I am not what you expect from a feminist writer. For the past eight years, I have devoted most of my time to mothering rather than the working and writing life I built as a single person. I do teach Women’s Studies, but part-time. I have spent very little time writing, even though writing is one of the most fulfilling ways to spend my personal time. While my husband supports my achievements as a poet, he often suggests that I should prioritize paid work and family needs over my writing projects. He would never ask me to stop writing, but he does not fully understand my dedication to an activity that does not provide a paycheck, given our budget conscious lifestyle. Like many women, my obligations as a wife, mother, professor, daughter, friend, sister, etc. leave me very little solitary time, which brings me to my main topic: freedom.
For women, freedom to direct our lives into artistic pursuits is not a given. Despite the enormous changes that women and men have experienced while more and more women combined working with family life, such changes do not include allowing space for women to pursue the artistic professions. Women artists and writers who are also mothers often find the demands on their time leave little space for artistic creation. This can be true even for women like me who understand how gender dynamics encourage women to give to others instead of themselves. I must admit that I have not succeeded in allotting myself the writing time feminism suggests I should, nor that I hope to have. The little time I do have is available mainly because I currently work part-time. Unfortunately, the economic climate deems that I now need to secure full time employment, and I fear my writing time will disappear.
I am not complaining: motherhood is the most important and fulfilling work I will ever do. I have previously written about my choice to prioritize mothering from a feminist perspective. What I wish to discuss here is that even though I focus my time around mothering, I still attempt to carve out writing time. And, despite my feminist understanding of the world and our society, the time I seek is constantly under negotiation. I know I am not alone in this dilemma. Our society has not yet changed enough to give women the leeway from gender roles that would enable them to write. The situation is different for men, who always have leisure and solitude available to them. In a world where women are allowed little solitary time, writing and artistic creation are still the domain of men.
While I do manage to write, I must steal that time away from the other areas of my life: my children, my household duties, my husband, my family. As a young writer, before I started my own family, I jealously guarded time to write, spending hours and days in solitude. Now, I multitask by planning and thinking about my writing while doing household chores or driving my children to dance class. I must decide which writing project deserves attention because I cannot write regularly. When my children are busy, I sneak a few minutes to write here and there. I revise the most urgent project at the library while my children participate in a learning program with visiting owls. I must sometimes shelve writing to give my children, my spouse, my house, and my students the attention they need. While many writers, including men, share this dilemma, men are not tasked as primary caregivers or housekeepers the way women are; men do not feel the scorn of society, spouses, children, or other men the way women do when they do not fulfill their “proper” role. Men are freer than women to meet their expected role, as breadwinner, or not, to be a good father, or not, to keep their yard neatly trimmed, or not, to write, or not. Women are given “freedom”, i.e. “permission” to write, as long as their houses are well kept, their children are well cared for, and their spouses are given attention. The freedom of women is conditional: “of course, you can choose any profession you like, but don’t neglect your responsibilities.”
In a world where many women pay others to provide care and clean house, freedom to write can be bought, if you can afford to delegate your gender responsibilities. Some women would not choose this option; others cannot pay for quality care. In addition, the creative mind can be stunted, worn out, and used up by full time paid work. Many writers I know teach; it is flexible, it is rewarding, and it pays forward the education others gave to us. However, the pay is dismal, the hours are long, and the stress of encouraging your students to learn can affect your emotional readiness to create. As an adjunct college instructor, I cannot afford to pay a caregiver to watch my pre-school child while I teach. My mother-in-law does this for me, in exchange for translation services, help with computer usage, and advice about interacting with medical professionals. We have negotiated this informal exchange over time, but it is sometimes tenuous. Last year, I left my daughter with her an additional day per week so I could revise my chapbook manuscript. This year, that extra day of care has not been available very often. Because I understand the many demands on her time, I seek to avoid taking my mother-in-law’s availability for granted. My writing projects will wait until my caregiver is again available.
The idea that women have other things to do instead of writing is infused in our understanding of gender. Indeed, when women with small children do manage to write amidst mothering and paid work, people will tell us, “I’m surprised you are able to write at all.” The frequency that I hear this comment reiterates that men are considered the cultural producers in our society. Removing this mindset is necessary if we wish to encourage a flurry of writing activity in the next generation of women.