The Secret Life of an Artist Mom
An Essay by Playwright, Actress and Role Mommy Anna Fishbeyn
When my son was born and I was averaging 45 minute-intervals of sleep, my daughter quietly noted: "Daddies go to work, but Mommies stay at home!" I turned bright feminist-red, forgetting for an instant that my daughter was only four, and delivered my rather weak retort: "Did you know, pumpkin, that there are Mommies who go to work just like daddies?" She smiled and said: "But YOU, thank God, are not one of them!"
Not one of them? My mind crashed against the debilitating dichotomy of our time: stay-at home moms vs. working moms? Every day I read a new article dissecting motherhood, twirling like a baton the concept of "having it all." I read with detached envy the protracted Internet debate between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, wondering nervously where I fit in.
On the surface I was staying at home with my children, but secretly I was working. Yet this "work" did not bring in any money. I convinced my husband that I needed to hire help to enable me to sleep. But clandestinely, while I was supposed to be sleeping, I worked. Only the nannies knew my secret, knew I had one eye on my computer, the other eye on them. It gnawed at me that my work did not carry equal weight to that of my husband's, that I could not even claim to be "working," that even though I had deadlines no one cared if I met them. I could not compete with the glamorous stories of women in high heels climbing corporate ladders, juggling ambition, marriage and children like acrobats on tightrope while society watched and judged. Yet strangely, even though my uniform was a pink robe and slippers and my office was wedged between the children's play area and the living room couch, I felt as if I was one of them: focused, haggard, brimming with passion and irrepressible ambition.
Because what I am I could not alter after I gave birth to my children, so I coined a term for myself to soothe a chasm in my mind between the necessity to create and the necessity to sacrifice myself for my children: I was - I am an artist mom.
How many of us, artist moms, are out there, I wondered, how many of us write, paint, play, sing, dance in secret, pretending to the world to have been - through the miracle of birth - cured of the grueling tyranny of one's imagination? I wondered too, if I could successfully string these two words together, or did they signal an incurable contradiction, a mockery of an old established tradition we, mothers, were never meant to penetrate?
Images of struggling artists came to me in reveries: there was Picasso making love to his hundredth model, a man with a family and children, but they may as well have been his self-‐portraits, silent and un-intrusive. I saw Hemingway defeating his writer's block with Daiquiris and Martinis, and a drink called Death in the Afternoon. Jonathan Franzen was barricading his windows with mattresses to write the great American novel, steadfastly keeping the outside world from seeping in. Phillip Roth was awake and frantic in the middle of the night on a Connecticut farm, jotting down brilliance on yellow post-its presciently resting at his bedside table.
Then there was me: my nightstand overflowed with bottles and pacifiers, and a Medela Breast Pump rested against my laptop. My breasts contracted involuntarily from pain, my second C-section bent my stomach in a crooked angle, preventing me from straightening up, and my fingers swelled from post-partum water retention. Would anyone see the romance, the thrill, the enigma in the image of a mother - of me - writing as I breastfed, cradling my son with one hand to ensure his proper latching while revising the strewn pages under my armpits, crossing superfluous sentences out with my other, my free hand? Or in lieu of that ubiquitous image - the Starbucks writer-in-deep-thought, there was me in deep thought - changing my son's shit-filled diaper. What began as a feared chore grew into a beloved routine, an exploration of ideas: I solved a seemingly intractable problem in my fourth chapter, conjured a tear-jerking epilogue, gave birth to an essay entitled, Conversations With My Breasts, and so it went.
Was I a bad mother? Did the fact that my thoughts strayed from his exuberant poop or that I wiped his royal buttocks mechanically, routinely, blankly mean that I lagged in motherly devotion - that I did not measure up to Our Current Idealized Stay-At-Home Mother‐Goddess/Goodness/Madness? Did Shakespeare ever feel guilt, in the aftermath of his greatest epiphanies, for not thinking enough about the children he never had the time to see? No, I reprimanded myself: think like the male-artists, liberate your brain from the socially-constructed mommyisms. Futile. I was besotted with guilt. Guilt at every quarter- turn, from every infinitesimal crevice. Guilt for not concentrating enough, for not being awake enough, for not sacrificing enough! Guilt for the aftermath, when I put my clean lavender-smelling son in the playpen, gave my daughter watercolors, turned on Mozart for their collective brain development, and ran to jot down my ideas, which if ignored even for a second on such minimal sleep would be irretrievably stricken from memory.
Where did my ideas go - you ask - computers, post-its, fancy leather bound journals? Try grocery store receipts from Fairway, Zabars, and Whole Foods. Try napkins and paper towels, and backs of old decrepit magazines. I had no time to plan ahead or to extract suitable notebooks out of my old writing bag as my infant howled from the playpen, and my toddler whined, "I'm bored with painting! I want outside, I want toooooo gooooo OUTSIDE!" And when an hour later, after eating and feeding and dressing and putting suntan lotion on cringing screaming faces, I finally found myself in the open air and walked down to the Hudson River, I heard them gurgling again at my temples, ideas erupting from obstinate nooks of memory, demanding to be heard like the children I held in my arms. I stopped abruptly, and resting against a bench, one hand on the infant's carriage, the other in my toddler's fearful grip, I said, "Hold on, pumpkin, for a minute, Mommy has an idea she must write down!" and wrote it down: "Hold on to me, you're a pumpkin for just a minute: Mommy is an idea she must write out!"
At night, while everyone slept - children, husband, city - I would decipher those crumbled, milk-‐stained, transparent scraps of paper, those sticky reminders that my mommy brain, part-sleep-addled imagination, part-crazed determination, could not breathe or function without art.
Yet I resented it too, the way art lorded over me and tore me away from my children, superimposing fiction onto reality as if it were crisscrossing train tracks inside my head. Art was a thief who robbed your mind of the space and time you had allocated for them - your children - robbed them of one more I-Love-You, one more kiss, one more 3 embrace, irreverently demanding that you choose between loving and thinking, between their needs and your own.
Enviously, I eyed Hemingway and Roth, or heck, the boys in my writing program from New School, sailing forth; "Look at all the able-minded men, whether married or single or divorced, they create, they write, they multiply; they're untethered, un-guilt-ridden, unattached. They say unabashedly - 'I'm a writer!'" What about how I write - has anyone cared to ask?
I write without sleep, my visage drained and unkempt, anxiously aware of art's grand robberies, kissing my children often, doling out I-Love-You's in large, generous portions. I write while burping an infant on my shoulder, asking my toddler calmly why she's throwing tomatoes on the floor, rebuffing credit card companies' incessant calls about bills pending, bills unpaid; my fingers move furiously across the keyboard, stringing together sentences from wet grocery store receipts. Yet out there, in the world of playgrounds and preschools, I am tremulous and brutally insecure: "me, oh, I don't do much, I'm just a stay-at-home mom."
Where is our culture's romance with mother-‐artists, where is the dialogue - the text we can turn to - that will bridge the word, "stay-at-home," with "working nonstop?" Where are the essays and poems and puff pieces about us - the 24/hour cave-watchers, the warrior-worriers, the protectors stationed in our homes like hawks, like soldiers, working yet anchored - doing everything yet accused of doing nothing - what will they ever make of us?
Here's the funny irony in meshing these two words together: it was my children's births, my postpartum brain, my two C-section scars, my protective instincts that drew this thing out of me, this thing that I had long known existed but never saw in full bloom: an artistic will. My children released me from past baggage, from procrastination, from the ennui born of youth's confusion and opacity to the swift passage of time. They freed me by binding me, freedom parceled out and cut up into fragments of time, twenty minutes here, seventy seconds there, a minute in a distant future - there I lived and wrote, in the constant in-‐between, art cut up and then sown together in a collage, more pronounced, more real, more vulnerable than reality itself. I now had the courage to acknowledge my fears and discard them, to put ideas on the page without waiting for approval, to describe myself without referring to the simplified, media-engendered dichotomies - labels - that categorize and imprison the mothers of our day.
By the time I wrote and performed in my play, Sex in Mommyville, I knew that my art was inextricable from motherhood. It was the dancing and singing and playacting with my children that spawned an artist out of me. My wings wrapped round their little bodies, my wings painted by them. I saw our fictionalized story on a page, on the stage: living intertwined with writing, loving intertwined with a dream.
Anna Fishbeyn is a feminist playwright, producer, actor, author, painter, and proud mother of two children. Her plays, Sex in Mommyville, and My Stubborn Tongue, continue to be performed in New York City. Her articles such as "Wall Street Makeover," "The Miniskirt Dilemma," And "The Secret Life of An Artist Mom" examine the media-engendered pressures and socially acceptable double-standards affecting women and mothers today. Anna's website brings her work under one roof and introduces the blog, XO, Feminist: at once a personal journey, a critical analysis of our culture and the media, and a humor column to prove to everyone that feminists can be funny.
*Essay republished with the permission of the author.