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  • S F Hayes

Portraits of the Artist as Mother

Book Review: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

by Julie Phillips

This is my version of a book review -- a snapshot that includes a quick overview and what to expect. If this piques your interest, you can find in-depth reviews online for further reading.

The Basic Idea:

Each chapter of the book is more or less a short biography of a famous artist and mother, with a particular emphasis on how being a parent impacted the art — the making of the art, the themes of the artwork, and the amount of art produced. In many cases, we are also shown the impact of the art and art-making on the child and their relationship to their artist-mother.

The Upshot:

If you’re a mother and an artist, it is interesting to read about the ways various artist-mothers made it work and the ways they didn’t make it work (children left behind, broken relationships, artworks abandoned) and how societal norms impacted their lives. There’s also an element of you’re-not-in-this-alone; seeing how difficult it has been for these women can be helpful when you’re feeling like you can’t make it work.

The Takeaway:

Though not new, the takeaway is important -- an artist needs time alone to devote to her work (see, for example, Virginia Wolfe’s "A Room of One's Own"), and that time has to be wrenched away from the demands of mothering. It will, however, make you think about your own life, and perhaps highlight aspects of the parenting-artist life that you need to consider more deeply.

Read It If:

You’re an artist and a parent, or thinking of becoming an artist-parent, or if your partner is one.

Selected Quotes:

“This is the baby on the fire escape… the precarious situation in which the child is just far enough out of sight and mind for the mother to have a talk with her muse.” pg 11.

“Art is supposed to be about this kind of intensified experience of life… And that is totally what raising kids does to you, too… Everything becomes heightened, and the range of experience becomes so much greater.” Justine Kurland, pg 116.

“What you have to learn to do is pay complete attention to two things at once.” A.S. Byatt, pg 241.

All quoted page numbers from: Phillips, Julie. The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.


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