Some thoughts on Tillie Olsen’s “Silences”

My “studio” is a spare kitchen table in the corner of my living room.

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In Tillie Olsen’s book Silences, she argued that the fact of motherhood has created a silence in literature. When mothers are required to care for their children they don’t have the time available to truly be great writers. She argues that the constant interruption of children, the time spent meeting their needs and caring for a home, leads to “work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage — at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be” (page 37). I want to argue with her. But she’s right, at least, to a degree.

As I was attempting to type that quote up, my two sons interrupted me no less than four times, and my husband demanded to know why I was getting annoyed (the initiating quotation mark refused to format aimed in the correct direction). A task that should have taken me thirty seconds took three minutes and five glances at my book to make sure I was typing the quotation correctly. If everything I do takes six times longer because I am in a house full of people, I will inevitably write fewer words, draw fewer sketches, and on the whole, the body of work I create in my lifetime will be less prolific.

But Olsen fails to recognize that children are not merely a distraction. Not simply a consumption of time that might otherwise be spent creating art.

When my son was born, I became aware of a need outside myself. I had spent my entire adult life self-oriented. Legitimately, I have a severe mental illness and to care for myself is a good thing. But I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was becoming behaviorally ever sicker. I could barely make it through the day, and I certainly wasn’t writing or painting. I was producing none of the things I’m capable of.

My kids actually got me to the point that I was able to be an okay person. Do normal things that well people do, like wash the dishes and cook dinner. The fact that I am well enough to write at all I credit to my children. They’re the reason I’ve been able to write a book. Without them, I’d still be too sick to write. Is this an extraordinary case? Maybe. Maybe not.

I want to offer that kids fulfill a greater role in the lives of artists and writers who are also mothers. Not only do they distract us, but they often give us perspective, help us not be stuck in our heads all the time, give us a reason to get up in the morning and start our work, and for many writers, they become a source of inspiration. Do children lead to a notable silence in literature? Perhaps, in many cases, yes. Do they sometimes create the very possibility of it? In my case, yes.


Mom writers, speak up! How do your kids help or hinder your writing or your art? (We know they do both, and we’re not bashing motherhood, just being honest about the life of a writing mom!)

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