In the haze of my move last month, Melissa and Carinn saved me from missing a viral post in The Atlantic that is highly germane to the research for my book. In “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid,” author Lauren Sandler reflects on the lives of some of her favorite authors who were also mothers of one – Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick – and asks, “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?”
Sandler, the author of a new book, One and Only, about being and raising an only child, uses Alice Walker’s comment that a female artist should have no more than one child, lest she become a “sitting duck,” as a jumping off point for examining the lives of McCarthy, Hardwick, Didion, and Sontag. Unlike some other pieces on the topic of women “having it all,” Sandler seems to suggest that motherhood – that is, that elevated state recorded in Renaissance art and smiling family portraits – doesn’t detract from a writer’s career, but may actually enhance it. Indeed, Sandler tells us that both writers and mothers share the desire “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.” Does that mean that being both a writer and a parent must allow one to achieve all these feats even more profoundly?
Not necessarily, Sandler warns, as she draws a distinction between “motherhood” and “‘momish’-ness,” that lowly state of “nurturing and sacrifice” – you know, the way most of us spend 9/10ths of our parenting hours. For her, it seems, being too “momish” puts an artist at risk of becoming Walker’s “sitting duck.” So how to capitalize on the lofty heights of motherhood without wasting too much time on momish-ness? Have only one kid, just like the mother-writers in her essay.
In one respect, Sandler chose her subjects wisely: these women are no sitting ducks. Indeed, of the examples she discusses, only Elizabeth Hardwick seems to have put herself at risk for excessive “momish”-ness, raising her daughter Harriet alone at times while her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, battled manic depression. The others seem to have steered well clear of it. Sandler cites Sigrid Nuñez who says of Sontag, “She was not a mom.” She deems McCarthy “like a husband” for her habit of leaving her husband and son for the week to go into the city to work and lead a largely separate life. And she suggests that “the totality of [Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne's] fulfillment together excluded their daughter.”
Controversy swirled around the piece when it was first published after a number of prominent authors and mothers of two or more commented on Sandler’s post and took to Twitter to celebrate the writing careers they have raised alongside their children. Perhaps most at issue was the article’s incendiary headline, one which Sandler calls “bogus” and says was chosen by her editors. Zadie Smith fired back, “the idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd,” noting, “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Waldman herself tweeted, “Yeah, because I’m SOOOOO unproductive with all my children…The obvious answer? An equal life partner.”
My own problem with Sandler’s essay wasn’t the suggestion that a mother-writer should consider limiting herself to one child in order to be successful, but the fact that, for a piece ostensibly about balance, Sandler mostly chose for examples women for whom work and the rest of their lives seem to have far overshadowed the fact of their motherhood. In service of her point, she ignores the legions of mother-writers – both mothers of one and mothers of many – who eschew the traditional assumption that, to be successful, one has to immerse oneself in one’s work, to the detriment of all other relationships.
Among the hundreds of commenters on Sandler’s piece, the first name I recognized was that of Jane Smiley, author of 23 books, Pulitzer Prize winner, and mother of three children and two stepchildren. Offering her own response to Sandler’s question, Smiley writes
The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids. Ames, Iowa, where I lived for many years was just such a place. I thank you, Iowa State University and the Ames Community Pre-School Center for enabling my career and my life as a mother.
Next week, in the next installment of my Mother-Writer series, I will take a closer look at the life and career of Jane Smiley, a mother-writer in whose motherhood and momish-ness I find both consolation and inspiration.