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A Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mother

by The Next Family December 16, 2010

By: Sheana Ochoa

I happened to be driving around Los Angeles on a Thursday afternoon when my favorite KCRW program, Bookworm, aired.  Host Michael Silverblatt was interviewing Nicole Strauss whose novels The History of Love and especially Man Walks into a Room present a voice I haven’t heard before, one of loss and identity and the magical “what if” without belaboring the post-modern tropes of metafiction.  At any rate, so I’m listening and I get home and have to take up the groceries just as the conversation gets juicy, just as Silverblatt asks the proverbial question of the artist and the need to sacrifice life for art, the need to isolate oneself at long intervals in order to create, teetering on solipsism. More importantly, he ponders how society’s judgment doubles when the artist is a mother. I’ll have to download the podcast to hear how Krauss responded, but it left me asking myself the same question.

As I’ve mentioned before, I struggle with energy deficiency so I have to put my toddler in daycare.   Sending him off all day during the week leaves me with (you’d think) plenty of solitude, reflection, time for writing.  In actuality, I’ve found that time shrinks up as quickly as it used to when I was a full-time teacher.  When I first came up with the idea of daycare I suffered from guilt as I imagine any mom would who has to leave her child, although the typical reason for putting one’s child in daycare is work.  I compared myself to these “working” mothers and felt I did not have the same rights they had because, even though I was also working part of the day, writing, I was doing so from home where my son could just as easily be present if I were healthy.  And yet, why, just because I work from home, should I feel more guilty or guilty at all for sending my son to daycare?  After the first month, I realized it was a great outlet for him; he was making friends, learning social skills and being more active than he would be with me at home.  The guilt dissipates and then returns.

The point is that our society does not hold up the work of artist as seriously as that of other professions.  This is due no doubt to the fact that most artists struggle financially in a society lacking respect, support and a sense of purpose for art. There is a lot of material on this issue, the lack of government funds for the NEA just one example, and it’s not my intention to rehash it here.

What I do want to examine is why it is that the artist, devoting countless hours to her work, who also happens to be a mother, could be construed as a “bad” mother, while a mother working outside the home, maybe even taking business trips, is not a bad mother?  And what about fathers?  How are they so conspicuously excluded  from the “bad” label?  The answer lies in our deified, puritanical work ethic whose attitude is that breadwinning is synonymous with parenting.  The distinction is what needs to be clarified, and none better to do so than third wave feminism, which is still vaguely defined, and now includes more men than ever, while also being colorblind, but not genderblind.  Just ask anyone under twenty and the fact that our president is African-American is as natural as the fact that he is a man.  Why haven’t we surmounted the same hurdles with our attitudes towards women?

But again, I digress; I’m not writing to correct the bra-burning connotations of feminism in order to clarify where we stand as a nation in our treatment of women, but as an artist who has become a mother and subsequently struggles with guilt. The fact that I chose to have my son on my own, intentionally without a father, magnifies the judgment of selfishness in some circles.  As his primary care giver, I am vulnerable to the same feelings of guilt and second-guessing I imagine most moms experience, even stay-at-home moms.  Add to that a need for reflection, composition, revision and I’m left doing less writing and more mothering.  Not that I would trade one job for the other, but taking the perspective of Joyce’s young artist who grappled with his devotion to his family and his art: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”  Joyce saw how the artist’s work is no different from a parent’s: they both render the individual invisible, sacrificed to a higher purpose.  And so the best way I know of being a “good” mother is to remain doing what I love the most (not “beyond or above” but in concert with loving my son): writing, creating, feeding my artistic imagination.

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