On being a writer and mother

‘I felt guilty but I still put my art and my life in front of my family.’

So says artist John Wolseley of his decision to leave England and his two small sons to move to Australia to paint (GoodWeekend, May 5, 2012). Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about putting my daughter in child care one day a week when she was four months old so I could return to writing fiction.

I note Wolseley’s son Will says in the same interview, ‘I don’t know why [Dad] feels so guilty; I was fine [growing up].’

But I wonder why some artists feel they must choose between art and family, to put one in front of the other rather than allowing them to coexist, side by side.

Alexandra Styron in her memoir Reading My Father says her father author William Styron ‘consecrated himself to the Novel’ at the expense of everything else, including his children.

French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas suggested, ‘There is love and there is art, but we have only one heart’. Probably a good thing he remained a bachelor.

I became a published author at the same time I became a parent, editing the galley proofs of my first novel while my three-week-old daughter Natasha slept on my lap. The timing forced me to confront head-on the challenges of being both a writer and mother. And while I do find the balancing act a challenge, at no point have I ever felt there wasn’t enough room in my heart for both love and art, for my partner and our daughter as well as my writing.

My problem is not lack of heart, but lack of time.

Virginia Woolf observed in 1928, ‘A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ If that woman is a mother, I suggest she also needs a supportive partner and excellent time management skills.

It’s only with discipline, planning, organisation and a supportive partner (also a writer) that I manage to combine art and family. I’ve even learned to embrace routine after resisting it for decades because I can’t earn a living, write and be a mother without it.

Discipline, planning, organisation, routine. Not traits normally associated with the free-spirited life of an artist. Perhaps that’s what puts men like Wolseley and Degas off.

That said, most days end with me wishing I’d spent more time with my daughter. And more time writing.  I often wonder if the degree of selfishness needed to be a good, at least productive writer is incompatible with the selflessness needed to be a good, at least attentive mother.

You know those quizzes where they ask what talent would you most like to have? My answer would be the ability to bi-locate, to be in more than one place at a time. This gift was allegedly possessed by twelfth century Flemish Saint Drogo, who was seen simultaneously attending mass and working the fields.

Needless to say, if I had the ability to bi-locate I’d do neither of those things. I’d spend time with the people I love, and time writing.

Being a writer and a mother, I feel stretched, tired, at times conflicted. What I don’t feel is guilty. While the great balancing act can be exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. And if not now, I believe one day my daughter will understand that being a writer makes me a better mother–and much less demanding of her.

Recently I asked now six-year-old Natasha what she thought about having a mummy and daddy who write books.

‘It’s good,’ she said. ‘Books are full of information and you get to use your imagination.’

(Such a perfect response, I forgave her for miming a rainbow over her head when she said ‘imagination’ in reference to Spongebob Squarepants).

Do you have any thoughts or tips on combining art and family?

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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24 Responses to On being a writer and mother

  1. darkdirk says:

    My tip: infect your children with your passion for your art. Then however much you neglect them for it they will eventually understand and indeed support your vocation. Seems to have worked for me

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  2. Haydn Joseph Savage says:

    Dearest daughter no surprises for me in your excellent article.I have always admired your dedication and discipline,I love the photo of you and Tash XXDADXX

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  3. Nadine Bates says:

    Lovely article. Have you read The Divided Heart a series of essays by Australian artists and creative types about the balancing act we all perform between our warring passions- our loved ones and our art? I think it would resonate with you.

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  4. Jenny Sinclair says:

    So well put. I remember publishing a piece about my renewed passion for writing when I became ill 7 yrs ago and one troll suggesting I should be running to my child ( then one yr old), not my desk. But both sustain us. St Drogo is my new patron saint.

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  5. Thanks for writing this post. I became a mother 8 weeks ago and somedays I wonder where I’ll find the time to write guilt-free again. It’s good to hear that writing can be done and guilt is normal. If I had a choice between more spare time and more money, I’d pick time!

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    • angelasavage says:

      I couldn’t agree more Melissa about choosing time over money. My unsolicited advice to a new mother like yourself: pay someone to clean for you. You need the time and they need the work.
      And all the best in your quest for guilt-free writing time.

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  6. Wonderful post, and I look forward to hearing more. I’ve got a blog that’s pretty much dedicated to ‘Writing Mothers’ at the moment, where I’ve interviewed writers about juggling creativity and motherhood, as it’s something that I’m also finding challenging at the moment: http://www.wildcolonialgirl.com (if you don’t mind me posting the URL here).

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  7. Oh, and I have reblogged your post, as it sits perfectly with my own musings, thanks!

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  8. wendy james says:

    This is lovely, Angela. And I’m with you – I don’t really suffer from guilt about writing… and all four of my kids were in childcare pretty early due to work and writing commitments. They don’t seem to have suffered! I do occasionally feel guilty for all the time I spend with my nose in a book, however…
    ( btw Steele Diaries was on just this theme – only I wrote about art rather than writing. I’ll see if I can get a copy to you.)

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  9. kathy d. says:

    The picture of your daughter with her nose in a book is just perfect. It sounds like she has the right idea already. You sound like you do have it worked out as much as is possible. I have read so many article about women getting up and writing from 4-7 a.m. before their children arise because that’s their only quiet time. I do not see how women do it but I’m in awe of all working mothers, whether they work at home or out of the house. A neighbor’s spouse stays home and she works or they alternate being home or working. It does take a very helpful partner.
    The greatest gift to your daughter is her developing love of books. Then she’ll understand what you love to do at the same time she’s enjoying herself and learning something that will always bring her joy, distraction, entertainment and learning about the world. What could be better?

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments Kathy. I’ve always been in awe of women who write in the wee hours of the morning. If I ever see that time of day, it’s usually from the other end – i.e. because I haven’t gone to bed yet!
      I agree that the love of books and reading is a great gift to give a child. I got it from my parents and was fortunate enough to have it reinforced by some excellent teachers.

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  10. I am late to this party (I just got here via https://wildcolonialgirl.wordpress.com/), but felt this post resounded with me so much, I just had to comment. I am a writer living in Bendigo and I put my small children into daycare a few days a week so I can write. It was a difficult decision, but has been the best choice for my motherhood/creativity balance.

    I have a blog (hope you don’t mind the URL post) http://mummylovestowrite.com/ and am working on my first novel, which is contemporary women’s fiction. Great to see like-minded Mum’s out there!

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Michelle. And I’m glad you included the link to your blog. I enjoyed your posts – I like your style. I don’t underestimate how hard it must be to raise two boys, both in nappies (‘Irish twins’ as one mate calls them), but I totally appreciate why you must blog and write fiction, now more than ever.

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  11. Pingback: Meet Angela Savage | WordMothers

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