Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott: what do all of these female writers have in common besides a predilection for neurosis and high collars? They didn’t have children. While many of these women married late, didn’t marry at all, or were, in Woolf’s case, not overly fond of sperm, the primary reason they resisted the maternal path was because being a female writer in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries was really hard. Being a mother and writer was well near impossible.
In the intervening years, things have changed—slightly. Although many female business leaders, financial analysts, and Supreme Court justices remain childless, it’s not uncommon to run into a female writer juggling a MacBook and a BabyBjörn. But as Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, points out, you’ll usually find that the BabyBjörn is built for one—and only one. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Sandler notes that Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood and Ellen Willis are all renowned contemporary authors and are all the mothers of one.In this thoughtful piece, Sandler imagines how women can balance the demands of being a mother and being a writer—one of the most selfish of all pursuits—asking, “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?” Notice that those aren’t periods at the end of her sentences. We’re not dealing with declarative judgments here, only questions. And these are questions are worth asking because even though the number of childless women is about 80% higher than it was in the 1970s, the majority of women still report wanting children. And while female writers may not be the most generative bunch, I doubt they’re all lining up to have their tubes tied. So perhaps we should discuss the choices women can make that might allow them to be creative both physically and professionally. Or, as a recent Guardian article suggests, perhaps not.
In response to Sandler’s relatively tame essay—which did have an unfortunately sensationalist headline—the female literary blogosphere erupted in an all too predictable fit of defensiveness and third-wave feminist delusion. And in Zadie Smith’s case, outright crazy talk. Now, I’d like to begin by pointing out that Zadie Smith is an incredibly intelligent, witty writer and an astute critic of gender and race. I’m really hoping she was just having a bad day or had perhaps recently watched that penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. Because her critique of Sandler’s piece seriously makes me want to throw my copy of NW out my window.
Smith begins, “I have two children. Dickens had 10—I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque?” Let’s unpack this for a moment. If we’re going to use Dickens as a model of well-balanced fatherhood, then perhaps we should consider the fact that the 45-year-old Dickens had his first wife institutionalized so that he could marry an 18-year old actress. CLEARLY, he must have been an involved co-parent who always did his share of the laundry. And Tolstoy? He insisted that his wife breastfeed their thirteen children even though she experienced tremendous pain. And if that weren’t enough, he also forced her to transcribe his manuscripts. This woman had to write out all of War and Peace, “in longhand,” while caring for thirteen children. I mean, seriously? Meanwhile, Tolstoy was probably out shucking wheat and contemplating why all happy families are alike. Probably because they aren’t lead by douches like you, Tolstoy. That’s right. I said it.
But the point is that these authors, like many, many other male writers, were married to women who existed solely to have these men’s children and make these men soup. As Mason Currey notes in his “Daily Rituals” blog at Slate, most writers have traditionally required an inordinate amount of “me time,” so most have survived by finding “absurdly supportive, almost self-abnegating partners.” Thomas Mann’s wife insured that the children were completely silent during the hours he worked. Frau Freud went so far as to put the toothpaste on her husband’s toothbrush. We wouldn’t want the great thinker to get distracted, now would we? So, yes, these fathers were quite “writeresque,” but that’s because they didn’t actually have to do any of that pesky parenting. It turns out that it’s quite easy to balance work and family when you don’t actually have to do anything with your family.
This gets at Smith’s larger misreading of Sandler’s argument. Although Sandler does suggest that some contemporary mothers lose themselves when they have multiple children, she’s not claiming that having one child somehow makes you more creative. She’s saying that there are 24 hours in a day. If the average working mother today spends 12 hours a week on childcare—and has multiple children, thereby extending the number of years spent with this workload—she may have a difficult time finishing that Booker-winning novel. This isn’t about some ineffable quality of maternal creativity. It’s about math.
Smith may have an easier time with this equation because (a) she’s been a wealthy novelist since her early twenties and, thus, can probably afford help and (b) she lives in England. Universal healthcare and a social safety net must be nice. Now, this is precisely the argument that every well-meaning liberal woman makes whenever another woman attempts to offer suggestions on how mothers can achieve balance: we need to pass laws! We need universal daycare! We need mandatory maternal/paternal leave!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for universal daycare and federal laws guaranteeing paid leave and flexible schedules. But for writers living in the United States, this just isn’t going to happen—at least not anytime soon. We have a House of Representatives that is too busy voting to overturn Obamacare every day that they can’t be bothered to mandate background checks on the purchase of machine guns. Many of the Republicans in congress think the HPV vaccine turns teenagers into gay prostitutes. So, yes, they’re TOTALLY going to pass laws requiring businesses to support working mothers. Right after they’re done cutting Head Start.
So when a writer like Sandler suggests that women who live in this little place called “reality” consider alternative family structures, perhaps we should actually read her articles and books and not assume that she is telling parents that they should return that second child. Because it’s not as though Sandler is saying that having one child will or should be the only solution. I’m the youngest of four, so I’m pretty happy my mother didn’t make this particular life choice. But writers, as well as all potential mothers, should consider altering the traditional family structure in a way that makes sense for them, their child(ren), and their partner. Because if more of the husbands of writers were highly involved in child care, we’d probably have a few more writing mothers. And we need more writing mothers. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are kind of the basis of human existence, yet a surprisingly small percentage of books dealing with these topics have been written by someone with a working knowledge of the placenta.
Despite the many gains female writers have made since the days of Charlotte Brontë (a.k.a. Currer Bell), it’s still significantly easier for male writers to have the proverbial “all.” In Smith’s attack, she asks, “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Let’s do a quick show of hands. Who has heard of Michael Chabon, and who has heard of Ayelet Waldman? I rest my case.