Growing up, my mother told me I could be not only anything I wanted, but everything I wanted.
This was good news to my 18-year-old self. It meant that I could be both an actor and a scientist, a lover and a friend, a mother and a working professional. It meant that I could integrate all my interests, my many passions, even my momentary whims (she didn’t say I had to be everything forever until the end of time) and not have to make difficult (unnecessary?) binary choices.
What a gift!
I spent my early years studying to be a chemist while touring the country with a theatre company. I traveled, yet was rooted. I was rebellious yet respectful, sexy yet sincere, feminist yet tender–imagine that! I left my home, lived in two different countries on two different continents and was still able to retain my Hindu-Parsi-Indian identity. I could be everything I wanted.
Then, in my late twenties I got pregnant.
Living, as we were, in a “foreign” country (America) with no family and no “village” to help us raise this child, my husband suggested that I stay home and look after her. It wasn’t much of a choice, really. I had no papers then, at least none that allowed me to work, and I wanted this child–badly!
So I jumped in feet first.
I did the whole stay-at-home-mom thing, complete with hand-made birthday cakes and swim lessons at two and Bach and . . . you get the idea. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t impatient, that I didn’t wish away many, many days of their lives, building up the tower of blocks only to have them knock it down with glee, waiting, as I did, at doctors’ offices and soccer games, waiting, waiting for them to grow up, waiting for when it would be my turn.
I had hit the limits of my imagination, the boundaries of my fear. I didn’t know how to raise children and still grow me. I didn’t know how to serve their needs and mine. I didn’t know how to be everything I wanted to be.
So I chose.
I chose motherhood. Not for any selfless reasons, but out of fear. The stakes were too high. I just couldn’t screw this up. I could fluff a line, fail an exam, get fired from a job, but this, this motherhood thing allowed no mistakes. There were, after all, two lives hanging in the balance, and it was my game to lose.
So I took a deep breath, and twenty years later, I can safely exhale.
Coming off my experience at AROHO, where I met many many accomplished writers and artists, all of whom work and mother and wife and do all the many things we do as women, I realize that I need not have made the choice I did. Each of those women there had found a way to integrate, not amputate as I had done. I’m sure many would tell you that it didn’t come easily, that there were stumbles, great periods of drought, uncertainty, crises of confidence, but they were doing it, where I had just packed it away, like a wedding gown, never to be seen again until it was time to hand it down to the next generation.
How did they do it, and why could I not?
In a 1996 interview, Mirella Bentivoglio, Italian poet, maverick, and mother says she had “no doubts” about her decision to be both an artist and a mother because she felt “moved in both directions by an overwhelming enthusiasm.” This was a bold position to take in 1940’s Italy. What fed her confidence? Bentivoglio tells us that she knew it would be a challenge, so a paradigm shift was called for. Having already established herself as an artist before setting up home and hearth, she knew she would have to find a suitable partner–one who was open-minded enough to “share and support her purpose.” She also knew that she had to find a way bring her work into her motherhood and her motherhood into her work. Her art, thus, evolved from more “visual” poetry into more “object” poetry that involved sculpture, voice, and performance. She also invited her children to share her studio space with her, so that she didn’t have to physically separate her work space and her motherhood space, she didn’t have to “escape” from one to the other.
What a radical idea!
I had always thought the two to be incompatible, to be competing for my attention. It never once occurred to me that in bringing the two together, the art itself would evolve as, I’m sure, the motherhood did.
Why? Why did I never consider this an option?
Some of it was my own set of circumstances, my own biases that I brought with me as a young woman growing up in pre-feminist India. I watched my mother, a physician, drop exhausted into bed each night after putting in a full day’s work and caring for home and family. She did all the cooking and cleaning, all the child care, and had to make sure that her husband was not “neglected” and that her parents were comfortable and cared for. Sometimes she dropped the ball, and she was crucified for her transgressions. It was all well and good that she was a professional (doctor) and an artist (singer), but those would always come second to her wife-ing and mothering (in that order). I guess those priorities, those fear-bearing cells, bled right through the placental wall straight into me. I could see, intellectually, the inequity, the injustice imposed upon her, and I resisted it consciously in my choice of husband, my choice to emigrate, but I guess the cultural imperatives to sacrifice as a woman, to do more for everyone else crosses geographic borders.
In this country, women face similar choices–this or that, A or B. Yes, there are organizations for women, yes there are artistic opportunities like no other, but usually they expect women, mothers to cleave themselves, to leave their mother-hats behind. In fact, the assumption is that mother-artists welcome the opportunity to leave their children and mothering responsibilities behind. And for me this was true. Had I been able to figure out a way to afford to do so, I would have happily (well, maybe a little guiltily) seized the opportunity. But what of the women who don’t want that? What do we have for them?
Good news! There are mother-friendly, family-friendly artist residencies offered by several organizations:
The Santa Fe Art Institute offers a Family Residency program that usually runs in the summer months where residents are able to bring their children/families with them to the program.
ArtReach Studios offers two family-friendly residency programs for artists–The Getaway Van and Family in Residence.
Artist Residency in Motherhood, a privately funded in-home residency program.
Cultural Reproducers is an organization that actively supports artists who are also parents.
Yes, these are meager offerings given the great need of mother-artists, but it’s a start. If you know of others and/or would like to offer other information, please leave your suggestions in the comments section.
Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%27Philippines_Mother_and_Child%27,_painting_by_Vicente_Manansala,_1965,_Singapore_Art_Museum.jpg