I don’t often expect to find myself agreeing with Rebecca Solnit. Appreciating in a detached way, yes; engaging in one-sided mental debate with, yes; agreeing, usually not. With sheepishness I admit that when I clicked on this article, itself a response to a Paris Review piece on “the art of monstrous men” that explores the moral lives of artists (hey, relevant!) and the (putative) monstrosity of female creativity, I expected to revel in that sense of pleasant outrage that drives more clicks than almost any other passion.
Then, a few paragraphs in, I read this passage Solnit quotes from Dederer’s original piece:
The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.
These words lit up every millimeter of neural circuitry I own. I am currently engaged in work on a novel about an “art monster” turned monk and the people whose lives have been bent into orbit around the chaotic process of his slow evolution into a self-aware, responsible being. This includes, as narrator, a woman whose own art career was derailed by his early antics.
Meanwhile, I live in the midst of life as a mother of small children, with all that this entails: I am bent into orbit around the chaotic process of child development. My own career is, to some extent and by my own free choice, derailed by early antics.
Therefore it is all the more necessary to me to believe that creativity and nurturance, so often assumed to be contrary, are simultaneously possible, and this without “selfishness.” It is necessary, because I’m in receipt of the same dubious conventional wisdom that Solnit blasts here: that high-level creativity necessarily requires an intense focus that rules out compassionate, nurturant care for others in one’s life. I desire to blast this dubious wisdom, too: to, in Solnit’s words, “tie lead weights to [it] so that it will never bob to the surface again.”
To this end, the following are the instructions I am reading to myself in my head. Follow along and, if they resonate with you, take what helps:
You, wife and mother, are the heart of your home. The heart is a leader. The heart is not a scullery maid. The ideal toward which you must lead your family is not the ideal of glossy home-showcase magazines (which so often bear the same relation to what a home is actually like, and what a home is actually for, that porn bears to sex).
The ideal toward which you must lead your family is the ideal the Holy Spirit has in mind for your specific, particular family. Maybe that involves a glossy exterior, but much more likely it doesn’t. Pray. Discern. Think. Use your time accordingly.
When you feel yourself drawn toward glossiness, pause. Notice what is happening. Stop it. You do not need to die on that hill. Your children do not need to see you instantiate the model of homemaker-as-scullery-maid, nor that of homemaker-as-museum-curator. They need you to be an executive who knows how to delegate and prioritize.
The floor needs to be swept, but maybe you don’t always need to be the one who sweeps it. Maybe you need to lead by example for a while, but it’s also okay to lead by direction.
Women born with creative talents can, will, should, must develop and fulfill them. This includes, specifically and especially, Catholic women, who must not bow to the essentially worldly notion that women are there to be used and discarded, to remain secondary and subjected.
To serve others well, it is necessary to use the talents God gave to you, not those he gave to your neighbor or your sister or your best friend or your babysitter. To disappear into the background is not an option. To bury your talent brings no return on God’s investment. To erase yourself is a service to no one.
It may be, dear reader, that self-erasure is not your particular temptation. In that case, these instructions are not for you. I can’t speak firsthand to the overt, and often culturally encoded as masculine, desire to put oneself at the center of everything. (Although there is a more covert selfishness in indulging the perception that you don’t matter and don’t affect anyone else: the core Catholic insight that everyone is equally valued in God’s eyes implies that no one is truly insignificant there, and if not insignificant there, then insignificant nowhere.)
As heartily, though, as I endorse Solnit’s conclusion in this piece* that nurturance and creativity are compatible and mutually reinforcing, I couldn’t stay on board with her minor premise: “Marital, parental, filial relationships are—I can’t believe I’m saying this again—not inherent in the condition of being a woman.” Well, [redacted expletive]. If having been born into a body isn’t part of the human condition, what is? If your existence, your presence and walking and breathing, isn’t the fruit of your own commitment, it’s the fruit of someone else’s. This is true whether that commitment was later honored or whether it was not.
I hope I’m not being deliberately obtuse in failing to understand what else this sentence could possibly mean, except that our embodied and somehow gendered existence does not stem from, or have written into it, or drive us toward, a calling to self-gift: not just in an abstract and broadcast, but in an intimate (even nuptial, in the theology-of-the-body sense, though not necessarily literally spousal) and personal way.
This is ironic, since Solnit’s essay is all about forms of self-gift. It raises, but doesn’t satisfactorily answer, the question of how these multiple forms are simultaneously possible. (Of course, neither does my essay. Both are only gestures toward the possibility.) For all this, I have to appreciate and be grateful for Solnit’s core assumption that possible, not impossible, is precisely what they are.
One more thing. Catholics, and Catholic societies, have often failed in this regard, but the Church at her best has always stood up for alternate ways of women’s being in the world, for vocations both within nature and beyond it. The key word here is vocations. Creative life–like the other professions Solnit’s essay showcases, and this I take to be her main point–has features of a vocation. One can be called to singleness and art. Or to parenthood and art. Or to religious life and art. Or to any one of these things by itself, or to any number of other things, together or alone. But with respect to every good thing, in Christ, we are made free: and this sense of freedom, I think, is what people often miss in our casual discussions of vocation, especially for women.
Let’s do something about this. Let’s start by doing something about the way we live. The “something” in I have in mind is inchoate, embryonic. It starts with women supporting, not questioning, each other’s ambition to create something beautiful for the world that is not directly in the context of, or intended for consumption by, our immediate families.
I imagine a multitude of creative women. (In my head I call us “St. Gianna’s Army,” after the pediatrician-mother-saint who lived and worked and gave to the world, both within and beyond her family, with such vibrancy. I get that this is grandiose and runs the risk of sanctimony, but hear me out.) I imagine us . . .
- Watching each other’s children so we can write or paint or compose.
- Supporting each other when the season of nurturance is especially intense, and welcoming each other back to the struggle without hint of competition or recrimination when it’s time to create again.
- Looking the other way, not judging, in the face of dust and scattered toys.
- Scaling back, or just taking a miss, on the 10,000 cute little crafts with dozens of fiddly pieces to be bought and sewn and glued and tidied and eventually discarded.
- Relinquishing the stubborn insistence on handmade everything for the benefit of the toddler who is only going to chew it, rip it, and grind peanut butter into it.
- Decluttering the [redacted expletive] out of our homes until they can be cleaned easily and quickly, without first having to shovel paths through all the [different redacted expletive, used as noun].
- Simplifying, simplifying: keeping our accounts, to quote good old Thoreau, on our thumbnails.
These calls speak to an overly heavy perception of responsibility and all that it entails, which comes with the current unsustainable First World standard of parenthood, and which often hampers our sense of freedom. Still, it’s good to have standards, even high standards, about some things.
There is a certain baseline of requisite care. Someone will always be left holding the baby. (At this moment, as I type, that person is me.) It’s time for us to reimagine this responsibility as a privileged rather than a desolate position. It’s time to reimagine this position as humanity has always known it is: powerful, creative, indispensable, yet not all-consuming. Only the love of God must be all-consuming. Anything else that makes a claim to that position makes it from a place of falsehood, even our closest ties. Especially our closest ties.
Let’s cut ourselves loose from the distraction and expectation with which contemporary parenthood has become rife. Let’s return to a focus on the heart of what it means to nurture others, whether our nurturance is personal, broadcast, or both. Let’s litter the place with broken Pinterest links, not with broken promises. Let’s support each other like our lives, our vocations, our works, our souls depend on it. It’s all too likely that they do.
* I’d have other disagreements to explore if I were doing an in-depth study of all Solnit’s ideas, which I hope everyone recognizes this piece isn’t trying to be. What I am doing here is exploring one specific area in which I think we can, despite other differences, agree.