it is difficult to distill the experience of mothers engaged in creative work.
Fortunately, Phillips is an expert distiller. Instead of developing comprehensive portraits of artists and writers, she works to connect themes and ideas. She knows when to tread lightly and keep the explanatory writing tight; she pulls out examples that illustrate her point, leaving the reader eager to dig deeper into the novels and catalogs on their own. In her chapter on Ursula K. Le Guin, Phillips captures critical moments that illuminate the fantasy writer’s determination to write while maintaining a domestic life with deep ties to her parents.
As Le Guin struggled to be published, she came to discover that writing fantasy or science fiction offered her the freedom to sublimate her commitment to social issues, as well as the higher education she had given up for marriage. . Motherhood, meanwhile, “allowed her to take imaginative risks… giving her a place to come back to.” Phillips also follows closely how Le Guin’s family, privilege and imagination helped her get and then bounce back from an abortion in her senior year of college. For 40 years, his secret fueled his desire to devote equal energy to work and family. This quick chapter has 27 pages.
In an equally tense final chapter about Angela Carter, Phillips addresses the times when the fierce tension between Carter’s desire for independence and love for her family fuels her brilliant fiction. Of her latest novel, ‘Wise Children’, Phillips notes, “Carework alters time, connecting humans to the past and future, tying us to the present, emphasizing simultaneity, allowing moments of individuality, engaging us in nostalgia and the future.”
The biographer concludes by quoting Carter: “In truth, these glorious pauses sometimes occur in the discordant but complementary accounts of our lives and if you choose to stop the story there, at such a pause, and refuse to go any further , then you can call it a happy ending.
Responding to the fallacy that creative life must be separated from motherhood, Phillips asks: “What is the subjective experience of being a mother, and why, despite a growing body of writing on the phenomenology of mothering, it seems it, at a deeper level? level, so unnarrative, undramatic, everywhere in practice, but in theory nowhere? Why should motherhood be “all description and no story”?
Phillips aims to correct this in part by distilling experience as experience. “It’s holding on and letting go,” as she puts it. “It’s art and healing happening all at once, for a moment, a day, a lifetime.” And that’s leading to new ways of thinking about careers — about the rush to achieve before choosing to become a parent. Rather than boxing one’s life into distinct phases (the aspiration for a “5 under 35” prize), why not reinvent the whole messy and imperfect trajectory of interruption and improvisation?
Elevating the work of the elders and taking away some of the shine of precociousness is a start. “This book took too long,” notes Phillips. “I started thinking about it when my kids were in elementary school, and when I’m done they’re both in college.” And yet, what does it matter?
In her 1982 memoir, “Daybook” (which Phillips might have included), sculptor Anne Truitt noted that “rationalization is a form of despair. It takes kindness to forgive yourself for your life. Creative mothers deserve to spare, to travel at their own pace.
Phillips models this assurance in his approach. Too many recent biographies get bogged down in detail, gathering evidence as if they were arguing in court. I prefer Phillips’ style. Its authority is built on knowledge and a relationship of mutual trust with the reader. This again brings me back to the instincts that have served me well (I hope?) in parenting. If you know yourself and listen carefully to your child, everyone else’s opinions and perspectives are just window dressing.
Fortunately, a number of excellent, unconventional books on motherhood have come out this spring, including Angela Garbes’ “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change” and Jazmina Barrera’s “Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes.” Each makes short work of shredding traditional notions of success and productivity. As Garbes notes, “It’s complicated to separate identity and value, home and public life, but maybe we can try to allow them to coexist, to find meaning in each of them. “
Phillips’ book is not just a cultural history; it is a testimony of endurance and devotion. The interwoven work of mothering and creativity is a volatile but illuminating gift. If everyone could see it that way.
LeBlanc is a book reviewer for Observer. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina