Monday, June 24, 2013

Too mommy-ish to be writer-esque?

Tolstoy with his wife Sofia and their 8 kids.
Lauren Sandler was doing research for her book on being/raising only children and in the process discovered that many of her favorite women writers–Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Ellen Willis– were mothers of only children. These modern female writers, Sandler argues, all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not "momish"ness—it's not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal. In other words, having one child allows a woman to participate in motherhood without losing herself in it.

She wrote that in a short piece for The Atlantic that caught the attention of several female writers, mothers of multiple children. Among them was the formidable Zadie Smith who must have been pissed over what she read because she went right in and posted a COMMENT below the article, like we mortals do:
I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten - I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (i could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon - or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women's freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family. As for the issue of singles versus multiples verses none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.
I am not a mother but I am a feminist, so first, I can only agree with Smith. Second, I must point out that there are plenty of mommy-ish mothers of one... as if that's helpful. And ... last but not least ... I wonder why we are having such a debate about women, among women... as if parenthood is so purely gendered.

Can we have this conversation... about balancing personal and professional fulfillment... without dragging kids into it?

P.S. I don't think so. 

9 comments:

  1. I really don't know what to make of that article. Is momishness supposed to be bad, as opposed to motherhood?

    I miss the days when I only worked a couple days a month and was a SAHM. I had so much time for creativity and my own stuff! Now, with a part-time job, I have to work much harder to carve out some time for that. I like my job and all, but it has its drawbacks.

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    1. I am actually curious to read Sandler's book because, I'm guessing, it's a lot more nuanced than the article suggests. BUT, I think she does think that "momishness" is bad. I think she worries about motherhood subsuming her.

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    2. Yes, that does seem to be her worry. It's just kind of a weird article IMO. I rather suspect that the people who worry about motherhood consuming them are the people who least need to worry about it--they're already thinking about how to fit things into their lives. And barring unusual circumstances, people who want to accomplish their goals usually manage to dedicate time to the effort.

      The really great thing about motherhood is that besides the really basic rules, it's completely customizable. You can do it any way you want and nobody can make you spend all your time at the soccer field unless that happens to be what you decide is best for your family. It won't necessarily be very easy, and it certainly won't be what you imagined it would be before you had kids, but it will probably be great.

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    3. "the people who worry about motherhood consuming them are the people who least need to worry about it--they're already thinking about how to fit things into their lives -" this sounds right to me. i hope it is, it's sort of where i'm at right now. ;)

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  2. As an aside, shall we talk about Russians not smiling in pictures? ;-)
    Btw, I LOVE the photos that you find and publish on this blog. Some of them I can't take my eyes off of. Like the one of Hillary for example.

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    1. i know right?! so grumpy!
      i am so glad you like the images, i have a lot of fun selecting them.

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  3. I read the article a few times and I'm still baffled. There are many successful authors with one child and many with several children. So the point being...?

    I think the writer has hang-ups about motherhood and she is seeking models to relate to in the literary world, but until she confronts whatever seems to frighten her about being a mother, all the authors she raises as examples feel like projections of her own doubts to me, rather any real kind of enlightening philosophy for life.

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    1. i couldn't agree more. i *am* curious to read her book, though!

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  4. While logic and statistics point out that women can have it all and balance it well enough, the discussion about whether and how much of each cake we should have is still very pertinent. Female writers have certainly made quite the headway toward leading more fulfilling lives since Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven, but the Ayelet Chabons and Vendela Vidas in the world still had to make some choices when it came to how many kids to have and when, how to divide the workload of childcare and home management with their partners and how many paid aides to hire. The fears are still alive, and not just the fears of motherhood, as in, worrying whether monosyllabic conversations for months on end and lack of adult-only entertainment will dull my thinking and writing. A writer also worries about how her life style, whatever inspires her and gets her through the solitary business of writing, will affect the upbringing of children - and it will affect them. A mother can hardly continue to be a night owl, for instance, let alone tipple red on a nightly basis, and expect to be able to shuttle a kid to a bunch of activities next day, feed, wash and clothe her family, and attend a publicity event with her agent. When you have more than one child, I think you have to regroup your priorities and moreover, have at your disposal the plethora of resources necessary for both child rearing and a career. I'd also be curious to ask Nicole Krauss if she's ever guilt-tripped herself about neglecting her research because of a small pox quarantine, or about having chosen to attend the book premiere over her kid's recital.
    And while these issues are universal, mundane, and completely solvable, they still inform our decision making and ought to be discussed publicly.

    As to the why is this still a gendered debate, I want to argue that pregnancy, being still only an experience available to women, does change us. On a purely hormonal and physiological level, it does affect who you are for nearly a year, and that does come out in one's writing, as a post-partum quirk or as a complete blocker. Some lucky few may experience a spurt of inspiration or an efflux of productivity thanks to having become a mother once or more times, but it is a gamble. The unpredictability of it all, the lack of control we have to come to terms with, that is the real issue of how to and is it possible to marry writing to motherhood. Not sure if overanalyzing that would help, but we can always try.

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