Motherhood Does Not Make Every Woman a Better Writer (Or a Better Person Either)

One novelist argues that having children makes women better able to write powerful feelings and relationships. I'm saying no.

Aug 7, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

Five years ago, I told myself that I had until I was 35 to get pregnant. 

I based my decision on those charts about declining fertility by age -- you may have seen them. There’s the fertility-by-age line chart that drifts along cheerily, unhurriedly even, and then suddenly when you get to the years of 35-39 you realize you’re about to cheerily and unhurriedly drop right over the edge of a cliff; ostensibly you will find all the sad wasted eggs you never turned into precious babies piled at the bottom of it, like so many beached fish, gills flapping against the unbreathable air, left behind by a retreating tide.

Then there’s the chart that looks like an X, where the X marks the point, right around 40, where the average woman’s likelihood of getting pregnant and her likelihood of being infertile meet, somewhere in the middle 30%, and then pass as ships in the night after, with infertility crushing the declining pregnancy odds in its ever-expanding wake.

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The chart that looks like an X. (Source: Management of the Infertile Woman by Helen A. Carcio and The Fertility Sourcebook by M. Sara Rosenthal)

35 seemed to be the age at which the proverbial fertility shit just began grazing the outer blades of the proverbial biological reproduction fan, and so I decided on that age as my pregnancy deadline. And like virtually every deadline I’ve ever met, it was not one I rushed headlong to meet, turning in my assignment early and drawing the ire of my aging childless-so-far peers. 

The deadline I set for myself was not, in fact, about actually becoming pregnant. It wasn’t that by 35 I would have to start “trying,” as people my age so often put it, “trying” to create offspring. Rather, I gave myself until 35 to feel a renewed drive to do so. I gave myself until 35 to worry about my drain-circling fertility on a near-daily basis. I gave myself until 35 to decide with my partner (“husband,” he likes “husband,” I blame his Italian-American machismo) whether we would begin to discuss ditching the birth control and letting nature have her shot. 

I gave myself until 35 to feel all the pressure as-yet-unpregnant women feel -- and then after that, I gave myself permission to stop giving a fuck. At 35, I would allow myself to start thinking of reproduction as fully optional, like adding a big obnoxious spoiler to the back of a new sports car, or requesting an additional side of bacon with an already plentiful brunch. I COULD do these things, if I so desired, but I was equally free to decline to do them.

I had a working biological clock for roughly four months in 2000, when I was a final-semester graduate student spending my afternoons procrastinating by watching hours of TLC’s “A Baby Story,” in which generic real-life couples prepared for and delivered their offspring. It looked so tidy, the pregnancy narratives compacted into neatly edited 30-minute clips. 

Once those four months of tick-tick-ticking had passed, I spent the next several years feeling a little broken given my apparent lack of reproductive drive. I tried to force it, tried to make myself care -- hence looking at all those ominous charts, a desperate effort to scare myself straight -- but it never took, I never had an honest moment in which I even once thought, “Yes, I would like to get pregnant and give birth to and then raise a child.” I can’t even authentically say I have ever worried that not doing so would mean I had an unacceptably incomplete experience of the human condition. 

Motherhood may have rendered me different, certainly, but I still fight the idea that it would also automatically make me better. And it is a fight. The cultural pressure for women to eventually reproduce and fulfill their so-called destiny as caregivers is well-documented, and it is miraculous that any woman gets through it all unscathed. 

Irish author Maeve Binchy passed away last Friday; I’ve read little of her work myself, but learned of her death from my mother, who texted me to share her sadness over the loss of one of her favorite writers. Binchy’s subsequent obituaries have focused heavily on her being, as they say, “childless,” and these observations have themselves inspired a piece in The Telegraph on whether women writers are improved by having had children, or whether children are indeed the small fast-moving obstacles to women’s ability to be both creative and productive authors.

The author of the piece -- Amanda Craig, a novelist herself -- spends some time circling precariously around her assertion that a woman writer is necessarily improved by motherhood, and her reckoning that the relationship between mother and child is somehow the most genuine and pure of all human relationships, and that experiencing it renders a writer capable of better imagining all love, between all people (evidently men in general are simply out of luck on this one). She takes almost half the piece to get there. But eventually she just says so.

Maeve Binchy’s warmth and interest in other people included their families, but I can’t help but feel that her detailed portraits of ordinary life might not have been so predicated on the relationships between men and women had she had a child. “We’re nothing if we’re not loved,” she said in an interview. “When you meet somebody who is more important to you than yourself, that has to be the most important thing in life, really.”

No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child. One reason why so many contemporary women writers have focused on this is that it is new territory, precisely because the great female writers of the past had not experienced it.

I am a reluctant writer of fiction, this being one excellent reason (among many other worthy possibilities) why I have yet to publish a novel of my own, and why my decrepit screenplays -- memories of an earlier era of myself, when I wanted nothing more out of life than to make movies -- have been so neglected that they are still formatted to a version of Word I had four computers ago. 

But do you know what type of relationship I have most often written about in fictional contexts? Siblings. I am at a loss to explain why, but most of my stories revolve around the connections, or lack thereof, between brothers and sisters. 

The strange thing about this is that I am an only child. The closest thing I’ve ever had to siblings were the kids of the various people my divorced parents dated while I was growing up. And yet these characters and narratives fall together almost effortlessly for me; even when I try to avoid sibling-like relationships, I wind up writing them anyway. My strong drive for them is puzzling, but I go with it, because these are the connections that I am most passionate about depicting, and the one thing I do know is that the surest route to bad writing is a lack of passion.

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I didn't have a baby by 35, but I did have a book, which was far more than I ever expected.

As a more prolific writer of non-fiction and memoir (and blogging, even), my expertise lies primarily in feminist body politics. I talk about these issues from a very specific experience, that of a woman who grew up as a fat kid, who began dieting as early as age 9, and who subsequently fought a years-long battle to reclaim her self-esteem and body image even if it meant accepting that she was likely to be a fat lady in perpetuity. The fact that I don’t diet does not mean I have nothing of value to say to people who are deeply invested in weight loss. The fact that I don’t have an eating disorder does not mean I have nothing of value to say to those who do. 

I speak to lots of people, from many different perspectives, and parts of what I say connect even when they come from my unique experiences, because this is what writers do -- we write to process things and to share them in the hope they will resonate with someone else. 

As readers, it’s not much different. We read to feel connected, certainly, but we don’t always read to only hear what is already familiar and known to us. How boring our lives would be if that were the case. I communicate professionally, and I don’t consider it my job to tell people what they already know, or what they want to hear -- I tell them what I think. And in this case, I think Craig’s argument in favor of motherhood as undeniable improver of writing is a load of shit.

Of course, it doesn't help that Craig breezes right by several essential details, like Binchy's lack of children apparently being dictated not by choice but by biology, which renders the essay into a grotesque of "too soon." Craig also ignores wholesale the fact that many people, both parents and children, never experience this all-powerful sublime bond. There are people who don't experience it because they never have kids, biological or otherwise, but there are also parents who never truly connect with their children, and kids who grow up never having felt strongly bonded to their parents. 

Becoming a parent does not ensure a uniformly close relationship; as in so many things, mileage varies, and it's not even so much any one person's fault as it is just how things sometimes are. 

Craig goes on to talk about the difficulties of motherhood, and how they influence one’s work -- her work, more properly, since it should be obvious by now to anyone else that the only person Craig can speak for is herself:

I myself have a stern rule about not being interrupted when writing unless a child has broken a leg — but it isn’t, of course, obeyed. Even if you wanted to, you can’t ignore screams of pain, rage and misery.

Yet that same pain, rage and misery is also hugely enriching. It starts with your own, for even with pain relief, the shock of giving birth changes you for ever. The feelings of intense vulnerability (your own and, more importantly, your child’s), passionate love, joy, bewilderment and exhaustion are unlike anything else. Had Austen, for instance, had a child I wonder whether her focus on romantic love would have survived; childless Anne Elliot’s saintliness as an aunt in Persuasion would certainly have been mitigated by very different feelings.

It’s great to give oneself a pat on the back for managing to multitask in challenging circumstances, and motherhood is easily one of the most time- and energy-consuming jobs on Earth, while also being one of the least appreciated and recognized. It’s equally great to demonstrate to women that someone out there has been able to be both a present parent and to write books, at the same time. 

But to project what-ifs onto women like Jane Austen -- or Virginia Woolf, or Charlotte or Emily Brontë, or any number of women authors from history who dared sacrifice motherhood for writing -- and then to suggest that the experience of biological reproduction might have improved their writing is ghastly and dismissive and antifeminist in the extreme. (It is also worth mentioning that Charlotte Brontë was pregnant at the time of her death, possibly as a result of hyperemesis, at 38 years of age, making her inclusion here in dubious taste.)

Virgina Woolf once famously lectured that women need “money and a room of one’s own” if they are to write; the assertion was an indictment of a system in which women of the era were often kept from writing by a lack of financial independence and personal time, neither of which were necessarily helped -- and were usually hindered -- by the pressures of marriage and childrearing.

Notably, Virginia Woolf never said anything about women needing a baby to be a “good” writer, but then I suppose Amanda Craig would argue that oversight was only because the childless Woolf didn’t know any better. I’m left to wonder if Craig is at all familiar with women’s lives of that era -- or of Austen’s era, or the Brontës -- because the reality is that if any of these women had been mothers, it’s possible that none of their works might have come into existence in the first place. 

Craig may well have found the most powerful emotional experience of her life in childbirth -- I would not take that from her -- but where she goes awry is in suggesting that this is necessarily true for all women, and that all women with the potential to experience it ought to do so, in the name of achieving some purely hypothetical improvement of their creative work. In fact, women ought to feel as though they are free to choose motherhood -- like they might choose to order that extra side of bacon with brunch -- but not that motherhood is necessarily the correct choice for everyone.

The idea that no one can possibly know what love (or pain) is -- and thereby communicate that in their writing -- until they have personally incubated and delivered a baby of their own is incredibly privileged and offensive. I take indignant exception to the idea that motherhood is required for any woman to reach her creative potential, and that women who fail to reproduce are somehow short-changing themselves -- nay, short-changing the whole world -- by failing to imbue their literary efforts with the tender wisdom only a woman who has at some point successfully put her uterus to its intended purpose can dispense.

At present, I am already halfway to 36 -- well past my stop-giving-a-fuck target -- and I have never in all my years felt more at ease with my life and my choices. If that makes my writing less astute in Craig’s opinion, I won’t be losing sleep over it. I’ll happily keep company with the childless women writers of missed potential, the Maeve Binchys and Virginia Woolfs and Jane Austens. I can only hope that one day I will prove myself even marginally worthy of their association.

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