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    child playing in fast food restaurant playground with her mom in the background

    Writing at Burger King

    We can lament books never written by mothers who put children first. But what about children rendered invisible by their parents’ aspirations?

    By Nadya Williams

    October 24, 2022
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    • Rebecca Au-Mullaney

      I’m always interested in questions around creativity and mothering, so thank you for publishing this essay! I’d like to add an angle that I feel this essay lacked. I read Julie Phillips’ book earlier this year and felt that it had a very sober assessment of the “converse sacrifice” Williams discusses. Phillips does not seem to recommend to readers that all of us pursue our art at the expense of our families in the same way that some of the writers in her collection did. She writes soberly about Alice Neel’s broken relationship with Isabetta, and of the way that Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca felt that she had to always be the strong one in the relationship. Some of her chapters, all titled, “The Discomfort Zone,” are frank about how some of these writers’ choices conflict with her own judgments about how one should parent.
 What I took away from reading 'The Baby on the Fire Escape' was not that I should lower the priority that my own children have, but rather, that I could imagine new ways of collaborating with my community and with my husband to share the labor of care and free up space for me to write and draw. Phillips’ book helped to solidify my belief in the value of my own creative work — not over and against mothering, but as something important that needs time, too, and not just a disposable hobby.

 Williams' point that humility prioritizes caring for image-bearers may be a valuable message to share with those who assume that pursuing your own goals is the primary purpose in life. But for people raised in a conservative faith tradition like myself, I’ve needed to hear the opposite: Believing in your art can be a form of humility, too. Your words can open doors of meaning and freedom for others. I’ve always taken for granted that caring for children and your neighbor is the most important thing. As a child, all of my female role models were homemakers and home educators. 

I think that Williams and Phillips have a lot more in common than this essay seems to suggest. There is a controversial thread in 'The Baby on the Fire Escape' about abortion access being vital to women’s creativity. But the broad theme of the book is that it takes time to care for children and time to create. In order to create anything at all, you need communal or family structures that don’t leave you as the only caregiver, 24/7. You also need to have a strong enough sense of self (which is not the same as selfishness) to believe that your yet-uncreated work has value.

 I would argue that this “sense of self” is a form of faith. C.S. Lewis writes in 'Pilgrim’s Regress' that “Faith, being humbler, asks more.” I believe my work may one day be life-changing for someone, and so I try to make time for it as a way of loving my neighbor, all while being faithful to the very present neighbors in my own household.

    • Mark Botts

      Well done. How important is art, which attempts to reflect the reality of God, when compared to God's artistry: the human being, that bears the image of God by default? However, the writer usually follows a compulsion to write, be that writer a man or woman, husband or wife, father or mother. You keenly noted the need for all artists to balance their lives and not just their art-making. Lastly, your reference and analysis of The Magnificat shined a light upon a truth in that passage. Thank you very much.

    • Ernestina

      As an artist & both biological & spiritual mother (not prioritized, just artist in my vernacular is a being not a doing), this essay is a welcome addition to the ongoing dialogue and struggle many women face in our privileged positions (thank you Trisha for being a reminder). I have often looked at the examples of Ruth Asawa and Alice Neel, among others. It is possible with the goodness of the graces & mercies of God leading the Way, whatever the challenges.

    • Tonya

      Dear Nadya, I was at that Burger King several years ago, wherever it is located. Thank you for sharing and to Trisha, whose comments reminded me it was a privilege to balance both babies and writing for a time. Also I appreciate Linn's final point -- the sovereign now is all He asks us to handle, but I needed this reminder. Thank you all.

    • Terri Evans

      Thank you for this, Nadya! We do have to creatively deal with our own situations. God can only meet us where we are, and many of us need to admit that we work out of fear for a future that only God can see. Virtually all mothers work, whether paid or not, but a mother who chooses to narrow her professional or artistic opportunities for the sake of her children receives criticism from many directions. Your article gives some fresh perspective on the old arguments.

    • Tony Stern

      Well done indeed. I immediately forwarded it to one of my closest friends who is female, feminist, and a mother & grandmother. The epitome of the sort of thoughtful piece by a scholarly young believer that I often find in The PLOUGH. All of uus are touched by the topic at hand, as well as the larger dilemma of being between the rock of traditional values & the hard place of creative modern thinking - even privileged elderly white Jewish males like myself. Again - well done indeed. Many thanks.

    • Trisha

      I have no criticism of the authors point in general. Ye, it ignores the harsh reality of the family in a country that has and is being destroyed by greed. In most cases women have to work and the absence of living wages and affordable childcare, and affordable housing leaves the family focused on survival. The pursuit of writing or other desired choices is long gone for most women as they live only one step above homelessness. Nice puc of author at Burger King and her kids playing in background but i minister to women who work night shifts or double shifts. Their children are not competing with their mothers artistic desires but their family’s survival.

    • LInn

      Many years ago I was called home from my overseas ministry to raise a niece and nephew. I was also writing a thesis for my master's program. We could often be found at a park or a fast food place with a playground, while auntie wrote and the kids played. I had to take an extra year to finish my master's, but I did finish. The family situation finally improved, and I sent the kids back to their parents, but my time overseas was done. The kids still needed me in many ways. God, of course, opened up new doors of cross-cultural ministry stateside. The kids are fine, responsible adults and I'm a proud auntie-mommy. I think we spend a lot of time dealing with the what-ifs, instead of creatively dealing with asking God how to deal with his sovereign now.

    • Chad

      Thank you for this thoughtful essay.

    During my first semester in college, I read a curious essay, “Romans et enfants” (Novels and Children) by French literary theorist and social critic Roland Barthes. In this short and biting piece, part of his famous book Mythologies, Barthes takes to task the women’s magazine Elle for the way it was profiling women novelists in accordance with the following formula: author’s name, followed in parentheses first by the number of children and then the number of novels. Barthes sardonically quips that according to Elle, women’s fertility results in birthing babies and novels in alternation. After a series of snide asides about the latent societal expectations that women’s writing had better not impede their baby-making abilities, he concludes that Elle’s profiles reinforce a view of gender roles that is backward, oppressive, and condescending. Shouldn’t it be enough for women writers who happen to be mothers just to be thought of as writers, and introduced simply as writers in the public sphere?

    Barthes’s essay meant little to me at eighteen. I was neither a writer nor a mother. And I was, at that time, a secular Jew. And yet discomfort over this piece lingered somewhere in the recesses of my brain over the ensuing couple of decades, as I became an academic, an evangelical Christian, and a mother of three. This essay came to mind again recently while reading Agnes Howard’s thoughtful review of Julie Phillips’s new book on motherhood and writing, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem.

    Like Barthes, Phillips is conflicted about the ways in which women can (or, at times, cannot) balance writing and similar creative activity with mothering. Her conclusions, which ultimately privilege women’s creative work and present children and societal structure as de facto hindrances, generally have the same flavor as those that Barthes reaches. But now, over two decades removed from my first reading of Barthes, I can see not just what is present in these works and their arguments for recognizing the creative work of mothers. No less important is what is so strikingly missing from both discussions: a recognition of humility as a virtue essential for finding a well-ordered balance of priorities, particularly for mothers but really for anyone inspired to create.

    child playing in fast food restaurant playground with her mom in the background

    Photograph by mliu92

    Howard notes in wrestling with Phillips’s arguments: “What is lost if women can’t do creative work, as Virginia Woolf and others have testified, is a lot of good art and good books. Conditions enabling creative women to produce their work should be found; otherwise, we all are the poorer. Phillips mostly takes that point for granted, animated instead by what would be lost in the personal fulfillment of her subjects had motherhood gotten in their way.”

    One can imagine – and mourn – the invisible library of works not written by mothers who chose to place their children’s needs first by giving up their writing. But what of the converse sacrifice? The imperative to create art without being burdened by other responsibilities has a cost as well. Rightly pushing against the potential enabling of selfishness and the concomitant sacrifice of the needs of other family members that such quests for fulfillment by either men or women can take, Howard concludes that the quest for the balance of creative work with family life requires “mutual deference, which comes from love.”

    If we take love as the foundation on which a husband and wife can (and should) build a system that allows both to pursue creative endeavors while fulfilling their duties to their children, we accept that women’s creative work matters, but not in lieu of their task as mothers. At the same time, embracing motherhood does not mean sacrificing creative work altogether.

    One can imagine – and mourn – the invisible library of works not written by mothers who chose to place their children’s needs first by giving up their writing. But what of the converse sacrifice?

    To bring these two callings or competing priorities – mothering and writing – into well-ordered balance, mothers who are writers or artists will need to cultivate humility. Humility is perhaps not the first virtue to come to mind vis-à-vis writing and creative work. It is, however, a central virtue connected with motherhood, as seen particularly clearly in Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). In this prayerful song of thanksgiving, Mary expresses her joy that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary’s joy at her God-approved humility echoes the frequent descriptions of Jesus himself as humble – not just humble in our modern English sense but also lowly in a socially despised sort of way. As a motherly virtue, this humility is beautiful and countercultural, especially in the prayer of a young woman who is rejoicing over motherhood in such difficult circumstances. Hers is a humility that embraces motherhood as a divine calling above all others, because she knows that it literally is a divine calling upon her life.

    But just because a particular calling exceeds others does not mean it definitively rules out simultaneous callings on our time and love. Having well-ordered priorities does not require us to give up all other callings that may be less significant in light of eternity. It simply means knowing which of the many competing callings is most important and therefore above the competition. In our society, which does not value children as the absolute good they are, it may be the most countercultural admission of all for a mother to push back against the assumptions of Barthes and say that while we should celebrate women’s creative work, children are image-bearers in a way that novels or works of art are not.

    So, in light of this, what is the worth of a mother’s written word? George Eliot famously mocked her fellow women writers, criticizing the “silly novels by lady novelists” whose authors took themselves too seriously even while writing ridiculous tropes and unrealistic plots. Evaluating the worth of literature in light of her admonition seems appropriate. But in Eliot’s vision, the weight of some words is so glorious because of the acclaim the works receive for the great weight of their subject matter. And to be fair, Eliot herself achieved such acclaim because of the works she composed.

    As I reflect upon the callings of motherhood and writing, both of which I feel intensely, my calling as a mother obviously comes first.

    But such a view of evaluating words, even in the best of great literature, presents the same problem we find in the Barthes essay – it leaves out the greater weight that image-bearers have. Words of mortals, no matter how glorious, will always have a more humble place in God’s ordering of priorities than image-bearers. And so, in my affections, it is well and right for my children to rank above my writing. This does not mean that writing isn’t important, or that it cannot be a beautiful, God-ordained instrument to shape minds and hearts, orienting them toward eternity.

    And so, as I reflect upon the callings of motherhood and writing, both of which I feel intensely, my calling as a mother obviously comes first. The humility required of me to admit this has an invariable impact on my writing as well. Anything I write becomes, by default, more humble, lowlier, more prone to give way to the child who needs yet another snack or snuggle: ideas jotted down on random grocery receipts or texted to myself from the playground, or questions to myself that I would like to explore further but need to lay aside for the moment as I climb up a tree to get down the three-year-old who confidently clambered up but cannot figure out how to get down. In her case, I see the tangible results of a typical preschooler’s hubris, that spectacularly disordered elevation of the self, coupled with the confidence that she can do all things by herself. This is how the Tower of Babel was built. Safely restoring her to the ground, I breathe with relief, glad that we have both achieved the literal humility of proximity to the earth, humus, once again, unscathed.

    Here I am, yet again, at a playground with the kids. This time the oppressive heat of the day has driven us inside, into an air-conditioned indoor playground that Burger King has recently constructed. I sit at a table, still suspiciously sticky in spots from the previous occupants’ sauce-laced lunch. I am writing about Augustine while keeping an eye on the kids happily climbing inside the tubular structure suspended several feet above the ground. Oddly, the experience feels like the perfect mix of high and low, honestior et humilior, noble and humble, balanced out at last. And as the kids happily run back and forth to grab a bite and return to their play, for these few minutes the chicken nuggets and fries flow as freely as my written words.

    Contributed By portrait of Nadya Williams Nadya Williams

    Nadya Williams is Professor of Ancient History at the University of West Georgia.

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