When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.
One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:
“If we are to believe the weekly Elle, which some time ago mustered seventy women novelists on one photography, the woman of letters is a remarkable zoological species: she brings forth, pell-mell, novels and children. We are introduced, for example, to Jacqueline Lenoir (two daughters, one novel); Marina Grey (one son, one novel); Nicole Dutreil (two sons, four novels), etc.”
Barthes reads the magazine’s balancing of novels and children as an indulgence and a warning – it celebrates the novels and reassures with the number of children that female duty is not be shirked: “One novel, one child, a little feminism, a little connubiality.” As for the men with whom children are had and who might also write books, he is “Nowhere and everywhere, like the sky, the horizon, an authority which at ones determines and limits a condition. Such is the world of Elle.”
I think about Barthes each time I see some article, usually in some contemporary ad hippified version of Elle, about how hard it is to write after having had a baby. There are the obligatory references to sleepless nights, to the spilled cup of milk across the lap top, to the noise and lack of solitude. There is of course truth in all of this. And yet each round of these pieces agitates me, for reasons I haven’t been able to figure out, until, recently, I heard myself respond to the latest one by scowling at the screen, “but having a baby is what made me a writer.”
I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, and I’ve written my whole life. By some standards I’m still not a proper writer, in that I don’t make much money from writing, although my job involves writing as part of the job description. (One part of me rereads Barthes piece and thinks only – one child; no novels – what a failure.) And yet once it hit me the thought would not go away: having a baby made me a writer.
What I mean by this is that having a baby made me write more, more boldly, smarter, and better, than I did before, and to produce some of the first work I’m unambiguously proud of. I think there are a variety of reasons for this. I’ve always been someone who writes/works better when there are other things going on. We all have this fantasy that when we finally have a blank slate of time, this is when we will create, but this has never been true for me. So many creative projects begin out of turmoil, heartbreak, the dark night of the soul. Motherhood wasn’t that for me but it was a different place, a new place I wanted to discover in ways that made me better even when I was writing about things that had nothing to do with motherhood.
It is of course true that men who write and have children are not asked how they manage to do both. (Though perhaps they should be: a friend once told me a prominent writer he knows once credited his prolific output to having children and having had health crises: he knew his time was limited. Sometimes I think what made me a writer was realizing I was going to die, which having a baby also did.) But as with most things, it’s not enough to point out the double standard.
I don’t begrudge women or men who were successful, prolific writers before having children and who struggle after from sharing their experiences, and I certainly understand why a lot of writers don’t want kids. But the proliferation of “child versus book” stories bother me because they feed careerist and capitalist narratives – that how many hours you put into something is the sole determinate of how good and worthwhile it is, and that it’s a zero sum game. That one’s narrow and obsessive focus on a single thing, be it books or babies, is a sign of your “seriousness.” That the hours you spend walking in the park and learning about space are a sacrifice, they go on one side of the ledger labeled parenting and will not fuel your own mind and work in anyway. That the time spent writing is only time you sneak away from your children, and will not feed that part of your life. Parenting and writing are both work, unquestionably so, but they are not only that, and as much as they compete, at their best they require some of the same habits of mind, most of all that we slow down and pay attention, and ignore the bean counters as much as we can.