“I never wanted to be married or have children, so I never felt conflict about being an artist. ”True or False? An examination by Miriam Sagan

I recently attended a lecture on women in the arts and was quite surprised when the speaker said: “I never wanted to be married or have children, so I never felt conflict about being an artist.”
I was dumbstruck (although not totally—because now I’m responding!). Perhaps I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Of course I started to list women writers and artists and rock and rollers who were married with children. Feel free to go ahead and do the same. Then I listed other kinds of conflict: money, first and foremost, societal expectations, family expectations, class, race, temperament, madness, illness, lack of inspiration, grandiosity, aesthetics, nationality, war, dislocation, and sure—gender, etc. etc.
So—I’ll agree being an artist is full of conflict. But marriage—post 1950’s Feminine Mystique? And children? Now that’s tricky—children beguile and they take time. They inspire, unleash creativity, and grow up to support your art. They also get strep throat and cause you to spend hours at Urgent Care. So I’d say—have them if you want and don’t if you don’t. But in my experience they aren’t really that central to the conflicts of art.
When I was a teenager, at the height of what I think of as second wave feminism in the US, it’s ideas helped me. They helped me to attempt to be a free person. The excavation of women writers as important really supported my efforts. However, I wanted only two things:

1. To have a boyfriend and
2. To be a writer

Probably the first has had more lifelong importance. These were not really connected. Boyfriends—yes, husbands too—take up time, inspire, etc. I’m just not the kind of artist who has wanted to be separated from ordinary life.
Of course I do know many women who found family life to be in conflict with their art. Most of us need some kind of solitude or container to create. Any kind of work you hate is going to be draining and distracting. But so is any kind of suffering. I guess I’m not totally at ease with the heroic male model of artist as separate from the concerns of daily life. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was eternally tortured. Is that my kind of heroism? Maybe I’d just rather toast a bagel and write when I can.

Should I say: “I always just really wanted a boyfriend and to be a writer so I never felt any conflict”? Maybe!

11 thoughts on ““I never wanted to be married or have children, so I never felt conflict about being an artist. ”True or False? An examination by Miriam Sagan

  1. It’s a hard one. I think being a women, trying to be a good Mum ( which I hope I am) , a good wife (because I like my husband) and a fulfilled artist is probably harder than it’s ever been. But, I also think that’s because we expect so much from ourselves…

  2. Screw the Heroic-Romantic vision of the artist. It requires either wealth or a fairly slavish spouse-ish unit, or both. Poor people have been managing to make art in all kinds of fraught circumstances for centuries, we just tended (until recently) not to hang it in museums–esp. if it was womens’ art (like the Gee’s Bend quilts). Most of the working artists I know have families and messy lives. That being said, this notion that we’re supposed to Have It All and be Brilliant at All of It is also bunk. Our definition of “successful” has begun to mirror the “MUST be good at EVERYTHING” mentality that drives our definitions of success in education, which is also bunk. The older I get, the better I feel about the fact that my husband still likes me (whether I’m being a “good” wife at any given point), my grown daughters seem fond of me (in spite of being fairly open about my having screwed up a thing or 5 as a mom), and I am still working at being a writer. It’s not enough, but it’s enough. It’d be nice if I could be more of a public triumph as an artist, just because I’d love a bigger audience. But I gave up on needing to be Yeats a while ago.

    • Our conversation–on this and other topics–has made the last 40 plus years much richer! You know I always say there are just thinks I’ll never do–drive on snow, keep house well, etc.

  3. I never wanted children, though had I had any, I’d have sacrificed every personal goal to worship adore and protect them. Having children is just a different kind of art to painting pictures, for example.

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