I’m on holiday. I have things to do. I shouldn’t be ranting.

And yet.

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.)

Ahem.

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.

/endrant

I shall now return to my holiday.

Comments
  1. A woman was recently promoted the editor-in-chief of the largest newspaper in Finland and one of the things that attracted attention was that she has several children (five?). No one has talked about how many children the previous male editors have.

    Even though I’ve had several books published, only recently it has fully dawned on me how prominent sexism still is in writing/publishing circles. Being a female author just isn’t the viewed the same way as being a male author, even though there should be nothing masculine about writing or being an author. It requires none of the skills commonly attributed to men, such as physical strength or visual/mathematical talent, yet does make use of “female” virtues like patience.

    I guess it just reflects the overall sexist/patriarchal attitude of the society. Criticizing the motherhood (or lack of it) is a common way to criticize the “core” of a woman. You’re either too pretty or not pretty enough, too smart or not smart enough, have too many children or not enough. As a woman you just can’t seem to win.

  2. The weird thing is: No one, literally no one, asked me when I was going to have my first child. But everyone under the sun asked me, after I’d had my oldest, exactly when I was going to start on the next one. I found it confusing.

  3. Tasha Turner says:

    Rant agreed with. Enjoy your vacation. Step away from the computer…

  4. y’know, after going through this stuff after having my own singleton kid twenty-six years ago, you’d think things would get better. It sounds like they’re the same or worse.

    I could have written this post then. Then again, I had a pretty horrific birthing experience, so whenever some idiot decided to pull out the “of course you’ll have another one line” I gave the story to them, both barrels, no holding back including the discovery post-delivery that the 101 degree fever I spiked during labor was a staph infection (I generally do NOT tell my birthing story to first-timers, it really is that scary and I was incredibly fortunate to have a British-trained OB who was on call when I went into labor. Otherwise..bad as it was, a C-section would have been worse in the long run). That usually shut the worst idiots up.

    And come on. Anthony Trollope’s mother, Fanny (Frances) Trollope, started writing at the age of fifty to support her dying husband and her kids. No, you can’t be a parent and a posturing AHR-tist very well with multiple kidlets, at least not unless you’ve got financial or family support to help you do it–but damn it, if you are determined to do it, then you will. Period. (I guarantee you that my child learned the meaning of “It’s DEADLINE, damn it!” at a very young age–and he’s autistic. Then again, that was probably easier because he grasped the vague concept of deadlines very young.) Nonetheless, women have effectively juggled creative lives and working lives for generations. It’s about time that some of this clueless yayhoos figured it out that women can and will do it all. Seriously.

    (Don’t get me started on the bias against males taking time off for family. Some companies force the people working for them to make a choice between work and family. It is very not fair. As a teacher, I see how fortunate the young fathers I work with are to have a profession where it is accepted for them to take time off to be with their children. One of our teachers is taking time off to support his wife, who’s on bed rest with their third pregnancy. Both he and our other young fathers have taken full advantage of paternity leave to be with their babies, and I think it’s great. I wish more professions had this openness to paternity leave that teaching does. They also get to bring their kids to events.)

  5. […] – Foz Meadows, “Of Motherhood and Writing” […]

  6. hierath says:

    Having decided NOT to have children, I can really empathise with the “When are you having the next one” question – it is absolutely none of anyone elses fucking business WHY I’ve decided not to have children, and it’s a really intrusive question, and frankly, bloody rude. I know people who have been trying for years to have kids and desperately want them, who have to deal with the endless “How come you don’t have kids yet?” and it’s really painful, especially when they’re then dismissed as “selfish” for not breeding by the age of 35. People should keep their noses out of other people’s reproductive systems.

  7. elodieunderglass says:

    Have a great holiday, Foz.

    In the meantime, I wonder how on earth these folks think Westerners managed to survive the process of agriculturization/industrialization, where women’s unpaid labor meant that all of their own foremothers raised at least one child while working full-time. (And unless they were upper-class foremothers, working full-time would have included things like dawn-to-dusk manual labor and survival homesteading, without labor-saving machinery or healthcare…)

    I really do think that they think that labor only exists when performed outside the home (writing inside the home occupying a weird neutral ground, I think, since it makes money and men do it). AND YET they recognize that unpaid domestic labor takes up a lot of time, effort and energy – hence the handwringing about women who perform domestic tasks AND labor outside the home, because how will they have the time and energy for both? HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THESE TWO POINTS OF VIEW. HOW IS THIS LABOR BOTH NONEXISTENT AND ALL-CONSUMING.

  8. Ugh, just add me as a cosign to that entire thing. A colleague at work recently had the utter gall to basically harass me about why I hadn’t had a child yet, and when I explained that I had a lot of professional goals to achieve, and about five more years to work with before the decision became pressing, he actually said, “But what if you want six kids?” I replied, “I know that I don’t want six kids.” Him: “But you won’t actually know until you’ve had one.” *Excuse* me, asswipe? My tiny little brain can’t make a decision about number of children until my uterus is actually in production mode? Maybe I’m making the decision based on my finances, or personal value system, or wants and needs, or the fact that I don’t think the planet needs six mini-mes running around. But, wait, good thing that you walked over and started hassling me — I’m sure I’d *NEVER* considered this issue before. What a dick.

    Crap, and don’t even get me started about the harassment that has started since the book came out. A neighbor of my father’s was all, “Well, now that you have the book done, you’ll have a baby, right?” And it’s like — excuse me? Like *one* book was all I needed to check off some bucket list before I could get down to my *real* job — broodmare? Another neighbor at the same party said, “Well, you’re a writer, so it’ll be easy to stay home with the kids.” What the fuck do these people think writing is, something that I accomplish in 15-minute increments while sashaying around the house with nothing to do? I’d be leery about what it would do to my writing focus to get a dog, much less an entire human being.

    But this is what truly drives me up the wall — I know a lot of male writers, and not a single one is ever subjected to these questions. Several of my colleagues are actually fathers, yet no one is telling them that they should be able to be the primary caregiver with all that time they must have lying around — it’s still assumed to be their wife’s job. Never mind that most of their wives have full-time jobs that actually bring in most of the money and all the benefits.

    Fuck. Anyway, have a great holiday, Foz!

    • fozmeadows says:

      Jeebus. What a pack of douchecanoes.

      I was recently at a party held by and for my husband’s academic colleagues. One of them, a guy, expressed surprise when he saw my husband wearing our son in a harness. He asked if Toby was usually the one to carry him, in a tone that suggested he found this anomalous. I said we took turns. He then asked me about my writing. I said I was finally getting back into a routine after my son was born – at which point, he responded by saying, ‘Oh, so I guess you’re slowing down now? Taking a break?’

      And I was like, seriously? Were you not just listening to me? So I reiterated that actually, I was writing more at the moment – that my son is quite even-tempered, so it’s easy to work with him in the room, and that I have lots I want to get done. And in fairness, the guy was very polite about it and didn’t push or contradict me further. But still, it was really quite confronting, and all the more so because of how politely the questions were delivered.

      • It took (I’m not kidding) about two years to get my mother to stop call it “babysitting” when when my brother watched his own children. We were like, “Mom, it’s called *parenting.*”

        I honestly think that the polite ones are the worst. Because they come off as so pseudo-reasonable that you have to really listen to the words to know that they are being jackasses. And if you start getting irritated, they always do that, “Whoa, whoa, feminazi! No need to get worked up!” At least with the jerks willing to make a fuss and a scene, people out of earshot know who is being the ass in the situation.

  9. Ros says:

    I think the headline mostly came from the Alice Walker quote. Which, if there’s anyone not to take parentig advice from, is probably her.

  10. Lurkertype says:

    NINE! Good Lord, I’m suitably impressed that Danielle Steel ever wrote anything, much less all those best-sellers. Good for her.

    I’m ever so glad I’m old enough that people finally understand that four-legged meowing beasties are all the children the husband and I ever really wanted. But the years of “why don’t you have a bayyyyyy-bee?” and my friends getting “when will you have another bayyyyyy-bee?” were ever so tiresome. None of anyone’s business.

    Oh, and it’s not restricted to straight women: it’s often presumed that the birth mother in a lesbian couple will stay home and give up her career and all.

    And yes, I’m not sure we should be looking towards Alice Walker for info about healthy interpersonal relationships.

    (But who will look after me when I’m old? The money I’ve saved by not having kids will go to pay someone else’s to do it, thanks.)

  11. Sarah says:

    I am not a mother but I am an only child. If I ever chose to become a mother, it would definitely be to a single child. I have heard the only child comments ever since I was a kid:

    “You must be so lonely.” – from various people
    “I know you say you don’t mind being an only child, but I don’t believe you.” – from an ex
    “I would never have just one child. All children deserve a sibling!” – same ex. Like having siblings is always puppy dogs and rainbows.

    Etc.

    I read an article about a writer who chose, with her husband, that they were going to be a one child household and the barrage of negative comments she and her husband received because of it, oftentimes from complete strangers. I don’t know why it is anyones business, stranger or otherwise, why a couple chooses to have one child. Society loves to guilt women. You are selfish if you don’t want a child! You are selfish and depriving your child of a sibling! You are selfish and a horrible awful no good mother for not breastfeeding! I could go on…

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