Lately I’ve been contemplating – and actually planning, and taking concrete steps toward – taking my life in another direction altogether. This direction is, to put it bluntly, rather more risky than anything else I have heretofore decided to do with my life. Which makes it definitionally terrifying, and I’m sort of trying to keep it all together about the fact that I am about to toss all of my safe little chips into the air and… well, you know the rest.
This takes both deep breaths and big thoughts, of course. Because the (corporate, professional) path I am currently on has always felt wrong on any number of small fronts – I hate offices, I hate office wear, I alternately find businessmen delusional or hilarious (and not in a good way). These are not necessarily, either of themselves or in the aggregate, reason enough to Be A Writer (which is the risky thing for me, here) instead of just about anything else. Particularly something that I currently seem to be good at, which is lucrative, which locates me in my city and country of choice… I could go on.
But in both the pro and con columns, what I have are small things. What’s tilting the calculus is the big thing: what is my Purpose? Pretentious, I know, but there you have it.
Which brings me to the childlessness issue because for so many people it seems that the answer, at least partially, is Children. Which I only think about having as a sort of giving up, as the last resort at a fuller life than the one I lead now – and I know you’ll all say that means I shouldn’t, then, have them, and I agree. But then, I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood that has children just everywhere, and it does make me wonder, more than I think I’d otherwise be inclined to, about what I’m going to miss by way of that decision.
I read this essay by Sonya Chung in The Millions, a book blog/webmag, recently. Chung is childless, and she is addressing a rather throwaway remark in an excellent “Why I Write” essay by Stephen Elliot (of The Rumpus and I hear an excellent book called The Adderall Diaries). Here is the relevant quote from Elliot’s essay:
When I was discussing my new book with two married writers, they kept asking how I could work without an advance. I didn’t see how they could work with one. They said they needed a certain amount of money and that they had children. They made their children sound like a tremendous burden, and I felt they were using the word need when they should have said want. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing something higher than writing. The husband has sold a lot more books than I do and has plenty more money than I have, but being a writer seems to make him unhappy. One day, when he was telling me how easy I have it and about the kind of advance he needed, I snapped. I said his book wasn’t worth more than my book just because he has kids. We’re lucky to be writers. Nobody owes us anything.
I’m going to hit the pause button here a second because I’m a bit worried even this quote, without context, may make some of our readers angry. Please keep reading; let’s talk about that. Indeed, Chung notes, in her essay, that she was a bit surprised that this didn’t immediately blow up in the comments:
I’ve lived that scene, more or less, countless times. In Elliot’s position, that is. The implication slips out in different ways, but it’s unmistakable. I’ve never “snapped.” Part of it is that I’m chicken. Part of it is that my conversations are usually woman to woman, and (yes, I am essentially reinforcing a horrific stereotype here) women my age tend to be a bit, um, irrational, when it comes to outside perspectives on anything related to their children.
When I read Elliott’s essay myself, I didn’t hear anything wrong in the anecdote. And I think that’s partially because I agree with Elliott, and I admire that last sentiment of his: no one is owed anything, least of all Being A Writer Who Actually Makes A Living, that rare and elusive creature. I think in context, his entire view of writing as it relates to material things is that anyone who thinks of it as a steady income, granting the writer access to some kind of middle class economic stability, is a bit of a fool. One of the key themes of the essay is writing as art vs. writing as career path.
In any event, I don’t know that I’d say Chung is right about women being particularly irrational about children (the person in the anecdote is, after all, male), but I do know why she is afraid. We are at a point in the culture (and let me be clear: I mean the “non-feminist,” dominant Western culture here) where, though the impossibility of Having It All is largely agreed upon, and given lip service, the suggestion that we might have Given Something Up – and that it might have been something we really, really wanted for ourselves – is a bit hard to take, emotionally speaking. You can make some mental peace with your choices, of course, but not all big life decisions feel like choices at the time they are made. This, I completely understand. It can go both ways, after all.
But that still leaves us with the thorny question of whether or not one really does give up something – either by the decision to have children (i.e. professional ambitions) or by the decision not to have them (i.e. family life, support as you are older). In professions other than artistic ones it seems to me like the math is easier to do. But writers, for example, write about the things they see, and the things they know, and not knowing having your own family: doesn’t that seem like a pretty big chunk of life not to know? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that anyone have a kid as an experiment in expanding their aesthetic boundaries. Rebecca Walker has written about her estrangement from her mother Alice on grounds that her childhood was a low priority next to the other things her mother wanted: fame, travel, work. I don’t want anyone to wake up and read that kind of article about themselves in the paper.
What I am saying is that who you are as a person is so intricately connected with what one might write about that one worries more than usual about not getting to do just about everything good there is to do on God’s green earth – so that you can speak authoritatively about what it’s like. I don’t want to denigrate male writers faced with these issues, but when childbearing is supposedly the sum total of what one is, the anxiety for a ladywriter like myself strikes me as much higher. It’s hard not to read something into the fact that Alice Munro began to really find success only after her children were born. It’s hard to write about women, period, without the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth hanging in the air, somewhere; every character has a mother lurking in the shadows.
But many of the writers Chung knows, and I know, who are mothers, complain of lacking time and concentration for their work. As Chung notes, so many great female writers don’t or didn’t have children: Joyce Carol Oates, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf. If you are Katie Roiphe, of course, you’ve given up the ghost: she would not trade her child for the chance to write The House of Mirth, she says. I’m not so sure I’d come down on the same side of that bargain. I can’t justify it, of course. There’s nothing more selfless about doing art than there is about procreating; both are selfish activities in my worldview, rooted in replicating yourself for preservation. The question is just one of medium: will you be preserved on a bookshelf, or in DNA? I think I’d choose the former, if I could have it. If. Which feels kind of far away and unattainable for me, at this moment, anyway.
All of this is of course rapidly becoming moot. I am getting older, and as I do, funnily enough, the idea of having children becmes less attractive even as it becomes less abstract. This will sound ridiculous, but I genuinely need my time alone, and a child would, of sheer necessity, interfere with that. And they would likely interfere with it to such a degree that bitterness would be unavoidable.
And when I am honest with myself – really, truly honest – nothing in the world has ever seemed as real to me as a good book does. Oh sure, art is ephemeral. But then, so are relationships, and even, in the end, human beings.