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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.