Last night I watched Who Does She Think She Is?, a documentary about women who are artists — and mothers.
I put off watching this film because I was still in a Plath-y state of mind and I didn’t want to be further discouraged. I was pretty sure that a documentary like this wouldn’t end in, say, a whole bunch of affairs and breakdowns and suicides — but I wasn’t sure enough. Still, last night I hit “play.”
The film was honest. It’s hard to be an artist. It’s hard to be a mother. And it’s really hard to be both at the same time.
There were painful moments — like Bill Moyers in the ’80s (?) listing famous and accomplished women — Amelia Earhart, Georgia O’Keefe, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson — and then adding, “None of them — not one — had children.” There was a big pause after this statement in which we were to draw our own conclusions. The implications were not assuring.
Then there were the divorces. The partners that started out admiring and supportive became jealous and distant. Some felt betrayed, some left entirely. (Not all of them, though!)
And then there were unsympathetic quotes from the children — many of them in an unfortunate adolescent stage where even a sincere compliment somehow comes across as a reproach. Is this what I have to look forward to when the twins start talking? Sigh.
But those were the low points. Hearing these women talk about their work as a necessity — not an option — reinforced my feeling about my own work. And Maye Torres’s sons were astounding in their admiration for and support of their mom (who figured out how they could all live on what she made through her art — about $24,000 a year). And Janis Wunderlich made perfect sense when she explained why her sculptures so often portrayed the dark side of motherhood — she keeps the joy to herself and puts the struggle into the work. And the Guerrilla Girls! How fabulous to see them interviewed — in masks, of course.
Here’s one of their protest posters:
And a piece from one of their exhibits:
But my favorite line from the film goes back to that dark side. For one woman, her career was rising even as her marriage was crumbling. She had been so sure she could have it all … but then that certainty faltered too.
I feel like I am in the middle of a forest. There are no paths. I have no companions. And I hear wolves.
In a much earlier post (Writing with Twins), I wrote that my motto for balancing writing and motherhood is: “It can be done!” I still believe that. I have to believe that. But I also remember a quote from Carolyn Heilbrun’s excellent book Writing a Woman’s Life:
What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make…new narratives.
I, too, often feel like I’m in a forest, trying make my own narrative path. And when it comes to the actual act of writing, I have no companions. Sometimes the wolves are in the distance, sometimes they’re at the door. But I’m always searching for stories of how others traveled these woods before me, and that quest helps see me through.
For more information on Who Does She Think She Is?, click any of these links: