The Victorian Naturalist in the Mirror
There’s this iconic photograph of Charles Darwin in early middle age, before he published Origin of Species, before he became the “father of evolution,” before he aged into a spectacular white beard that telegraphed his venerability. In the image, he is amply mutton-chopped but also clearly balding. Constricted by a tightly wrapped cravat, his expression registers an inscrutable mix of discomfort, surprise, and annoyance. He looks maybe a bit constipated—Darwin suffered throughout his life from gastro-intestinal distress.
It is hardly the face of besotted fatherhood.
Yet, Darwin’s biography upends all of our stereotypes about distant, disinterested Victorian patriarchs. In another image that I uncovered from the same time period, he sits with his eldest son William. The shadow of a smile plays across his face.
Darwin doted on William, nicknamed “Hoddy-Doddy,” and the nine children that followed. Although squeamish about the act of childbirth itself, he was a demonstrative father who cuddled his babies and gave them baths. Darwin also chronicled the minutiae of his offspring’s development in journals that married paternal affection with a naturalist’s eye for detail.
What’s more, decades later, Darwin would mine these notebooks for evidence of the evolution of facial expressions. He turned his parental obsession into scientific gold. Darwin had opened himself up to an arena dismissed by his contemporaries as domestic, private, female, and hence not worthy of study. What began as an expression of love for—and curiosity about—his children opened up a new field of scientific inquiry: early childhood development.
As I read about the fatherly love of this formidable and long-dead naturalist, the distance between us—temporal, geographical, reputational—melted away. We were just two adoring parents on the metaphorical playground.
But Darwin’s story also gave me hope that, on my own humble scale, I, too, might find my way to a synthesis of selves: the creator and the caregiver.
Since my son was born in 2015, I had been struggling to get back to a nonfiction book project I’d begun the year before, about the nineteenth-century computer programmer Ada Lovelace. As a new parent sitting bored and immobilized in a nursing chair for five hours a day, I wondered, Will it always be this way? Are procreation and creative work totally at odds with each other?
Over two years later, when I began potty training my then 28-month-old, these thoughts returned. Once more, my son’s bodily needs were holding my writing life hostage.
This time, though, the question—are caregiving and creativity compatible endeavors?—captured my curiosity to the point where I needed to write about it. I started a blog as a space to keep writing about this topic in order to keep thinking about it.
For the past year and a half, I’ve taken a deep dive (and unexpected detour) into the parenting lives of sundry historical figures. You know that classic ice-breaker question? Who are the x-number of individuals, living or dead, that you would invite to a dinner party? My thought experiment went something like this: who are the scientists and artists, living or dead, that you would want to gossip with at a parenting support group?
Admittedly, summoning the dead has been a strange, roundabout approach to getting my questions answered. But as an introvert and research junkie, I was seduced by the idea of diving into the past, into past lives. I hoped that this cache of role models would sustain me as I journeyed into unexplored terrain, forging a creative identity out of the fragments of my pre-motherhood self. Their historical distance also offered some freedom from comparison and from the judgments that inevitably creep into our interactions with fellow parents, despite our best intentions.
Because I write nonfiction about the history of science, I was drawn as much to the stories of chemists and engineers as to those of writers and visual artists. I started with the premise that creativity is an impulse underlying all human pursuits, and that meaningful lessons would come from casting a wide net.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
In Search of a Feminist, Quaker, Materials-Scientist Guru
If Darwin’s example suggested the possibility of integrating my parenting and creative lives, Ursula Franklin showed me how to get there.
Franklin’s life is a case study in resilience. Born in Germany in 1921 to a Jewish artist and a Protestant ethnographer, Franklin survived the Holocaust in a forced labor camp. After the war, she earned a PhD in experimental physics in Berlin. Eager to leave a country she saw as steeped in militarism, Franklin emigrated to Canada and became a Quaker.
In addition to her accomplished career in physics at the University of Toronto, Franklin was a wide-ranging thinker and lecturer about technology, peace, the environment, and women’s studies.
It was in this other context, as a public intellectual, that Franklin revealed herself as my shaman.
In the 1985 lecture “Will Women Change Technology or Will Technology Change Women?,” Franklin explores the ways that women’s experiences can enrich tech culture—and yes, her ideas are still relevant in 2019.
Although the piece is about a lot more than parenthood, Franklin’s analysis seems to draw on her lived experience as a mother of two. She contrasts the values of the tech world—efficiency, productivity, individual achievement—with the importance to parents of what she calls copeability, “the ability to deal and cope adequately with a variety of circumstances” that domestic life might throw our way. She underlines the skills, like “inventiveness, spontaneity, and improvisation,” that we cultivate in the largely unplanned work of parenting.
In a 2014 interview, Franklin relates her own inventive responses to a 1950s workplace unequipped for her existence as a working mother. Upon informing her supervisors that she was pregnant, they formed a “bloody committee” (as Franklin colorfully put it) to discuss how to proceed. While the committee dithered, her pregnancy progressed, and her son Martin was born before they reached a decision. Franklin ultimately took it upon herself to figure out maternity leave: half-time in the lab, with her mother watching the baby, and half-time at home, where she could do the calculations and report-writing from a distance.
During the two-and-a-half years before I began exploring Franklin’s life and work, I’d been focusing on loss—loss of sleep, loss of autonomy, and, above all, loss of identity. Franklin suddenly reframed the job of mothering as, instead, one that was—and still is—giving me specific, transferable skills.
Franklin had passed away the previous year. Yet, as I sat in bed reading her book in the fall of 2017, she whispered this mantra from beyond the grave:
The flexibility required of you as a caregiver is making you more adaptable in your creative life.
Ursula Franklin had helped me recognize that the care and feeding of young children can also make us more resourceful as thinkers, writers, and humans.
Still, the myth of the solitary artist loomed. This myth rears its head in various spaces—academia, Silicon Valley, the art world. It is the insidious notion that the artist, the tech entrepreneur, the math genius, must give themselves over, with greedy and absolute devotion, to their work.
But many of the stories I’ve found suggest that art and science can be made, and made well, by leaning into your caregiving relationships. I’m thinking in particular of Rachel Carson, the marine biologist, environmentalist, and science writer.
I’d stumbled upon Carson on a rare, blissful evening of solitude. My three-year-old was asleep, my husband out of the house, our cat uncharacteristically chill. I had both the time and presence of mind to read The New Yorker!
The essay that captivated me that spring night, and sent me deep down a Rachel Carson rabbit hole, was historian Jill Lepore’s “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson.” I’d known of Carson only superficially, as “the author of Silent Spring” or “the founder of the modern environmental movement.” Her activism toward banning pesticides like DDT is an important part of her legacy, but Lepore contextualizes this work within a career motivated in large part by Carson’s love of the ocean.
While working for the US Bureau of Fisheries (later the US Fish and Wildlife Service), Carson began authoring books like Under the Sea-Wind and The Sea Around Us, which enticed readers with their combination of scientific rigor and lyrical prose. In 1925, Carson had begun Pennsylvania College for Women as an English major, but she graduated with a biology degree. Decades later, Carson would marvel at how her science writing career had led her to an unexpected synthesis of these two passions: “I had given up writing forever, I thought. It never occurred to me that I was merely getting something to write about.”
In addition to juggling her writing and scientific work, Carson took on breadwinning and caregiving responsibilities. She raised her older sister’s two kids after they were orphaned, nursed her ailing mother, and adopted her grandnephew Roger.
Carson penned “Help Your Child to Wonder” for the July 1956 issue of Woman’s Home Companion. The essay pulls together the seemingly disparate threads of her life and work. Centering the piece on then-four-year-old Roger, Carson recreates the sensory details of their adventures together exploring the Maine coast. She recalls carrying a 20-month-old Roger to the shoreline while an autumn storm raged, to his first “spine-tingling” encounter with the ocean. She describes late-night hunts for ghost crabs on the beach and moon-viewing parties from their picture window.
“Help Your Child to Wonder” is ostensibly a guide to parents daunted by the task of introducing their children to the natural world. Its subtext, though, is our own modern disconnection from nature. As Carson writes, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” The article—and Carson’s body of writing as a whole—seeks to rekindle in adult readers that sense of awe and interconnectedness.
Carson’s biographers have tended to rue how Carson’s personal relationships and family obligations allegedly got in the way of her professional output. Lepore argues, instead, that the nurturing roles that competed for Carson’s time were also the threads that bound her to the natural world. They reinforced her ecological vision of life as based on kinship, interdependency.
They made her, and the work she produced, whole.
Essie on My Mind
I discovered Essie Robeson in the midst of rejection.
Today, Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode Robeson is best known as the wife of Paul Robeson, the famous singer, actor, and activist. But, as her biographer Barbara Ransby reveals, Robeson was a tour de force in her own right. In fact, Essie’s chemistry degree from Columbia University—and her pioneering work as the first African American lab technician at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City—supported Paul through law school and enabled him to embark on a career in entertainment in the 1920s.
Early last summer, rejuvenated by the writing I’d been doing on my blog, I began sending out short pieces of writing for publication.
The usual spate of rejections (or, more often, radio silence) ensued. Then, I read that Robeson was unable to get her interview with Mahatma [expletive] Gandhi published! Surely, the few sketches I had been circulating were not so precious.
By turns a chemist, writer, anthropologist, and activist, Robeson existed in a constant state of becoming. She cultivated less a professional identity than a perspective, one that was increasingly political in nature and global in scope.
Particularly formative was her first trip to Africa in 1936, which she embarked on with her eight-year-old son Paul Jr., nicknamed Pauli. A decade later, she published African Journey, a synthesis of her travels on the continent and a reflection of her growing solidarity with people of color worldwide.
The trip would offer a rare convergence of Robeson’s lifelong wanderlust, her growing anthropological interests, and her parenting philosophy. In African Journey, Robeson shares her rationale for taking Pauli along. Having been raised abroad in Europe, in an affluent and predominantly white environment, the six-year-old Pauli had expressed surprise when visiting the set of Paul’s movie Sanders of the River, which featured a predominantly African cast. Robeson vowed to change her son’s point of view. She reasoned: “If some Africans on a film set open up a new world to the child, a trip to the heart of Africa will be a revelation. He will see millions of other brown and black people, he will see a black world, he will see a black continent.”
Robeson’s restless, searching spirit spoke to my own sense of inadequacy as a novice writer nearing 40, without a clear or fixed career path. Her example suggested that shifting professions did not have to read as flighty or irresponsible. It could, to the contrary, be approached with a seriousness of purpose and breadth of vision.
My Fantasy Summer Vacation with a Two-Time Nobel Laureate
By summer’s end, I had accumulated several months of stories, dozens of role models (and a few cautionary tales) out of history. These figures, mostly women, had enabled me to articulate my frustrations, recommit to the work, and take concrete, if fledgling, steps toward writing again.
But I was still a little lonesome. For nearly a year, I had been dwelling in the company of ghosts.
No less a luminary than Marie Curie, the Polish-French Nobel Prize winner in physics and chemistry, helped to identify the source of my malaise.
Curie is a formidable figure in the history of science. One scholar even coined the term “the Madame Curie Complex” to argue that Curie’s vaunted reputation might have had the unintended effect of discouraging women from scientific professions. As the mythology around Curie grew, she became an unattainable ideal.
What inspired me, though, was a moment of vulnerability.
In 1911, scandal plagued Curie, then a widow and single mother. Although her second Nobel had been announced, colleagues discouraged her from traveling to Stockholm to accept the prize, due to outrage in the French press over her affair with the married scientist Paul Langevin. A mob threatened Curie and her two daughters outside of their house in the Paris suburbs. By early 1912, Curie’s health had suffered, and she required a kidney operation.
Into this tumultuous situation stepped Curie’s friend, the British physicist Hertha Ayrton. She arranged to rent a summer house on the English coast, where Curie and her two daughters could recover incognito. The friends were joined on occasion by Ayrton’s grown daughter Barbara, as well as fellow suffragist Evelyn Sharp, who would later pen a biography of Ayrton. They spent an idyllic six weeks in Dorset, discussing math with Curie’s older daughter Irène and playing piano with the lively Eve, aged seven.
In December of 1912, Curie reopened her lab notebook for the first time in over a year.
I loved that image of two brilliant, bad-ass scientists supporting each other one long-ago summer, creating, however briefly, a kind of maternal, feminist utopia. I wanted to visit!
Researching their friendship, however, underlined my lack of connection with other writers and parents in my own time and place. It seems that so much of modern parenting is designed to hem us in, to narrow our worlds, precisely at a moment when we most need community and when the young lives we are nurturing should instead be pulling us outward.
I haven’t exactly solved this dilemma. But, looking for more professional connections, I recently joined a local science writing group. I’ve also renewed efforts to strengthen our social network by setting up playdates and dinners with fellow caregivers. I have unabashedly slipped my number to the parents of my son’s classmates at school birthday parties, to strangers with strollers whom I’ve met at the local park or on neighborhood walks.
Because of the many ways that our roles as writers, parents, and citizens depend upon each other, Curie and Ayrton’s friendship reminded me of the importance of widening my circle.
Nearly eighteen months ago, I became immersed in this oddball side project on caregivers and creators in history. My son is now almost four. On the surface, nothing has changed about the daily hustle of parenting, teaching, and eking out spare time for writing.
But working on the blog has changed me. I’ve gained a sense of (relative) calm and a feeling of trans-historical community from observing the sheer diversity of choices, struggles, and workarounds represented in these stories. I’ve tapped into a tradition of caregivers who raised children with far less social support and less public dialogue about parenting, yet who somehow still did the work.
One final lesson, though, with respect to change itself. It comes, fittingly, from a woman who studied metamorphosis.
The German entomologist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian was 52 years old, the mother of two grown daughters, when she made the trip across the Atlantic to Suriname to study insect metamorphosis. In 1699, she uprooted her life in Amsterdam, where she had settled into financial comfort and a measure of renown in the fashionable scientific circles of the city. Embracing risk, Merian sold off her art to finance the trip. She faced the hazards of a perilous two-month sea journey. Seduced by the unknown, and wanting to observe insect species in situ, she made guided excursions into the jungles of the South American country’s interior.
The resulting book, based on two years of research in Suriname, was mic-drop worthy. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium brought a uniquely ecological perspective to scientific illustration and to natural history, over 150 years before the word “ecology” was coined.
In Merian’s time, the fashion was for cabinets of curiosities, lifeless displays arranged along aesthetic or abstract principles that bore little relation to the natural world. Merian, in contrast, demanded that her scientific drawings of insects consider their context, as well as their development. Unsurprising for a scientist and artist who was constantly reinventing herself, Merian was curious about change over time.
Again and again, I’ve discovered biographies like Merian’s that don’t follow the familiar narrative arc of male achievement. Far from slowing down as they age, these women fully come into their own creatively after the business of childrearing is past.
The self-proclaimed “novelist-housewife” Ursula K. Le Guin put it best: “It may not seem so at the time, but . . . babies don’t stay babies for very long, whereas writers live for decades.”
In other words, there are seasons of life. Don’t be in such a damn hurry, I caution myself.
It’s not that I’m willing to defer my creative aspirations indefinitely (nor was Le Guin, who authored some of her most influential novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, while raising three children in Portland, Oregon, in the 1960s and ’70s). It’s just to counsel a measure of patience, self-compassion, and realism about what is possible at this toddling stage of development as a writer and parent.
For now, while I’m fully in the thick of parenting a young child, I’ll keep researching these stories out of the past. For solace. For perspective. For wisdom. And, above all, for the thrill of recognition at finding my own mundane daily struggles mirrored in these extraordinary lives.