I’m on holiday. I have things to do. I shouldn’t be ranting.
Behold this article in The Atlantic, titled: The Secret to Being Both a Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.
I don’t even need to read the damn thing to be furious. You know why, internets? Because, as per fucking always, the assumption here is that women, not men, are the ones who need to realign their lives around having kids. I am yet to see a single fucking article in any publication, ever, about juggling the work/life balance around childrearing with fathers and fatherhood as the focus. And do you know why that is, internets? Because despite every advance towards gender equality we’ve taken in the past few decades, the assumption is still that mothers in heterosexual partnerships both will and should be there to pick up the slack once the babies arrive, so that daddy’s career doesn’t suffer. Outside of Norway, and perhaps a few other places, the overwhelming social default sets paternity leave as optional, brief and something which fathers are praised for taking. Look how modern! Look how progressive! And, yes, they are, and it’s wonderful we’ve even come that far. Neither am I trying to denigrate the physical cost of childbirth or anything like that: having recently had a child myself, I’m in a pretty good position to say that giving birth is something you need time and space to recover from.
No. What I’m objecting to is the idea that only maternal caregiving is important in those early weeks and months; that just letting mum get on with it, alone, while dad goes back to work, is good enough. By which I mean: if people want to choose to do things that way, then more power to them. (After all, it’s what my husband and I are doing.) But I powerfully dislike the fact that the general dearth of paternity leave and our cultural belief in male incompetence/female superiority re childrearing make it very hard to do otherwise, even if mum earns more money and/or has a higher degree of job satisfaction; even if dad really wants to be on hand.
So when I see yet another bloody article that, right from the headline, demands women limit the number of children they have in order to succeed professionally – as though the universal introduction of equally distributed paid maternity and paternity leave, a collective cultural removal of heads from arses on the subject of male caregiving, and the ready availability of affordable childcare are all wholly irrelevant factors in any discussion concerning the impact of motherhood on our literary careers (or careers of any kind, for that matter) – I experience an overwhelming urge to set the writer on fire.
And yes, as it happens: I do have a dog in this fight. I’m an only child, a writer and, as of four months ago, a mother of one. I’ve dealt with a parade of health issues following the birth of my son, including a week’s hospitalisation to deal with a nasty postpartum infection, and as much as I love him to bits, the whole experience has left me extremely gun-shy about the prospect of his ever having a sibling. It’s a question I’m more or less constantly mulling over – so close still to his birth, my intuitive, passionate reaction is never again. (On a tangential note: I swear to fucking dog, the next smiling stranger who either asks me when I’m having another one, tells me it’ll be easier second time round or wistfully wishes they had a dollar for every mother they’d ever met who says they only wanted one child but then had more will be met with SEVERE AND BITING SARCASM. By all means, ask me about my plans, but if your choice of words OPENLY ASSUMES I’ll be having another one BECAUSE LADYREASONS and then you look at me knowingly when I offer a contradiction, like my awareness of my own wants and body and lifeplans is IRRELEVANT when compared to your UNIQUE AWARENESS of the fact that SOME WOMEN HAVE MULTIPLE CHILDREN, then I am going to be seriously displeased. I mean, what is this bullshit? For all you fucking know, I’m desperate to have a second child but can’t, because having the first one left me unable to conceive again or because I can’t afford a second round of IVF. Maybe I’m planning on adopting. Maybe I’m in the throes of post-natal depression, and your words are triggering. Maybe my child was the product of a one night stand. Maybe my partner is abusive. Maybe I didn’t want the first child. Maybe my marriage has just ended. Or maybe everything’s fine, and I’m ready for kid number two. The point being, YOU DON’T KNOW. It is not your fucking business how many children I plan to have, but if you ask me politely, in a way that leaves me open to say ‘just the one, actually’ WITHOUT you offering a smug, I-bet-you’ll-change-your-mind rejoinder afterwards, then I’ll discuss it with you. But Christ on a fucking bicycle, STOP ASSUMING FACTS NOT IN EVIDENCE.)
The point being, I’m new to the parenting gig, and there’s a lot of new things to figure out about it. But in the mean time, I’m still trying to get this whole writing career sorted – and so when I see a headline that basically says, HERE, I HAVE MADE YOUR DECISION FOR YOU: ANOTHER CHILD MEANS YOU CAN’T BE AN AUTHOR, then my overwhelming urge is to FLIP SOME FUCKING TABLES.
So imagine my seething temperament when I read on and found that the actual article, written by one Lauren Sandler, is all about a handful of successful female writers who only had one child, with really only two paragraphs – the first and last, excerpted below – to couch the idea in generic terms. Says Sandler:
“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?…
These modern female writers 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. McCarthy once said in an interview with The Paris Review, “I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that—how to express this—you really must make the self.” That’s still true today, for parents, writers, and anyone who believes in the business of living.
Which leaves me with two questions: was Sandler herself responsible for the headline? And if not, what provocatively sexist troglodyte thought it was a good idea? Inasmuch as the article is about anything, it’s about the relationships Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion all had with their (only) children and partners, concluding in the final lines that Sontag’s failure to be ‘momish’ was no such thing; that there is no real contradiction between motherhood and a life of the mind. Which, yeah, great. I already knew that. So why throw in a needless thematic guilt trip – not nearly as prominent in the actual text, but nonetheless implied by both the title and the opening paragraphs – about single children being the way to go?
Because that’s what our culture does: it guilts women. We’re selfish and unnatural if we don’t want children. We’re selfish and overprotective if we only want one (and the child will suffer for lack of sibling contact). We’re broody if we want two or three (and each child will suffer to varying degrees because of the sibling hierarchy). We’re repressed broodmares if we want more than that (and not only are we a drain on society, but each child will suffer for lack of individual attention AND because of their place in the sibling hierarchy). None of this palaver ever affects dads, except to bemoan their lack of parenting acumen in one breath while damning their attempts to acquire it as unmasculine and wimpy in the next, without any apparent sense of irony. (Sexism: cutting both ways and fucking things up for everyone since FOREVER! Fun times.) And so, we have this article, which for the main part is a rather benign, if brief, examination of several successful female writers who just happened to stop at one child each, but which unfortunately takes the unnecessary step of suggesting that the former might be predicated in some way on the latter.
And apart from anything else – apart from being exhausting and offensive and unnecessary – it’s also just plain wrong; or at the very least, selective beyond any possible usefulness. As author Kameron Hurley pointed out on Twitter, J. K. Rowling has three children, Danielle Steel had nine and Ursula le Guin had four. Pulitzer-winning author Jane Smiley noted in the comments that she herself has three biological and two stepchildren. And off the top of my head, I can think of yet more successful women with children, plural: Kate Elliott has three, Anne McCaffrey had three (one of whom, Todd McCaffrey, has taken over her Pern series), Stephenie Meyer has three, and Suzanne Collins has two. But more importantly, is anyone, anywhere suggesting that Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be so successful if he’d had more than one child? Is anyone clicking their tongues and worrying that Nick Harkaway’s career is over now that he’s a father of two? Does anyone think that Nicholas Sparks’s succession of repetitively mediocre and criminally overhyped novels about dying teenagers having sex in the rain can be blamed on the fact that he has five younglings?
No. And you know why not, internets? Because DOUBLE FUCKING STANDARDS, is why.
I shall now return to my holiday.