author – activist – faculty – mom
In an election year, and this election in particular, there is more talk than ever about class. On one extreme, we have Bernie Sanders, talking about revolution and remedying income inequality. On the other extreme we have billionaire Trump who represents the interests of the rich (to the degree that he represents anyone but himself), but is popular among poor and working class whites, particularly men. In this way, Trump is simply a caricature of the Republicans’ usual strategy, using racism and sexism to get poor and working class people to vote against their own self-interests. Our society is founded on this principle, this strategic manipulation of the white working class to accept terrible labor and living conditions.
For women, this manipulation has conditioned us to buy in to our labor being exploited and invisible. Inside of this mythology, I’m not spending six hours doing arduous emotional and domestic labor, I’m fulfilling my God-given role as wife and mother. Because domestic labor (raising children, keeping house, doing the emotional work of relationships) isn’t seen as labor, women are robbed of the ability to see ourselves clearly for the labor we do in families: most mothers are part of the working class. Although there is great variety in the conditions of our lives, we spend most of our time engaged in arduous, entry level labor. Yes, we love our families, and it has its rewards. But it’s work. We do the work of raising people for the society. Our labor is consistently exploited. No pay. No labor unions. No national policies to support us. We clean up the society’s shit.
Contrary to popular myth, artists are also part of the working class. Not the artist identity, but those of us who are actually busy steadily making things. This is another delusion of our society. Artists are associated with privilege and elitism. To be sure, in our society it is a privilege to be able to work with one’s mind and to be able to put one’s visions out in the world. But the actual doing of the art is work. For most artists, this work is either unpaid, or very poorly paid. Few of us can make a living. We often work in terrible isolation. We have few unions and guilds to protect us except at the highest levels. Our labor is also consistently exploited.
Although the labor conditions of motherhood and artists are both bad, the system maintains its power by teaching us to blame ourselves. Mothers spend a great deal of time feeling anxious and guilty that we’re not doing it right. Artists spend a great deal of time feeling insecure, discouraged, or fraudulent. Both groups would be served by understanding that these labor conditions are so terribly under-resourced that they set us up to fail or to always feel like we’re failing. If our lives as moms or artists aren’t going well, we are taught to believe it’s our personal deficiency, when it’s actually a function of the society’s structure.
I was fortunate to have this class perspective as I developed my artistic career and before I became a mom. However, many mothers, particularly contemporary mothers coming from white, middle class backgrounds, are ambushed by the labor of motherhood. They have not been conditioned to expect working class lives. They find themselves dazed and disoriented, then they struggle to understand what has happened to them.
One of my writermom friends, Susie Meserve, sent me an article via Twitter, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom” by Kim Brooks in New York Magazine’s “The Cut.” This article is a perfect example of a woman who is struggling with the working class reality of her life as a writer and a mother. But, as usual, the article’s subtitle lacks class context and asks the wrong question: “Is domestic life the enemy of creative work?”
Brooks explains that in her early 20s, she had been “confident that my desire to have a family and to be a writer would seamlessly coalesce.” Brooks’ essay had a strong character arc that followed the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Parts of it really spoke to me about my own life, but other parts moved me in a different. Given her lack of awareness of the class-ambush of motherhood, I was moved by the vulnerability of middle class women to have their visions and expectations of their lives shattered by reality, and the tendency to blame themselves for the ambush.
Brooks had the expectation of ease in writing/parenting as a 23-year old white woman in the Iowa writer’s workshop, an MFA program whose elite status implicitly promises every participant a glorious career in letters. I, as a black Latina woman from a mixed class/working class background, never had such expectations. I had my share of elite schooling, but through it all, I came up as an artist assuming that I would need to fight for everything I ever got. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how growing up without a dad and perspectives of feminism on male domination have protected me from these dangerous illusions.
Later, in her 30s as a mom, Brooks speaks of a “creeping sense that in choosing the domestic path I chose, I’d forsaken the possibility of leading a fulfilling creative life.” As we can see, she’s right in there with the self-blame. Ouch. She has been taught to see her middle class life as a set of choices and to hold herself responsible.
I grew up with a single mom who was a working artist and an activist. So I knew it was possible. But I also I learned that these identities and experiences were political: motherhood, single parenting, the arts. I was an activist myself in my teens and was mentored by second wave feminists. They prepared me for the idea that the work of raising children was arduous labor that was unrewarded and devalued in the society. I was trained to expect that motherhood would be a shit show, so I wasn’t surprised when I found myself in the shit.
Brooks says nothing of her own childhood and her own mother. She’s also silent about her class background. Perhaps she was raised middle class, or perhaps not, but her middle class education led her to have certain expectations. I wonder if she had a mom content with (or at least quiet about) her domestic role. My mom is Puerto Rican, the first generation born in the US. She didn’t identify as feminist at that time, but I saw how she struggled—both alone and when she was partnered—to put her art first, and it informed my expectations for myself.
According to Brooks: “There is a whole new genre of literary fiction that is dedicated to this conflict between the parental and the artistic, a genre which I’ve come to think of as the literature of domestic ambivalence.” Again, she sees the situation as centered in the emotional reality of the women, not the labor conditions of the work. Like the so-called “Mommy Wars” women are encouraged to pit parts of our own lives against one another, instead of looking at the larger society. According to Brooks:
These books vary widely in form, tone, quality and theme, but they all feature…a searingly intelligent but, to varying degrees, disaffected woman with a creative or writerly sensibility who finds herself peculiarly at odds with her own domestic responsibilities or milieu or parenting culture. The narrator is trying to be an artist and a mother, a creative person and a good, nurturing parent.
What seems to be in her blind spot, I think, is that these women are generally white and middle class. This literature is the descendant of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. White middle class women have an important story to tell, but it’s not the only story. The difficulty articulating of their race and class position is part of the problem. There is a vicious lullabye of the middle class to its women, one that promises all will be well if they will simply go to sleep and dream only of acquisition. This is how middle class women can wake up in the middle of a nightmare of isolation and drudgery.
Whiteness or middle classness isn’t Brooks’ fault, it’s the accident of her birth. However, these are locations of deep and generally unacknowledged privilege. She knew that some women drowned under the weight of domestic drudgery, she just didn’t expect to be one of them. Frankly, I was also ambushed by the level of drudgery in motherhood, although I did expect some of it. After all, both of my brown grandmothers cleaned houses at some point. But Brooks’ conditioning seems to have led her to thinking she wasn’t even at risk. This is parenting’ rude awakening for many of her tribe.
And being awake is a shock in and of itself. Because of the middle class’ tendency to advocate numbness, the children grow up interested in feeling anything, even pain and depression. Brooks says:
Before I had children, for example, I believed strongly in the nobility of suffering. All interesting, worthwhile humans suffered and struggled and overcame adversity of one sort or another. Pain is constructive. Misery can be useful.
Her vision of an artist was very different from mine: She aspired to “be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized.”
Not me. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was the type of artist who hustled. I never envisioned that I could be depressed and distracted and still to have a creative life. This is not to say that there are no women of color artists who are depressed, particularly since much depression is a result of trauma, and as women of color, we have a high trauma load. But as women of color we don’t generally expect the society’s caretaking. White men who are depressed but self-identified geniuses often get propped up to make art. White women’s circumstances vary. But black women with the same psychological profile get systematically discouraged as creatives, and are more likely to get locked up. Working class people of color don’t generally romanticize depression. I was raised to admire accomplishment and productivity. I expected that if I wanted success, I would have to work constantly. So I did. I wrote. I performed. I published my own chapbooks. Produced my own shows. Cut my own CDs. I waited til my early 40s to have kids, because I wanted more time to put in the creative work before I got ambushed by the domestic work.
As far as her historical perspective, Brooks’ analysis is effective at looking at some of the changes in parenthood, but they are mostly changes in the parenting styles of the white middle class. She quotes a friend who says:
“We do motherhood differently now than it used to be done. We do it in a way that’s problematic for having an adult life, much less being an adult who wants to create art.” Much less, I think, an adult who wants to create art but who has no way of making money from said art to pay for child care to continue art-making.
In my life, I’d already had to learn to make a living from my creativity, because, prior to having kids, no one was going to underwrite my creative career. Not my parents, not my partner. Not any wealthy patron or institution. I have certainly learned to hustle even harder as a mom, but I feared that motherhood would end my artist life if I didn’t work hard to position myself for success before I had kids. As it was, I hadn’t quite gotten far enough, and there were years after my daughter was born, where I thought I might not be able to make the transition from a career in spoken word, to a career as a novelist. I underestimated how hard it would be to break into the literary industry. When I sold my novel last year, I let go of the feeling that was akin to what Brooks felt. While she calls it a “creeping sense that in choosing the domestic path I chose, I’d forsaken the possibility of leading a fulfilling creative life,” I would have said: “I underestimated the battle and thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. Dammit. Those fuckers stole my dream.” But they didn’t. I kept fighting, but above all, found other moms who were fighting, and banded together with them. I will forever be grateful to the HackerMoms. I also really appreciate publications like Hip Mama and Michelle Tea’s Mutha Magazine, because they cater to moms in the trenches.
While Brooks and her crew may not share a sense of the battle, they do have a similar dream, to write and publish books. They also often underestimate what it will take. She says, “You know, a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer and it was so impressive when they were 23 and now they’re 33 and they still don’t have a book out.” What she describes here is writers encountering the working class reality.
For people of color, it looks different, particularly for those of us who come from a working class reality. Some of our friends are “successful in…normative fields,” but many are dead, in jail, working miserable jobs just to survive, working in the underground economy, or are having a really difficult time finding work. Some struggle hard with chronic illnesses and disabilities, both physical and mental. Others struggle with life-threatening addictions. The fact that I even held on to the dream of being an artist put me in a privileged position in many of my communities. The fact that I made a living as an artist made me part of the super-elite.
Not only is Brooks’ concept of the artist colored by her race and class background, her very conception of parenthood is, as well. Her friend tells her the following about the conflict between art and parenting:
“The point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
I don’t know why it took me by surprise when she said this. I knew it to be true. I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says, “Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.” Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.”
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.”
Or, as Offill writes in Dept. of Speculation, “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.” It makes perfect sense, but for a writer intent on using language to break down boundaries, explore taboos, trespass over the line of what is polite and pleasant and suitable for discussion, how could building a wall around oneself and a few select others be anything but disastrous?
As a mom of African and Latina heritage, who is raising a black child, I always assumed that motherhood would be a political battlefield. I didn’t expect to be comfortable. Because we are the people outside that wall, the ones being kept out. Even if my particular child were considered “exceptional” and let in, then she would suffer by being around the people who are the keeper-outers, and suffer isolation from her people.
My fight was, from the very beginning, about keeping racism and sexism out of my daughter’s psyche. To the degree it was poisoning her anyway—like air and water pollution—my fight was to help her detox. In this way, the writing and the parenting are both part of the resistance.
Also, the image of the isolated artistic genius generally doesn’t work for moms of color. I learned from my single mom to band together with other moms. Poor and working class people know that survival and any hope of thriving is dependent on having close relationships. Part of the myth of the middle class family is that the woman’s successful husband and nice house with the wall to keep people out equals a good life. This is a lie. Parents need community. Not people who judge and compete with each other, but close friends who laugh and revel in the mess together. So to Brooks and all the white women writing literature of domestic ambivalence: don’t be ambivalent, be pissed. These are labor issues. Look to groups like VIDA and Binders and MomsRising. Let’s band together and fight.