THE BLOG
07/22/2010 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Art Before Life: Questioning the Parenthood Question

The recent flurry of conversation on the Web about modern child-rearing and personal happiness, which was sparked by Jennifer Senior's article in NY Magazine, "All Joy and No Fun", has me thinking about how writing fiction can be a vehicle for identifying what you care about, and for unearthing your deepest concerns. This is a slight variation on what writers often say, which is that fiction is a way of dramatizing or incarnating obsessions of which you are already aware. The notion of actually discovering what's simmering in your subconscious means that writing fiction is more like dreaming than it is articulating.

In the wake of Senior's article, what has seemed missing (or muted) from all the back-and-forth is the conversation about how a woman on this side of the experience of motherhood dares to decide - to breed or not to breed?

At 37, this question is now pressing for me. At 31, in 2004, when I began writing my recently-released novel Long for This World, it wasn't. And yet, a primary character in the novel, Jane Han, is in her late 30s and grappling with motherhood(s) - her mother's, her own, her Korean cousin's. Many readers have shared with me how moved they were by these portrayals and have expressed surprise to find that I have/had no personal experience in parenthood. But if you'd have asked me back then and throughout the writing of the book if it was something I personally worried over- the question of becoming a mother or not- I would have said no, not really (primarily, I was worried about writing a novel).

Story-telling as catharsis, dredging up past experiences and endowing characters with your own angst or unfulfillment as a kind of emotional purging, is a familiar course. But writing as a way of being apprised of one's desires, fears, etc., not just those of the past, but also those that live in the present or might develop in the future, suggests how art precedes consciousness, and how it is prescient as much as it is reflective.

Now that I've "caught up" to Jane, it seems clear that, back then, in some corner of my (sub)conscious mind, I was struggling with something parenthood-related; intellectually at first, and then (through the process of getting to know Jane), emotionally and spiritually. To avoid spoilers, I won't reveal too much about Jane's journey in this regard. I will say however that, now -- with some distance from the character and the writing, -- I myself find it interesting that Jane is spared the conundrum that middle-class women my age, who don't feel the baby tug in a clear or overwhelming way, must confront: that is, again, the question of how one even approaches the decision, what are the "right" questions to ask?

In this sense, one could argue that Jane does embody her creator's wish fulfillment; not so much in her specific journey, but in her exemption from the weight and weirdness of decision. The prescience of art, in this case, the anxiety that found premature expression (and which has incarnated for me in full now, six years later) was one that precedes the parenting question itself; it is, rather, the question of how to question.

Based on the many essays, blog posts, and comments that have been sparked by Senior's article, it would seem that, "Will motherhood make me happy?" is a highly flawed, question to start with. "Will it enrich my life?" or "Will it enlarge my soul?" might be closer; and yet, ironically, the more accurate the question, the more abstract and less answerable. "Am I capable of being a good mother?" seems crucial, although one inevitably gets lost in the labyrinth of "capable" and "good," unpacked and debated ad nauseum along with the others.

"Will I regret it if I don't?" strikes me as the most fraught and least productive of all the questions. Regret for not doing something is inevitably a muddled emotion, since all you have on the other side of inaction are romantic notions of what could have been, as opposed to an actual appraisal of specific loss. And this question is often driven, I think, by negative impulses: a nagging sense of self-distrust (am I deluding myself with hedonism, clinging to autonomy?) and /or the habit of chronic discontentment (will I be tormented if I don't have what everyone else has?).

In my second novel-in-progress, a 43 year-old female character becomes, suddenly and "too late," fixated on having a child. This is not me in the present, nor in particular a worried projection of me in the future. Neither is it a primary story-line (the protagonists are male). And yet still, here I go again. The character's journey will be definitive in one way, open-ended in another; writing the character has not answered any questions for me, not concretely, and if I tried to match my own life and psyche to hers in a one-to-one way, hunting for epiphanic clarity, I suspect I'd get it dead wrong. But check back with me in a few years, when I may well have a more enlightened grasp on both her journey and mine...

We're talking about writing as dreaming, after all, both of which originate in mystery and complexity. Perhaps we can all agree, at the least, that the costs and rewards of parenthood are infused with the same.