Suspend Your Disbelief

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"The Mommy Problem," and the larger notion of life beyond work


Danielle LazarinOver at The Millions, Sonya Chung’s essay “The Mommy Problem” throws more questions at a question I’m still trying to answer. I, too, have indulged in her habit of close-reading women writers’ biographies for suggestions of children and clues as to their familial satisfaction to productivity ratio. While the argument over how writers should spend their time, money, and reproductive organs is endless, and as Chung points out, ultimately individual and unanswerable even through close examination of the examples we have, the question of how acceptable or manageable it is to be a writer-slash—whether that slash is a parent, a corporate employee, a teacher, whatever—is to me the bigger question. What do we allow ourselves—and others—to be if we self-identify as writers? Chung recounts this anecdote:

The painter Agnes Martin said to Susan York, a sculptor who’d sought out Martin as a mentor: “Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work.” York wrote about it in 2005 (the conversation happened in 1983). I was 32 in 2005, I still “had time.” And yet the words burned on my brain even then.

In my thesis workshop at my MFA program, our director, Eileen Pollack, said to us one night, you know, if you want to go do something else, or be something else besides a writer, that’s fine. My first reaction was to be insulted by this idea—I had wanted to be (assumed) I would be a writer since I was a child; I wasn’t, at the cusp of my career, going to get sucked into something else. I was vehement in my belief that there was no something else. I realize now that the wounded feeling was mostly fear: fear that I’d fail and need to invent a something else, and fear that my desire to have a family would swallow me whole: that I would indeed choose a life of parenting because it would be harder to fail at that than at being a writer.

And now, a few years out of the program, I’m no longer insulted. Outside of the bubble where I had to be, intensely, a writer, I understand that Eileen’s comment was permission to live a life with room for other identities, even if those identities take us away from our work. Work can be your life, but your life can (and I’d argue, should be) bigger than your work. As writers, sometimes we stumble into things that fulfill us that aren’t writing—the most discussed being parenthood, but also other professions, and occupations—and that to shut them out because we are so intent on being writers with a capital W is to perhaps miss out on these other things in life that often make us better writers–because they deepen the range of our experience and emotions, because they show us a new perspective, or simply because they give us money or time or some other sort of permission we need to write. Or, as the case may be, not to write.

I am still a little afraid. I’ve already made my choice to be both a mother and a writer, and so far it’s as “bizarre, and confusing, and stressful” as Chung anticipates. Yet it’s also wonderful, enlightening, and, so far, good for my identity as a writer.

I’m curious to hear how others answer these questions in their own lives. The comments on Chung’s essay are a good place to start:

Is your work your life, or do you need or desire a life beyond writing?

Is it true, as Chung says, that “making art is selfish”?


Join the Discussion

  • This is a great post and a really interesting topic. I think I tend to agree with what Chung ends her essay noting- Emily St John Mandel’s essay on the day job. I think it is pretty absurd to suggest that the only art that is worthwhile is the art that consumes the artist to the detriment of every other facet of the writer’s life. I think this is a tired, old and very male idea of an artist. I often think of Raymond Carver’s wife. Neither of them were happy in the life that he created for them when he put his art (and the heavy boozing lifestyle he paired along with it) first. Is this the kind of model that is in any way helpful to writers juggling the same things Carver was?

    Work can be your life, but your life can (and I’d argue, should be) bigger than your work. As writers, sometimes we stumble into things that fulfill us that aren’t writing—the most discussed being parenthood, but also other professions, and occupations—and that to shut them out because we are so intent on being writers with a capital W is to perhaps miss out on these other things in life that often make us better writers–because they deepen the range of our experience and emotions, because they show us a new perspective, or simply because they give us money or time or some other sort of permission we need to write

    This was so beautifully put.

  • I hope I’m not outstaying my welcome, but will make some comments that may be helpful even though I’m male. Perhaps some women writers with children will also comment.

    I don’t think “selfish” is exactly the right term with respect to not having children. Probably “obsessive” or “monomaniacal” about some creative pursuit would be more descriptive. The same concept applies to other fields and should not be limited to writing. Most of the women I know who had children found it to be the most important event in their lives, but that was after the fact of birth, and it may be possible to forgo childbearing and at worst experience slight pangs of regret.

    Some notable women writers who didn’t have children: Jane Austen (never married), the Brontës (died young), George Eliot (married late), Emily Dickinson (never married), Edith Wharton (bad marriage), Simone de Beauvoir (libertine). Some notable women writers who did have children: Lady Murasaki, Mary Wollstonecraft (died giving birth to her second child, Mary Shelley), George Sand, Sylvia Plath (committed suicide when they were young), Susan Sontag, Anne Tyler.

    Ideally if you had tons of money and could afford nannies, it may not be much of an issue. If you’re going to be intensely hands-on, prepare to have little remaining energy. My girlfriend was in the first class at King’s College, Cambridge that accepted women and expected to do great things in the world. She became a conscientious mother, forsaking all other vocations, and now their success is her success. Her son is about to graduate from Yale and her daughter is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics after graduating from Berkeley.

    If writing is your passion and you want children, you’ll just have to do both.

  • Wow, great post! This helps me understand a lot of the ways I feel about careers and life in general. You’re right, it really is ok to love lots of things. In my opinion, I feel like all the things I love and love doing sort of feed into each other and enhance each other and conglomerate into the mesh of unique things that is me. Thank you for this well-thought out post.

    (my creative writing blog)

  • Danielle

    Paul, I agree wholeheartedly with your final comment, as it seems that for women (and men) who want to be parents and writers, you just go full steam ahead and see what happens; there is no other choice. But I must take issue with the idea that having “tons of money” to “afford nannies” would negate or somehow lessen the problem that I’m raising here. This is not to say that for most writers, childcare isn’t key—there is simply no way to write without significant free time—but that it’s the intellectual and emotional investment of the “other” occupation that can seem threatening to the continuity and legitimacy of our identity as writers.

  • Danielle,

    I guess I should have qualified that statement. I was thinking of the old days when it was perfectly acceptable for parents to spend far less time with their kids than is common today. Of course, that would probably contradict your conception of parenting. It must be possible to use nannies sparingly to allow yourself to fall somewhere between a helicopter mom and a cold parent who fails to nurture her child. The helicopter mom choice is the one that would be the most demanding of time and intellectual and emotional investment.

    When I was 35 I was divorced, and my daughter’s upbringing was disrupted in the process. Her mother dumped her on me when she was 10, and she moved from a nice suburb to live with me in a hick town in the middle of nowhere where nothing of interest was happening. I used to kid her that a terrible childhood would make her an interesting adult. Now she’s 29, happily married and well adjusted.

    Kids are more resilient than you think, and can often survive fine without a full-scale parenting agenda imposed on them. I still think a little childhood adversity can be good. I’m reading The Elementary Particles, which is autobiographical fiction. Houellebecq, the author, is an artistic genius who was abandoned by his mother, so keep in mind that you can even contribute to art by being a bad mother!

  • jenni

    Thanks, Danielle. This is very interesting as is Sonya’s post. Much to think about …

  • Lisa

    Thanks for your interesting post, Danielle. I suppose it is, in theory, possible for motherhood or other endeavors to subsume one’s identity as a writer. But as someone who has had both an intense “other” career, followed by motherhood (also intense!), I personally never found my writing life stifled. Sure, the immediate practicalities like time and energy are always an obstacle. However, from a creative perspective, motherhood and other experiences outside writing always give me more to think about and more material to use. I believe you can’t turn off that writing instinct, even if you are changing diapers all day. I’m reminded of a favorite short story, “Playdate” by Kate Walbert. I think this story reads like a perfect example of modern motherhood and writing meshing beautifully.

  • I agree with you, Danielle, if i’ve understood you right. In my experience the (emotional, spiritual?) energy that writing uses is the same energy that mothering uses. The mere logistics i could liken to the constant writer’s dilemma of dividing time between the creating itself and the networking, publicity side of things. But this question isn’t merely about logistics.

    You have reminded me of the other way writing (or any art) is profoundly connecting with having children. They don’t most of the time feel like the same kind of activity, but how many creative people say one affects the other, in either direction? When my second son died as a cot death, i stopped writing altogether – and even reading, for a shorter time. I have heard artists say the same happened with miscarriages or infertility, etc. When my words did come back, it was in a different form, short poems instead of long stories, and i started right back where i’d been with fiction when i was seven or eight.

    The early days of parenting – with one relatively quiet child who took long daytime naps – had actually improved my output by making me get my act together, in terms of both time-management and straightening (and straitening!) my priorities. But as life got less straightforward, being-mummy encroached more and more on being-writer. (And i was never prolific in the first place, it’s not my rhythm.)

    By the third baby, who was the opposite of quiet and long-napping(!), i realised that the writer would have to take a back seat. I couldn’t stop writing, but i put the structured, purposeful writing on hold. We all have fallow periods, and we all have periods of just jotting down ideas or just editing rather than the flow of original work, and i decided that part of my life would have to be one of those periods in preparation for producing more tangible results in a later decade. Some people can write at night and mother by day (i believe Danielle Steele did) but my energy levels won’t allow that.

    I’m sure that as more fathers get the chance to be a significant part of their children’s lives, more male writers will be facing this dichotomy.

    Paul, btw, i’ve never heard ‘helicopter mom’ – i gather you mean the mother that’s always there 24/7 for her children, but what has that to do with helicopters? (By the way, your name links nowhere that we can look at – fyi.)

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