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

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What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artist What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment. As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.


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What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artist What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment. As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.

30 review for The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

  1. 4 out of 5

    Camryn

    I thought this was a really great read. I don't think I've ever thought that it was impossible to be a mother and write and it's probably because I was born in 2000? It's interesting that I never thought that, though, even though parents have basically no support in this country. I think that's one of the major themes of this book; in order to do more than one thing, mothers need support, and many of them don't get it. It was super interesting to read these stories about different writers and arti I thought this was a really great read. I don't think I've ever thought that it was impossible to be a mother and write and it's probably because I was born in 2000? It's interesting that I never thought that, though, even though parents have basically no support in this country. I think that's one of the major themes of this book; in order to do more than one thing, mothers need support, and many of them don't get it. It was super interesting to read these stories about different writers and artists from the 20th century because of how different expectations of women were. It's weird that I feel so distant from a world where you were expected to cater to your husband and have kids and set aside your own ambitions for all of that, but at the same time, it feels like this is what the United States is shifting back to. And what it is for a lot of people, like statistically women do most of the child rearing and housework even now, and there were *so* many mothers leaving work when the pandemic hit. I really appreciate the vastness of these stories. There were queer women and black women and Black queer women! I appreciated that the author covered them just as intensely as she did the white writers. She discussed women who left their kids and had bad relationships with their kids or just complicated ones. I feel like motherhood is at once this really public thing, because everyone comments on it and there are so many standards mothers are held to, and also this private thing, since our culture acts like it isn't very interesting and conversations about the "domestic sphere" are still sort of shoved to the side. I don't know, this made me think a lot, and I found it was interesting and also challenged me in a lot of ways. Women I admire weren't perfect parents, but do we expect that of people, and if we do, why? I love that it explored how motherhood can actually benefit you, since I think so often it's seen as a detriment. Especially Ursula Le Gruin's chapter; I love that it just felt like... family could be this really nice thing that gives you structure and helps you and it's possible to have a partner who is an equal partner in parenting! But I also kept thinking about how many of the women profiled had abortions; I'm so happy they were able to choose when to have children and have no doubt that's why their careers flourished, but am so mad about the decisions made that will leave others without those choices. So many of the women profiled here had children they didn't want and it negatively impacted both the parents and the children for the rest of their lives, and I get so upset thinking about that happening now. Anyway, great read, highly recommend to other people.

  2. 5 out of 5

    alej

    Julie Phillips is magnificent in her observation and retelling of the motherhood experience as experienced by Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Neel, and others. How does one keep their mind in the face of Motherhood? Their creative practice? Their absolute autonomy? Each woman is looked at so tenderly and with such bite. I chewed my way through this! I respected how Phillips wove a thread through the lives of the women, through events and experienc Julie Phillips is magnificent in her observation and retelling of the motherhood experience as experienced by Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Neel, and others. How does one keep their mind in the face of Motherhood? Their creative practice? Their absolute autonomy? Each woman is looked at so tenderly and with such bite. I chewed my way through this! I respected how Phillips wove a thread through the lives of the women, through events and experiences that connected them--the loss of Martin Luther King Jr., Aldermaston marches against nuclear arms, and attending specific colleges. I was overjoyed at the queerness, the open relationships, the messy, and the sticky. Most importantly, even in discomfort, Phillips brings a tender and direct approach to writing. Any of these women could have been my mother. My mother could have been any of these women. And as we redefine motherhood for women, Trans people, and the genderqueer people navigating new parental terrain, I have a newfound confidence that we can retain ourselves despite what history and society have told us. If you do anything creative and have given birth or will give birth or long to, this is for you. If you watched your creative parent do their practice while parenting you, this is for you.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

    This book is monumentally important to me, and I imagine that it will continue to reverberate for some time. I also very much liked the organization and form of the book as a series of vignette biographies—gives me ideas, with the slight quibble that occasionally it took some sleuthing to get a hold on the chronology of events in a place or two because of the comparisons/form/syntax. “It is always difficult to explore areas where so much mystification conceals a true mystery,” said one Angela Cart This book is monumentally important to me, and I imagine that it will continue to reverberate for some time. I also very much liked the organization and form of the book as a series of vignette biographies—gives me ideas, with the slight quibble that occasionally it took some sleuthing to get a hold on the chronology of events in a place or two because of the comparisons/form/syntax. “It is always difficult to explore areas where so much mystification conceals a true mystery,” said one Angela Carter, and here Julie Phillips does it with intrigue and wayfinding and empathy.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Misha Lazzara

    I really loved the blended approach of academia and biography mixed with openly discussing and exploring motherhood on a personal level. Much needed book for mother artists who desperately need different models, examples or stories to remind us that motherhood is NOT the cultural monolith that the patriarchy insists (and benefits off of).

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

    I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I previously read “Daily Rituals: Women at Work” by Mason Currey and the short paragraphs interested me in the topic of how women throughout the ages have been able to do produce different forms of art despite the challenges of society’s expectations for wives and mothers. This book is a more satisfying look into this topic as the structure allows more detail and history to be told of specific authors and their struggles, chal I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I previously read “Daily Rituals: Women at Work” by Mason Currey and the short paragraphs interested me in the topic of how women throughout the ages have been able to do produce different forms of art despite the challenges of society’s expectations for wives and mothers. This book is a more satisfying look into this topic as the structure allows more detail and history to be told of specific authors and their struggles, challenges, and victories as working mothers. The subjects the author choose were interesting examples of how different external factors can shape the journey motherhood has on authors. I found the topic to be really interesting and would recommend this book to others.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ddoddmccue

    The title is a captivating! Phillips goes beyond Wolfe’s “room” to explore the conflict for women between creativity and motherhood, merging the academic with biography. Though well researched and a topic of personal interest, it proved a labored read, possibly a function of the artists selected to highlight.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    I loved this collection of stories about women who are poets, essayists, novelists; who are single, married, divorced, in relationships with men, or women, people of other ethnicities or their own, people who are also artists, or writers, are people who have other jobs or rely on their partner to make the income...the one thing all the women have in common is that they have a child or children. The way their motherhood feeds or frustrates their writing life is part of their stories, as is the un I loved this collection of stories about women who are poets, essayists, novelists; who are single, married, divorced, in relationships with men, or women, people of other ethnicities or their own, people who are also artists, or writers, are people who have other jobs or rely on their partner to make the income...the one thing all the women have in common is that they have a child or children. The way their motherhood feeds or frustrates their writing life is part of their stories, as is the unique path of each woman's life from childhood to motherhood, from childhood to a life as a writer or painter. It made me want to return to writers I've loved in the past...Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin. Julie Phillips brings these women's stories to life. It's not a book I would typically read straight through, but once I began, I couldn't stop. I was reliving the arc of my own life, even though many of these women are older than I am. We lived through so many of the same eras...the post war baby boom, the huge shifts in culture during the sixties and seventies. So glad my friend Jana recommended this book. p. 6 From the intro: W.D. Winnicot's "good enough mother" ...his description of a mother-child relationship that is healthy and nurturing despite the mother's less-than-perfect attention to the baby...but good enough for whom? In this model it is the child's and not the mother's needs that are being met...and the mother remains a shadowy figure who seems to disappear from the many discourses that explicitly try to account for her." Maggie Nelson rejects the quarantining of the mother from the realm of intellectual profundity? and then quotes the poet Alice Notley on her new baby: He is born and I am undone--feel as if I will / never be, was never born. p.8 I think making mothers mysterious is another way of keeping them unacknowledged Louise Erdrich describes parents living and working with a divided consciousness. Rachel Kusk: being called away from a conversation to console a baby: like being split in two. In Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption, psych Baraitser writes that to have a subjectivity that is shared. "Instead of wishing for more coherence, what could be gained from embracing a shared self. ...instead of a writer in the tower, she places subjectivity, that itself interrupted, is alert to the questions that interruption asks of "normal" life. She invites us to look at the struggle with maternal STUFF...the physical carrying and furniture of life with a baby that a mother rediscovers through perpetual navigation might in its own way be generative. 11 The more I read, the less I knew. Maternity often seems to be all description and no story. For many parental sensations there aren't even words. 25 One story of this book is how motherhood went from being an accident and an obligation to being a choice, and how profound that effect has been on women's lives. Artists and their work considered in this collection: the artist Alice Neel "In the beginning, I didn't want children. I just got them." Doris Lessing writer She admired her son's energy and saw in it "the exuberant heath he inherited from me." But he was exhausted by it too. In a state of dreamy boredom, she pushed his pram through their suburban neighborhood over "Himalayas of tedium." 86 her rebellious spirit helped her make her way in the masculine postwar literary world while telling truths about women's lives. 90 the change in her relationship with her children except for Peter who became mentally ill. 93 Lessing moved to London and began turning her life into her material Martha Quest books. Her relationship with Jenny Diski. When her son told her of Jenny's plight...abandoned, in an orphanage, she took her in, (a way of rescuing herself?) Instead of telling Jenny what she expected of her, Lessing got angry when Jenny couldn't guess the rules. Lessing felt people were too emotional, and Jenny learned not to be emotional...difficult at 15. Elizabeth Smart writer 105 She visited Doris Lessing one day "and drank and wept and wept and drank from mid day to seven at night and was savagely witty about her life and lives of women. I would not describe her as an advertisement of the joie de vivre of Soho. 110 When Angela Carter met Smart at a party, drinking and bemoaning women's lot, she was unnerved by what she saw as self-inflicted wounds and decided to reject the plots of women's suffering she'd been writing and think about alternatives. Ursula Le Guin one of the few seemingly happy women in this collection 124 her mother, Krakie, and her father encouraged her from childhood. It wasn't that I wanted to write. I did write. Not only were her parents supportive, their help, --unlike the help of Adrienne Rich's tyrannical father, or Sylvia Plath's well-meaning mother--made her feel seen and recognized. Ursula disagreed with Tolstoy that only unhappy families were interesting. "The hell with that. The happy family --and no one's happy all the time--is fascinating. The interplay of power and control and love and dislike and frustration: it's endless. 139 Ursula and her husband were radicalized in the in the seventies, marching against the was and nuclear testing. She got more for a short story published by Playboy than for the advance for The Left Hand of Darkness 157 Louise Boourgeois she made a sculpture "The Destruction of the Father." which she claimed represented a patricidal family. "At the dinner table, my father would go on and on, showing off, aggrandizing himself, and the more he showed off, the smaller we felt. Suddenly we grabbed him, my brother, my sister, my mother, me, and pulled him onto the table and pulled his legs and arms apart...we ate him up ....that's what happens in the sculpture. Penelope Fitzgerald Audre Lord 181 she thought of herself as writing in the future tense of hope and change. "I think it is in our poetry...that we begin ur inner vision, that we begin to create visions of what has never been before, tht we can possibly be. Poetry is not a luxury. Our poems and our dreams extend us, make our knowledge beyond where we can understand, begin to give shape to the chaos in a way that we can then attend to it... What lies beyond is, I think, made real in our poetry, as it is in our dreams. Susan Sontag Alice Walker Angela Carter 248Sensitive and thin skinned, like Alice Neel, she had learned to protect herself and assert authority by acting outrageous. On her first day teaching at Brown she arrived in the classroom...charged with reducint the class of thirty to 15. When one of the students, with a sort of withering skepticism asked, "What is your work like?" She cocked her head and said "um" once or twice. Then she said, My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis." The room emptied out at the break. Maybe eleven or twelve remained. 262 She bought a small house and worked on her stories and a novel. Her friends, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Caryl Phillips and Robert Coover had the impression that she relished a sort of outsiderness. More on what she was trying to do in 1973 on p. 263 The carniverous Tiger's Bride who discovers "his appetite my not be my extinction."

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jasper Smit

    Ik vond deze echt heel mooi. Het is een verzameling korte biografieën van schrijvers en kunstenaars in de 20e eeuw met als centrale vraag: hoe lukt het ze (niet) om kunstenaarschap met het moederschap te combineren? Het onderzoek en bronvermeldingen zijn duizelingwekkend , maar de toon blijft glashelder. Het zijn stuk voor stuk unieke leesbare levensverhalen en ze zijn allemaal prachtig. De keuzes die de vrouwen moeten/niet kunnen/denken te moeten/niet mogen maken, de ongelooflijke krachten van d Ik vond deze echt heel mooi. Het is een verzameling korte biografieën van schrijvers en kunstenaars in de 20e eeuw met als centrale vraag: hoe lukt het ze (niet) om kunstenaarschap met het moederschap te combineren? Het onderzoek en bronvermeldingen zijn duizelingwekkend , maar de toon blijft glashelder. Het zijn stuk voor stuk unieke leesbare levensverhalen en ze zijn allemaal prachtig. De keuzes die de vrouwen moeten/niet kunnen/denken te moeten/niet mogen maken, de ongelooflijke krachten van de maatschappij om zelfs de gedachten en verwachtingen van vrouwen voor zichzelf te vormen, hoe hard ze moeten vechten om een plek voor zichzelf als individu en liefhebber en moeder en kunstenaar te maken, het is ontluisterend en verbazingwekkend. Ik vond het ook superleerzaam, want hoewel ik als blanke heteroman maar een schaduw van een schaduw van het dilemma kan meevoelen, probeer ook ik het kunstenaarschap en ouder zijn te combineren. En dat is schipperen, met supermilde versies van waar zij mee te maken hebben. En vreselijk maar waar: vrouwen hebben eeuwen meer ervaring met proberen het ouderschap te combineren met iets voor zichzelf doen. Ik vind het een voorrecht om hun ervaringen te lezen en te voelen dat ouderschap en kunstenaarschap inderdaad niet altijd lekker samen gaan. Tenslotte: ik vind het ouderschap best zwaar. En geweldig. En oersaai. En subliem. En tijdrovend en energieslurpend. Niet omdat ik een moeilijk kind heb, maar omdat ik leef in mn hoofd. En met een kind heb ik mijn hoofd niet voor mezelf. Het is prettig om van zoveel moeders te horen dat zij het ook zwaar vinden, dan voel ik me daar toch een beetje minder schuldig over.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tadeusz Pudlik

    A group biography of 20th century American mother-artists, with a focus on their struggles to reconcile motherhood and a vocation Very thought-provoking, especially for a new parent. This should not be an unexplored subject, but surprisingly it is, making the book both relevant and original. Contains many excellent articulations of the titular "mind-baby" problem. One example: Writing depends on authority, the belief that what we say matters. But I’d weigh every paragraph of that necessarily crap A group biography of 20th century American mother-artists, with a focus on their struggles to reconcile motherhood and a vocation Very thought-provoking, especially for a new parent. This should not be an unexplored subject, but surprisingly it is, making the book both relevant and original. Contains many excellent articulations of the titular "mind-baby" problem. One example: Writing depends on authority, the belief that what we say matters. But I’d weigh every paragraph of that necessarily crappy early draft against my children’s needs, and the paragraphs mattered little. Fear made me doubt the desire I’d relied upon. I couldn’t write as Mama. (Heather Abel) But also: At first one resists children, tries to keep on with one’s life, etc., however as time goes on more and more one becomes that normal thing—‘a parent’ and relates with it. Then suddenly . . . life yawns in front of you, that same big black terrifying hole you’ve always been afraid of. (Alice Neel) There is a lot more.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Sometimes the exact right book comes along at the exact right time, and you know you’re going to love it. When I read the description of this book (and saw that Alice Neel cover!) I knew it was going to be excellent—and it was. Phillips deftly blends scholarly research, personal anecdotes, and biography to try to answer the question: how does one sustain creativity in motherhood? If you can’t have a room of one’s own, are you forced to stick the baby on the fire escape? This book doesn’t offer an Sometimes the exact right book comes along at the exact right time, and you know you’re going to love it. When I read the description of this book (and saw that Alice Neel cover!) I knew it was going to be excellent—and it was. Phillips deftly blends scholarly research, personal anecdotes, and biography to try to answer the question: how does one sustain creativity in motherhood? If you can’t have a room of one’s own, are you forced to stick the baby on the fire escape? This book doesn’t offer any easy answers to those questions. Instead, it deftly traces the lives of several female artists, writers, and thinkers, looking at their experiences of motherhood. Ultimately, the book is a celebration of both mothering and creativity, arguing persuasively that both are worth pursuing, however difficult the task may be. Pair this with the excellent novel Nightbitch for the best baby shower present for the writer/artist in your life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Abigail Franklin

    A stunning & unwavering portrait of artists as mothers. Phillips engages critically with stories of 20th century women artists who became mothers without criticism; instead, decisions like running away are presented as the woman who made them would have seen them—as the only viable option. Haunting and uncomfortable, this book calls into question just how much of a woman’s personhood motherhood can—or should—consume. This will sit with me for a while. I look forward to re-reading it in 10 years.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Pj

    This book is a loser already. According to its Goodreads blurb, it defines creative motherhood a “renegotiated tension” between parenting and art. Anyone who values human life will recognize that as a self-aggrandizing delusion: Babies can’t “negotiate” their needs or “cope” with tension. Let’s hope Ms. Phillips is prepared for the inevitable consequence of her clickbaity new book: One of her readers using it to defend herself from charges of felony child neglect/abuse.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Garden

    Wow, what a book! I really really enjoyed this. Would love to give it a longer and more careful reread as part of a book discussion group, TBH, it was so full of info and ideas and I just loved it! Maybe I’ll see if anybody wants to do a discussion group of it at the library.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sherry Brown

    The author did a wonderful job writing The Baby on the Fire Escape. She shared the stories of each mother’s passion, heartfelt moments, interesting life through out their journey of motherhood. Very interesting read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Candace

    Really good nonfiction read about the experience of motherhood among several famous female artists (writers, painters). While I don't create as my profession, I think the struggles these women faced and their experiences will ring true for any woman who feels called to a vocation besides motherhood. Really good nonfiction read about the experience of motherhood among several famous female artists (writers, painters). While I don't create as my profession, I think the struggles these women faced and their experiences will ring true for any woman who feels called to a vocation besides motherhood.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    3.5 “Mother is as mother does. It’s not about bodies, or biology, or social convention, but about showing up for the job.”

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Sanders-Jacob

    DNFing about halfway through. I liked this, but I’m just not in the right headspace for it right now.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mary Kearney

    Just read it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

    Loved every bit of this! So fascinating learning the stories of wonderfully creative women and their experiences with motherhood.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michele

    https://bookshop.org/books/the-baby-o... https://bookshop.org/books/the-baby-o...

  21. 5 out of 5

    Robyn Martin

    B- Audible

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alicia Primer

    Interesting premise on the motherhood/creativity connection or disconnect. But tense switching and casual prose didn’t work for this reader.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    If you are a mother who’s ever felt conflict with your other identities, read this book. It’s honest, inspiring, and chock full of ideas for further reading.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Reowin Renkema

    duizend sterren!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Hornik

    Fascinating. Motivating.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    https://www.latimes.com/entertainment... https://www.latimes.com/entertainment...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Frances B. Lo

  28. 4 out of 5

    Randi Stone

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kiki

  30. 4 out of 5

    Miriam

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