The Baby on the Fire Escape: Motherhood and Creativity

Julie Phillips | University of Amsterdam | The Baby on the Fire Escape: Motherhood and Creativity | Supervisor: Carrol Clarkson | 2016-2020

Family responsibilities destroy artistic careers. The selflessness of a mother cannot coexist with the ego of a writer. You can have children or books, but not both. This separation or negation is a common view of the relationship between creativity and motherhood. For Tillie Olsen, the physical conditions of mothering made writing impossible: “In the twenty years I bore and reared my children…the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist.” (Olsen 19) Sylvia Plath saw the conflict as not only a practical but a social one: she feared that a woman must “sacrifice all claims to femininity and family to be a writer.” (Olsen 30) Creative women have had to separate themselves from their children, mentally and bodily, in order to work. The artist Alice Neel is said to have left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment when she was trying to finish a painting. But is this division inevitable? What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? Is a woman still a genius when she is doing a load of laundry or fixing a bottle? What would it mean to create, not alone in “a room of one’s own,” but in a shared space?