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The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

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What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artist What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment. As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.


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What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artist What does a great artist who is also a mother look like? What does it mean to create, not in “a room of one’s own,” but in a domestic space? In The Baby on the Fire Escape, award-winning biographer Julie Phillips traverses the shifting terrain where motherhood and creativity converge. With fierce empathy, Phillips evokes the intimate and varied struggles of brilliant artists and writers of the twentieth century. Ursula K. Le Guin found productive stability in family life, and Audre Lorde’s queer, polyamorous union allowed her to raise children on her own terms. Susan Sontag became a mother at nineteen, Angela Carter at forty-three. These mothers had one child, or five, or seven. They worked in a studio, in the kitchen, in the car, on the bed, at a desk, with a baby carrier beside them. They faced judgement for pursuing their creative work—Doris Lessing was said to have abandoned her children, and Alice Neel’s in-laws falsely claimed that she once, to finish a painting, left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment. As she threads together vivid portraits of these pathbreaking women, Phillips argues that creative motherhood is a question of keeping the baby on that apocryphal fire escape: work and care held in a constantly renegotiated, provisional, productive tension. A meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, The Baby on the Fire Escape illuminates some of the most pressing conflicts in contemporary life.

30 review for The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem

  1. 4 out of 5

    alej

    Julie Phillips is magnificent in her observation and retelling of the motherhood experience as experienced by Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Neel, and others. How does one keep their mind in the face of Motherhood? Their creative practice? Their absolute autonomy? Each woman is looked at so tenderly and with such bite. I chewed my way through this! I respected how Phillips wove a thread through the lives of the women, through events and experienc Julie Phillips is magnificent in her observation and retelling of the motherhood experience as experienced by Audre Lorde, Doris Lessing, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Neel, and others. How does one keep their mind in the face of Motherhood? Their creative practice? Their absolute autonomy? Each woman is looked at so tenderly and with such bite. I chewed my way through this! I respected how Phillips wove a thread through the lives of the women, through events and experiences that connected them--the loss of Martin Luther King Jr., Aldermaston marches against nuclear arms, and attending specific colleges. I was overjoyed at the queerness, the open relationships, the messy, and the sticky. Most importantly, even in discomfort, Phillips brings a tender and direct approach to writing. Any of these women could have been my mother. My mother could have been any of these women. And as we redefine motherhood for women, Trans people, and the genderqueer people navigating new parental terrain, I have a newfound confidence that we can retain ourselves despite what history and society have told us. If you do anything creative and have given birth or will give birth or long to, this is for you. If you watched your creative parent do their practice while parenting you, this is for you.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Camryn

    I thought this was a really great read. I don't think I've ever thought that it was impossible to be a mother and write and it's probably because I was born in 2000? It's interesting that I never thought that, though, even though parents have basically no support in this country. I think that's one of the major themes of this book; in order to do more than one thing, mothers need support, and many of them don't get it. It was super interesting to read these stories about different writers and arti I thought this was a really great read. I don't think I've ever thought that it was impossible to be a mother and write and it's probably because I was born in 2000? It's interesting that I never thought that, though, even though parents have basically no support in this country. I think that's one of the major themes of this book; in order to do more than one thing, mothers need support, and many of them don't get it. It was super interesting to read these stories about different writers and artists from the 20th century because of how different expectations of women were. It's weird that I feel so distant from a world where you were expected to cater to your husband and have kids and set aside your own ambitions for all of that, but at the same time, it feels like this is what the United States is shifting back to. And what it is for a lot of people, like statistically women do most of the child rearing and housework even now, and there were *so* many mothers leaving work when the pandemic hit. I really appreciate the vastness of these stories. There were queer women and black women and Black queer women! I appreciated that the author covered them just as intensely as she did the white writers. She discussed women who left their kids and had bad relationships with their kids or just complicated ones. I feel like motherhood is at once this really public thing, because everyone comments on it and there are so many standards mothers are held to, and also this private thing, since our culture acts like it isn't very interesting and conversations about the "domestic sphere" are still sort of shoved to the side. I don't know, this made me think a lot, and I found it was interesting and also challenged me in a lot of ways. Women I admire weren't perfect parents, but do we expect that of people, and if we do, why? I love that it explored how motherhood can actually benefit you, since I think so often it's seen as a detriment. Especially Ursula Le Gruin's chapter; I love that it just felt like... family could be this really nice thing that gives you structure and helps you and it's possible to have a partner who is an equal partner in parenting! But I also kept thinking about how many of the women profiled had abortions; I'm so happy they were able to choose when to have children and have no doubt that's why their careers flourished, but am so mad about the decisions made that will leave others without those choices. So many of the women profiled here had children they didn't want and it negatively impacted both the parents and the children for the rest of their lives, and I get so upset thinking about that happening now. Anyway, great read, highly recommend to other people.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Misha Lazzara

    I really loved the blended approach of academia and biography mixed with openly discussing and exploring motherhood on a personal level. Much needed book for mother artists who desperately need different models, examples or stories to remind us that motherhood is NOT the cultural monolith that the patriarchy insists (and benefits off of).

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

    I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I previously read “Daily Rituals: Women at Work” by Mason Currey and the short paragraphs interested me in the topic of how women throughout the ages have been able to do produce different forms of art despite the challenges of society’s expectations for wives and mothers. This book is a more satisfying look into this topic as the structure allows more detail and history to be told of specific authors and their struggles, chal I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I previously read “Daily Rituals: Women at Work” by Mason Currey and the short paragraphs interested me in the topic of how women throughout the ages have been able to do produce different forms of art despite the challenges of society’s expectations for wives and mothers. This book is a more satisfying look into this topic as the structure allows more detail and history to be told of specific authors and their struggles, challenges, and victories as working mothers. The subjects the author choose were interesting examples of how different external factors can shape the journey motherhood has on authors. I found the topic to be really interesting and would recommend this book to others.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ddoddmccue

    The title is a captivating! Phillips goes beyond Wolfe’s “room” to explore the conflict for women between creativity and motherhood, merging the academic with biography. Though well researched and a topic of personal interest, it proved a labored read, possibly a function of the artists selected to highlight.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jasper Smit

    Ik vond deze echt heel mooi. Het is een verzameling korte biografieën van schrijvers en kunstenaars in de 20e eeuw met als centrale vraag: hoe lukt het ze (niet) om kunstenaarschap met het moederschap te combineren? Het onderzoek en bronvermeldingen zijn duizelingwekkend , maar de toon blijft glashelder. Het zijn stuk voor stuk unieke leesbare levensverhalen en ze zijn allemaal prachtig. De keuzes die de vrouwen moeten/niet kunnen/denken te moeten/niet mogen maken, de ongelooflijke krachten van d Ik vond deze echt heel mooi. Het is een verzameling korte biografieën van schrijvers en kunstenaars in de 20e eeuw met als centrale vraag: hoe lukt het ze (niet) om kunstenaarschap met het moederschap te combineren? Het onderzoek en bronvermeldingen zijn duizelingwekkend , maar de toon blijft glashelder. Het zijn stuk voor stuk unieke leesbare levensverhalen en ze zijn allemaal prachtig. De keuzes die de vrouwen moeten/niet kunnen/denken te moeten/niet mogen maken, de ongelooflijke krachten van de maatschappij om zelfs de gedachten en verwachtingen van vrouwen voor zichzelf te vormen, hoe hard ze moeten vechten om een plek voor zichzelf als individu en liefhebber en moeder en kunstenaar te maken, het is ontluisterend en verbazingwekkend. Ik vond het ook superleerzaam, want hoewel ik als blanke heteroman maar een schaduw van een schaduw van het dilemma kan meevoelen, probeer ook ik het kunstenaarschap en ouder zijn te combineren. En dat is schipperen, met supermilde versies van waar zij mee te maken hebben. En vreselijk maar waar: vrouwen hebben eeuwen meer ervaring met proberen het ouderschap te combineren met iets voor zichzelf doen. Ik vind het een voorrecht om hun ervaringen te lezen en te voelen dat ouderschap en kunstenaarschap inderdaad niet altijd lekker samen gaan. Tenslotte: ik vind het ouderschap best zwaar. En geweldig. En oersaai. En subliem. En tijdrovend en energieslurpend. Niet omdat ik een moeilijk kind heb, maar omdat ik leef in mn hoofd. En met een kind heb ik mijn hoofd niet voor mezelf. Het is prettig om van zoveel moeders te horen dat zij het ook zwaar vinden, dan voel ik me daar toch een beetje minder schuldig over.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Sometimes the exact right book comes along at the exact right time, and you know you’re going to love it. When I read the description of this book (and saw that Alice Neel cover!) I knew it was going to be excellent—and it was. Phillips deftly blends scholarly research, personal anecdotes, and biography to try to answer the question: how does one sustain creativity in motherhood? If you can’t have a room of one’s own, are you forced to stick the baby on the fire escape? This book doesn’t offer an Sometimes the exact right book comes along at the exact right time, and you know you’re going to love it. When I read the description of this book (and saw that Alice Neel cover!) I knew it was going to be excellent—and it was. Phillips deftly blends scholarly research, personal anecdotes, and biography to try to answer the question: how does one sustain creativity in motherhood? If you can’t have a room of one’s own, are you forced to stick the baby on the fire escape? This book doesn’t offer any easy answers to those questions. Instead, it deftly traces the lives of several female artists, writers, and thinkers, looking at their experiences of motherhood. Ultimately, the book is a celebration of both mothering and creativity, arguing persuasively that both are worth pursuing, however difficult the task may be. Pair this with the excellent novel Nightbitch for the best baby shower present for the writer/artist in your life.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Abigail Franklin

    A stunning & unwavering portrait of artists as mothers. Phillips engages critically with stories of 20th century women artists who became mothers without criticism; instead, decisions like running away are presented as the woman who made them would have seen them—as the only viable option. Haunting and uncomfortable, this book calls into question just how much of a woman’s personhood motherhood can—or should—consume. This will sit with me for a while. I look forward to re-reading it in 10 years.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Pj

    This book is a loser already. According to its Goodreads blurb, it defines creative motherhood a “renegotiated tension” between parenting and art. Anyone who values human life will recognize that as a self-aggrandizing delusion: Babies can’t “negotiate” their needs or “cope” with tension. Let’s hope Ms. Phillips is prepared for the inevitable consequence of her clickbaity new book: One of her readers using it to defend herself from charges of felony child neglect/abuse.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sherry Brown

    The author did a wonderful job writing The Baby on the Fire Escape. She shared the stories of each mother’s passion, heartfelt moments, interesting life through out their journey of motherhood. Very interesting read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    https://bookshop.org/books/the-baby-o... https://bookshop.org/books/the-baby-o...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Robyn Martin

    B- Audible

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alicia Primer

    Interesting premise on the motherhood/creativity connection or disconnect. But tense switching and casual prose didn’t work for this reader.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    https://www.latimes.com/entertainment... https://www.latimes.com/entertainment...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

  16. 5 out of 5

    Becky

  17. 4 out of 5

    kate

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gwynne Garfinkle

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  20. 4 out of 5

    Camille

  21. 4 out of 5

    Judith Wolfe

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  24. 5 out of 5

    Gil Roth

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sara

  26. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie A

  27. 4 out of 5

    Gina

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kristi Dahlstrom

  29. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lacy San antonio

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