So how have writers who are mothers done it? How have they so successfully combined the solitary act of writing with the all-consuming role of mothering? During my thinking about the topic of writing and motherhood (read the first part here), I came across some interesting articles online about mothers as writers (or writers as mothers, perhaps?).
Back in 2013, Lauren Sandler caused quite a stir by suggesting that the answer to that question was to only have one child. This was based on research she had been doing on a book about only children, which resulted in her noticing that many famous female writers had only one child (Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker to name a few). Sandler began her article with an anecdote about Susan Sontag:
"'She was not a mom,' writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in Sempre Susan. 'Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David's glasses were, she'd pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.' Did Sontag need to be more 'momish'? And if she had been - or if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters - would she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?"That sparked the online furor, because, of course there are many successful writers who have more than one child. Zadie Smith hit back (she has two children) by pointing out the obvious, namely that it is an issue of time and available child care. Author and mother of four, Kate Baldwin, entered the debate and stated,
"What I discovered as I had more children was that writing and motherhood are at odds with one another. Not because writers are inherently bad parents, but because writing and mothering require many of the same critical resources."Besides the obvious one of time, these resources she refers to include the idea that writing and motherhood are equally possessive. She says that writers become possessed by their subject matter, leading to their being mentally "elsewhere". Intensity and obsession are therefore such a shared resource. She writes, "As mothers, we may have children but our children possess us. If you have multiple children you will be possessed by each and every one of them, in different ways at different times. When your children cast their spells over you with their chubby wrists and their dimpled smiles, it's not your creativity but your writing that will take a hit. Not because you are a bad writer, but because being possessed is one of the deepest pleasures of motherhood."
And yes, there is something all-consuming about the endless cycle that goes along with caring for babies and little children. Feed. Clean-up. Nap. Change. Wash. Play. Repeat. The intensity of it can make one feel possessed. This also means it's understandable that for some mothers creative pursuits come second - not everyone can afford child care or has a partner who is able to take enough of the load off to give the time needed. Mothering is the more immediate need and if it isn't, then the implication is that one is a bad mother. (As if there is only one way to be a mother, but I guess that's another story.)
Perhaps this all represents a somewhat pointless debate - it is impossible to say that there is a "solution", that one child or no child or many children allow a writer to do their best work. But in the tricky limitations of the everyday, these abstract debates do matter, they become real obstacles that need creativity and drive to tackle. The ideas that go with this debate may not be what we want them to be or how we might like to imagine the world, but they force us into a difficult negotiation between the abstract and the concrete. Would I have more time for my job, would I write more if I didn't have children? Yes, I would. Would I go back and choose not to have children if I could? No, never.