Ruth Thorpe: Mother, writer, monster, maid

By Ruth Thorpe

I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. Photo / iStock
I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. Photo / iStock

Recently, I was in New York City to do some publicity, and I was staying in a Holiday Inn in the Gowanus Canal of Brooklyn where the elevator shook and moaned every time we went to our 10th floor room, as though the shaft were too small and the elevator just barely squeezing through. I was certain we were going to die every time we used it. I was there with my mother who was helping me take care of my 10-month-old baby. We flew in, did the galley party, flew out. We were baby-publicity-air-travel ninjas.

Of course flying with a baby is torture. Visiting New York City with a baby is hard. But I breastfeed and my baby doesn't take a bottle well and I couldn't imagine how my husband could take care of the baby at night without me and my mammary glands, so I brought my mother and my baby with me to New York. As it happened, I also got in touch with a friend I hadn't seen in 10 years, and he came to our hotel room to chat with me and see the baby before it was time to go to the party.

It was pure joy to see my friend after so long. Just laying eyes on him made me glad; he had grown a Freddie Mercury moustache and was wearing a weird child's-size sweater and I loved every inch of him.

Out of our mouths flew sentences too fast to filter, so desperate were we to tell each other everything, to make clear what had happened in the last 10 years. I found myself, as I crammed my thighs into my shapewear, saying, "Oh, well, I love my husband, he is the perfect man for me and it was love at first sight, but I would never willingly enter into this state of servitude again."

I had not known I felt that way until I said it. It frightened me that I said it. That night at the party, I kept thinking about it, and on the flight home, I kept thinking about it. No matter how I looked at that phrase I couldn't make it any less true. If something disastrous were to happen and my husband were to leave me or die or simply vanish, I would never remarry. I actually cannot imagine even dating another man. Part of this is out of intense loyalty to my husband, but part of it is because the idea of cooking some idiot man dinner for the rest of my life makes my skin prickle with rage.

But how can I be so angry at the idea of cooking dinner for a theoretical and highly imaginary man when I cook dinner for my husband, whom I love, all the time? Do I secretly hate cooking dinner? Do I hate being a wife? Do I hate being a mother?

These are difficult questions for me to consider. I am proud of being a mother. I love my two children. I love them so much that it hurts to look at them and I am pretty sure they are the best, smartest, scrappiest, funniest boys in the world, and having them changed my life. My life before children was selfish and bland, all feelings and no grit, just a drifting miasma of mood. To go back to living like that seems like hell. I get annoyed when women's magazines try to edit my motherhood out of my work. I get depressed when they won't run a piece unless I take out any mention of my having children. I firmly believe that having children has made me smarter and better and more interesting, and f*** you to any women's mag that doesn't think so too.

And yet, I am profoundly unfree.

I have a 10-month-old and a 3-and-a-half-year-old. The 3-and-a-half-year-old goes to pre-school for a good portion of the day, but the pre-school isn't state-sponsored, so it eats our entire childcare budget. That means I am home with the 10-month-old full-time. This is a luxury. Many women would kill to stay at home with their babies. I am fully aware of this. I try to write when the baby is asleep. He sleeps for about two hours in the morning. Otherwise, throughout the day I do housework, cook, try not to go insane. My husband leaves at five in the morning and gets home at eight in the evening most days, so I am short on adult conversation or help. There is a deep, almost suffocating solitude to my days, and yet there is also the California ocean, the flowers, the breeze. It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both.

I am tethered by many things: the baby's nursing schedule, the 3-year-old's attention span. To read an adult book is out of the question. To sit quietly for a moment with no one touching me is out of the question. To poop alone is out of the question. Showering is something I have to ask my husband for time to do each night. A lot of nights I am too tired to even think about showering and I just go to bed dirty. I do not brush my hair every day - because what does it matter if my hair is brushed? It is possible I am clinically depressed. It is also possible that taking care of small children is just really hard, and in the last six months we have had a move across country, a baby in the hospital for a week, and my new book come out. Maybe I am just frazzled and it will get better on its own. Or maybe it won't.

There have been a series of articles of late that argue that there is an inherent conflict between motherhood and artistic work. There was Lauren Sandler's piece, "The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid." The thesis of the piece is in the title, and I read it on my phone as I nursed my second baby, worried that I was doomed, that I had lost my voice to the sea witch, that I would never be a thinking, writing, intellectual being again but would become nothing more than an enlarged mammary gland needing to be periodically drained. Was she right? Was it impossible to balance the demands of an artistic career with the demands of multiple children?

Then there was Kim Brooks' "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom," in New York magazine's The Cut, in which she argues that there may be something fundamentally at odds between art and family, specifically that "the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn't be anyone's goal as a parent." So much in this piece rang true for me that I started shaking as I read it. At one point, she asks one of her friends about her photography:

"I'm not doing it," she said. "I just can't. I can't get the space. Even when I have a few hours, it doesn't work. They're always with me, even when they're not." I think she's going to say something like "it won't be like this forever", something stoic and accepting. But instead, she says in a voice that is pure anguish, "There are moments when I feel like I'm dying a little more every day. I feel like a fish that's been caught and then abandoned on a dock, lying there, flopping and gasping, each gasp weaker than the last."

I feel it too. I have tried to say it to my husband; I have tried to say, "I hate my life." I have tried to say, "I need help." I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn't exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the 3-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind.

For me, the conflict between motherhood and my life as a writer is not so much Brooks' fear that art's job is to unsettle, while a mother's job is to make safe. I unsettle and disturb my children all the time. I remain unconcerned that my safe, middle-class life as a stay at home mum makes me less edgy or interesting. I view my own interestingness as being directly related to the thoughts I think and the work I do rather than the aesthetics of my leisure time. After all, Wallace Stevens was an executive at an insurance company. The idea that parenting is any more boring than working at an insurance agency is absurd.

Still, there is a concern that the stink of uncool motherhood will befoul the beautifully tormented artist. It is, I think, this same stank that women's magazines would like to occasionally excise from my work. In the novel Dept of Speculation, which seems to be an epicentre for these sorts of worries in The Geist, Jenny Offill's protagonist and narrator writes: "My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him."

I firmly believe that having children has made me smarter and better and more interesting, and f*** you to any women's mag that doesn't think so too.
Ruth Thorpe

I have never worried that the mundane world would muddy my celestial paws; I've always been perfectly able to lick my stamps myself. In fact, I have been far, far too able. The older I get, the more I recognise the leveraging power of ineptitude. My husband can't cook well; I do the cooking. My husband accidentally shrinks a few sweaters; I do the laundry. My husband can't lactate; the baby comes to New York. In his inability to do things, he is excused from labour. In my rush to excel, to shine, to be a good wife and mother, I have done nothing but ensure my labour will be lengthy and unpaid.

For me, the problem then, is not in some platonic incompatibility between art and motherhood, a conflict between the mundane and the celestial, the safe and the unsettling. The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.

My job, when I am with my children, is to have as few needs as possible so that I can meet theirs. It is my job to let my 3-year-old dawdle on the potty of a Starbucks until he is sure he is done, even if I think I might shit my pants. It is my job to help him stop crying when he is overtired, even if I myself am so overtired I could cry. It is my job to be invisible to him.

There are other ways, too, in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten-free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, "Here, wife, pick up after me." Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself.

"Sometimes," I said to my mother the other day, "I feel they will devour me. I feel they will use me up like a tube of toothpaste and never even notice." She nodded, watching me cry in her living room, my baby crawling on her floor.

"They will," she said.

I read an interview with Jodi Picoult the other day, or as I will refer to her for this purpose, Jodi F***ing Picoult, wherein she described her writing life. The interview was old, from 2001, but keep in mind: Jodi F***ing Picoult had already written seven novels at that point. And here is her schedule: wake up at 5am, exercise, get kids to school, write for three hours, wrangle kids all afternoon, make dinner, put kids to bed, write after everyone goes to bed. "They are using her up like a tube of toothpaste," I thought. I tried to imagine the family of a similarly successful male writer making him stay up to work after he has put the children to bed and I just couldn't. Not with seven novels under his belt. You can bet his wife would be whisper-screaming at the children to stay the hell away from daddy's office and go play in the yard. 'Your father,' this imaginary wife would say, 'is Jodi F***ing Picoult.'

Which is not to say that Picoult hasn't chosen her role. She may very well want to spend all day with her children and stay up at night working. Aside from our cultural expectation that women should spread themselves thin in order to spend time with their children, there is also the bald fact that some women want to. God knows, even if we could afford a nanny or daycare, the idea of someone else taking care of the baby makes me uneasy. He's my baby. The 3-year-old is my boy. If he told a nanny that he and the other boys saw a leprechaun spit on the slide, she wouldn't get to the bottom of it; she'd just let it go because who even knew what that weird little boy was saying now.

It takes a mother to continue questioning all the way until you ascertain that the leprechaun spit is actually bird poop. You cannot pay someone to care about your kids the way you do. You cannot pay someone to be you.

Yet there are only so many hours in the day. If you are with your children, you are not writing. If you are writing, you are not with your children.

Several female writers, Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley among them, reacted with ire to Lauren Sandler's piece, "The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid." Smith wrote that the real threat "to all women's freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse ... We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family."

I find comfort in this insistence on the terrestrial nature of the problem and therefore the terrestrial nature of its solution. Time is the issue, not some metaphysical conflict between art and motherhood. But another part of me worries that being a writer isn't exactly like being a factory worker or a nurse. In Dept of Speculation, Offill writes:

"A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. 'You're probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,' Barthelme said. 'Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.' Also art, he amended. Also politics. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and X years in a life. Solve for X."

Offill's point is that greatness as an artist is not something you can achieve in a 40-hour working week, but something that must consume you entirely, even to the point of sublimating your own desire to survive as an animal, i.e. eat and sleep. Certainly, then, it would seem to follow that art is not something one can achieve in a spare two hours after the kids have been put to bed. And yet, some women have. Toni Morrison comes to mind as a rather blinding example, writing The Bluest Eye while raising two children on her own and teaching full-time at Howard University. Really, if one considers the hours, years and decades many celebrated male writers have spent doing little else than drinking, perhaps it is not necessary to give up eating or sleeping or even raising one's children after all. But is it fair to ask women to spin straw into gold overnight as their children sleep? Or, more practically, is this even an attainable goal for most women?

My own mother wanted to be a writer, still wants to be one. She has not published a book yet. Occasionally people will tell me I am ambitious or productive or unusually driven, as though my accomplishments were my own. But I know that at every moment I am standing on her shoulders.

I am, moreover, achingly aware of what this has cost her.

She raised me alone. When I first wanted to go to a boarding school, my grandmother chastened her -"It's cruel to let the girl look at those catalogues when you could never afford to send her." But send me she did, and paid for four years of college, and supported me again and again as I tried and failed and tried to have a career as a writer.

I have lost count of how many times I have moved back into her house. I am living there now with my husband and children!

And she has not published a book. And I have published two. It is not because I am a better writer. It is because, when she solved for X, I came first. And if I came first, she came second.

It does not matter how brilliant a writer you are, your children cannot put you first. I could not put my mother first, nor can my boys put me first. Children are a hinge that bends only one way.

Male writers have often had children, but they have often famously refused to bend to them. On her 12th birthday, Faulkner's daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, "No one remembers Shakespeare's children."

For me, the problem is not in some platonic incompatibility between art and motherhood, a conflict between the mundane and the celestial, the safe and the unsettling. The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.
Ruth Thorpe

Tolstoy's wife wrote in her journal:

How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment's rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child's bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night's sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.

When I shared these anecdotes with my husband, he responded with horror. "But these men were assholes," he said. "You can't possibly want to be like them? Even fathers nowadays couldn't get away with acting like that." "Of course not," I said, because it is hard to defend wanting to be an asshole. "But is it the price?" I asked, unwilling to give the discussion up. "Is the price of great art being an asshole?" He looked at me like I was insane. "No," he said. "The price of great art is not being an asshole!"

The next morning, I picked his underwear up from behind the bathroom door and wondered if he was right. I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole. It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don't care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.

As much as I want to be a good writer, I also want to be a good mother. I even want to be the one who cooks dinner. I may complain about being the only one who keeps track of the ornate minutiae of pre-school (bring an egg carton by Friday! We need $10 for costumes for the play! Remember: Thursday is a half-day!), but I also don't want anyone else taking over this sometimes loathsome task. Life with small children takes place in the minutiae. Everything is in the now, so if you are not part of the now, you miss it. As Offill writes, "A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things."

The idea of not having my children, my husband, my life, is unbearable, and I find myself thinking of Dorothy Parker, alone and drinking herself to death with her poodle bitch at the Volney Hotel. Robert Gottlieb writes about her regrets at the end of her life in a profile for The New York Review of Books. He asks: "Yes, 'you might as well live,' but for what?"

He goes on: "If only she hadn't won celebrity so early and so easily. If only she had been blessed with Hemingway's talent, had written her novel (and it had been any good), hadn't succumbed to the easy life and money of Hollywood. If only she had married Mr Right instead of lumbering herself with all those Mr Wrongs. If she had had that baby..."

The tragedy of Dorothy Parker, it seems to me, isn't that she succumbed to alcoholism or died essentially alone. It was that she was too intelligent to believe that she had made the most of herself.

It is rare to see it supposed that a female writer would have written more or better if she had had children, but that is exactly what Gottlieb suggests here: That to be an art monster on some level also requires that one become a monster, and perhaps the work of a lonely and sad monster is actually less robust than that of a psychologically healthy, happy, productive adult.

To make the most of oneself. In the end, this seems to me the only thing truly worth aiming for. And in that sense, I am able to concede that my husband is right: I do not wish to be like Faulkner or Tolstoy. I do not want to be an asshole.

This is an abridged version of a piece that originally ran in velamag.com

- Canvas

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