Writers Who Were Also Mothers Have Had Plenty of Feelings – Here Are Some of Mine

In their article “Women Writers Have Had Plenty of Babies. Here’s the Data,” Karen Bourrier and John Brosz explore the statistics of women writers dating all the way back before the 17th century. They spend 2,100+ words (2,179) and many tidy graphs and charts, refuting the claim made by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own that “historically, successful women writers have not been mothers.” To the best of their abilities (and as much as the data allows) they cross-reference cultural factors including the societal norms of the various historical periods, the availability of birth control, effects of race and class and sexual orientation, among others. They do all this before tidily concluding, “the idea that it’s nigh impossible to have a child and write a book belongs in the 19th century.” They do all this, yet somehow manage to avoid asking, or apparently even pondering the FAR more important question – how even one of any of these women writers felt.

Well done, you two. Thanks for giving those of us in the trenches of both these identities permission to breathe a sigh of relief and laugh off all our silly worries. We’ll still make our literary marks some day, if we’re meant to….

The fact that a woman author had children tells us nothing about how she felt about motherhood, how she felt it affected her writing life, how she felt about her choice (or in too many cases, lack of choice) to have become a mother. And before the rabid hordes can begin their crowing, let’s avoid conflating how a woman feels about her children to how she feels about motherhood. The two, though sometimes intertwined, are just as (if not more) often, entirely separate. That is to say, you can love your children and still hate being a parent. It’s how I feel. That the job of motherhood painfully ripped my writer identity from me for five years is also how I feel. That loss sent me into the darkest period of my life and would’ve left me a shell of a person if I hadn’t clawed that identity back, inch by inch, in the years since

To read Bourrier’s and Brosz’s article however, none of that matters. Since the numbers available from history show that some mothers have been able to find a way to also become successful authors, the two identities are not in competition. Woolf’s assertion is not just outdated, it’s statistically incorrect.

Well done, you two. Thanks for giving those of us in the trenches of both these identities permission to breathe a sigh of relief and laugh off all our silly worries. We’ll still make our literary marks some day, if we’re meant to….

Hmmm, I’m having a flashback of the moment I told the gynecologist who has prescribed my birth control pills that I was noticing an increased appetite and weight gain, only to have him whip out a sheet of statistics for the pharmaceutical company showing that “most women who took them actually lost weight.” I wrote him a letter about a week later asking what those statistics had to do with me and the concerns of my lived experience I’d brought to his office. It was a rhetorical question; I never went back.

Bourrier and Brosz clearly have research skills, and I can appreciate their level of nuance considering additional factors and barriers such as illiteracy affecting whether mothers throughout history became successful authors. Acknowledging their acumen, however, begs the question how they failed to acknowledge (realize?) how problematic it is to use statistics of successful mother/authors to prove that motherhood doesn’t preclude literary success? Statistics on the number of women who ultimately failed to achieve literary notoriety due to their parental responsibilities, by definition, don’t exist. Failing to acknowledge this is tantamount to suggesting that those women themselves never existed in any meaningful way, and that how they felt knowing they never achieved anything close to their writing potential also doesn’t matter.

I’m not sure who I hope did most of the writing on this Slate magazine piece. A large part of me feels no man, especially in a post-Roe world, has the right to write about the level to which motherhood affects a woman’s opportunity to succeed in other pursuits. But if I imagine Bourrier as the primary author, what would then be primarily her words make her, by my estimation at least, something of a traitor to her gender. My first question becomes, “Is she a mother?” I can’t help but think if she were, she would’ve recognized how reductive and dismissive her article’s thesis had the potential to feel to mothers reading it.

Sadly, neither primary authorship would surprise me. The existence of the term mansplaining says it all. And if Bourrier is indeed not, or not yet, a mother, she too wouldn’t be the first child-free woman to give her opinion on how mothers should be doing (and how they should be viewing) their lives. I have to admit my own guilt of committing this same sin on any number of occasions during my former child-free existence.

Another glaring omission from this piece is the lack of self-awareness about how men’s writing careers have fared fatherhood, comparatively unscathed. And they have. Bourrier and Brosz spend no more than a single sentence buried within their eight paragraph even flirting with this reality when they note, “Men almost never seem to consider the issue of writing and its conflicts with having children, but in a rare exception, novelist and father of four Michael Chabon wrote that he was advised that ‘You lose a book for every child.’” And while I realize statistics of fathers who failed to become authors due to their parenting responsibilities are similarly unavailable, I defer to the words of Jon Katz from his memoir Running to the Mountain, a recounting of his midlife impulse to escape his mundane family-man existence and buy a rundown house in the mountains of upstate New York, so he could write there in peace.

…If there is a Code of Responsibility for somebody like me, a middle-class man living a middle-class life in a middle-class New Jersey town, acquiring another house at this point would violate most of its provisions.

The conventional wisdoms went ricocheting around in my mind: Family comes first. Responsible people pay outstanding debts before taking on new obligations. We had to fix up the wreck of a house we already owned before we took on a new wreck. We should think about saving for retirement. In a writer’s wobbly financial life, the only predictable thing is that nothing is predictable.

     When a person with a family takes a gamble like this, he is playing with more than his own fate, of course. If he guesses wrong, the people he loves most go down with him.

     So buying this house was an ass-backward move, premature, unjustifiable. I could already hear my friends. What is he thinking? Is this a midlife crisis? Poor Paula.

     Poor Paula. An inherently steady and responsible woman, she had married an unstable maniac, but she hadn’t figured that out until it was too late. That she had not grabbed a toothbrush and run for her life a hundred times is a source of continuing astonishment.

Reading these words for the first time in 2014, astonishment stood alone as the only thing Katz and I shared. My sons were 16 months and freshly five years old respectively. I would not begin my trek back to anything close to a writing life for another 12+ months. The idea of being able to get away from my children to use the bathroom, let alone for six months, in a newly-purchased fixer-upper in the wilderness…. His feeble attempts in these words to offer the barest acknowledgement of his selfishness, his reference to his steady, hard-working wife, his unconcealable entitlement…! I wanted to crawl into the book and throttle the man in my red (and green)-eyed fury!

The very title of the book reveals the final choice he had the audacity and privilege to make. I knew all those years ago, I would find a way to write about how those words affected me some day. (I had no prayer of having the time to do so in any near future I could then imagine.) While likely inchoate within my mind at that time, I can now articulate (especially after reading Bourrier’s and Brosz’s piece, even more unselfconscious about this topic), Katz’s words stand better than any I could ever craft, the quintessential illustration of the disparity between the effects of parenthood on men and women authors.

I won’t commit the same error of omission as Bourrier and Brosz and fail to acknowledge one of the only known women authors to something similar to what Katz did. I enjoyed that Slate article far more, if perhaps for no other reason, the glimpse it gave me into what it might feel like for a mother to make a similar, and for a woman, condemned choice. Julie Phillips’s article “This Novelist Abandoned Her Toddlers. I Wanted to Know Why,” from April 26th of this year peers into the life and letters of Doris Lessing. I remember reading it for the first time, sitting in my car with my now middle-schooler waiting for drop-off time after already dropping off my younger son at his elementary. Quoting Phillips:

But when I actually looked at Lessing’s life, I didn’t find either heartless abandonment or a bold dash for freedom. Unsurprisingly, the author who brilliantly laid bare the dissatisfactions and self-deceptions of mid-20th-century women’s lives, and whose 1962 novel The Golden Notebook explored the rifts between women’s personal, public, and creative selves, had a much more complicated story.

In her memoir Under My Skin, Lessing writes that in 1943, at age 23, she sat down on her suburban lawn with her two toddlers and explained that she was leaving them. Not daring to say she planned to write, she said she was going to fight racial and economic injustice. She thought she was doing the right thing, believing, from experience, that mothers were inevitably frustrated and judgmental, and that only if her children weren’t mothered at all could they really be themselves.

In Phillips’s choice of the words, “a bold dash for freedom,” I can’t help but feel a subtle hint of allusion to Katz’s memoir, but perhaps that comes purely from my individual experience. Two more important points stand out to me:

Firstly, while 54 years separate Lessing’s choice in 1943 and Katz’s in 1997 (and some might argue that a woman author in the 1990s would have had similar greater liberty to reveal her motives as honestly as Katz did), we cannot in good faith chalk up Phillips’s words, “Not daring to say she planned to write,…” entirely to the changes in the culture and expectations surrounding parenthood over 50 years’ time. One has only to read that in 2022 some people still refer to a father looking after his children as “babysitting,” to understand that society’s imbalanced expectations for mothers and fathers persist even today.

Secondly, in only these few lines, Phillips makes sure to refer to Lessing’s feelings about where she found herself in her life. And she goes on throughout the article to refer to Lessing’s feelings and impressions many times. Where I find myself frustrated by Bourrier’s and Brosz’s unified choice to confine their article about mothering as an author to cold hard data, I experienced deep appreciation for Phillips’s humanizing treatment of Lessing. And yes, I understand the difference between the aims of a feature like Phillips’s and a data-driven exploration of historical facts like the one Bourrier and Brosz embarked upon. The thing is, both Phillips and Bourrier/Brosz had choices about how to approach their subjects of interest, and those choices have consequences, not only for how the subjects they write about will be perceived, but also for how the journalists will be perceived.

Phillips chose to examine the life of a mother/author, who made what many would see as an unforgivable choice, and write a feature that would reveal her humanity. Two other journalists began their article on a dovetailing topic with the expressed feelings and artistic treatments of two women authors (Virginia Woolf and Sheila Heti) about the conflict between artist and mother identities, and consciously chose to dive into that subject in what amounts to a mathematical treatment, devoid of any additional references or even speculations about the emotional lives of the many mother/writers cited in their statistics. Whether they were likewise conscious of how that choice would make their readers who also share these two identities feel (even after five pie charts, a dot bar graph and 2,179 words) remains a mystery.