We’d been expecting a home of books, music, spirited discussion, a salon-like extension of our teacher’s office.

Instead, the space we entered was cluttered with makeshift blanket forts, crayons, containers of half-eaten apple sauce, highchairs and cradles and strangely shaped pillows and other unrecognizable contraptions we could only assume related to the care of small children. His wife greeted us, beautiful and exhausted. Our teacher came down the stairs, slumped forward like a defeated animal. There was a child doing something on the floor, another calling from the bedroom above our heads.

“Something’s wrong,” I whispered back to my friend. “Something is going on here.”

The thing going on, of course, was Parenthood, in all its unliterary, unromantic glory. I might have feigned incomprehension, but I knew well enough what I was seeing. I also knew I’d never see my teacher in quite the same way again. There is a whole new genre of literary fiction that is dedicated to this conflict between the parental and the artistic, a genre which I’ve come to think of as the literature of domestic ambivalence.

I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.”

The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice. After that, I read widely within this genre, which includes Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, and Hellen Ellis’s American Housewife. The idea that writers, artists, inspired and creative people make bad spouses, parents, homemakers, partners is nothing new. It’s a trope that has served the (usually male) writers of the canon well. The mythology of the self-destructive artistic genius, the undomesticated bohemian, the visionary who is also, incidentally, or perhaps inevitably, a jerk, fundamentally unsuited for family life, goes back to the Marquis de Sade, and it’s not hard to think of 19th- and 20th-century examples: Byron is reported to have slept with 200 women in the course of one year, declaring after his wife gave birth to his first child that he was in hell, then impregnating his half-sister. Baudelaire longed for escape from “the unendurable pestering of the women I live with.” Verlaine tried to light his wife on fire. Hemingway married four women and after one ceremony reportedly asked a bartender for a glass of hemlock. Faulkner’s 12-year-old daughter once asked him to not drink on her birthday, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.” These books vary widely in form, tone, quality and theme, but they all feature the interior dialogue, observations, and at times self-effacing rumination of a searingly intelligent but, to varying degrees, disaffected woman with a creative or writerly sensibility who finds herself peculiarly at odds with her own domestic responsibilities or milieu or parenting culture. The narrator is trying to be an artist and a mother, a creative person and a good, nurturing parent. She is learned, restless, skeptical, critical, and self-aware. She abhors received knowledge and sentimentality and meaningless social rituals. She is, in other words, all the things an artist or writer is supposed to be, but in some particular and vital way, these qualities are not serving her well. Nonetheless, she almost never feels free to say any of this directly. Instead, she softens and obscures the language of her discontent, assures us that, despite her doubts and objections and misgivings, she loves her child(ren)/home/partner. Or at least, she is unwilling or unable to escape them, and at times even revels in the intensity and all-consuming nature of her new role within a family, within the world. I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind: Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?

She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

I don’t know why it took me by surprise when she said this. I knew it to be true. I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says,, “Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.” Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.”

People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.

Or, as Offill writes in Dept. of Speculation, “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.” It makes perfect sense, but for a writer intent on using language to break down boundaries, explore taboos, trespass over the line of what is polite and pleasant and suitable for discussion, how could building a wall around oneself and a few select others be anything but disastrous? When I ask her what it was like to be the only person in the workshop with an infant, she responds with equal forthrightness. “I remember coming home from the hospital with my son and thinking, I’m fucked. That space I needed to create just ceased to exist.”

I am nodding as she tells me this, resigning myself to the idea that these two threads will never truly be entwined. Now as ever. Then, she goes on and pulls out the thread, leaving me with something much messier but also more true. “But,” she says. “But, but … Here’s the thing. Despite everything, I have to say that having the kids grew me up in a way nothing else could have. And basically, I needed ten years of mothering before I was like, Whoa, hey, this is what I’m meant to write. And now I’m working on a novel that I love and it feels like the kids gave me that by remaking me.”

« Is domestic life the enemy of creative work? »

A quote saved on July 10, 2020.


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