June 14, 2013

‘Motherhood is not a threat to creativity’ — Zadie Smith and other prominent authors react to controversial article


Sandler recommends a one-child policy for female writers who want to see success.

Zadie Smith and other prominent female writers have reacted against an article published by The Atlantic entitled: ‘The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid’. In the essay Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One asks how we can ‘negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood?’ and posits the idea that perhaps, ‘stopping at one child [is] the answer, or at least the beginning of one?’

Sandler argues that there may be a causal link between the success of female writers, and the number of children they have. Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood and Mary McCarthy: all mothers of one child. Female writers who were unlucky enough to have multiple children are never mentioned, as though their names were erased when they announced that career-ending second pregnancy.

While the comment section of most internet articles is usually a no-go area — that grizzly second half of the internet — in this case, it’s worth it. Female writers whose not stopping at one child didn’t stop their career have left baffled responses in which they firmly contest Sandler’s idea. Zadie Smith takes apart the sexism of Sandler’s position, as well as noting how having multiple children works in a mother’s favour. It’s worth quoting –and reading– the whole comment, because it’s just so right:

I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten — I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (i could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon — or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family. As for the issue of singles versus multiples verses none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.

Jane Smiley, who has won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award writes:

I have three children of my own and two stepchildren. 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.

Both writers make a point only hinted at by Sandler, which is that raising a child is not only the concern of a woman, nor a man, but of a whole society. As Smith writes, ‘We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family’ — and that applies to all women, regardless of their choice of career.

Sandler’s article is one in a whole pile of ‘women at fault’ arguments, which appear in major publications and online on an almost weekly basis. When these articles also concern female writers, the result is a particularly foul blend. Sometimes we have to read a report that a Wikipedia employee decided to re-classify women who wrote novels as ‘female novelists’ to make more room in the ‘novelists’ category which would become populated only by men who write novels (female writers take up too much space!). Other times, a female writer, Claire Messud is a recent example, is asked to explain why her main character isn’t more likeable (female writers write unfriendly novels!) and here, women are not permitted to decide, according to their own judgement and desire, how many children to have and how they will be looked after, and by whom (female writers have too many babies!).

I wonder if Toni Morrison has read Sandler’s article. I expect she would think Sandler’s views about ‘selfhood’ and singularity individualist and close-minded. Here is Morrison discussing motherhood and work (she has two children; this if from a Time interview, conducted about twenty years ago):

‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community — everybody — to raise a child…The child’s not going to hurt them [young mothers]. Of course, it is absolutely time consuming. But who cares about the schedule?…They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons…That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.’


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.