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    The Year of Madeleine

    Motherhood and writing as acts of co-creation

    By Haley Stewart

    May 3, 2021
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    • Therese

      This is a beautiful and inspirational reflection. I appreciate the praise given to partners... and would add that even without a partner, God gives us strength to be creative, to manifest God's love in our parenting and in our creative endeavors. Thank you again for the article and for introducing another side of Madeleine, whose writing I have loved for a long time.

    • Jodie Toresdahl

      Thank you for writing this. It was so encouraging and made me want to embark on my own Year of Madeleine. Your writing is beautiful!

    “The writers I admire most, who mean most to me, who teach me most, are, by and large, dead.” This line by Madeleine L’Engle rings true for me, as well. Most of the writers I love are dead, including L’Engle, author of dozens of books including the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time (1962). L’Engle died in 2007, two years before I became, like her, a mother and a writer. As I travel this challenging path, L’Engle’s reflections on pursuing both callings lend wonderful wisdom.

    Perhaps I’m drawn to a dead writer’s thoughts on this issue because when I turn to the living, I often find their advice unsatisfactory. Either, I’m told, we should cheerfully lay our creative endeavors at the altar of motherhood because we “cannot have it all” and “mom is the most important job” we’ll ever have. Or, the call to motherhood is dismissed as mere drudgery and distraction from our art. When leaving a graduate program a few years ago in order to focus on a young child at home I was warned by a professor, “You have the talent to do valuable creative work. If you drop out of this program to raise your son, you’ll be doing what anyone can do and become intellectually stagnant. Anyone can change a diaper and watch a toddler!” From her tone, I assumed “anyone” meant the lowest of human souls, but she took it a step further to say, “Even a dog could take care of your child.” Most people have a sense that there is room between these two extremes of viewing childrearing as a mindless degradation and viewing motherhood as a calling that excludes all others. As I have juggled homeschooling four kids while writing and podcasting during a pandemic, I have longed for a trustworthy guide who demonstrates what that middle ground might look like.

    God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.

    I happened upon what I was looking for in late 2020 when, after reaching for L’Engle’s novels as beloved re-reads to bring some familiar normalcy to a difficult year, I felt compelled to “meet” their author. I set out on a mission to find L’Engle’s nonfiction at my local used bookstore. Miraculously, amidst the piles of romance novels and cheap mysteries I was able to find four treasures: Walking on Water (1972), her reflections on faith and art, and the first three of her published journals from Crosswicks, the two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse where she raised her family. For me, 2020 became The Year of Madeleine, Patron Saint of the Creative Mother (unofficially, of course, as L’Engle was not Catholic, but Anglican).

    Madeleine Franklin, who used a family name, L’Engle, as her nom de plume, married actor Hugh Franklin and raised three children while writing dozens of books.What makes L’Engle’s personal example and philosophy of creative motherhood distinctive is that she rejects both the dismissal of the homemaker as insignificant or dull and the claim that a mother is not allowed other callings. She posits that “God is love, and it is the nature of love to create.” L’Engle’s Christian faith led her to see “creator” as the deepest identity of every soul made in the image of God, the Creator. A parent participating as a co-creator in the birth of new life and an artist offering her God-given talent in the creation of art are merely different manifestations of this holy God-reflecting work of creation. In Walking on Water L’Engle writes, “All of us who have given birth to a baby, to a story, know that it is ultimately mystery, closely knit to God’s own creative activities which did not stop at the beginning of the universe. God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.” Rather than seeing her motherhood and her writing as separate and competing identities, L’Engle saw her twin callings to create as integral expressions of her role as co-creator.

    kids cooking in the kitchen

    Photograph by Annie Spratt

    Madeleine insisted on writing and she insisted on raising her children. However, while she sees each as holy calling, she does not romanticize the challenges of either one. “There was, for me, nothing idyllic about struggling to raise our children, trying to keep house in drafty old Crosswicks,” she explains in The Irrational Season (1977). “There was nothing idyllic in the violent conflict between Madeleine, wife and mother, and Madeleine, writer. I struggled to write under the worst possible conditions, after the children were in bed – that force field of concentration would have been a dangerous idea while they were awake and active. Like most young mothers I was constantly tired.” She describes the decade of her “tired thirties” when her home was busy with the needs of her small children and she would fall asleep at her typewriter after putting them to bed. As a tired mother struggling to find the hours to write, I find her vulnerable honesty comforting. This season feels hard because it is – even for someone as talented as Madeleine.

    But despite the challenges, she did not see the care of young children as dull or insignificant. She did not decide to do what the graduate professor urged me to do – get someone, anyone, an animal! – to raise her children and move on to more important things: her books. She saw the raising of children as a creative calling worthy of time and energy. “Even if we had money for servants, I don’t think I would have wanted anybody else to have brought up our children,” she reflects in her journals. Notably, her commitment to being a present mother to her three children was not something modeled for her. L’Engle was an only child who was cared for by a nanny, Mrs. O., and although her caregiver remained a beloved lifelong friend, L’Engle clearly did not want to repeat this model with her own children.

    L’Engle saw her role of mother as holy work. In her eyes childbearing was “the most creative of all experiences.” But how did she manage motherhood and writing on a practical level? In her words, “A certain amount of stubbornness – pig-headedness – is essential” for the mother who insists on making art. She also admitted to being a mediocre housekeeper, which brings me great comfort because I am a fellow member of that illustrious club. “I cannot write in a filthy nest – but I will never win an award as Housekeeper of the Year,” she confesses. If one thing would be deprived of her energies, it would be the housework, not her children or her books. And yet, she did not consider keeping house as degrading work (a sentiment that often drips with misogyny). “Vacuuming the house or scrubbing out the refrigerator is drudgery for me, though I find it in no way degrading,” she writes in Walking on Water. “I suspect that it is not the work itself which is the problem, but that it is taking me from other work, such as whatever manuscript I am currently working on.” While many of her fictional mothers, like the brilliant scientist Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, are “working mothers,” L’Engle also gives her characters the choice to revel in homemaking, childrearing, and supporting their spouse’s good work without a professional career, as gifted mathematician Meg Murry O’Keefe, another fictional mother, prefers to do.

    For an artist is not a consumer, as our commercials urge us to be. An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.

    While L’Engle put housework low on her priority list, she did admit to enjoying cooking (although she told Hugh upon their engagement that if she was going to write and have his children, he would have to do the dishes). Hugh and Madeleine’s collaboration in homemaking leads to the next practical guidance from her example – she considered her writing a family matter. She did not attempt to do everything alone. To write and to mother, she had Hugh’s help. “For an artist is not a consumer, as our commercials urge us to be. An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.” Again, using descriptions that apply to both motherhood and art (nourisher, creator), the act of creation is not done alone. Two parents must participate to create a child. An artist must collaborate, as well. She must be a co-creator with God, using the gifts he has given her and the resources of creation. And if that artist is a parent, her creation should be supported by a wider community. Madeline describes Hugh’s participation in caring for their children in the early morning so she could rest and stay up late into the night to write. She supported his work as an actor, and he supported her work as a writer. As I write this piece, my husband is teaching long division to our son after a morning wrangling our four children at the zoo. This kind of collaborative support is perhaps the most essential piece of the puzzle for a creative parent.

    Seasons of productivity for a creative mother ebb and flow according to the obligations of family life, but with Madeleine’s exhortation to “pigheadedness” and familial support – there is nothing superhuman about a woman who seeks to participate in co-creation in more than one way. L’Engle reminds us that motherhood is holy and creating art is holy; and yet, while we meditate on how the sacred touches the ordinary, she doesn’t let us romanticize the hard work either calling requires. Raising children requires sleep deprivation, precious little time to oneself, and figuring out what on earth to cook for dinner because your family apparently wants to eat – again! Writing requires slogging through dry spells of inspiration, banging one’s head against the typewriter, and just putting words to a page whether you feel like it or not. But when that practical honesty is tinged with an openness to the supernatural, then none of it is drudgery. It is the road we travel to be creators, to live out our calling as human beings made in the image of God. Smack dab in the middle of my “tired thirties” giving my energies to motherhood and writing, Madeleine is an inspiration for me as I am ignoring the sticky floors to get a few more pages written.

    Her example challenges the myth that a creative must sit in a tower, unencumbered by other obligations and cultivate the perfect environment for the writing process in order to create anything of value. Instead of seeing family life and motherhood as an impediment to creative work, what if we viewed each calling as worthy of support and a path to living out our Christian purpose to bear something beautiful into the world?

    Contributed By

    Haley Stewart is author of The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture, speaker, and podcaster (co-host of Fountains of Carrots and The Simple Show). She blogs at Carrots for Michaelmas.

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