Juggling babies and books: how to be a mother and a writer

The problem of the pram in the hall.

Eighty-five years have passed since Virginia Woolf delivered a series of lectures to young women students at Cambridge, which formed the basis of her famous feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.” To aid her argument that women required a distinct physical space in order to write fiction, to attain distance from the demands of the patriarchal family unit, she created the character of Judith Shakespeare. The bard’s fictional sister was just as innately talented as the famous playwright but restricted by a lack of education and the social expectations of her day. Even though it is still not a level playing field, the twenty-first century has witnessed the proliferation of many talented Judiths in all fields of the arts. Examination statistics indicate that young women today are consistently outperforming their male peers at school, in a reversal of the conditions that saw Woolf herself denied a formal education. However, what if Woolf had chosen not to focus upon Shakespeare’s sister, but looked instead at his mother? What if Mary Arden had been an unfulfilled creative genius, her mind brimming with characters and storylines as she went about the business of raising her family?

It may seem anachronistic today to resurrect the old debate about female creativity and motherhood. No one now doubts the abilities of women to achieve the highest accolades in literary and artistic fields. Since Woolf illustrated the extremes of the debate in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, women know they don’t have to belong to one camp or the other. They do not need to choose between being the “artist” (Lily Briscoe) or the “mother” (Mrs Ramsay.) In fact, many push themselves to do both simultaneously, succumbing to expectations that women will achieve at every level in their professional and private lives. Luckily though, the pressure to accomplish this effortlessly, without complaint or hiccup or smudged mascara, is being challenged. Feminist writer Debora Spar’s new book attacks the myth of the Wonder Woman, saying that women can’t have it all and shouldn’t expect to. Of course this is something of a first world problem. I’m not trying to claim writing mothers as a persecuted minority, or overlook the fathers that write and raise healthy, happy children on their own. Likewise, I’m aware that there are many more significant discussions to be had regarding literacy, class, ethnicity and expectations. I’m simply interested in returning to the scenario presented by Woolf in the 1920s and widening it a little to examine whether this debate is ever really redundant.

Woolf attempts a compromise by suggesting her heroine, Mrs Ramsay, is an artist by dint of her creative nature. As a mother, nurse, wife and hostess, she constantly brings people together and forms the glue of family life. She personifies the Angel in the House as Woolf’s own mother did, before her premature death at forty-nine, worn out by caring for others. Post-Impressionist Mark Gertler said a similar thing about his own mother, Golda, a warm East End Jewess whom he described as the only “modern artist.” Yet while there is an art to living, a real value in creating a warm, nurturing home, it isn’t really a substitute for producing the discernible “works” that the literary or artistic mind craves. Thus, it is incumbent for writing mothers today to find their own personal balance, through the careful allocation of resources and the support of partners, family and friends. Woolf didn’t have children and her arguments didn’t include the dilemma of the creative mother with several young ones to care for. The descendants of her Cambridge audience may have absorbed her message but they are still treading a fine line between meeting the needs of their families and seeking artistic fulfilment. Back in 1898, the promising young artist Edna Clarke Hall, commented on her struggle to carry on painting after her marriage, that “a women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.” This is just as true, in 2013, as it was then.

So how do women do it? Having written and published four books, plus a number of articles, reviews and running a blog since the birth of my first son in 2010, this is a question I am often asked. My answer is that I have become a very focused, opportunistic writer; I compose on the kitchen table whilst my toddlers rampage about me, writing a paragraph here and there before I head off to change a nappy or play a game of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Ironically, I always have to be Emily, never Thomas.) I don’t have the luxury a room of my own but somehow I have managed to find a writing “compartment” inside my head. Things get stored in there and ripen, until the time that I can dash to the keyboard and bang out a few hundred words. It isn’t easy and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of my husband, who will take the boys out for a few hours on the weekend or over to the park when he gets back from work. I think I’m very lucky in this respect and it made me wonder about the decisions other writing mothers make; the sacrifices, allocating and balancing time, the ambition and possibly, the guilt. Managing the transition from Judith Shakespeare to Mary Arden is not easy. The lives of Woolf and her sister, the post-modern artist Vanessa Bell, provide an answer to the comment “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” voiced in To The Lighthouse. Still rightly revered as a giant of modernism, Woolf’s reputation is wider spread than Bell’s, whose life encompassed motherhood as well as art. Even though Vanessa’s life was made easier by the presence of nannies, she was a devoted parent and this necessitated some juggling when her three children were small. A century ago, childcare was shared between the mother and hired help, in varying proportions from the middle classes upwards. Today, child minders and nurseries play invaluable roles in the lives of working mothers, particularly for those who are single. Also, the nature of writing, the flexible, freelance aspect to it, means that it is often relegated to the status of a hobby that pays well and squeezed in around the shared workload of partners or needs of others. Sometimes it feels like a luxury, a guilty pleasure to write, although the anticipation of remuneration helps.v Woolf’s writing evokes the image of her and her sister as young women, dressed in their late Victorian gowns, standing at an easel or desk in their converted Bloomsbury nursery. Woolf, a major figure of literary modernism, was first published by her brother-in-law’s firm, Duckworth and company, before beginning the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard. The changing nature of self-publishing and cheap, widespread access to the internet has facilitated women’s writing in a way that was unthinkable to Woolf’s contemporaries. Writers now can access an unprecedented level of electronic texts, records and resources and for researchers like myself, social networking sites provide an interface without which our work would be lonely and not half as rich. Woolf’s room of one’s own is now unquestionably a virtual one.

Undoubtedly the greater control women have over their sexuality and reproduction today has facilitated many careers. I have always felt deeply saddened by the lives of women such as Ida Nettleship, first wife of Augustus John, whose Edwardian education at the Slade School of Art nurtured a promising talent. After marrying in 1900, she bore five sons before dying in childbed within seven years, exhausted, despondent and disconnected from her artistic youth. Ida’s abilities as an artist, like those of her friend Edna, were simply not valued in comparison with her sexual and maternal potential.

Women’s determination to carve out spaces to write also springs from an increasing conviction that female fulfilment is important, and significantly different from work for work’s sake. Also there is the grudging recognition that women might have something to say, although novels by women, particularly those with female protagonists, are rarely selected by male readers. I know exactly what one writer means when she describes writing as her “medicine,” and speaks of the need to do “what burns within” and give expression to “an essential part of who I am.” This isn’t to be confused with selfishness. Writing has a place in women’s lives which is advantageous for their children, who witness maternal fulfilment as well as setting the examples of dedication and hard work. In the words of one novelist: “writing has given me the freedom to be the mother I wanted to be.” Woolf’s debate of 1928 focused on the Judith Shakespeares of her world; the women like her who strove to write and paint in the face of opposition from those wishing them to fill more conventional roles. Factor children into this equation and it remains relevant even when we may think this battle should already have been won.

Photograph: Getty Images

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear