The ‘Impossible Life’ of Equal Devotion to Art and Mothering

“Too much life enters this house,” Tillie Olsen, the writer, labor activist and mother of four daughters, wrote in a letter to the poet Anne Sexton. “Up at six, breakfast in shifts, lunchpacking — then, if no one ill, or it isn’t a holiday, or any of the other ORs, the day for work until four, sometimes longer or an evening — depending on housework load, shopping, errands, people, current family or friend crisis.” This description of artistic and familial tumult was written in 1961, but it could have been an email from one mother to another in 2024.

Olsen and Sexton were among the early recipients of a paid fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. As described in Maggie Doherty’s “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship and Liberation in the 1960s,” the fellowship “targeted a ubiquitous and yet marginalized class of Americans: mothers,” and it was “designed to combat the ‘climate of unexpectation’ facing women in midcentury America,” according to Radcliffe’s then-president, Mary Ingraham Bunting.

In some ways, remarkable progress has been made for American women since then — at the time, for example, it was perfectly legal to fire a woman for getting pregnant. (In other ways, we have returned to the 19th century.)

Still, I was surprised to find that much of the sentiment expressed by Olsen, Sexton, the professor Maxine Kumin, the painter Barbara Swan and the sculptor Marianna Pineda in Doherty’s excellent, sensitive book felt thoroughly modern six decades later. The book made me ponder whether some of the conflicts that parents feel between their family responsibilities and other parts of their lives can be fully resolved.

For one thing, these women had supportive husbands. Olsen’s husband, Jack, moved across country with her from San Francisco when she got the fellowship. In academia, the person who moves for the other person is often called a “trailing spouse,” and even in the 21st century, trailing spouses are more likely to be women. Pineda’s husband was also a successful sculptor named Harold Tovish. He considered her “the better artist,” Doherty notes, and he gave Pineda the bigger, brighter, better studio space in their Massachusetts home.

Often, as for the women portrayed in Carmela Ciuraru’s “Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages,” domestic life with bratty, self-involved spouses was a roadblock for female artists. But for the women portrayed in “The Equivalents,” motherhood was also a muse: Pineda, for example, sculpted the pregnant form, and by doing so, according to her former gallerist Abigail Ross Goodman, “She’s also talking about the birth of creativity, the birth of ideas, what it is for an artist to give birth.”

I was particularly moved by Olsen’s story. “She had been something of a literary celebrity in the 1930s,” Doherty explained, but:

Olsen wanted both more time to write and “more time at home with her daughters” and “the energy to enjoy that time.” Unlike most of the fellowship recipients who were better off, Olsen resented the fact that both she and her husband had to work low-wage day jobs to make ends meet. Though Jack was an egalitarian in many ways, Olsen still did a majority of the domestic work — just as many working mothers continue to do more housework than their spouses do today.

When she moved from San Francisco to Cambridge, Mass., for the Radcliffe fellowship, she had planned to work on a novel but ended up buried deep in the library stacks, studying writers like her, who had what she called “unnatural silences” — when life circumstances, rather than a lack of inspiration or fodder, keep you from your art.

(Relatedly, I’m sorry that I’m just now writing about a book that came out in 2020, but I was kind of busy back then.)

Again, I was struck by how relevant Olsen’s writing continues to be. She gave a talk to the institute called “Death of the Creative Process,” and it was adapted into an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1965. This passage resonates:

Olsen’s conflict, as she described it, was “to reconcile work with life.” As Doherty writes, “Olsen argued that life was not like a calendar: it could not be divvied up and parceled out.” The fellowship (and the fact that she had older children — her youngest was a teenager when she moved to Cambridge) made sustained work possible for Olsen. She finally reached a point where she didn’t need to have a day job, and the work she was able to finish at the institute permanently changed her life. But it didn’t erase all her inner conflict. Olsen “longed for an impossible life, one in which she could devote adequate time” to both her work and her children, Doherty writes.

As I read Olsen’s words, I thought about all of the mothers I’ve spoken to over the years — both as a journalist and as a friend — who acutely feel the conflict between mothering and all other aspects of life. They often take that feeling of tension as a signal that they’re doing something wrong — working too much or not hard enough. They don’t always think about the financial or structural issues holding them back. They’ll often see hurdles as personal failures and feel guilty about whatever they think they are giving the short shrift.

But what if they accepted the tension as eternal? What if there will always be some feelings of frustration and exhaustion bumping up against the feelings of joy and everlasting love? I don’t think this feeling is exclusive to mothers, or to mothers who work for pay. Involved fathers feel the push-pull of life and family the same way mothers do; they just have fewer social expectations around their parenting and more social expectations around their paid work.

Olsen left behind not only a body of wonderful writing — I still remember cracking the slim volume of “Tell Me a Riddle” that I found on my mother’s office shelf when I was home from college one summer — but also a legacy of care. And not just for her own daughters, on whom she doted, making their birthdays special and their rooms filled with books, even when the family was broke.

When her daughter Julie was in high school, Olsen took in “a young man from a troubled family” for several months. That man once warmly recalled the Olsen dinner table. “They were talking, laughing, joking, teasing, telling their stories of the day, being listened to with respect, being responded to with love. They discussed literature, music, film and politics. They wanted to know what I thought, what I believed, what authors I was reading.” I don’t know if Olsen ever felt that she succeeded in achieving that “impossible life.” But to this reader, she did.

Back to top button