Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The pram in the hall

'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.'

So spake Cyril Connolly, the English intellectual. But was he right? And if he was, does that mean that the creative work of mothers is relegated to some kind of second tier? Clearly not, as the works of many famous writers who are also parents show. Writers such as Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Trapido, Alice Walker - all mothers. The other shining example of the victory of creativity over domestic circumstance is actually the experience of a father - JG Ballard, who brought up his three children after the death of his wife, and still managed to write Empire of the Sun. Here he is talking about it in the Observer. (I'm definitely going to take up his habit of starting the day with a large scotch and soda..!)

But he did have something, did Cyril. There is something about becoming a mother that is all-encompassing, and threatening.

It is not so much a risk to creativity itself, in my view. I have never felt as creative as since I have had my children, and they most definitely foster and inform my creativity. Being a parent has also allowed me to experience a range of emotion that I would have not had access to without that experience. I actually think that having children has concentrated my mind and forced me to discipline myself and my creative priorities, instead of drifting about, waiting for the muse to alight on my shoulder.

Becoming a mother more a threat to productivity and output; both from a practical time perspective, and to the head space, to the mental energy that is needed to produce a piece of creative work. The problem with being a mother is that it is eternal, twenty four hours a day and forever. And, here's the kicker, being the archetype that it is, it nearly always takes precedence over every other role that a woman can assume. So there is no doubt that the mother and the writer (or artist/musician etc) will be constantly warring for supremacy. So how did those famous writing mothers (and fathers) do it, and how do we do it now? How do we do the right thing by our children, and the right thing by ourselves as writers and creative people?

There is no doubt, in my view, that what children need is to be with their parents or at the very least a one-to-on carer such as a nanny or grandparent during the first two years of their lives. Research into child develpoment is pretty conclusive on this subject. So how do you as a mother and a writer square that circle? I'm not sure if you can. Most women's CVs have a kind of hiatus that coincides with the birth of children. In some ways you have to resign yourself to it. If you want children, that is the sacrifice you have to make. There is something about especially the first year of any baby's life, when writing becomes some strange far-off thing, somewhere way down on the list of priorities, of which the number one is sleep! Some writers, such as Michele Roberts, are not prepared to make that sacrifice and take a deliberate decision not to have children. Some days I wish I'd joined them, especially on reading 'This Be the Verse', by Philip Larkin, and 'They F**k You Up', by psychologist Oliver James.

However, it is also true that children are happiest when their family life and parents are happy too. This means that there is no point in sacrificing yourself on the altar of your children's needs. All you will end up with is bitterness and resentment. When you emerge from the baby stage of your children's life, it does get a little easier. Then it becomes more of a practical challenge of working out how to manage the enormous amount of work involved in looking after children, how to manage your working life (if you are back in the workplace) and still carve out time for your creative work! It ain't easy, that's for sure. Throwing money at the problem does help, as does letting go of guilt (ha!) and many writers are grateful for the help of legions of child-minders, after-school clubs, cleaners, housekeepers (oh, I wish!!). That's not to mention all those wonderful partners/husbands and grandparents who take on their fair share of the work.

That's a lot of effort and organisation - as sure as eggs are eggs, you'll be the one with the overview of which child is where when, and what they need to have with them, what they need to have for breakfast, lunch and tea, and every other little detail. This can just fill your head up with admin. It's not so much organising it all, it's the thinking about organising it all that gets you....

The bottom line is that if you want to succeed as a writer-mother, you have to have written through your core, like a stick of Blackpool rock - Writing is important and I am determined to find a way. You have to stop wasting time. You can be as productive as your single male counterparts. Just think how much time they waste 'playing the writer' in Starbucks, posing with their Moleskine notebooks/laptop!!

And you have to stop using motherhood as an excuse not to write. You have to look inside your heart and really think about what is stopping you. If it is practicalities, you will always find a way. If it is something else....then you have to face up to those demons.

So. You need the organsational efficiency of a major general, the stamina of an downhill skier (sorry, been watching the Winter Olympics!) , Margaret Thatcher's need for sleep and the focused mind of a zen buddhist. Not much then, but as Confucius said,
'The greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.'

And there is time. When you're in the grip of life with young children, it is easy to feel like your own life is slipping away. But that stage, like all others, doesn't last. There is, and will be, time for writing.

Good luck and don't give up.


Anna-Marie said...

Wow Claire! How extremely motivational. I even felt a little lump in my throat there for a minute. Of course you are completely right. Writing and parenting are possibly two of the most mentally challenging activities in existence and to do both simultaneously seems like the most unnecessary form of self punishment. But if you really have to do it, there is a way. (Now I'll be late to pick mine up from school BTW!)

jsi said...

Hi there - my name is Jessie and I just found your site. What a treasure you have posted here. "The pram in the hall" - I used that quote last week to be a two sided coin, showing how children have been my greatest distractions and time-crunchers and at the same time my most superlative motivation and inspriation.
I must have been the biggest waste of time in my life before children, without excuse or apology.

The pram in my hall has never been a curse, but a definite reason to be organized and ready with my shoes on at all times. The biggest challenge to my writing daily has been this nagging habit I have taught the children: you know to read and write. They need to use my computer for typing, research, homework, etc. And I find myself writing on the most advanced of all mediums, the yellow legal pad and UNIball micro, black only.

belle said...

oh well said! The pram in my hall would have to be blummin' big these days but that is exactly why I've just run away!! It may only be temporary, but for a few hours at least one has a room of one's own :o)

PrincessDipti said...

hey dear.. wud u mind if i'll say that plz leave some comments on any of my blog posts? not in the chatterbox.. but in the posts itself.. if u dont mind.. i need it for my grade. :) thanks a lot.. i'll be looking forward for your comment :)

and plus you're most welcome to be my follower. hehe. ur choice..

claires inner world said...

Anna-Marie - thanks very much for your comment. Self-punishment is right!!

Jessie - Hi and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I know what you mean about life before children - just what did I do with all that time?!

Belle - Hello, lovely. I did have a suspicion that your trip to S-on-A might be for some peace and quiet!

PrincessDipti - sure will!

PrincessDipti said...

thank u so much dear :)

Purple Cow said...

What an interesting post and blog! WOW! Truth is, motherhood is hard, challenging, rewarding, stifling and expansive all at the same time. I am not a writer but I have the impression of brilliant writers being these mind-blowing people whose imaginations are fuelled by crazy lives and experiences...and children need us to be conventional and to give them security. It's hard being nurturing and moody at the same time. So I guess you could be a mother and work quite effectively, but to write creatively and live conventionally is a very difficult combination.