The Baby on the Fire Escape
Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem
by Julie Phillips
A Review by Lynn R S Genevieve
From the captivating cover art, ‘Mother and Child’ by Alice Neel, to the community of ‘mothers and others’ in Julie Phillips acknowledgments at the end of the book, this text reverberates with honest reflections of artists as mothers, mothers as artists, that will resonate with anyone combining work and mothering.
In a case of art reflecting life, a strange synchronicity occurred when just as I finished reading this book (that I’d received from the publisher some months ago) I attended a conference in Glasgow. Once and Future Fantasies, a five-day extravaganza of academic discourse on the world of fantasy writing, the author Julie Phillips and I met. Both speakers at the conference, we were both in the Fantasy and Maternity panel and had no awareness until just before the event that each other were there. I was able to inform Julie with complete honesty, that I had thoroughly enjoyed her latest publication. Julie Phillips is an award-winning author, a biographer and critic, from the USA but living in Amsterdam.
The Baby on the Fire Escape is a non-fiction exploration of how some well-known women artists such as Susan Sontag and Angela Carter, have negotiated their need to create whilst also becoming mothers in the twentieth century. Julie was inspired to investigate the Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem when her own children were in elementary school, only finishing once they were both in college. At the conference Julie’s paper was called Time and the Story the title of the last chapter in her book where she answers the question – “How can I have children without sacrificing my vocation, my perspective, my independence, my mind?”
Julie’s reassuring conclusion – “Find a supportive Partner. Do it on your own. Have children, then build a career. Build a career, then have children. Have money. Live on welfare. Have one child, or three, or seven. Work behind a closed door; paint in the living room; work with your baby on the desk next to you…there’s no single answer.”
Reading this book, you will be shocked, awed, and filled with respect for the decisions mothers have made. Many felt constrained in their role as mothers and sometimes left their children, some were forced into this scenario. Others felt inspired by their role as mothers. Some needed their children to mother them, but all clearly loved their offspring dearly.
I was fascinated by two common themes; the relentless conflict within these women’s identities leading to chaos and questionable life choices, and more positively, the support of a ‘sisterhood’, community as a solution to raising a child and finding some kind of serenity in life as a mother-artist. At the conference Julie spoke of the role of mother as a ‘hero’s journey’, but I rather liken it to our own ‘heroine’s journey’; a hero does it alone the masculine way, the feminine way for a heroine is to network. Remember the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? My own paper at the conference, Once and Future Birth argued that true equity for women as mothers is impossible in a Patriarchal society – we need community, a village as mothers.
Virginia Woolf famously coined the idea of a room of one’s own (1929) in an essay exploring the injustices for women regarding intellect and writing. The artists that Julia has researched each had a version of this. The title of the book refers to Alice Neel who was said to have left the baby on the fire escape once to finish a painting (falsely claimed by the in-laws). But throughout the text, the motivations and truth behind an abandonment (Doris Lessing), or a polyamorous union (Audre Lorde) is investigated with compassion, the author leaving society (and often their families) to judge these women.
Personally, I most resonated with Ursula K Le Guin’s approach to mothering; she made it work despite the restrictions having children brought. Le Guin had a supportive partner in her husband who believed in her talents and was prepared to share the responsibility of childcare, but within the confines of their time – he was the essential bread winner. Le Guin knew herself to be a ‘morning writer’, but only had the freedom to write late at night and so accepted this with equanimity. She had come from a vibrant family life herself, learning from her father a professor of anthropology, her model for writing encapsulated by Julia – ‘the belief that the real room of one’s own – or the baby on the fire escape – is in the mind.’ Reading the chapter on Le Guin I was often put in mind of Sheila Kitzinger, prolific writer and artist, mother of five daughters, and pictures from her autobiography and other books showing her at work, writing surrounded by children.
Whilst Kitzinger and Le Guin negotiated family life and their art in an apparently balanced way, it is probably more of an exception than the rule. It is fair to say that in reading Julie’s perceptive exploration of creative mothers, the strength of women shines through as they repeatedly refuse to choose between their vocation as artist and the complexity of life also as a mother – the mind-baby problem of the subtitle.
As Julie shares, Ursula Le Guin encapsulates our power: What she needs is a pencil, paper, and herself: the knowledge “that she and she alone is in charge of that pencil…for what it writes on the paper. In other words, that she’s free. Not wholly free. Never wholly free. Maybe very partially…But in this, responsible; in this autonomous; in this, free.”
Whatever life a mother lives, whatever difficulties she must traverse, whilst her mind may be inhabited by her children, only she holds sovereignty over her thoughts.
W. W. Norton & Company
Hardcover : 336 pages £17.54
ISBN-10 : 0393088596
ISBN-13 : 978-0-393-08859-5
Also available as Ebook.