This woman's work

Nearly 30 years before Nancy Pelosi credited her children for her political acumen, author Tillie Olsen wrote poignantly about balancing work and family.

Published January 11, 2007 10:15PM (EST)

Ten days late but with no less affection or admiration, we wanted to pay homage to writer Tillie Olsen, who died on New Year's Day, just two weeks shy of her 95th birthday. The author of "Tell Me a Riddle" (1961) and "Silences" (1978) and politically active mother of four laid the groundwork for many feminist writers who followed. During her seven-decade career, Olsen produced a relatively slim oeuvre -- five stories, an unfinished novel and several poems -- and yet her willingness to excavate the unspoken interior lives of women made her revered in literary circles.

Last week's Los Angeles Times obit quoted novelist Margaret Atwood, who once wrote of Olsen's reputation, "Among women writers in the United States, 'respect' is too pale a word: 'reverence' is more like it. This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children, and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer. The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance but for the near miracle of her survival."

Since Nancy Pelosi, another mother who put off her career to raise a passel of children, has so recently ascended to speaker of the House, remembering Olsen's work is especially provocative right now. Under the banner of Pelosi, motherhood is finally getting some good press. She has repeatedly credited raising five children as the source of her political acumen, and suddenly we have a picture of motherhood as an asset to public and professional life, rather than a hindrance. As Debra Dickerson put it in Salon earlier this week: "Pelosi proves that women can have it all. Just not all at once. And also that motherhood doesn't have to calcify your spirit, your brain, your looks, your intellect or your drive." On Dec. 31, the New York Times reported that some employers are even regarding mothers as better job candidates because of their parenting experience. If Pelosi is being brandished as the new face of "having it all" -- the win-win life of the supermom turned political powerhouse -- Olsen's writing and life offer a more complicated picture.

Olsen, who put her writing career on a 20-year hold while raising her four children, eventually achieved success, but not without regretting stories never told. Having given birth to her first child at 19, she struggled with a series of low-paying jobs and an absent husband. Although early writing like the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" garnered her praise and awards when her first daughter was only 2, ultimately her career took off only after her mothering years were over. (For a nice biographical page, go here.) Her experiences as a working-class, single mother suffused her work. In her poetic, unpretentious voice, she explored that strange state of duality that working mothers experience -- where children are a source of both distraction and purpose, self-sacrifice and self-transcendence.

Olsen wrote, "More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible. Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one's own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil ... Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage -- at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be."

My own mother was a great fan of Tillie Olsen's, so I grew up with the idea of motherhood and intellectual interruption already articulated. But it was nevertheless my mother's cross to bear -- "Get over yourself, Mom, concentrate!!!" Now, sitting with my sick 7-year-old daughter, Olsen's words are no longer feminist theory. At the risk of revealing how sausage is made, since I began working on this post, I've "helped" with a Little Red Riding Hood puzzle, set up an art table, fetched a cup of tea and appreciated the series of paper-towel splatter paintings drying on lamps all over the house. I've gotten a hug that turned into an attempt at acrobatics and, when the playful gambit went unreciprocated, produced the inevitable conclusion: "You're a bad mother." I've boiled beans and read my daughter quotes about motherhood by Olsen, but mostly I've ignored her. So much so that she told me: "You don't like me."

So let Pelosi be the new model of maternal power -- but in moments of frustration, we can still turn to Olsen for articulating the unspoken mess behind the myth.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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