If Shakespeare Had a Mom

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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44 Responses

  1. Michael Cain says:

    Reading this brightened up my morning no end, Kristen. Thanks for writing and posting it.

    Re the final point… The future of writing comes up regularly over at Charlie Stross’s blog. The consensus there is that professional novel writing in particular will become the domain of (a) the relative handful of authors who are commercially successful early and can give up their day job, (b) kept people (which, in practice, is pretty much limited to the well-to-do), and (c) pensioners. The real pessimists there tend towards the “eventually it will only be pensioners” school of thought.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I agree. And this is yet one more reason I support UBI.

      Thing is, we used to have more leisure. Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance executive all day long then came home and wrote poetry in the evenings. I guess his job paid well enough that he could pay people to do the other stuff.Report

      • Or his wife did it. 🙂Report

      • George Turner in reply to Doctor Jay says:

        If everyone gets UBI and becomes a leisured writer, how are any of them going to get any food, since the only thing the economy will be producing is novels? Shouldn’t UBI be somehow means tested so that there’s still a large cadre of people laboring away on farms and in factories to support the novelists? Or perhaps the novelists could just eat the non-novelists, similar to the Eloi and Morlocks. Someone should write a book about that.

        Anyway, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare’s mom didn’t write plays because she hated drama. Lot’s of people hate drama. So is the creation of more drama something society should reward? Isn’t the creation of more drama pretty much the opposite of what the UBI proposals are trying to foster, which is stress-free and struggle-free peace, harmony, and leisure?

        Indeed, the proven way to create great novels isn’t UBI, it’s gulags. We need to foster more writers like Solzhenitsyn producing more works like Gulag Archipelago instead of some UBI recipient pounding out 101 More Uses for a Dead Cat.

        Thankfully, the system is self-correcting and attempts to create a UBI utopia always end up with gulags, and then we get the great novels.

        Anyway, great post Kristin!Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

          “Indeed, the proven way to create great novels isn’t UBI, it’s gulags.”

          Just imagine the great novels that will be appearing in about a decade.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

            They’re already here!

            The best book about the opiate epidemic, and indeed, perhaps the best American novel in decades, was written in a Kentucky prison. Cherry, by Nico Walker, was a Hemingway Award finalist. The New Yorker said it was one of the best books of the year. The Washington Post said

            A miracle of literary serendipity. . . . [Walker’s] language, relentlessly profane but never angry, simmers at the level of morose disappointment, something like Holden Caulfield Goes to War.

            You see, a prison is just like UBI. You get food, a bed, plenty of time to kill, and a place to write. Not only that, it’s a place where you can interact with a wide range of seasoned dramatis personae for inspiration. And most of all, no kids!

            Now I’m not saying that all writers should be locked up, but yeah, lock ’em all up – either to advance the art or as punishment for the last season of Game of Thrones.Report

    • I’m friends with some people who sell ebooks via Amazon; they’re making a run at it. But I do tend to agree with you that in the modern world it’s not a career choice many will be able to make a living at.Report

      • North in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        The arts in the internet age, it seems to me, are regressing/changing to an earlier model.
        Once upon a time artists were either travelling itinerant devotees of their craft who lived hand to mouth for their art or they were kept individuals supported by wealthy patrons.

        Mass media changed that a lot. Suddenly a small number of artists could become fabulously wealthy if they were good enough and/or connected enough to get past the gate keepers.

        The internet has slayed a lot of those gate keepers and opened a vast audience up to anyone who wants to be an artist. But with the ongoing demise of the gate keepers the concept of the wealthy artist seems to be diffusing away again. Now a much larger number of artists exist and a much larger number of them can access a large audience but they do it by… travelling a lot and living hand to mouth or depending on the largess of wealthy patrons.

        Maybe’re returning to the era of troubadours, albeit ones who’re much better off than their early age compatriots.Report

        • atomickristin in reply to North says:

          It’s interesting you say this because I’ve often rolled my eyes against the industry of art-for-profit rather than the love of it, which has given us the endless streams of rebooted movies and “Robert Ludlum” books that came out a decade after the guy had died. Maybe it’s some sort of natural cycle – poor artists who are motivated from love of craft slowly becoming a guild gatekept by a chosen few who were motivated more for profit and now we’re seeing the pendulum swing the other way again.

          Troubadors, as you say. Thanks for commenting!Report

  2. Em Carpenter says:

    So much I want to say but can’t find the words. Thank you for writing this Kristin. I understand, and I love the part of you that refuses to feel guilty for prioritizing your needs.Report

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    I crave time like a junkie craves their next fix.

    Yep. I have the money to do most of what I want, but the time… And earning that money takes up time. And Bug takes up time (and money).

    Someday soon Bug is going to be less of a time sink and more of an asset. I was about his age when I started helping dad fix things around the house.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    In 2015, Micheal Wood presented a documentary about Shakespeare’s mom for the BBC. You can watch it for free on YouTube.


  5. Mike Dwyer says:

    “Someday the children will be gone and the house will be quiet and I’ll have all the time I need.”

    We became empty nesters last year at the ripe old age of 43. Having kids at 19 (me) and 23 (my wife) was a huge hassle from a monetary perspective, but surprisingly there isn’t a whole lot else that is bad about it. You have lots of youthful energy and while you feel pangs of jealousy that your friends can still do certain young people things while you are helping with homework, we cultivated a network of babysitters that still allowed for a social life.

    I was never worried about how it would feel to have the kids gone. I knew I would love every minute of it and I have. My wife is still adjusting, but that is because she had no hobbies to lean on. Luckily she had a job scare this past spring that resolved itself but it lit a fire under her. Suddenly she has taken a keen interest in padding her resume and making herself a more valuable employee for the next scare and it’s been fun to watch her find her footing and excel.

    Your day will come Kristin.Report

    • We had our first two at 21 and 25. Then years later I had baby fever and we had the three little ones. So our oldest is 27 and our youngest is almost 7. I don’t regret it (and I personally have enjoyed parenting a lot more in many ways this second time around, since we’re both better equipped emotionally) but it does eat into the time. I feel much more urgency now with writing than I did when my older two were young, and than I did when we were deciding to add the younger three. I would still make the same decisions, but this urgency I feel now wasn’t present when I was making them, if that makes sense.Report

  6. Silver Wolf says:

    About your footnote.

    I think that Woolf understood that a lack of funds impacts most artists. The problem at the time (1929) was that women rarely had the opportunity to earn an income that afforded time for creativity without the permission of a man.

    Also, the “starving artist” concept, a creator that lives like a vagabond, suffering for his art is a theme. Even today, however, many view a man suffering for his art to be brave, bold and noble. A woman that lived an insecure life would be seen by many as a failure regardless of her aspirations. Society is still far more willing to let a man live his life his way. Women are expected to conform.Report

    • LeeEsa in reply to Silver Wolf says:

      I’m not exactly sure if your last sentence is true. Some men are allowed to live their own way and live a life of self-indulgence. For other men, “being a real man” seems to be an act of perpetual self-sacrifice of their own desires for somebody else’s greater good. This manifests in a constant pressure not to reject women for being single mothers among other things. Men who don’t want to step into the role of “instant family, just add daddy” are treated as vile.

      I think this plays out a lot when it comes to expressions of late blooming romance and sexuality. When you have a woman who is going on a relatively late life voyage of sexuality, it is perceived as a beautiful and just thing. With a man, it is at best seen as big joke and possibly even dangerous and pathetic. Compare How Stella Got Her Grove Back to the 40 Year Old Virgin or how pop culture treats women in their thirties and forties with young men, yeah awesome, and men in their late thirties with women in their twenties, eww eww. There might be an exception if the man is seen as having high status.Report

      • Kristin Devine in reply to LeeEsa says:

        This is why I added the footnote. It sucks to be a guy and to hear that all women’s problems are due to men, even the problems that both men and women both experience (like struggling to earn a living and not being able to indulge your creative urges to the fullest.) And men do tons of amazing and self-sacrificing things for the greater good of others all the time, many of which have been incredibly devalued/belittled.

        I will quibble with you about the “voyage of sexual discovery” because while there are a few stories like Stella, they exist alongside dozens, if not hundreds of similar tales in which a middle aged man is renewed and rejuvenated by a sexual experience. I still think our society is much harder on older women with younger men than the other way around too.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Kristin Devine says:

          I think it depends on the status of a man. Men who have or are seen as having high social status; well-groomed, tall, full head of hair, and looks economically successful at least are generally seen as not that bad when there is a wide age discrepancy. Men who aren’t high status get the “eww eww” treatment. It might also be based on your social quarters. In more left-leaning ones, there is likely to be more hostility to older men with much younger women for a variety of reasons.Report

    • I agree, and used the “Virginia” as a cohesive choice and not because I ~really~ thought she was deliberately leaving that out. I hope she forgives me.

      The thing is, in a good many pieces of this nature, cultural/economic forces that affect both men and women are put forth as something men are doing TO women, deliberately and maliciously and I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

      I didn’t want to do that in this piece, and so I added the footnote to point that out.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!Report

  7. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare had a mom, even if her last name was “Bacon”.Report

  8. blake says:

    I’m glad you wrote this because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how (when Western Civilization is working) women are lauded precisely because they give up their bodies and lives for the care of others. A whole lot of energy has been devoted (since well before I was born) to convincing women that this sacrifice was both too much (arguably) and trivial—think of “only a housewife/mother/homemaker”, which is a sentiment that is practically the default these days.

    It’s an issue for me now because my middle daughter is 18, and she wants that life. She’s also an amazing artist and working hard to improve her skills. My hope is she’ll be able excel at both.

    The thing is: Mom is irreplaceable. Dad is important, for sure—we’ve seen plenty of damage from absentee dads. But they are a distant second to Mom. (See iahp.org for more info on that.)

    But there is this insanity that emerges where everyone else suddenly becomes helpless if Mom isn’t available 24-7. And one of the things she has to do is make everyone a.little more self-sufficient. Children will squawk, but it’s vital for them growing up.

    Husbands are a different problem. I’ve seen husbands get positively wounded because their wife takes 90 minutes out of a week to play basketball. But everybody needs a chance to switch up their games, and every husband knows that he himself takes breaks from whatever his “job” is to do something else—and it makes him better at that job. Wives and mothers are no different: If they can step away for a moment, they come back happier and more focused. It’s not even subtle.

    It’s so obvious only a human could miss seeing it.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to blake says:

      Yeah, my mom bailed when I was 13, after a long period of disengagement. And I was raised by my dad, who knew how important he was. I have known many men who have raised the children by themselves and many others who have jumped in when life has left a missing father. Have some dropped ours? Sure, and so have women. Do I know where she is? Somewhere in Africa, maybe. Maybe dead, as I haven’t heard from her in a while. Last time my brother saw her, he laid into her about the adventures she craved, the business she started.

      Anyone is replaceable. It’s so obvious only a human could miss seeing it.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to blake says:

      Yes it’s very strange how mixed the messages are.

      I am coming to realize that people embrace mixed messages because it always gives them the higher ground. I’ve been criticized for not being a good enough homemaker and not working outside the home by the very same people in the exact same conversation. It’s a tactic people use to control each other, and unfortunately a lot of women are really susceptible to that. WE seem to think that if we get it “right” no one will ever criticize us, and it’s an important step towards adulthood to finally learn that some people just like to criticize for their own reasons and will find any basis on which to do it.

      It’s very interesting about children and learning self-sufficiency. My mom worked and was super busy and I did more than my fair share of the chores growing up. It really did help me to learn skills I needed to be a successful adult. My older two sons, while I did give them some chores and stuff, it was nothing like what I had, and as adults they aren’t anywhere near as capable of taking care of their home (or maybe they’re just unwilling). Now, is it because I had so much responsibility? IDK but I don’t feel too awfully bad about making my younger three take on more chores than their big brothers had.

      There’s a version of the Legend of the Selkie where a man marries a woman from the sea, and she can stay on land and be human but had to go back into the water once a year to renew herself. One year the husband keeps putting her off and putting her off until she finally starts to disintegrate and only then he realized what he was doing to her. Women need some time to themselves that isn’t being scheduled constantly by the needs of other people.Report

  9. Aaron David says:

    Great piece Kristen!Report

  10. Pinky says:

    I don’t buy Dederer’s claim about artists and selfishness. I’ve read quite a bit about the great classical composers, and some of them were art monsters, but some weren’t. Probably a distribution of monstrosity comparable to any other profession. Commitment isn’t unique to the artist; every field of endeavor requires some level of commitment, and commitment doesn’t necessarily correlate with success.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Pinky says:

      The level of commitment I have for writing surpasses the level of commitment my husband has for driving a garbage truck, though. While there are certainly workaholics in any number of fields people have passions and then they have careers and for most creative people the art is a passion that can flare out of control, while a career is easier to keep in perspective IMO.Report

  11. blake says:

    Yeah, I sorta think the “selfishness” thing is more of an excuse for bad behavior. People are always using art to excuse bad behavior. (Genuinely bad behavior, not mere disagreement.)Report

    • atomickristin in reply to blake says:

      That was her point really – that men have the luxury of using “art” to excuse all manner of bad behavior and yet women feel we can’t even cut a few corners here and there because we’re so worried we’re being too “selfish”. But ~some~ selfishness is required to make art at all.Report

      • blake in reply to atomickristin says:

        I think I get it, but I also think the scare quotes are vital to the use of the word “selfish” here. (And I’m sure you know this better than I.) Often when a woman is told she’s being “selfish”, the intended message is “you didn’t do what I wanted you to do” or “you are not fully self-abnegating”.

        I could make an argument that art is inherently UNselfish but that’s a whole ‘nother can o’ worms.Report

  12. dragonfrog says:

    I remember years ago at an anarchist book fair, fledermaus remarking that there were lots of books, zines, and discussions, about avoiding conception, obtaining abortions, etc., but nothing about choosing conception, childbirth, or parenting.

    Like parenting was somehow incompatible with the very expansive definitions of radicalism or anarchism that qualified for inclusion at the zine tables – or was at best orthogonal to it, like parents could continue to write about prison abolition or whatever, but their home life ceased to be material for a contribution, became something that had to be taken care of so they could contribute one some other topic.

    I’m not sure how much that was down to a lack of such publications, vs to their not appealing to the few people who had tables at the fair.Report

    • North in reply to dragonfrog says:

      There aren’t a lot of articles about walking on the earth, waking up in the morning or sleeping at night either. Left to their own devices conception, childbirth and parenting do kind of happen as a matter of course (assuming you’ve found someone you like and are doing what normally happens when one finds such a person). Getting up to the activities one does with that special someone and NOT conceiving, having children and being a parent? That takes somewhat special care.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to North says:

        I guess. but this was an anarchist bookfair. There were zines about, I dunno, deconstructing gender in the context of kitchen work, of one’s romantic relationships, etc. etc. – but not in the context of one’s parenting. About supporting one another in mental health, various aspects of physical health – but not in preparation for childbirth. And so on.Report

      • atomickristin in reply to North says:

        I spend 40 hours a week getting paid to help people conceive. It’s not as easy as many people think. And parenting books are a juggernaut industry unto themselves. IDK I definitely felt a negative attitude from leftist friends when I had a baby at 21. Much more available in Christian circles at that point in time.Report

    • atomickristin in reply to dragonfrog says:

      That has also been my experience although that may have changed some since I was that leftist. Having kids was decidedly outre when I was 18-22ish among leftists.Report

  13. I really liked this OP and before I read the comments, I want to emphasize something that’s a tangent to your main point, but that also jumped out at me. In part, it has to to with this:

    “What about her, you may ask? Wasn’t Woolf really talking about the creative needs of ALL women, mothers included? But I’ve read through the essay several times now and I don’t see it. If mothers are in there, they’re an afterthought and not considered a creative force unto themselves.”

    My answer is no, she wasn’t talking about ALL women, she was talking about “middle class” women who enjoyed the prerogatives and privileges of what counted as “middle class” and higher when she lived. She doesn’t seem to have cared much for the members of the working class. (I’ll say that I read her essay for the first time just now, because you linked to it….I’ll also add that other than this essay, I’ve never read anything, except a small, one- to four-paragraph excerpt I read as an undergrad.) This all speaks a little bit to your asterisked footnote/aside, too, with which I agree.

    I’m also inclined to critique her rendering of the history of women, although my critique is anachronistic and uncharitable to the situation in which Woolf is writing. Legally, women of course suffered all the difficulties she described, but she fails to account for the ways things (probably) worked in practice. Lower class women sometimes/often/usually had a lot more agency and power than Woolf gives them credit for.

    Finally–and here I’m straying particularly far from the point you’re making, so I apologize–what about all the women who aren’t artistically inclined. Don’t they have a right to the earth and to consideration as human beings? Maybe it’s not just the artistically talented to who deserve respect. As I said, I’ve read (for the most part) only this essay and nothing else by her. But if the essay represents her approach, I’m not a fan.

    Again, though, I really appreciated your OP. Thanks for writing it!

    Again, though,Report

  14. atomickristin says:

    Yes that’s one of the criticisms of Woolf’s original essay – that working class people and minorities were at so much greater a disadvantage that looking at it through our lens in the here and now, it almost seems a bit self-indulgent for a wealthy woman to have written it.

    I agree I suspect that upper class women had a fair bit of leisure time for creative pursuits (based on my understanding of the times) and lower class women may have had more freedom than we suspect.

    Someone pointed that out to me on Twitter – everyone deserves time for self-care regardless of whether or not they’re creative and I absolutely agree. There is definitely an air of classism and intellectual superiority about the essay (hopefully not present in mine, but it may be) that is offputting.Report