Julie Phillips The Baby on the Fire Escape

Julie Phillips sits quietly, waiting for the room to settle. This is an International Writers’ Collective master class where, today, the question is whether it’s possible to create art while being a good parent, partner, human being. We hope that Phillips’ most recent book, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem will offer some answers.

Unsurprisingly, the room is filled with women of all ages and nationalities. These women have grown children, young toddlers or no offspring at all. The only men in the room are Phillips’ husband and mine, here to support their respective spouses. They are a sign that times have changed since the mothers in Phillips’ book made their art.

Born between 1900 and 1945 in the United States or Great Britain, the subjects of The Baby on the Fire Escape had no easy access to contraception, no right to an abortion, and no practical path toward a living wage other than through marriage. Once married, these women were expected to bear children and forget about art.

A typical picture of a woman with children is of someone whose children are constantly breaking in. Perhaps she has shut herself into a room to write. Her kids have promised not to knock or make noise. But she knows they are there because they are lying down and breathing under the door.

Julie Phillips, The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem (Norton 2022)

Bad Mothers

The cover art of The Baby on the Fire Escape comes from a 1967 painting by Alice Neel. It is titled “Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia).” At the time, Neel’s portraits of motherhood were not universally well-received. Her philosophy was “Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you.” This is a mother in distress while her child squirms in her arms.

The title of Phillips’ book also comes from Neel.

Neel’s in-laws claimed, on no evidence, that she had once left her baby on the fire escape of her New York apartment when she was trying to finish a painting.

Neel’s crime was to do two things at the same time. In the 1950s and 1960s, when these women-artists were active, such a feat was impossible to comprehend. A mother was expected to devote all of her attention to her children. They were not capable of functioning as “part-time, part-self persons.” Not only would their children be permanently damaged for lack of attention. The works produced by such a mother-artist could have no lasting merit.

The Nobel Prize, the National Book Medal, and the Pulitzer are among the awards showered upon the mother-artists of The Baby on the Fire Escape. It is clear that Phillips sees them as mother-heroes.

The Discomfort Zone

Phillips has chosen a complex structure for this group biography. Individual chapters are devoted to each of the main six mother-artists: painter Alice Neel and writers Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Angela Carter.

Interspersed among these profiles are thematic chapters titled The Discomfort Zone. The issue may be substance abuse or sexual promiscuity. These aspects of her subjects’ lives make Phillips uncomfortable.

I’ve (mostly) tried not to pass judgement on anyone’s choices. I don’t believe that one kind of mothering is better than another, or that women should be mothers, or that mothers should be women, or that women who have given birth must care for their children, or that mothers must give birth. I’ve tried to let my own narrative be interrupted, to make room for more than one set of experiences, and for multiple points of view.

Throughout The Baby on the Fire Escape appears italicized text that draws directly from Phillips’ own experience as a mother and a writer. These personal reflections are brief and glancing. Phillips seems most uncomfortable when the camera lens faces her.

Is this how biography works? I don’t care for hagiography but I also don’t know what the alternatives are. Phillips apparently believes that the role of the biographer is not to reveal themself. Rather, the biographer exposes her subject(s) in as unfiltered a light as possible.

One shrewd master class student observes: Phillips breaks the biographical narrative with author anecdotes in the same way that children constantly disrupt the disjointed lives of their mother-artists.

We’ve come a long way, baby

To what extent is The Baby on the Fire Escape relevant to women or artists working today? On the hand, the choices available to women have broadened, albeit within the framework of ongoing structural discrimination. If a law professor like Andrea Armstrong can be denied access to a courthouse in Baton Rouge because she doesn’t “look like an attorney,” then the barriers faced by Black American women-artists like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker are still standing strong.

It also seems to me that, in the age of 24/7 work, it is increasingly difficult for anyone to satisfy all the demands placed on their time. To be the best colleague, friend, and lover is already a tall order. We also need to be Instagrammable, likable, followed and loved by strangers.

A year ago, I would have said that there is another crucial difference between the women-artists featured in The Baby on the Fire Escape and me.

there’s one story that is common to all my mother-artists and mother-writers: the hero’s journey of gaining control over one’s fertility. Reproductive rights⏤including access to abortion, contraception, fertility treatment, and health care⏤are a necessary part of creative mothering.

Ursula Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Susan Sontag all had illegal abortions. Each of the mother-heroes profiled by Phillips lived to see the legalization of abortion in their own country. It came too late for most of them to assert their own bodily autonomy but it did come.

Since Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Center and the clamor for national abortion bans, reproductive rights are back on the chopping block. Where you live and how much money you have will determine your access health care and thus your path toward creativity. The days of The Baby on the Fire Escape are not as far away as I would like to think.

25 Oct 2022 | Karen Kao