An insightful, provocative, and witty exploration of the relationship between motherhood and art—for anyone who is a mother, wants to be, or has ever had one.
In my second book, The Baby on the Fire Escape, I explore the problems of creativity and motherhood, asking the questions, “What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to write, not in ‘a room of one’s own,’ but in a shared, domestic space?”
My original plan was to research biographical essays about some women I was interested in: Neel, Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Audre Lorde, Angela Carter, and others. They had motherhood in common, so I drafted a proposal saying I was going to explore the unmapped spaces in creative women’s lives. I assumed I would map as I went along.
Then I went out into those uncharted lands and got lost. I knew how to make a story about a creative life, but not a maternal one. Mothers’ experience started seeming not only unmapped but unthinkable.
The women I wrote about dealt with mothering in very different ways. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. Alice Walker had one child, Diane di Prima five. They worked in the attic, in the car, in the bedroom, on the bed, at a desk with a baby carrier beside them. They loved mothering, struggled with it, redefined it to fit their lives. What they had in common was their fierce desire to find the time and self they needed to do their work.
I finally concluded that creative motherhood is about keeping the baby on the fire escape: it’s about maintaining a constantly renegotiated, provisional, day-to-day work-life balance. It’s about boundaries, and not giving too much of yourself away. And ultimately it’s a hero’s journey, in the fairy-tale sense: a tale of becoming, an adventure in the woods, the ones you have to go into when you lose yourself, whether as a mother or an artist, the place where the chronic, day-to-day time of care work becomes the narrative time of choice and change.
The Baby on the Fire Escape will be published by W.W. Norton, April 26, 2022 (US) and June or July (UK). The beautiful cover design is by Sarahmay Wilkinson, and the painting is Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967, by Alice Neel.