A Writer Takes a Look At How Artists Balance Motherhood and Muse

Judith Pierce Rosenberg learned the hard way that Virginia Woolf was right about that room of one's own.

When Ms. Rosenberg, a writer, moved with her husband and children to a three-bedroom ranch house in southern California in the mid-1980s, she gave up her home office so her young son and daughter could have separate rooms.

She moved her filing cabinet into her daughter's room and stored office supplies in a bedroom closet. She arranged her books in the living room and placed her computer on a kitchen table.

Her muse was not amused. The makeshift arrangement proved so unworkable that it closed a chapter in Rosenberg's writing career. Not until three years later, when the family moved into a bigger home, did she regain an office and begin writing again.

"I was so naive that I didn't realize how important it was to have my own desk," Rosenberg says. "I just assumed I could be a kitchen-table writer. Most people can't."

That "career crisis," as Rosenberg calls it, piqued her curiosity: How, she wondered, do other women carve out space and time for creativity while the three C's of domesticity - childrearing, cooking, cleaning - swirl about them?

Interviews with artists

To answer that question, she interviewed 25 women with established literary and artistic careers.

The result is "A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood" (Papier-Mache Press, 276 pp., $14), which "chronicles the struggles and celebrates the achievements" of women who combine families with careers in the arts.

"There's kind of a common assumption people have before they have children that you sort of rock the cradle with your foot while you're typing," Rosenberg says. "But children are not that compliant."

Instead, she found "real differences" between women who managed to keep working in their field after they had children and those who stopped, at least temporarily. "It had to do with different conditions of space, time, and child care," she explains.

Whatever their differences, her subjects share common challenges.

Most need to be alone when they work. "I find it hard to work if there are other people in the house," confesses travel writer Mary Morris.

Adds novelist Mary Gordon, speaking of her two children, "I can write anywhere, but I can't write with them around."

Then there is the pervasive issue of guilt, a thread running through many interviews. As photographer Bea Nettles says, "I think a father could go in and lock the door and not be considered a bad person. I think a mother doing that is still probably considered neglectful somehow. It's going to take a long time for these changes to occur."

Find balance before, after

Some women also admit difficulty in trying to work after the birth of a baby. Novelist Cristina Garcia found it "virtually impossible" to write during her daughter's first year.

To young women writers thinking about motherhood, Ms. Garcia says, "If you can get some writing done ahead of time - something published, something you feel good about - it's a reference point for yourself and you know you can do it again."

Rosenberg's book-lined office on the lower level of the family's suburban Cape testifies to the balance she has regained in her own career, which includes writing on travel and food.

Behind her desk, a dramatic black-bordered Amish quilt ("not antique") punctuates a white wall. Nearby, a mantle holds small talismans, among them clay pieces made by her son Michael, now 14, and daughter Tina, 10.

Writing this book, Rosenberg says, taught her "the importance of being demanding. If you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will. Treating your writing or your art with the same seriousness as you would being a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or banker - anyone who is employed - is essential."

This involves "figuring out what works and then doing it - really making that time a priority," she adds.

Rosenberg protects her own writing time, usually 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., by limiting her commitments. "I won't take a class in the morning or do volunteer work then," she says.

She also maintains professionalism in her working attire: "I get dressed in the morning as though I were going to a job."

Reality check is important

Yet taking oneself seriously can be difficult in the face of economic realities. "Only a very small percentage of people can make a living with art or writing," explains Rosenberg, whose husband, Carl, is a computer scientist.

As a result, many artists and writers must assume a triple shift, combining paid employment, often university teaching, with family responsibilities and creative work. Those who succeed, she says, share two traits: determination and perseverance.

"That continual tug between wanting to be with your family and wanting to get your work done - I think that never goes away," Rosenberg says.

If anything, she finds the tug increasing as her children grow, "because I can see how soon they'll be off to college. I want to get the most out of the time that they're here."

Whatever one's artistic bent or family situation, Rosenberg emphasizes the importance of being realistic.

"Sometimes people who are in the arts think they have to be producing all the time. It doesn't work that way for most people. It's more of a cycle.

"You have to find your own rhythm," Rosenberg says. "You have to find what works best for you, ideally before you have children. And then you have to be flexible."

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