When people asked me when I planned to get pregnant, I used to say, “After my first book.” I’d chosen to put my energies elsewhere, and I figured publication was such a long shot that I’d have plenty of time to live and write in peace. When a book came and a few people remembered that promise, I had to think fast. “After a second book,” I replied, ridiculous. I know Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the kitchen table after her children were tucked in bed, and I imagine that people learn much about life as their children grow. Somehow, though, I still carry the old notion that negotiation is impossible, that a woman must be completely given over to one or another kind of work, and that if her attention ever wavers, terrible things happen.
This message comes from as far back as my first memory, which is little more than a few frozen images. I’m three years old, out behind a farmhouse in Turbotville, Pennsylvania, under a fir tree. The boughs are so thick that the grass is stunted, and long cones like corn cobs clutter the ground. Wandering between them, I see my oxblood, buckle shoes with little cut-out daisies on the toes. I don’t know what I’m doing out here after supper; my dad and older brother are elsewhere; Mom is at work. As I wander toward the place where the lawn drops down a steep bank to the road, I see fields and the next farm’s corn crib on the other side. Something over there rustles the tall grass: Sally Ann, my cat, stalking a field mouse? Suddenly she darts down the bank and, without looking, without thinking, I dash toward her.
Then I see the rounded front of a 1950s sedan, hear a loud screech, and see sky, although I cannot say in what order. Mostly I recall the sky and one red shoe flying against it for a long, long breath.
My eyes open. Stretched out on the grass beneath the branches, I see my father’s face, feel him touch my cheek, my shoulder, “Jules, Jules…” He is more distressed than I have ever seen him. Is he angry with me for crossing the road alone or for losing my shoe? Another strange man stands nearby; later I will learn that he is rushing to the hospital, where his wife is giving birth. The man and my father say “Geisinger” and “ambulance,” but I know I am fine. At the emergency room, I obey the white-coated men who ask me to follow their fingers with my eyes, and I hold still while they take X-rays, but all the while I know it is pointless. I can’t understand why the adults keep saying I am such a brave girl. What this first memory means, I now believe, is that even though enormous things may hit me sometimes, I’ll be OK in the end, and mercifully I’ve always known this in some small, strange way.
But when my mother tells this story, she starts by saying, “The first night I went back to nursing…” For her, it is a story about neglect and what happens when a mother isn’t there to watch her children.
Sometime close to my flight off the car hood, the cat Sally Ann died on the same road. I don’t remember seeing her body; my father must have buried her out of sight somewhere on the farm. I’ve always imagined her lying on the berm, a perfect camel-colored Siamese with smoke at her feet and ears, stretched out stiff, eyes shut, a thin line of dried blood sealing her mouth. And I remember the newborn kittens she left in a cardboard box by the stove, five or six of them writhing on a scrap of old blanket, crying and blind. Sired by a barn cat, they didn’t show a trace of her exotic blood. For some time, my mother fed them warm formula from a medicine dropper, but they were too young to drink enough. When she returned from her evening shift at the nursing home, she couldn’t bear to hear their crying.
One afternoon I walked into the kitchen and stopped, hearing nothing. The box was gone, and emerging from the door of the coal cellar with a grave look on his face was my father, a farm boy who grew up to work in a laboratory. I don’t remember how he told me, but I know he must have used the words, “put to sleep” to describe the way he knocked each one of them on the back of the head with a hammer. Painless, he would have said, they didn’t feel a thing, and the best solution, because kittens that young die without a mother.
So I learned early that mothers are essential. Later I realized that to work, authors must always abandon their families. “A writer has no children; I have no children when I write,” says French mother, novelist and theorist Helene Cixous in her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Would it then follow that in order to attend to her family, a writer must abandon her work?
Some years back while a resident at Yaddo, the old artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, I woke in my strange, narrow bed, my heart racing. I had been running around desperately pleading with strangers in some public place, trying to persuade anyone who would listen that I had not killed my baby on purpose. It had died — an abstract, nameless, sexless white bundle — and I had neglected it, but I hadn’t meant to kill anyone. I’d just forgotten about it somehow.
I lay awake, trembling, smoothed the sheets and breathed deeply, scrambling to construct an interpretation to stop the adrenaline from rushing through my limbs. Although there was the book in production, I had not written poems for some time, and I suddenly found myself in a place where others cooked my meals and washed my bedding, where uninterrupted afternoons seemed to stretch forever, and where I was expected to write and write very well. Maybe I was afraid I wouldn’t start again, that I had killed my small talent — my small self — through neglect and the necessary distractions of earning a living and maintaining a household.
Scanning the walls of my bedroom in that eerie, pre-dawn light, I studied the photographs of Yaddo at the turn of the century: Katrina Trask, railroad magnet’s wife in a white gown, her hair gathered up in a puffy bun, surrounded by the stylish artists she had invited up from New York City to vacation or work at the estate during the summer. The ghosts of Yaddo are supposed to be Katrina’s four dead children. After her doctor mistakenly judged Katrina’s childbirth fever to be no longer contagious and granted the three older children permission to enter their mother’s room, all of them contracted the fatal illness, including the newborn. The mansion is still decorated with great, sentimental Victorian portraits of the children, and the Italian rose garden faces a pine grove sheltering the statue of Christalon — an androgynous character named with a composite of the dead children’s names. Christalon became the hero of the verse Katrina wrote after their deaths in her studio atop the mansion’s tower, decorated as a white, neo-gothic prayer chapel with a kneeler set before a marble bust of the Blessed Mother. As chance would have it, I was assigned that tower as my studio, and I knew that I wouldn’t have been there — nor Anne Sexton, nor any of the other writers who’d worked in that space before me, probably including Katrina herself — if her children had survived and grown up to inherit Yaddo.
Does this dream mean that a woman must lose her children to make way for her work, that she must choose between two kinds of creativity: art or domestic life?
I cannot forget the image of American sculptor Louise Navelson locking her son in the basement, throwing some crayons and paper down the steps so that she could work for a few hours in her studio. I feel as much sympathy for her as the son, who grew up to be a painter, though much less successful than his driven mother. This story haunts me, though I do not know where I heard it, nor can I say whether it is true or just some rumor sustained by our complicated double desire for guilt and blame when it comes to mothers. For a long time, I saw it only as a cautionary tale about what happens when mothers work. Why did I never notice that Nevelson’s son grew up to be an artist himself? Why assume that those hours he spent in the basement with crayons were marked by feelings of abandonment or neglect and not creative activity?
Some of my own most pleasurable memories from childhood are not of my mother’s undivided attention or even of organized activities with other children, but of playing alone in a creek or the woods, improvising my own stories aloud. My mother was entirely absent those days — in the house, perhaps, doing her own craft projects or household chores. Those idle afternoons, with only my imagination for companionship, must have something to do with the inner resources I now draw on as a writer.
Why do we constantly confuse maternity with mortality, swallowing the flattering yet ultimately destructive myth that a woman must give up her own life for her child’s, as inevitably as the calcium from a mother’s teeth drains to her fetus? In fact, when my cat Sally Ann lost her own life, the lives of her kittens soon followed. Perhaps my first memory is not a fearful story of near peril and a working mother’s absence, but a cautionary tale about a father who was inexperienced at parenting because he had not had the opportunity to learn and share in those duties. Like most men in the early 1960s, my dad worked full time and left my mother to care for the children. Yet he was present for me in the end, however he suffered from that one mistake. Fortunately, my mother had not consorted with a stray tom who would vanish when the babies came.
Making a baby is not at all like that simpler task of making a book, despite that foolish cliché which must have been invented and propagated by male anxieties about their own generative powers. Knowing that I will not face maternity alone — as I often face the blank page — I hope to be able to believe as I could at 3, that I will be fine, then fling myself in its way.