how's work?

What are you working on? How many times have you heard some version of this question? An innocent enough phrase, I suppose. It reflects curiosity, interest. But embedded within it is our culture's focus on production. You must show something to earn your place here, to be worthwhile. You, in fact, are not enough. But if you've got a product, tangible or intangible, we can begin to assess it, price it, and determine its (and your) value. 

Of course, there are many jobs whose products are undervalued. Think:  changing a diaper; teaching a child to read; cultivating food; preparing meals; spooning soup into an unwell person's unhappy mouth; consoling the emotional wounds of a tender-hearted toddler; responding to medical emergencies, identity crises, depression, envy, cruelty, sexual awakenings, reproductive rights. All tasks that a mother is expected to do in addition to any other paying job. All tasks that are utterly undervalued in the market.

Nobody wants to think of motherhood as a job. An act of production. But why not? Is this rooted in the idea that children are sacred? God-given, etc. Their value is so ethereal, it would be sacrilegious to assign monetary value to their delivery and raising. It would seem crass to call them products. And yet. If they are not products, how might we possibly value the act of mothering? The act of cultivating and nurturing? Would we wait until the child is making their own products, showing society their actual worth? And only then we could tell a mother she's been successful, or not? If her efforts mattered and can be compensated?

Perhaps the mothers who raise their children to become the biggest consumers should be compensated the most. If we prioritize products--because profits are everything--perhaps we should be honest about what the culture actually wants from its mothers: generation after generation of big spenders.

Reading this article in the NYTimes Magazine about artists who become mothers and take time away from their art-making and thinking, fuck. How to feel? So many female artists are sidetracked when they procreate. Either voluntarily or by the sheer financial impossibility of occupying both the role of mother and artist. The artist Trace Emin told an interviewer that, "There are good artists that have children. They are called men." 

The thing about art is that is mimics motherhood in so many ways. A lot of the work is just showing up. Patiently putting in the work, day after day. None of it feels heroic. Or even as though it will amount to anything. In fact, it can feel as if you are simply waiting for the moment when your exact magic is precisely what is needed. You cannot schedule mothering, nor creativity. These pursuits exists alongside chronological time, mostly in a liminal time that cannot be measured with a clock.

Also, a female artist's work is not viewed as urgently by society as that of the great male artists. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, Proust to Cheever all have a kind of hallowed ring around their names. They've been enshrined as the very creators of Western culture. But women who write or paint or sculpt are quaint. They are hobbyists or clever or industrious. They are not leading or defining a culture. They are not even trusted to lead or define their lives! And God forbid, what if a woman takes time away from her children to write and never publishes a word of it. She'd be considered foolish, selfish, morally corrupt.

And yet, that is the risk, of any artist, I suppose. Make without knowing how (or if) the world will respond. But women who have children and embark upon or continue an artistic career have to consider not just their own fate, but that of their children. While few are judging the men who occasionally ignore, outsource, relinquish their children in their pursuits of greatness, the women are judged harshly. And if the children are troubled or difficult--aren't they all--it must be the mother's fault.

My children are adults now. And yet. I can feel that we all still exist there in that time when they were babes. When I could lift them each and place them on the bed beside me to look at their books while I looked at my own. When I could gaze at their cherubic sleeping faces and imagine all that might be, entire futures yet to unfold. When I could push them in the swings, help them learn to skip, bounce a ball, brush their own teeth. And in that time, that fuzzy nostalgic place, I can believe the choices I made were not difficult. I longed to be with them, just as I long to be with them now. When they napped, pre-schooled, visited grandparents, I worked. But I fit my work in and around their lives, our lives. I didn't draw lines around my work and proclaim it an equally valid, necessary part of my self. Even though it earned me money. I can never know what residual marks that has left on me. And I will never know how my career as a writer or a mother would be different if I had. 

My dear strangers, art matters. I say this as the world seems to be literally cracking and buckling under the force of greed and cruelty and vengeance. Cultivating creativity is an antidote to despair, so I urge you to make the time. Write a poem, draw a line, cook a soup, sing a song. 


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