Once upon a time, I was trying to tell a story, only I didn’t know how it went. There wasn’t a main character, there wasn’t an adventure, and when I tried to begin the story I just disappeared into one thing after another. “Happily ever after”—after what?
I was trying to tell a story about motherhood, and each time I set out from home I got lost in the woods. I was in love, and motherhood had given me a basket full of new experiences. I had a body that astonished me by growing a new person (look, I made fingers! eyeballs!). I had a heart that surprised me with its fierceness. Motherhood challenged me and revealed me to myself. Yet I lost myself, too. My creative work wasn’t getting done. I was overwhelmed and thrown off balance by my needs and desires.
I tried to stay on the path, like Mother said, but the way to Grandmother’s house—the house of nurture? of wisdom?—wasn’t clear to me. It seemed to me that motherhood was an initiation, a story of attaining power. So why did its meanings fade like dreams when I tried to tell them? The wolf was whispering in my ear about the book I wasn’t writing. When I looked at the work of creation, I saw books and paintings being made, and creators struggling, growing, and changing. When I looked at mothering, every day was another meal, another story, the same stories over and over: “goodnight moon,” “hello Mog,” “Once upon a time.”
Once upon a time a woman went into the forest, which might be what Adrienne Rich called “the creatrix, the matrix,” the unmapped space the artist enters when she begins work. Rich opposes that space to the work of motherhood, writing that women are warned against straying from the path of care. For women, she writes, the imagination is a space that “has been identified with lovelessness, barrenness, sterility. We have been urged to fill our ‘emptiness’ with children. We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core.”
I sought to enter that matrix through the life stories of some writers and artists who were also mothers. I saw myself In Angela Carter, fumbling her way through early motherhood, surprised at her own delight in it. “The beauty of children is a conspiracy to which I have only recently become a party,” she wrote. I saw my impatience and joy reflected by Audre Lorde, too, who wrote poems on scraps of paper that she kept in her diaper bag and in both her art and her mothering found healing for her own childhood hurts.
I had more help than many creative mothers, not only from my partner, but from institutions in my adopted country. In the Netherlands my children and I had affordable day care and health care, good schools within reach, a less competitive, more supportive educational system. Because I suffered less stress and time poverty than my American friends, I could see what Doris Lessing saw: that it’s not mothering but the conditions under which it’s done that lead mothers to lose themselves. Ursula K. Le Guin agreed, writing as a young parent in her notebook that “biology at least takes pains to make the job [of mothering] pleasant and rewarding. Society, in general, does not.”
The story that Alice Neel left her child on the fire escape of her apartment while she was trying to finish a painting turned out not to be true, but it reminded me of taking my children to day care—the Dutch way, on my bike, one child in front, the other behind me—and then cycling to my shabby little office, where I had the luxury of not thinking about them, or trying not to. I sent them, like Hansel and Gretel, away from my thoughts, though an ineradicable trail of breadcrumbs brought them constantly back. Total dedication to one’s art is sometimes necessary, but it can also be an unrealistic view of artistic practice or an oppressive demand on the part of the audience: Don’t turn away from the work to care for another; be here for me and me alone. The matrix can be lonely, and I was glad to come out of the forest to a lighted house at night.
For a while, I tried thinking of the narrative of motherhood as a carrier bag, Le Guin’s image for a story as a container, juxtaposing ideas and images with one another. The carrier bag was my basket of goodies, of all my unconnected musings, the anecdotes that refused to be a story. It might also stand for the possibility of collective instead of individual creation. Seeking new patterns for tales about life, not death, Le Guin resisted the idea that the mother could be a hero.
As deeply as I respect Le Guin’s work, somewhere in my own matrix, in the dark forest where I was lost, I encountered my anger at the idea that a mother couldn’t have a main role in the story. I felt when my children were small, and even now when they’re independent and I’m beginning my life anew, that mothering for me has been a walk in the woods, a step off the path, an encounter with the wolf.
Le Guin too must have had intimations of this hero’s tale when she wrote a draft of a poem:
Mother Eats the Writer
but the writer
crawls out of Mummy’s mouth
To venture into the forest is a hero’s deed. To take up one’s feelings of maternal depression and weave them into a story, as Le Guin did, is a hero’s deed. I believe that there is more than one matrix into which mothers must descend. One is for the artist, who follows her muse into the core, where the language is hot and the images smolder. Another is for the mother who must reckon with her volcanic emotions: anger, resentment, despair, too much love. Entwined, they become a hero’s tale about the most basic work of being human, nurturing one’s soul.
Then I realized I knew some very old stories in which mothers’ selves are lost and regained. I realized that there were some tales that treated motherhood not as happily ever after but as a new coming of age.
A miller brags about his daughter: “She’s so clever she can spin straw into gold.” The king hears him and says that he’ll marry her if it’s true. The two of them shut her up in a room full of chaff, with a heart full of despair. Then a little man appears who tells her he’ll do the work if she’ll pay his price: her firstborn child.
The straw is spun, the marriage made. But what will the miller’s daughter do in the king’s castle? She’ll need to be strong not to lose herself. A year later she’s nursing her baby when the little man appears, demanding his payment.
She pleads with him, and at last he says she can keep her child if she guesses his true name. At night she ventures into the woods, overhears his name, and uses it to claim her child and her motherhood.
I didn’t understand “Rumpelstiltskin” as a child; now I see that it’s not a child’s tale. How many women have had to give up their firstborn when they found themselves with no power or money, with their family, their church, or the law of the land against them? In the miller’s daughter I saw women like Lessing and Neel, who made straw marriages imagining they were gold, and who became mothers when they were not yet strong enough to hold on to their happily ever after. To claim their motherhood and their vocation, they had to learn to name the shadow side of their marriage bargain.
A girl and her little brother escape from their wicked stepmother, who pursues them. She can’t trick the girl, but she enchants her brother and turns him into a roe deer. Brother and sister live together in a house in the wild woods until one day the brother leads the king to their door.
The girl and the king marry, but as soon as she gives birth to a child, the stepmother comes to the palace and murders her, putting her one-eyed stepsister in her place. The young mother doesn’t disappear completely: as a ghost she wanders the castle at night, nursing her baby and tending her brother. When the king discovers her and names her as his true queen, she returns to life.
The girl in “Brother and Sister” is every woman who has ever suffered from depression around a birth. She is Carter and Shirley Jackson, who were undermined by judgmental mothers, and Alice Walker, who felt unrecognized by a mother who was herself undermined. These women looked for partners to help them not to lose themselves in motherhood, but the truth is, to come back from that spectral state you have to recognize yourself.
These stories made me see my own motherhood in a new light. Its claims on my time and attention had changed me, fragmented me, but in responding to them, I had recollected myself. In losing and finding my way, I too had lived a hero’s tale.
I believe the greatest story of the creative and maternal self may be “The Armless Maiden.”
A woman leaves home and gets lost in a forest. She has no arms because her father has cut them off; the reason—incest, a pact with the devil—varies with the telling. She wanders, despairing, until she slips through a hedge into the royal orchard. There the prince finds her eating fruit off the ground, like a wild animal. When he sees that she is human and beautiful, he marries her, and she has a baby.
He loves her, but his family resents this wife who can’t work. When he goes on a journey, they trick him into sending her away. With her infant tied to her back, she returns to the woods. This time she knows the way, and in the forest she finds healing. In some versions, an angel gives her back her hands. In others, her baby falls into the water and when she reaches down, her hands are there to pick it up again. When her husband, after a long search, finds her and brings her home, she has come into both her motherhood and her creative strength.
In her essay “The Armless Maiden and the Hero’s Journey,” Midori Snyder writes that the child, like the roe deer, can symbolize a woman’s creativity: the talent she learns to use, the vocation she accepts. But in it I also see reflected motherhood itself, which I learned to combine with my work, holding the two in a generative relationship with each other.
When Red Riding Hood arrives at Grandma’s house with her diaper bag full of poetry, what if it’s her future that she finds? In Grandma I see the labor of care, and the wolf might be the rough, rude art monster, Jenny Offill’s term for the artist who devotes himself wholly to the work. The wolf eats the mother, but only for a while—or maybe, as Angela Carter wrote of Red Riding Hood, she climbs into bed with the wolf knowing she’s nobody’s meat.
Women are warned against letting their art have the upper hand, but this story can be rewritten. Let’s say that I discover motherhood and art in bed together, in an uneasy, wolfish partnership. And in that discovery I become kin to the Armless Maiden, as she comes out of the forest possessing agency, authority, and selfhood, with her baby on her back and her life in her hands.
Julie Phillips is the National Book Critics Circle, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning author of The Baby on the Fire Escape and James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She lives in Amsterdam and is working on a biography of Ursula K. Le Guin.