Work-Life Balance, by Celia Paul

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From Letters to Gwen John, which will be published next month by New York Review Books. The letter is dated June 16, 2019, eighty years after John, a Welsh painter, died. Paul and Lucian Freud had a child together in 1984.

Dearest Gwen,

How can I talk to you about the birth of my son and those early years of motherhood? I would like to try. I hope you won’t assume that look of distant forbearance I know so well. This familiar expression suggests to me that, even though you hear the words being spoken to you, they can’t affect you in the least. I would like you to pay attention to me.

My son, Frank Paul, was born in December 1984. From my hospital bed in central London I could see thin flakes of snow drifting gently past my window. The snow hid the experience of holding this new life from the world. He and I were alone in a warm cave, huddled together for shelter. We heated each other under the blankets until the sweat poured out of us. I wouldn’t relinquish him, even to let him sleep in the cot beside my bed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold him to myself for long: I had vowed not to be distracted from finishing the big Family Group painting, and my mother had prepared her house in Cambridge for my baby’s arrival. She would be his main carer.

After a week, a friend of my mother’s arrived to drive Frank and me to my mother’s house. It is a small house, which my mother had moved into when my father died the year before Frank was born. Now, with my baby in my arms, I felt I would never be able to leave the warm womb-like fug. I stayed in my nightie for three weeks and never, during that time, ventured out of doors.

Lucian phoned me every day. My mother had a Siamese cat who was jealous of the new arrival. He used to clamber over me, digging into me with his sharp claws and covering me with pinpricks of blood, which stained my nightie. He had a penetrating wail, more like the cry of a baby than my own. Frank hardly made a sound. I proudly told Lucian, who confused the yowling of the cat for the baby’s, that my son was too content to cry.

I soon had to return to my painting in London, and continue to sit for the portrait that Lucian was in the middle of: Girl in a Striped Nightshirt. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t returned to London. My Family Group painting would have been discontinued, I’m sure. Or if, after a year or so, I had continued with it, the feeling would have changed: it would have lost momentum and the intensity would have been driven out of it. And Lucian’s portrait of me would have been left unfinished, with its arms truncated like the abandoned statue that Rodin made of you.

When I arrived at Lucian’s studio we were awkward with each other. There was too much to say that he couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand. I felt changed. The outward signs he noticed and was alarmed by: the milk leaked out of my breasts and stained the nightshirt I was wearing for his painting. And there was a livid scar above my pubic hair. I resumed my position on the sofa. I rested my head on the curve of its arm and placed my hand in front of it. Lucian said the atmosphere was very different. I had looked pregnant before, not in my physical appearance—Lucian hadn’t painted my belly—but in my air of calm before the storm. The storm had truly broken now and everything looked and felt different, heightened and damaged.

In the morning I went back to my own studio, where my Family Group awaited me. I had placed it on the easel when my first contractions had started, nearly a month ago now, preparing for this moment of return. My four sisters and my mother stared out like Easter Island statues. They were waiting patiently for me to enter into their stillness again. I thought of you then, dearest Gwen.

When I returned to Cambridge it was still snowing, more heavily now. I saw my sister Jane on the pavement, pushing the pram through the snow. When she saw me, she lifted Frank out of the pram and handed him to me. He started to cry. He aimed his head for my breasts. My mother was waiting anxiously behind me in the narrow corridor. I moved out of her way so she could hold Frank and comfort him.

I returned to London the next day.

Did you ever long for a child? You painted children often. They were always wonderful paintings, some of your best. You understood children and empathized with them. You were a child yourself.

In becoming a mother, I feared I had lost, forever, this privileged child’s view of the world. Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson—all the women I revered—remained daughters and sisters, never mothers. They could sit in the living room surrounded by their family and never be called upon, never be riven in two by anxiety for a child dependent on them. They could observe quietly without being distracted. When I was with my son I could only think about him. I couldn’t work when he was with me. I have never been able to share my actual space with anyone and I’ve never lived with anyone as an adult. This has been the only way I have remained true to you, Gwen.

So you see that I end this letter by coming back to you. But I will quote to you some of the last words Vincent van Gogh ever wrote to his brother:

Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it—that’s all right—but you are not among the dealers in men as far as I know, and you can still choose your side, I think, acting with humanity, but que veux-tu?

Vincent wanted Theo to understand that great art requires great sacrifice. When you were deeply involved with Rodin, you stopped painting because you wanted to give yourself up to love. When art resumed its central place in your life, you deprived yourself of the ordinary pleasures: comfort and security, just as Vincent had done. There’s a definiteness to all your decisions. Whereas I—I have been conflicted and nearly torn apart by opposite desires: between loving and being loved, or by being alone. I have had to be ruthless about keeping my space to myself, but the barriers I have put up between myself and the outside world have never been as secure as yours.

I am suddenly worried you might feel that I am trying to break down a barrier through writing to you now. I could read disapproval in your silence, if you were still alive. Please show me some sign.

With a handshake,

Celia


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