July 4, 2016 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Rufi Thorpe writes about being an artist and a mother in Vela.
posted by bardophile (18 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Mothering is simultaneously most profoundly fascinating and excruciatingly dull thing I have ever done.

It is underrated as artistic fodder ... the 25-year-old wunderkind writing in a purely theoretical fashion about the interior process of becoming human has nothing on the middle-aged mother of three who has actually watched three scratch-made humans become individuals and learn to navigate the world, and there is no closer observer of others' human nature than an attentive parent.

Of course finding the time and words and story to turn all that stunning observation of humanity into a novel is a different question.

It is a wildly underwritten part of human experience, though, and not just in fiction. A philosophical encyclopedia will give you a dozen pages on angels on the head of a pin, but a paragraph (if that!) on infancy and childhood and parenting. The virtues of military loyalty gets pages; reproducing the species gets hardly a thing. It's a pretty big blind spot!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:49 PM on July 4, 2016 [14 favorites]

This was a fucking incredible essay. Thank you so much for sharing it. Definitely going to look up Rufi Thorpe's books.
posted by town of cats at 12:07 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just in case anyone else went looking for it like I did, the essay by Claire Watkins mentioned in the Thorpe essay was discussed previously here.
posted by Cozybee at 12:44 AM on July 5, 2016

From the article: My job when I am with my children is to have as few needs as possible so that I can meet theirs.

Ouch, that stings. I mean yeah, that feels about right, even though I tell myself that it's good to be honest with my children about my needs. Better anyway than allowing them to grow up thinking their needs are the only ones they have to consider, or alternatively shouting at them or shaming them because they interrupted me or something, as if it were a fault in them, and not just me reaching my limits... So I try not to feel bad about saying I need a rest, a break, a few minutes alone. But I do feel bad about it anyway. And I feel bad when I drop them off at daycare (screaming, sometimes) so I can go to my job, which I don't love in itself so much as I love the idea of having a job, a career, an identity separate from my children.

It's not their fault they need me. But I worry that if I give myself over entirely to their needs, I will resent them. Now, and when they're adults, who don't need me anymore and visit only occasionally and don't make me the center of their lives the way they were the center of mine. I think my mom resents me for this reason, and I wish she would have given up less for my siblings and me, so that she would have more left to her now that we are grown and out of her house. But when I was a child, I asked everything of her, without knowing what I asked. She hid from us how hard it was. Or she didn't, but I couldn't see, couldn't imagine that she was finite.

This essay brought to mind a lot of other books and stories too. "Gaudy Night", by Dorothy Sayers, is like this dilemma crystalized. Marriage and family vs. the life of the mind. Which is more rewarding? Which should one choose? And I just read "Funny Girl" by Nick Hornby, after accusing him in another thread of being a perpetrator of "sad boner confessionals" (albeit elevated by self awareness and humor) Anyway without spoilers I'll just say this takes up surprisingly feminist themes about motherhood and art and comedy specifically, and whether a sitcom necessarily jumps the shark when a baby arrives, and why... Which made me realize how few sitcoms there are about single moms, even though there are so many "family sitcoms."

And thinking of sitcoms and this article makes me think of Roseanne, and that episode (the final episode?) where her family prepares a writing space for her in the basement and promises to leave her alone to giver her time to write, because they know that's always been her dream... and what a fantasy that is, when they won't even leave her alone in the bathroom, according to that episode where she fantasizes about killing them all in baroque ways for bothering her in the bathroom.

And I think about how even Jane Austen books END with the happily ever after... as if there are no comedies of mammers to be written about married life and motherhood. And how the protagonists in children's stories never have mothers (especially Disney movies, but reallly all children's stories, including Harry Potter and Star Wars). Because mothers make the world too safe; they stop children from having adventures... But do children also stop mothers from having adventures? Is that why all the stories about women end with the wedding vows?

And then I thought of this book "AThousand Days of Wonder," which is about a philosopher (male) contemplating the world through the eyes of his child in her first 1000 days. One of the few books I can think of which captures how fascinating the process of raising a small human really is. I think of Merlyn, in The Sword in The Stone... Not Arthur's mother, but his mentor and guide, and wonder why motherhood can't be like that. It sort of is, to me... (Though Arthur, of course, does not have a mother.)

And I wonder what I want for my daughters, try not to pressure them into one choice or another even at this young age. But I worry that they will not be happy if they miss out on this huge, meaningful, emotional part of human experience... and also that they will not be happy if they imagine themselves only as mommies when they grow up, and don't develop any other dreams to strive for.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:19 AM on July 5, 2016 [26 favorites]

A couple of other books that come to mind... "The Mansion of Happiness," by Jill Lepore, is a collection of essays about how the cultural construction of motherhood and childhood have changed over the past few hundred years... Her "Book of Ages" is also very good, about Jane Franklin and hiw and why her life was different from her brother Ben's. And Jo Walton's "My Real Children," is a novel about a woman who either does or doesn't accept the first marriage proposal she is offered, and the ways in which the course of her life differs in those two different timelines.

Also "Far from the Tree," by Andrew Solomon, which is about the experience of tying to parent children who are very different from yourself, like because of severe disability (which is demanding in an even more intense way than parenting otherwise already is) or because of different talents amd dreams or different sexual identities or some other major separation between the idenities of the parent and of the child.

I am not citing these books in support of some argument or conclusion. They're all different from each other. But I agree with Eyebrows that this is an underwritten part of himan experience, ao I thought I'd share some of the good writing I do know of, about motherhood and fatherhood and childhood.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:45 AM on July 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

I wish she would have given up less for my siblings and me, so that she would have more left to her now that we are grown and out of her house. But when I was a child, I asked everything of her, without knowing what I asked. She hid from us how hard it was. Or she didn't, but I couldn't see, couldn't imagine that she was finite.

The ongoing guilt I have about precisely this! All of it. Feeling bad about wanting that she should have given less because I know I was (along with my siblings) a huge beneficiary of her sacrifice and my lack of awareness of it at the time (as were my siblings).

how the protagonists in children's stories never have mothers (especially Disney movies, but reallly all children's stories, including Harry Potter and Star Wars). Because mothers make the world too safe; they stop children from having adventures...

Stacy Schiff wrote a really interesting piece about this, called The Missing Mother, I think, in The New Yorker, late 1990s.
posted by bardophile at 1:54 AM on July 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

thank you so much for posting. Wonderful article.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:20 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here we go. It's The Runaway Mother, published Nov 10, 1997. Requires a subscription, unfortunately.
posted by bardophile at 7:14 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

> And I think about how even Jane Austen books END with the happily ever after... as if there are no comedies of mammers to be written about married life and motherhood.

Favorited for "comedies of mammers"!
posted by languagehat at 7:41 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

And now that I've read it: great essay, and I'm glad to live in a time when women are able to share such thoughts in public and have them taken seriously. This resonated with things I've been thinking about lately:
Here, Smiley locates the source of art in the world, insisting that it is a benefit to the artist to spend time puttering about in the quotidian world, in sharp contrast to Barthelme suggesting that the artist must absent himself from the world in order to more fully immerse himself in the realm of ideas.
I agree, and I think one of the reasons some Great Artists have gone off the rails (Tolstoy rejecting art, Pound falling for fascism and crackpot economics, Joyce vanishing into the impenetrabilities of the Wake) is that they've succumbed to selfishness and isolation. Obviously it's tough to create art while immersed in the many demands and distractions of the world, but the art will be better for it. It would be great if women could lead the way in changing the cultural valorization of selfishness and isolation!
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on July 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

She seems to conflate caring for her children with caring for her husband. One seems more necessary; the other, more draining.

A story I heard awhile back: At an awards dinner, one man after another gets up and thanks his wife, "without whom this award would not have been possible." Finally a woman wins an award, and says, "I'd like to thank my husband, but the truth is if I had a husband I probably wouldn't be up here accepting this award."

I wish it were not (so often) so.
posted by anshuman at 8:21 AM on July 5, 2016 [18 favorites]

Yeah, this article kept me up until 3am last night, processing some shit, but this quote from it:

"What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance?"

kept repeating in my head because my PROBLEM with motherhood has nothing to do with caring for my kids or being a mother and everything to do with the man I chose to have children with. I love documenting the artistically truthful reality of motherhood - ugly and joyful parts together - but my throat sticks when I try to be truthful about the relationship that made me a mother in the first place (except on Mefi I guess, where I've historically had no problem saying exactly what my issues with the babydaddy are).

However, I was ruminating on something similar before this article was posted - that the most success I've had as an artist has come from sniffing the truth out like a hound and following it out to its furthest illumination, and that using that same instinct on motherhood forces me to confront so many deeply ugly things about myself, my relationship to the rest of the world, and the contrast between what I feel for my sons and how I behave with them (ie, I want nothing more in life than for my sons to be safe so of course I lose my shit entirely when I think they are about to hurt themselves or each other. The fact that I yell at my kids is the hardest thing for me to stomach about having had kids in the first place, because it's like the Universe gave me the gift of creating my favourite people with my own blood and then because I'm human I freak out sometimes and yell OH MY GOD YOU CAN'T LICK YOUR BROTHER'S EYE THIS IS HOW WE GET INFECTIONS and after they are asleep later I forget all the fun we had that day and instead obsess over how I probably could have handled the eye licking incident with less volume).

The truth is that I did not understand I was a "woman" in society's sense of the term until I had kids and started treating myself like one. And then, like magic, I became a feminist. Because I feel exactly like a man who was dropped into the middle of a nursery and discovered that he could no longer stay up all night playing video games because tiny helpless people needed attention and that was mostly fine but then, mysteriously, the other men who were his friends now just show up to demand food and cleaning services and get mad when you don't satisfy them quickly enough and also no longer want to philosophically discuss kung fu movies with you because they have other child-free men around for that.

Anyway, yeah, motherhood. Painful truths.
posted by annathea at 8:34 AM on July 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

I loved this essay. It reminded me of Margaret Drabble's The Garrick Year. Which was written in 1969. Drabble went on to write a lot, very lovingly, about motherhood-- her best writing, in my view-- but this book describes it as really mind-numbing and lonely. And that's with a nanny.

I can't locate the interview online, but someone asked Drabble about the character's marriage and she said something like, "Oh, as soon as those kids are in school, she's gone."
posted by BibiRose at 9:45 AM on July 5, 2016

Was just posting this here and saw it was a double. Amazing read.
posted by k8t at 11:23 AM on July 5, 2016

I view my own interestingness as being directly related to the thoughts I think and the work I do rather than the aesthetics of my leisure time.

This, everywhere, all the time.
posted by the_blizz at 12:12 PM on July 5, 2016

Thanks for this thread and link — I am looking forward to savoring them once I am done with work for the day. I am getting to the point where I have to decide about a baby soon and ... it is really fucking hard. I am an artist; I make good stuff I care about and it is has taken a long time to find the spot in my life where I can do this work and believe in myself. And do I want to blow it all up now? Will I regret it if I don't? Being a mother just seems like unremitting drudgery and I am already not super into all the care-shit you are supposed to do just because you are a lady. And my husband is great and all, but does he really have the ability to pick up more than the average man and still support my stuff? It is so hard!
posted by dame at 1:04 PM on July 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

“Sometimes,” I said to my mother the other day, “I feel they will devour me. I feel they will use me up like a tube of toothpaste and never even notice.” She nodded, watching me cry in her living room, my baby crawling on her floor.

“They will,” she said.

This. Thanks for posting, OP.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:29 PM on July 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Great article thanks for posting!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:12 AM on July 7, 2016

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