You Can Be a Mother and Still Be a Successful Artist
“There’s an old-fashioned myth that having a baby is going to make it impossible to work,” says painter Nikki Maloof. “I had just started gaining a lot of momentum in my career when I found out I was pregnant, so it was scary.” Maloof’s fear could apply to any number of career-oriented women across numerous industries. A little over a year ago, I became a mother. It was an unknown that, while mostly exciting, was also terrifying. As a career-focused individual with a job that I love, I feared losing a sense of self and motherhood setting me back from all the hard work I had done—especially considering that men still make up more than 85 percent of top leadership roles in the United States.
But then my son came and that worry dissolved, because motherhood did not change my identity or curtail my ambition—it only reinforced it. While it did, of course, create logistical obstacles to navigate, it also made me more efficient with my time, and more motivated. I wasn’t just working hard for myself anymore, but now for my son, too. By and large, other art-world mothers I spoke with over the past year, and many artists I interviewed for this story, feel that parenting becomes one more life challenge to grapple with, but a choice that ultimately has enriched their lives and careers, more than hindering them.
So why, then, would this myth—that having children ruins a female artist’s career—still linger? Marina Abramović recently made headlines by telling German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel: “In my opinion [having children is] the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There are plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children—a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.” Her sentiments sparked anger and heated debate. (Lest not we forget, other women artists have spouted similar sentiments, including Tracey Emin).
“It’s a very Donald Trump-ish kind of statement,” says Laurie Simmons, who has two daughters, Lena and Grace, ages 30 and 24. “That a woman without children would be making judgments about women with children is really inappropriate. This idea that there is this very precious thing, artistically speaking, inside a woman that will be broken by having a child is so archaic, primitive, prehistoric. I’ve never heard a male artist discuss whether or not he should have children.”
What defines success in the art world isn’t black-and-white, points out Tara Donovan, who has six-year-old twin boys. “While I understand the pressures of the art world all too well, the notion that women must sacrifice the pleasures of motherhood for the sake of a ‘career’ reflects insidious double standards from a bygone era. I think Abramović has chosen to operate in an art world that reflects the values of this bygone era, where masculinist hierarchies determine what constitutes ‘value’ and ‘success.’ This is the same art world that privileges male artists at auction with exponentially higher prices than women.”
Kara Walker also opted for both motherhood and an ambitious career as an artist. “Having children isn’t for everyone, but offering up old school sexism isn’t useful to anyone,” she says, pointing out that she had her daughter Octavia, now 18, in the same year that she received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “My daughter is now in college and someone there is teaching about my work. What can I say, I wanted a child and a career and I didn’t feel one took energy from the other.”
Most would consider Simmons, Donovan, and Walker successful artists: All are represented by important galleries (Salon 94, Pace, and Victoria Miro/Sikkema Jenkins & Co., respectively); all three have had exhibitions at major museums; and they all make a good living on their art alone. In fact, many of the world’s highest-grossing women artists are mothers, including Julie Mehretu, Marlene Dumas, Cecily Brown, and Chen Peiqiu. And the list of successful artists who are mothers continues, including Sarah Sze, Teresita Fernández, Wangechi Mutu, Phyllida Barlow, Cornelia Parker, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and many more.
According to Abramović, would these women have been more successful had they abandoned family life and focused only on their careers? Or does this thinking hold women back and perpetuate another fantastical myth of the artist as loner, one who suffers for creativity? And yet while male artists can uphold this illusion of the creative loner while also being partners and parents—Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, John Currin, Olafur Eliasson, Chris Ofili, Alex Katz, and many more are fathers—female artists are expected to forgo children in order to meet the same standard. “I’ve spent my life rebelling against these identities that people foisted on me,” says Simmons. “And then when I understood that the art world includes gatekeepers—guys who didn’t think it was appropriate for women artists to have babies—I thought, ‘Fuck you! Not going to happen.’”
In a recent interview about her work, Diana Al-Hadid, who gave birth to a son less than a year ago, was asked whether becoming a mother had changed her work. “I said, ‘No, my work hasn’t changed, and you wouldn’t ask a man that question,’” she says. “No one presumes it’s going to change [a man’s] work—their work is their work and their private life is their private life.” The double standard has certainly been salient over the course of art history, but the question of how much progress has been made today is debatable.
“There is a bias but I wasn’t too hung up on it,” says Al-Hadid. “It might just be the fact that I know that other moms ahead of me in the art world have done it, and I know that women around the world do it under much more difficult circumstances than I have. But I figure, ‘Screw ’em.’ You have to break that bias somehow and you do that by setting an example.” Al-Hadid points out that not only did her dealer (Marianne Boesky) have a child, but that many friends around her and artists before her had children with no negative impact on their careers. Maloof also felt supported by her dealer (Jack Hanley) and her peers, and believes the taboo has dissipated. “I don’t feel like anyone would discriminate against a woman who is having a baby.”
But artist Lenka Clayton disagrees. “In my experience,” she says, “it’s still a choice that people feel they have to make, the choice of: Can you continue to be taken seriously as an artist and be a mother? That’s not a foregone conclusion in any way.” Moving to the U.S. from the U.K. with her partner in 2009, Clayton found herself feeling not only unsupported by the U.S. system (a topic explored in many recent debates on health benefits, parental leave, and childcare), but also isolated as the primary caregiver after her first child was born. “Being exhausted, having no time, no space—there are shared experiences when you’re a new parent—and so I was really trying to find a way to help myself feel differently about it,” says Clayton.
In 2012, the artist created her work An Artist Residency in Motherhood in response to the experience of motherhood. “I went back to things that helped with my practice,” she says, “such as being an artist in residence where there’s a specific period of time and you work with a new material—everything feels so new and unusual.” Clayton undertook the project for three years, through the birth of her second child. Last spring, she opened up the residency as a public project with a dedicated website where artists can download a “residency kit,” complete with an official letter of invitation, amendable manifesto, and planning tools to help artists structure their residency. “It came out of this feeling of trying to do two things at the same time that didn’t feel like they could fit,” she says. “It’s come to completion for me, now that it’s something that anyone can take part in.”
Both Simmons and Clayton point out that biases still prevail in some quarters of the art world, propagated by antiquated statements like that of Abramović. “Recently two young women came to me who had great trepidations and lots of fears,” recalls Simmons, “and both of them had heard very critical things from their art dealers about having children and how it would impact their careers. They were criticized by the very people who represented them and are responsible for selling their work.”
What is arguably the most positive change to have taken place over the last 30 years is the increase in role models for female artists working today. “At a certain point, I felt like I had a responsibility to answer questions because I didn’t want younger women artists to be frightened,” says Simmons, whose prosperous career and two very talented daughters qualify her as an excellent role model. “I thought if I spoke out about it, it could make someone who was on the fence not seem so frightened about how their life or their work would change.” Other than Elizabeth Murray, Simmons didn’t have many artists to look to who were openly embracing motherhood when she herself was considering it. And building a strong support structure is, of course, key to all new parents, including artists—a partner who shoulders 50 percent of the parenting, a dealer who is supportive of his or her artist’s choice to raise children, and a studio setup that is flexible enough for the initial disruption of a new baby and the transition into a new schedule.
No one can pretend that having a child is easy; it is not. It can require a major shift in lifestyle, as well as being financially demanding, especially in the U.S., where there is no government-supported universal childcare system. This is especially challenging for artists. “I know that it’s hard for artist friends who don’t have a child to live in New York, so one can imagine with kids, it’s even more difficult,” says Maloof, who considers herself in a fortunate position, living in New York and receiving health-care benefits through her partner’s employment. “There’s never a great time but you make it work. That’s been my mentality.”
Al-Hadid has not slowed down her busy show season with the arrival of her son. “You adapt, and babies adapt,” she says; her son has been on over a dozen flights since his birth. “I’m still very focused on my career and work—it’s just about a different relationship to your work. And that changes whether you have a child or not. That might change depending on your financial situation, that might change depending on where you’re living at the moment, that might change if you have a death in the family. Your relationship to your work is amorphous.”
Simmons and her husband, the painter Carroll Dunham, shared the responsibility of taking care of their children—a pioneering attitude at the time, Simmons reminds me. She remembers that Dunham would bring their daughter Lena to the studio and wear her in a sling while he was painting. “We entered into a very equal partnership,” she says. “I don’t think it’s an accident that I found the appropriate partner—someone who I knew was going to support me as an artist and do anything to make sure I remained an artist.”
At an art fair, just after I returned to work from maternity leave, I noticed a dealer with his new baby strapped to him while he was dealing art in his booth, a curator and museum director couple pushing their infant through the fair, and young children perusing the aisles with their collector parents. The scene felt natural and accepted in this greater art-world setting. “I feel like when I go to a museum dinner and I’m seated next to a titan of industry and the next thing I know he’s pulling out his phone to show me pictures of his grandchildren, something is changing,” says Simmons. “But while there’s a softening, I still feel there’s a prejudice against women artists with children.”
My first year as a mother has been one of continuous transition—not to mention limited sleep, little personal time, and the anxieties that come with the responsibility of being a new parent. But the indescribable intensity of love and experience watching a human being grow exponentially in such a short period of time has impacted me, and my work, in a profoundly positive way. Every artist I spoke with for this story felt similarly—that having children benefited their work rather than detracted from it. “My children are a source of love and satisfaction that I consider to be one of the only true markers of ‘success,’” says Donovan. “I guess I have chosen to privilege my personal agenda over any agendas dictated by others, which I believe is a choice all successful people need to make.”
All women have the right to choose to have children, or to choose not to have children. And like their male counterparts, women artists who choose to have children need not feel they have to sacrifice their careers to do so.
Cover image: Portrait of Tara Donovan and her sons in her Long Island City studio by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.