Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Can a woman be a writer and a mother?

Tracey Emin has been making the news again. She's perhaps as famous for being controversial as she is for her art and she will have raised the hackles of many women artists this week with her statements about the incompatibility of the creative path and that of motherhood. 

In an interview with Red magazine, she said

'I don’t think I’d be making work (if I were a mother). I would have been either 100% mother or 100% artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise. Having children and being a mother… It would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time. I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men. It’s hard for women. It’s really difficult, they are emotionally torn. It’s hard enough for me with my cat.'

Initially I was kind of following her train of thought and having some sympathy with it. Being an artist does require an uncompromising commitment to something that is esoteric and hard for other people to understand. It requires focus and dedication and unsociable hours. It requires a brain that can think straight, or rather a brain that can think tangentially and metaphorically and that's not always compatible with holding information about feeding and nap schedules, dentist's appointments and the buying of children's party presents. Being a childless artist has got to be the easier path.

My own daughter has always been precocious and when she was three, she announced to me, "I'm not going to have children. They would get in the way of my art and I'd have to ignore them." Out of the mouths of babes........ She's changed her views slightly now and would quite like baby twins conceived by donor so that she doesn't have to bother with the annoying issue of finding a husband. She's probably realised that, unless you choose carefully, they can get in the way of your art too. 

Tracey Emin has neither a husband, nor children, and she seems to have done pretty well in the art business so maybe she has a point. But I lost sympathy with her when she made her comment about
good artists that have children being called men. Clearly she was being deliberately inflammatory but it kind of undermines the many many examples of great women artists and writers who have managed to combine the two. Ok, so I doubt that any of them would say it has been easy, but they did it. And women the world over continue to do it. And the comment about being emotionally torn seems to put women (and men) back in a very traditional box to me. Don't fathers who are artists sometimes feel emotionally torn too? As responsible men take on a greater role with childcare, male artists and writers are struggling too. I know several who are quite open about the challenges. And the rewards. 

As for myself, I find combining writing and motherhood to be immensely challenging. Combining writing, motherhood and working is even harder. If I hadn't had children, I would undoubtedly be further on with my writing career now. Equally, if I'd had a supportive partner, I would have done better. At Writing Yorkshire's Pick Up Your Pens festival, novelist, Gavin Extence's advice to young writers was to "get a wife". I've said on many occasions that this is what I need. Who doesn't? Even a wife must need a wife. And with writing or art, as in every other walk of life, if men and women shared housework and childcare, women's lives would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, in my case, a wife hasn't been forthcoming so far. Instead I continue to juggle. This morning I have been writing this blog whilst cooking potatoes for my allergic child, promoting Off the Shelf events and putting away the shopping. It's not ideal but it's the way of life I'm used to. I do it because when I was a child like Edie I said that the two things I wanted to do with my life were to have children and to be a writer. While plenty of women can be fulfilled mothers without careers and other women are fulfilled career women without the need to have children, I am somebody who would have felt incomplete without both. Call me greedy. I want it all. And I want to be a role model for my daughter (and my son). Last week Edie wrote a story at school and was asked to read it out to the class. The teacher asked her if she wanted to be an author when she grew up. How proud were we both? As it happens she wants to be an eco pop star, a brain surgeon, an explorer and a fashion designer (as well as mothering her baby twins as a single parent). Maybe she's a bit ambitious but hey, better that way than thinking she belongs in the kitchen.

If you'd like to join the debate about writing motherhood, I'm chairing an event of that name at Off the Shelf on Saturday 18th October. I'm really looking forward to it as it's a subject that is close to my heart. Please come along: