Saturday, June 14, 2008

Alice Walker and Daughter: Motherhood and Artists

The discussion over Rebecca Walker's remarks on her famous mother, Alice Walker ( The Color Purple ) is a macrocosm - ballooned for public eye because of the fame of AW and the public remarks of her daughter - of an issue facing mothers every day : Can a woman be a good mother and a successful artist? Is it possible to successfully balance the traits inherent to artistic endeavors with the traits associated with good mothering, and if so, what does that look like?

As a poet and novelist, I think about this often. I am currently finishing my second novel, ' Agitate My Heart ', submitting my poetry en masse for the first time, and editing my first poetry book. I recently finished a night class and will be taking another soon, as well as returning to work at the end of the month. My son, DW, is 13 rocketing toward 21 and suddenly aware of the disturbing differences between ' the other moms' and ' you, mom. '

First of all, I had my son at 20. At 33, I am much younger than any of his friends mothers.
I also tend to look younger, maybe because of my freckles or round shaped face, or my outfit of tight jeans, tee shirts and Converse. Perhaps it's my ' tramp stamp '. ( I am so thrilled my beautiful tattoo with my children's name has that lovely title due to it's positioning on my lower back. Who knew? SNL did a hilarious mockmercial on these. )

In addition to these apparently dubious characteristics, I just don't act like the other moms. I sing, for one thing, out loud, for no reason. OH MY GOD. I make stupid jokes. I have been known to snort occasionally when laughing. I do not make dinner every single night and (direct quote: enjoy it) as, apparently, all the other moms do. Sometimes we even just have a handful of veggies and a sandwhich and call it a night. Men whistle at me, and to my poor son's horror - I can feel his pain on this one - boys close to his age whistle at me. * In my defense I promise I do not wear belly shirts or short shorts or mini skirts or tops plastered to my breasts, because I know where you're going, reader. * I don't work on a schedule with our free time, which drives him nuts. I hate to explain what we are going to do for the next ten hours, and he hates that I won't. I am typically a few minutes late to everywhere. I procrastinate getting ready, often plastered to my poems or book or reading, and then rush around getting ready. I have been known to spend entire weekend days working on my book or poems. Our dishes pile up, our floors get clotted with dog hair. But hell- I ALLOW my kids to have animals (two dogs and four cats! for christs sake!) and most of his friends parents won't let them have even a cat, because they shed and takeeffort. Our house has bookshelves full of books and stacks and piles of books everywhere, although they are organized and look cute, in my opinion. Yes, books can look cute. I spread out art supplies and Lola and I make big arty messes. I laugh at farts. I kiss my kids all over their bodies and giggle crazily. I dance in the living room. I water at midnight. You get it. You see now. I'm wierd: so very very wierd.

And lastly and most upsettingly to my son, I passionately care about something other than him, his sister and his step-brother. This would be writing. I actually make room for what I care about in my life, and sometimes-- here it is -- it's just not convenient for him.

Some background: I stayed with my son for the first three, almost four years of his life, and then he went to preschool only part-time. After kindergarten, I got a job where he could come with me when his day ended. We have always been extremely close, being a mother has been, hands down, the most central and important fact of my life. I was an Attachment Parenting mom, still am, and this means he nursed until almost three, co-slept, and was held often. He was an independant and happy fellow and went off to his various schoolings and play dates happily and without drama- no ' momma's boy ' at all, as some friends who rolled eyes at my parenting feared.

Now he is in middle school and obsessed with maintaining status quo. I am NOT keeping up with the Joneses. The mothers in my suburban neighborhood are strange to me. I find it very hard to understand them or relate to them. Their concerns are not mine, their lives are not similar. The fact that I write is apparently as strange as if I had a finger growing out of my forehead, flipping them off every time they spoke. When I mention that I write (usually in answering a question) the looks I get would be funny, if I had a better sense of humor about it. ( Hmph. ) This does not mean I'm unfriendly. I know it's important to my son to feel ' normal ' and I am very friendly and gracious to all his friends and their parents.

When I'm working on a poem, and I cannot stop or else the entire poem will slip through my fingers like rain and I will feel traumatized, and my son wants something from me and I hold my finger up ' Just a minute... ' it is clear that he is highly disappointed with my parenting skills. It's not just a desire for me to be attentive, it is a resentment that I care so deeply about something else. He has no one to compare this too, and I suppose it's lonely for him in a way that I can relate to if I think of how lonely I occasionally feel doing what I'm doing here in suburbia. We like to have someone to relate to, to understand, and when we don't, we can feel worried about what that means.

When I am working on my novel and won't let him play video games and he is bored, it is clear that he believes I am failing my duties as a mother, because I am not tidying the house and serving him a snack. Seriously.

When I am taking notes in my journal and he wants me to take him to XXX and I won't because I am working, the eye rolling and sighing is legion. And it's not just that he is demanding at this age; he has told me directly (we do talk a lot) that I am just not like his friends moms. I feel a fissure in him: he is proud of my talents and accomplishments, but terribly worried that he won't ever fit in properly because I'm different. And in middle school, if your family is wierd, YOU are wierd. Remember? Middle School is one of Dante's hells, if you recall.

I realize many children critisize their parents at this age, and this is not a monopoly for moms who write, or paint, or... but I do feel that it is absolutely heightened by the fact that I do write, that I do care about something so deeply and that I do insist on time and focus in order to do it.
"Working" a regular job is one thing. That's more common now. But devoting time and effort to something as Oz-landish (to children) as writing is downright strange.

So when I read the exchanges between the Walker women, I feel a great sympathy for both. Mothering is an all consuming job if you let it be, and that is what 'children of a certain age' ;)
expect it to be. The other end, neglectful parenting, emotionally or otherwise, is painful and damaging and not something I would ever make light of, artist or not. Finding a balance is very difficult. Absolutely challenging. As is being a child of a parent who isn't like all the others. The pain of being different or feeling so can be truly horrible for children. It's their life- friends and school- and what matters to them may seem small to us, but it's not small, only small to us.

I am struggling to push my passion for writing forward with parenting the amazing, hilarious, intelligent and intense bunch of kids I am lucky enough to call my own ( ' all mine, all mine / and never mine ' as my poem about my daughter Lola says).

God forbid one day my daughter is a writer and let's the world know the various ways I failed her. All I can do is face the truth. I'm NOT like all the other moms. I hope one day my children appreciate that.
Justin Evans said...

You are so much like my wife it is a little freaky. My wife and you are both the same age; my wife is an artist and neither of you conform to the so called image of mother. She wears Chuck Taylors and tells stupid jokes. We have a 14 year old son (plus two others---our youngest being three in a week), and he is often dismayed at his mother's anti-mother behavior. You should visit her blog at:

As for your question, I am e-mailing you in a little bit to the address you have listed in your profile. I will try to answer it there, as your being new to my blog, an e-mail would be much easier than searching through my archives to paste together an answer.

Shannon said...

hey? are you raising my son? am I you? are you me?

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