When Lauren Sandler suggested in the Atlantic
that women writers should have only one child, she created an uproar. Zadie Smith blasted her, and fellow mothers of multiples Jane Smiley and Ayelet Waldman followed suit. The Guardian UK ran an article about authors and their progeny accompanied by baby bar graphs.
As a mother of four and a writer, my first response was indignation. The more children she has the better! I wanted to chime. But as I thought about it I changed my mind. Writing and motherhood are not generic terms in the work/life debate. Their conflict is particular and instructive for all mothers, regardless of their occupation.
Like many new mothers, I started to keep a journal after my first son was born. The first thing I wrote was that the very fact of mothers writing felt like a conceptual oxymoron. If I was writing then by definition I was here at my desk, not there where I should be, tending to my son.
I came up with different ways of tackling the seeming paradox: Writing in short sprints of thirty minutes -- the amount of time hopping from mealtime to cleanup to laundry to groceries to naptime and back again allowed me -- to write a series of story shorts based on thirty minutes in a mom's life. But most of these stories felt like failure. Thirty minutes wasn't much, no matter how you measured it. By the time my second child came around, I gave up these sprints. With two children in the mix and a full time job, I rarely wrote.
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. And while this might lead you to believe that writers should make perfect mothers, in fact the opposite is true for the following reasons.
1. Motherhood and writing both require time. Lots of time. Writing demands unflinching concentration and focus along with unfettered hours. Like a child, writing demands your full attention. And both can tell when you are cheating. A toddler knows when you're checking your IPhone instead of remembering to push her on the swing. And that last sentence you wrote knows you flubbed on finding the right word to mean "egotistical."
Raising a child happens in calendar time, but the experience may feel eternal: Waiting for your kindergartner to tie his laces even though the school bell rang five minutes ago. Sitting through a baseball game where every batter is walked and every pop fly dropped. The accretion of these experiences becomes years. Suddenly, he is a teenager and, "where did all the time go?" It's not that it was spent pulling teeth, but that being there meant you weren't here, writing about it. Motherhood is about being there, in the trenches, where the dust flies and has time to settle. It is not about getting things done.
2. Writing and motherhood are possessive. Writers become possessed by their subject matter and the places it takes them, sometimes physically but more often mentally. They are "elsewhere" for stretches of time. This kind of possession can draw writers away from the quotidian needs of others, especially children.
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.
For a new mom, paying another woman to do the work of caring for her child can feel like the emotional equivalent of hiring a stranger to be the coach for your kid's AYSO soccer team.
3. Both writing and mothering require comfort with isolation. Writing is nothing if not solitary; there are no bystanders to cheer you on for waking at five a.m. to complete a chapter. Writing is a marathon -- closure is rare, and affirmation even more so.
With motherhood it's a similar trajectory. When you survive a meltdown because you've failed to pack the right color sidewalk chalk, there are no crowds to hail your accomplishment even though you may feel like taking a bow. Both occupations can be lonely. Their triumphs and disasters are private affairs: you know them when you feel them. This doesn't necessarily make writers better mothers or mothers better writers: Their isolations are mutually exclusive. And they cannot be outsourced.
4. Writing is like other professions in some ways, but also different from them in other ways. Like a lawyer or an engineer you may feel that your work is never done, but as a writer you are never really outside your workplace because your workplace is your mind. Writing is by definition individual and cerebral in a way that other professions are social and collective.
Sustaining a long project requires myopic devotion, bursts of time spent exclusively in your head or holed up in an office or crawl space where you can just write; uninterrupted. Even though they tend towards empathy, writers' commitment to their craft doesn't bode well for tending to the flock--unless you have a partner who is willing to take up the slack consistently. But most mother writers have spouses who also work--how else do they pay the family bills?
5. Writers (and mothers) are easily interrupted. And people know it. Writers' time can be unstructured, punctuated, and punctured. It's a job, but few writers are punching time cards seven days a week. It can be easy to volunteer for the annual pancake breakfast; assent to run the school newspaper; bring in birthday cupcakes; or accompany the class field trip. After all, children need parental involvement to thrive. But stepping up can slide you down into days, weeks, months, when interruptions are all you get.
Chances are if you are changing a lot of diapers and driving a lot of carpools you don't have a lot of time to write. Which doesn't mean you aren't thinking about writing. For mothers interruption is called "multi-tasking."
6. The more kids you have, the fewer resources you have. And I'm not talking only about money. As your children grow in numbers and in years, you become an administrative assistant to their expanding and often conflicting schedules. Your role as domestic engineer requires organizational capacities and strategic foresight befitting a chess master. Add that to the grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning, seasonal chores, advance registrations, and all around compliance ("did you sign the permission slip yet?"), and the hours for dedicated writing shrink.
7. Writers tend to be narcissistic. By definition motherhood requires voluntary selflessness. Maternal caregiving not only has a tendency to be invisible, it also is taken for granted. Motherhood grants women a certain moral authority, but it also has negligible social stature. These are not aspects that sit well with most writers, who are apt to crave validation.
8. This does not apply to the 2%. Elite writer mothers can debate time constraints in the press. Like Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg who have spearheaded the conversation about working motherhood, headline authors have resources most women do not. The large majority of women writers have other jobs -- teaching gigs or full-time jobs that may have nothing to do with writing. According to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average author makes $55,000.
But this includes writers who work in advertising, media organizations, journalism, etc. And it includes men. Most female authors make much less.
The more children you have, the more the common requirements of mothering and writing start to wear thin. With many children, a woman will have plenty of creative material but less opportunity, less visibility, less time. I'm not saying that she still can't become a successful author, but I am saying that she may not, because she is a mother and so seductively possessed: Mother, Writer, Gypsy, Queen.