Evan Rachel Wood And Amanda Palmer Talk Balancing Art And Motherhood
Getting to know the singer, artist, and author
Photo courtesy of Evan Rachel Wood
Besides being quintessentially cool, Evan Rachel Wood holds many titles: Bona fide movie star, musician, singer, mother, activist, Beatles lover, writer...and now, we are excited to announce that she can officially add NYLON editor to her expansive list of credentials.
My morning begins frantic. I have just put my son down for a nap, I am delirious from very little sleep following a long day at work, and I realize my interview with one of my heroes (the artist Amanda Palmer) is actually at 3pm Eastern time. It's now 12pm Pacific time, which is MY time.
My nanny is leaving and my son just woke up. I don’t have my questions in order, and I start to feel immediately guilty that I couldn’t play with my son in that moment and also wasn’t prepared for something I cared about. Failure, right? Then I remembered so much of what Palmer teaches is about true connection and being in the moment with someone else.
I decide, “Wait, this is perfect. I don’t want to be too prepared. I want this to be a real conversation. A real conversation about being a working artist and balancing motherhood. How wonderful that it begins in chaos.”
I call Palmer and get her voicemail, which was everything I hoped it would be.
“If you want to leave me your voice, man, I would love it. Isn’t it crazy how we don’t talk to each other anymore? Bye!"
She texts me to let me know that she's running late after having a busy morning.
I giggle to myself. I feel less like a crazy person.
We finally connect later on the phone. The connection is bad. She says, “I’m on a phone that my landlord thought I should use in a really cute way because it's from 1952.”
After some finessing and switching to FaceTime audio, we get a better connection. Here's our conversation.
I have to say, I am very giddy about getting to interview you. I am a little nervous and weirdly emotional because I have been flying through The Art of Asking to prepare for this interview, and I have been having the same visceral reaction to it as I did when I read Patti Smith’s book Just Kids. I would read a page and be so overwhelmed I would have to put it down and wait a minute before I picked it back up again to fully process.
It just resonated so deeply with me. How long did it take you to write that?
I wrote the bulk of it in six weeks in Melbourne in... 2014, I guess? Then I spent about four months cleaning it and editing shit out. I left my husband. I said, “I’m leaving you, and I’ll be back in a few months, to write this book.” He let me go, and I went to Australia where I rented an apartment.
I basically sat down and gave myself a goal of doing 5,000 words a day, and I did. At the end of six weeks, I had about 150,000 words in total. Then it was a question of lopping shit out that didn’t belong in the book and finessing it; writing connectors and making sure the timeline makes sense. If there's been one criticism of the book, that I agree with, it's that the timeline is a little hard to follow sometimes. I pushed that book through so quickly. I never even read the final draft.
How long was it from TED Talk to the book coming out?
I am sure you were working on other projects at the same time you were writing your book, right?
I got the book deal while I was doing other things, but I basically did what I knew would work, which was sit down and do nothing else but the book. When I say I did nothing, I literally did nothing else. I got up, went to yoga, sat down at a cafe and then for 11 hours I would just alternate coffee, wine, and take-out salad, and I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and that's actually the way I work best. For better or for worse, my blessing and my curse… that's actually pretty good.
[Eek! Was I just present for the birth of a lyric? She continues:]
For better or for worse, my blessing, my curse... Um, I’m a very binge and purge kind of person. It’s all or nothing. I knew if I sort of dabbled in writing a book, it would never happen.
I guess the reason I am so curious is because you are a mother now and an artist, as am I. My son is two and a half, I’m a single mom, and the funny thing is, I feel like because of him, I am a more open, more fearless, more inspired person. Creatively, I have been more active than I have ever been in my entire life, while trying to mother this toddler.
I co-wrote and recorded an album, I wrote a screenplay on Skype, using screen sharing, with my best friend, who you coincidentally know from Nashville. She also just had a baby, so we were nursing, chasing kids around, cooking, cleaning, you name it. It took a year, but we did it. I find myself battling with making the time for family and work. I have this weird guilt, even though I work mostly at home.
I don’t know, I ask myself that. Like this morning, before the interview, everything was crazy. I am fortunate enough to have a great nanny who helps me out on days I have to work, but I didn’t know she was off today, and I was faced with this voice in my head that just said, “You suck as a parent, and you aren’t doing enough.” I thought, “Why? Why is that my go-to?” I have to feel guilty for being an artist and being a mom because that lifestyle is not traditional and not the norm and not what it's supposed to look like. Even though intellectually I know that's bullshit, it creeps up on me sometimes.
But your simple awareness of it means that you are fine. [Laughs] If you weren’t aware of it, you would be in much deeper trouble. I don’t know if you listened to my song “A Mother's Confession."
I love that song. It blew my mind. Blew my mind!
Some of that is a little hyperbolic and what not, but those thoughts come, and you look at them and go, “Oh I’m doing that thing. I’m being insanely critical of myself and what's for dinner? What’s fucking new under the sun?” We are all so masochistic, and we are constantly judging ourselves and criticizing ourselves and wondering how this looks from the outside, but time rolls on and you realize there is no outside. This is all a haze of illusion, and we are all going to die and so it's fine! Everything is fine. You leave the baby in the car, and as long as the baby is not dead, it's fine. Shit happens and people die every day and people fall in love and babies get born and babies die and there is a whole wide spectrum of experience, and we just happen to be in it. Wasting time on judgment and regret are an anathema to general human enlightenment and not that we are ever going to get there, but we can tumble along the path and at least be heading towards the light and not the darkness.
Absolutely. Oh man, when I saw that image of you on the beach, standing there like a chiseled statue of a Greek god in a gown, holding and nursing your baby with one hand and holding a machete in the other, I almost fainted. It was so powerful and so inspiring, especially as a mom. That image alone did so much for me. And I loved your blog when you were talking about dyeing your hair backstage while nursing and doing an interview and everything at once. You made it seem a little less impossible and most importantly shameless. So I love that you are helping put it all out there as it is. It's really beautiful.
It’s interesting, I am a person who is always braced for backlash. I’ve been braced for backlash for the past 10 years. It comes at me no matter what I fucking do, but as usual, it's never the things I am expecting. It's often the opposite. I used to post a blog and then email my whole team and tell everybody, “Get ready, everybody is going to hate me this week,” and then nothing would happen. Then, when I least expected it, the most innocuous, love-filled, mundane blogs would be the ones that came after me with pitchforks.
I have to say honestly, with a real sense of detachment to those kinds of judgments that come at me in the Facebook comments, mostly I just feel really sad for the people that don’t understand, having a child can be so much more enjoyable and liberating than they think it is.
And so for the kinds of moms and the guys out there that come in really heavy-handedly saying what kind of mother are you that you would [dot dot dot], I just want to sit down with them and have a glass of wine and say, “Listen, you seem really unhappy and these things that you think matter are so small.”
And “What is this really about?”
Yeah, and do you think it's really worth your time and energy to sit down and give me a speech about how the chemicals from my hair dye are poisoning my child and I should be ashamed of myself for leaving the house and taking a baby into an atmosphere like a dirty bar. I always just look at the larger, human, historical scope and think, “When did we get so crazy?”
When did culture turn away from itself and eat its own tail when a man is telling a mother not to be with her own baby?
I totally agree. I had my kid when I was 25, so I started a little early and before most of my friends, who are all just starting to get pregnant. Now they are calling me, asking for advice. A lot of them are artists and they always ask me the same question, “How do I do this? How do I be a mom and do my art at the same time? I don’t know what I’m supposed to be.” I always tell them motherhood can look however you want it to look; it's whatever you want to make it. You don’t have to sacrifice your identity and your art. You do your child a disservice.
No, you mustn't. Then you are a really shitty mom if you do that. The whole point of bringing children in is inviting them into the flow, and if you fuck up the flow, then they don’t know who you are or what's going on.
But, you know, there aren’t J.Crew catalogs with a mom rehearsing an '80’s cabaret with her baby in a playpen at the foot of the stage, or a mom pumping in her car on the way to an audition. Which are both things I’ve done. [Laugh]
I think one of the advantages of being relatively old—I was 39 when I had my kid—I had already figured a lot of this stuff out in general. Like how to completely ignore people’s judgments and opinions, check! I’ve spent the last 10 years really mastering my ability to do that. Just being able to embrace total improv and also knowing that there is this nice thing that happens when you get older where you are very comfortable with what you don’t know.
I’m fine with not knowing. I’ll find out. My life’s training in the past 40 years has been to sort of dismiss fear, close my eyes, put my foot on the gas, and know that I’m going to wind up somewhere. It’s almost like my entire life has been kung fu training for motherhood.
I feel the same!... Oh, I lost my train of thought.
Can I distract you and tell you something that I might as well tell you at some point in the conversation? I didn’t put it together, until I went to your Wiki page, that you were in Thirteen, and I loved that filmed so much. It was phenomenal, and you were phenomenal. I was so pleased to see it was you! I was like, “Holy shit. That’s Evan too!”
[Laugh] Yeah, that was the 14-year-old me, putting it all out there. It’s funny, I was just talking about that movie with someone and I was like, “You know man, I fell in love with what I did because I was given permission to express all the things I couldn’t in my real life, and channel them into this thing that freed me and it all was captured on film. It was just one of those special things that happened."
We were talking about… fearless?
Yes! I have had to do similar things most of my life. I have to do me—I don’t know how to do it any other way—and most of that time is spent metaphorically and literally walking through rows of people yelling, “What are you doing!?” But, I always come out the other side a better and stronger person. Those experiences, holding on to who I am no matter what, have given me more confidence and allowed me to trust myself and my intuition which comes in handy for motherhood. I didn’t grow up with babies—I was the youngest growing up.
So now that he’s older, and even when he was a baby, I always was faced with, “What do I do with you? I was never taught this.” I like to drive around at night and listen to music, so do I say, “Hey kid, you wanna take a ride?” Then I thought, “Yeah, why not? Let’s go,” and that became one of our things.
My parents were theater actors, so I spent a lot of time in dark dusty theaters as a baby. I am sure there were some outsiders thinking, “How can you bring your child here till all hours of the night with these degenerate bohemians?” But I was watching Shakespeare and Chekhov and Sam Shepard. I fell in love with Mozart when I was four years old because my parents did a production of “Amadeus.” There were all these amazing things and amazing people that came with it. So not conventional.
Yeah, conventional maybe not so good. [Laughs] I mean really, when you think about how we have always raised our children, and I’m talking long form, they are with you watching what you do so they can learn how the world works, and they’re not supposed to be compartmentalized and isolated and not in the flow with the adult world. They’re supposed to be carried along.
I have taken this kid literally everywhere with me for the last seven months, and I have gotten shit done. I put out a record, I‘ve done shows, I haven’t toured, but I’m gonna tour this summer and I sort of improvised all of it. I did what I always do which is sometimes naive and sometimes fantastic, but I always figure people will help. I naively assume that there will always be someone to hold the baby while I go to the bathroom, even if it’s a total stranger. If you’re good at trusting strangers, and you put yourself in a general environment where the strangers are not assholes, you can do everything. But you have to go into it with the expectation that we actually are a global village and not buy into all the bullshit that we should be separated and afraid of each other.
[The baby gurgles]
... and that's plus one from Ash.
So sweet! What did I want to ask? Oh! The birth! We both had these crazy natural home births!
NOT crazy home births. Non-crazy western hospital bullshit. Totally sane births!
I remember speaking to you beforehand on Twitter and sort of giving you a pep talk, telling you what an amazing experience it was.
I loved it. It was one of the highlights of my life.
I loved it too.
It was intense and incredibly... I don’t even want to call it painful because that seems to do it a disservice, but for my friends who have dropped acid, I can describe it as a 24-hour acid trip.
Absolutely. Psychedelic, in the true sense of the word, is how I always describe it.
On this earth, but not quite of this reality.
Not at all. It was so overwhelming. It was actually more intense than I thought it would be. I consider myself someone who can handle quite a bit, and I thought I would be one of those moms who was really Zen and calm. No. I made so much noise.
Me too. I was loud.
I wonder if that's a singer thing? I thought about it and during my son's birth, my doula was there saying, “If you scream and make noise, the pain will get worse.” I thought, “You don’t know me. I’m a singer. I make noise to help the pain go away.”
I didn’t really scream. I moaned my brains out. I was just moaning and heaving like a pregnant bovine goddess. I had a 24-hour labor, and my contractions were pretty consistent for that time. By the small hours of the next night, I was impressed by my ability to sleep for three to four minutes at a time. I was in bed, sleeping between contractions, or rushes, as Ina May [Gaskin] likes to call them, which I actually think is a way better word.
I wouldn’t want to call it pain. I try explaining to people: Pain is this thing that comes with harm. Sort of like having periods cramps—you know that no harm is coming to your body. You don’t have to go into a defensive position because you might not be alright or stop to check if you are going to bleed to death, you know? It’s a different sensation. It’s an intense experience, but you are also standing on the threshold of motherhood about to meet the most important person in your life, so there is a simultaneous joy that comes with it that doesn’t come with getting your foot run over by a car.
So if you can undo the script in your head that tells you, “a really intense sensation is bad” and remember your body is not in harm's way, then you can kind of control the narrative and allow your body to surrender to the sensations and not have that extra layer of actual pain that only comes when your body is in fear. I give a lot of credit to years and years of yoga practice.
I bet that did help!
Yoga is about sitting with an experience and really understanding the difference between sensation and harmful pain. Not just assuming everything that is uncomfortable is bad.
That's the intangible thing I have a hard time describing about birth and life for that matter. Some people say, “I don’t understand, we have all these amazing advances in modern medicine so you don’t have to feel anything intense, why would you want to feel the birth, if you don’t have to?” And after I did it, there was nothing else I could compare it to. It just felt like I was being cradled by the universe, that I was connected to this primal thing, and I was not in control anymore. I have never felt more alive. Why would I not want to know what it feels like when one person becomes two? I am literally going to split like an atom, and part of me is going to stand on its own, with its own mind and its own heartbeat. Why would I not want to feel all of the energy in that moment? That birth changed me forever.
And how poetic and reflective of our bizarro land society is it, that people would ask you, “Why you would want to feel pain when you don’t have to?” That’s our attitude towards everything, not just birth, and it's so fucked up. It’s a fucked up way to think.
This compulsive avoidance of pain, when so much pain is necessary for growth.
Right, and so much pain isn’t really pain, it's just life.
Shit happens, you cry, it’s fine. That’s how it works. And to deny the actual experience of existence—
—and wanting everything to be easy, whatever that means.
Easy… that’s a trap. It is NOT easy, to not experience the natural flow of the universe. It is actually harder.
And more damaging in the long run.
I am actually really glad I waited to have a kid. I have had several abortions, for different reasons, at different times in my life. I don’t know if I had had a kid at 17, if I would have nearly the insight and wisdom, to know you don’t have to do this by the book; you don’t have to pay attention to conventional wisdom. I would have been scared.
I think that’s a really important thing for you, me, and other people out there to remind all women having babies, that you really don’t have to follow the script. It’s your body and it's your choice.
I fully support waiting until you are ready, or in a safe enough situation, to have a baby. A woman should be trusted to make that choice.
It sort of reminds me of the part in your book where you talk about “asking and being too afraid to hear the word no” and then realizing that “accepting the no is just as important as finding the feeling of validness.” I think those things are connected and just as important.
I didn’t really have any proper information prior to being pregnant or even thinking about having a baby, about birth, or my own body for that matter. Women are shamed and kept in the dark about their own sexuality. I thought you could only have a hospital birth. I didn’t know what the drugs used in a hospital birth were, what they’re called, what they do, what's normal, what's not. I only knew fear. When I first thought about it, I was that person who said, “Just give me a C-section, I know I can’t do it.” You get told you can’t do it enough, and you start to believe it.
That’s the tragedy of how our society is set up. I was the youngest kid too, and I had no experience with pregnancy or babies or kids or toddlers. I went straight from being the youngest kid, to college, to bohemian life with a bunch 20-years-olds, to rock 'n' roll touring.
No exposure to the basics and that’s not the way life usually is. Usually, you are around the constant flow of birth and death and pregnant women and kids and babies, and you pick this stuff up like second nature, but because we are so divided... how the fuck would we know?
We don’t know. No one tells you or shows you. You’re just clueless.
It wasn’t until I watched Riki Lake’s documentary The Business Of Being Born that I even believed I could handle having a natural birth and learned about the amazing benefits for you and your baby that come with it. I also thought home birth was illegal.
And how totally un-feminist and disempowering, for what is generally a male-dominated medical system, to make THAT the ongoing narrative for women, which is, “You should be afraid. You should be filled with fear and dread.” It's like, “Fuck you.” What a shitty place for most women to be in, where they don’t even realize there is an alternative way of thinking.
Don’t tell me what my body can’t do, when that’s what it was made to do.
I think with a feminist revolution, which is taking place and desperately needs to take place, there is a huge, massive, fundamental element to it, which has to do with birth and breastfeeding and our ability to have the pride and shamelessness in it that's slowly been chipped away at over years and years of patriarchy. That birth is this thing that you can be proud of and take pleasure in and enjoy and be celebrated for, instead of shamed, chastised, and locked up in a room chained to a bed.
Which they did! Women used to give birth strapped to a bed and blindfolded. At one point, part of the feminist revolution was like, “I don’t have to feel pain during childbirth because women were told that the pain of childbirth was 'Eve’s curse for eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.'” Women had to suffer. So the epidurals and drugs were the revolution, and we are slowly realizing we have "made a wrong turn and we have to go back and retrace our steps.” To quote The Business Of Being Born.
Same with breastfeeding. The whole formula revolution, a lot of it was corporate and capitalist in one sense, but it was also embraced by the feminist of the '70’s because they didn’t have to be shackled to a baby, but that's within the context that the idea that you could actually have your baby in the workplace to feed them was so unthinkable.
It still is.
So you stick your baby with a bottle of formula. I have been so happy to not work for the five or six months I took off, and I feel like I have a privileged job where I am an artist and I can basically sketch out my own schedule, but I really didn't want to feel the polluted feminist narrative nipping at my heels telling me that I really shouldn’t be stuck in a room with a baby and I should be out working. My reaction to that is... fuck that. True empowerment is being able to write your own script, and if your script calls for, “I don’t want to work because this is more important,” then you should be able to do and take things at your own pace. Instead of feeling like you have to conform to a society that doesn’t really care about you. You rise above it and try to create a society where all this stuff is normal. Having a baby is normal, hanging out with a baby is normal.
Needing time to bond with you baby after it's born is normal and crucial! I’ve been reading these heartbreaking stories about new working moms with desk jobs and the way we treat mothers in the workplace. Women having to pump breast milk in dirty bathrooms or only giving women in this country two weeks off work after the baby is born to bond and recover. That's hardly enough time to even be able to walk properly again.
Only 13 percent of people in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, according to parental leave advocacy group MomsRising. And of new moms who work, 33 percent take no formal time off at all, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The U.K. guarantees 39 weeks of paid leave for mothers, two of which are mandatory. Australia offers 18 weeks. And Mexico, the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, gives mothers 12 weeks of paid leave, reimbursed at 100 percent of their salary. The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity or parental leave to workers.
It's fucked up. It really is terrible. This is the problem we have across the board in feminism. We have been without a script that makes sense for so long, that it’s hard to find our way back to actual empowerment.
And do you think some women feel like, to be a real feminist is to not ask? To feel like they have to power through and prove they’re strong. I worry some women think it makes them seem weak to ask for more time off after having a baby, so they just don’t ask.
I think one of the biggest poxes on feminism is this massive overcompensation and this posturing we do to impress everybody, and that's not real power. Real power is the ability to steer the cosmic shift exactly where it has to go. To shamelessly do what is called for in your life. And that is so hard given the obstacles of judgment from within and from without.