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‘The Baby on the Fire Escape’ Review: Balancing Art and Motherhood

Is it possible to be both a great mother and a great artist? As every mother knows, childrearing can be sublime and stupefying, thrilling and exhausting. And like creative work, you can lose yourself in it, but also find yourself. The novelist Jane Smiley put it this way: “Far from depriving me of thought, motherhood gave me new and starting things to think about and the motivation to do the hard work of thinking.”

In “The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem,” Julie Phillips explores how maternity has affected artists and writers—particularly those born in the 1930s, who came of age in the postwar years when women were expected to stay at home with their children. Her focus on her is on the tug-of-war between books and babies, poetry and prams, art and adolescents. She is interested in the way divided attention and constant interruptions can conspire, along with maternal bliss and maternal guilt, “to erode creative work.”

The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

By Julie Phillips

Norton

317 pages

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Although Ms. Phillips doesn’t delve into her personal story, she does disclose that her children, who were in elementary school when she first conceived of this project, are now both in college. You could say that “The Baby on the Fire Escape” grew along with them. It’s an expansive, absorbing survey of women (mainly writers) who produced notable and often groundbreaking work: Alice Neel, Doris Lessing, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Angela Carter, Susan Sontag, Penelope Fitzgerald, Lorna Sage, Shirley Jackson.

Like these artist-mothers, Ms. Phillips juggles a lot. She has chosen her subjects from her well, to illustrate varied personal circumstances including race, financial situation, sexual identity and family background. She also picks up on themes of gender inequality addressed in her first book, “James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon,” a Hugo award-winning biography of the science-fiction writer who adopted a male pen name and kept her true identity secret for years.

Ms. Phillips can’t resist a good story or a good quote, so her book brims with both. The anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that hours get lost “not because the baby cries, but because the baby smiles so much.” Novelist Jenny Offill comments astutely, “The love you feel for your child has a way of obliterating whatever you used to think you loved.” English sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who had four children, including triplets, said, “I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re a professional or you’re not.”

With so much material to keep straight, Ms. Phillips strives to highlight connections and patterns. All of her subjects suffered periods of depression and failure. Many left early marriages, and several lost children. Most had more than one spouse or partner. The luckiest, including Alice Walker and Ursula K. Le Guin, had partners who encouraged their work, although most did not. Almost all had at least one accidental pregnancy—often while still in their late teens—and many had abortions. “The Baby on the Fire Escape” implicitly makes a case for the importance of reproductive rights, showing how the advent of effective birth control during these women’s lifetimes helped motherhood go from accident and obligation to deliberate choice.

Many of these women started out following what Ms. Phillips calls “the motherhood plot”—the expectation that they would marry, have children and embrace selflessness. Instead, they ended up “on a journey of self-discovery.” Nobel laureate Doris Lessing was, in her time de ella, infamous for having abandoned her two small children in what was then called Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for her writing career. But Ms. Phillips shows this is n’t strictly accurate, correcting the record after poring over Lessing’s letters from her: She actually left her husband from her to pursue a more fulfilling life and in divorcing him lost all legal rights to their children from her . Alice Neel also lost custody of a child from her first marriage to her, but she and Lessing both raised the sons they later bore. Each found a way to live and work “against the grain,” as an “outlaw mother.”

Most of the women profiled here worked at home, not at 9-to-5 jobs, and struggled to find physical and mental space in which to create. The source of Ms. Phillips’s title is from a remark by Alice Neel’s Cuban in-laws, who “claimed, on no evidence, that she had once left her baby on the fire escape from her New York apartment when she was trying to finish a painting.” In fact, Neel frequently painted mothers and children, including the somewhat shell-shocked portrait of motherhood that adorns this book’s cover.

Mothers found other creative ways to write, short of resorting to fire escapes. AS Byatt has said she sometimes wrote with her baby perched on her desk in a plastic infant seat. (I can relate; I tried this with my firstborn, dangling a rattle from an architect’s lamp overhead.) Elizabeth Smart sent her four children to boarding school, her youngest at just 6. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote on a pad in her car when traffic slowed during her commute to her publishing job. And Alice Walker, in a haunting evocation of maternal guilt, imagined her daughter de ella as she worked, “the lonely sucking of her thumb de ella / a giant stopper in my throat.”

Ms. Phillips, who oddly calls these women by their first names, highlights a range of experiences. Le Guin, Ms. Walker and Angela Carter preferred monogamous relationships, while poet Audre Lorde’s open marriage to a gay man enabled her to raise children as a lesbian. Susan Sontag managed to retain custody of the son she had at 19, but she had to “lie about her de ella love for women” to do so. Ms. Phillips is especially interested in “the changes that came with feminism,” and what she calls “hero-tales,” whose narrative arcs echo fairy tales in which the protagonists get lost in the woods but eventually find their way.

Despite her determination not to criticize other mothers’ choices, Ms. Phillips acknowledges that some things these women did made her uncomfortable. But the larger picture remains inspiring—including Ms. Walker’s rags-to-riches success story, fueled in part by the civil-rights movement, which fed her sense of her vocation. Le Guin was determined to keep her domestic life separate from her de ella writing de ella—the one anchored in realism, the other let loose in a magical world of fantasy. Having a husband who was game about pitching in with child care helped.

Although “The Baby on the Fire Escape” examines the particular challenges of gifted artists as they tried to balance the demands of creative work with the demands of motherhood, the book actually addresses a problem faced by all mothers: how to nurture both the child’s development and one’s own. Ms. Phillips makes it clear in this illuminating work that there’s no single best way to do this. But there are, she concludes, two absolute necessities: time, and a firm sense of what’s important to you as a person in your own right.

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