A woman’s writing vs. her children

IMG_55521I have been thinking about a recent debate regarding women authors and childbearing. Author Lauren Sandler wrote an article for The Atlantic professing that the secret to a successful writing life for a woman is to have only one child, giving as examples writers like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood and Ellen Willis. If a woman has more than one offspring, then she risks becoming more of a mom than a writer, was the assumption. The article got a lot of attention, but one of the best things that happened was that Zadie Smith replied in the comments section in an effort to disprove the theory, giving herself as proof (she has two children), but also writers like Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison.

Then, let’s not forget, there are those “studies” that somehow come up with results showing that the more intelligent a woman, the less likely she is to desire children. That might explain why humanity finds itself in such an impasse today that is produces crap research like that.

I myself am now a mother of two, so you know on what side of the barricade I wave my flag.

The problem with writing is that you are at home with every good intention of taking care of everything: writing work and house work and parenting. In the brutal reality light you realize that you cannot do everything well, not even well-enough most times. There is a lot of guilt involved, and a lot of doubt, pressure and often too few rewards, because the children will always complain, the house will never be sparkling, the dinner will always need to be made, again and again, and your inner critic will never, for the love of God and country, just shut up.

I do worry these days more than before. I have a novel that’s asking to be finished this year, and I as much as I was hoping to be done with it by now, it’s still in works. The baby, as much as I hoped for a more quiet and sleepy one (thinking that I have paid my dues with the very demanding first of my progeny) still does not sleep more than two hours at night, at almost three months now. So everything is very much uncertain. I cannot hold on to a schedule because my time is not my own right now. And when I am mercifully being offered half hour breaks during the day, I am often too hazy brained to do any proper work, and only succeed in putting on fresh clothes and feeding myself, and maybe picking up a dirty diaper from the living room floor.

So, yes, I confess without pride that sometimes, with teary eyes, I think of the past two or so years when my soon-to-be eight year old has been very independent and has given me plenty of time of my own. And then I think of the future, full of unattainable hopes, and the present full of moments that I tell myself I should be savoring, and I try to make the best of it all. This most days only means managing to not actually hate my life. That’s why I chose this half hour of blessed morning baby nap to write a blog post while still in my messy pajamas, in the middle of a living room that looks like a large, sunny diaper accident. Because one has to prioritize, and there are times when (I know you’ll be surprised to find out) I would rather write something than clean the house. Crazy as it may sound. As long as the children are fed, clothed and emotionally secure (as much as I can take care of that), I can consider my mom job done, and I feel free to do this writing thing. The sun will shine again.

Update: Here is an article in The New Yorker that continues the discussion: Writers and the Optimal-Child-Count Spectrum (good title, right?). Thank you, Charity, for bringing it to my attention.

4 thoughts on “A woman’s writing vs. her children

  1. About a year ago, a friend of mine went all out with her writing. She was submitting stories and getting involved as a publicist and just really living the writer life as she envisioned it. I thought, “She and I are the same age, we’re both moms, I should be able to do this, too.” So I signed up for NaNoWriMo (I’d completed it two years before and figured I could do it again) and started looking for writing groups and researching places I could submit my short stories.

    And then I didn’t write (except to post on my blog and to write the occasional journal entry in my Moleskine). I was so irritated at myself and so despondent at how unwriterly I was halfway through my 30’s. I despaired. I had a little bit of a mid-life crisis, too, which I think is kind of still going on.

    And then my friend reminded me that her only child is ten.

    I hesitate to blame motherhood for my lack of productivity as a writer because I know there are women who are moms and successful, productive writers, but fact is, the way I do mothering really does limit the time I have to write (and my inclination to write when I do have the time). I’ve not really found any solutions. I’m just trying to give myself time and space to recognize that this is where I am in my life right now. The kids will get older and it will get easier again. And in the meantime, like you with the housework, I could probably rearrange some of my other priorities to make more time to write, if I really wanted to; my kids are only part of what’s keeping me from writing.

    At any rate, I just wanted to say that I relate to this post and with the disappointment that comes when reality doesn’t match what we have in mind for ourselves.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, CJ. I know. Children will grow. 40 is the new 20, or whatever. I used to feel like a failure because I believed I should have already written something great in my 20s. Now I prefer to think that it is never too late. Children will indeed grow.

  2. About a year ago, a friend of mine went all out with her writing. She was submitting stories and getting involved as a publicist and just really living the writer life as she envisioned it. I thought, “She and I are the same age, we’re both moms, I should be able to do this, too.” So I signed up for NaNoWriMo (I’d completed it two years before and figured I could do it again) and started looking for writing groups and researching places I could submit my short stories.

    And then I didn’t write (except to post on my blog and to write the occasional journal entry in my Moleskine). I was so irritated at myself and so despondent at how unwriterly I was halfway through my 30’s. I despaired. I had a little bit of a mid-life crisis, too, which I think is kind of still going on.

    And then my friend reminded me that her only child is ten.

    I hesitate to blame motherhood for my lack of productivity as a writer because I know there are women who are moms and successful, productive writers, but fact is, the way I do mothering really does limit the time I have to write (and my inclination to write when I do have the time). I’ve not really found any solutions. I’m just trying to give myself time and space to recognize that this is where I am in my life right now. The kids will get older and it will get easier again. And in the meantime, like you with the housework, I could probably rearrange some of my other priorities to make more time to write, if I really wanted to; my kids are only part of what’s keeping me from writing.

    At any rate, I just wanted to say that I relate to this post and with the disappointment that comes when reality doesn’t match what we have in mind for ourselves.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, CJ. I know. Children will grow. 40 is the new 20, or whatever. I used to feel like a failure because I believed I should have already written something great in my 20s. Now I prefer to think that it is never too late. Children will indeed grow.

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