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

The problem of the pram in the hall.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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.