It’s late afternoon on a foggy winter day. I’m sitting in my friend Kim
Chernin’s studio, trying to reconcile two potential selves — my writer
self and my mother self. I have postponed motherhood in order to get my
writing life moving, and now that it is, I find myself wondering how these
lives might be combined. In a way, the question is moot, because I am not
pregnant. But I’m a planner. In spite of my lifelong wish to be
spontaneous, I’m a methodical person. So on this winter day, I begin a
series of interviews with writers I know who are also mothers, to find out
how these lives might be reconciled within a person.
At 56, Kim’s gray hair is cut in a pixie bob; her inquisitive eyes are framed by intersecting lines. She has the energy of both a sprite and the wise old woman. Though I have known her only for a few years, I imagine she is the kind of person who gets younger as she grows older — the outcome, perhaps, of a life well lived.
I first sought Kim’s help four years ago. I was looking for a midwife to
coax out of me a self I knew I could only meet through writing. Virginia
Woolf believed that writing is a way to create a self, that it sets up some
“stake against oblivion.” I understand — writing is my way of saying, “Here
I am.” I was afraid I’d drown in the folds of motherhood before this
emerging self had legs — ones at least to stand on, if not to run with.
It wasn’t that way for Kim, who was 23 when her only child, Larissa, was born. Married, in medical school in Ireland, medical complications
forced her to stay in bed for the last five months before giving birth.
“I just lay in bed … I noticed that I could be still for hours — not
sleeping, not reading, just still. And then I noticed that I started to
speak English, to myself, in my head, a very beautiful kind of English that
just seemed to be rising up out of somewhere … a kind of poetic, elevated
speech. Big, long periodic sentences that rolled and rolled and finally
came to an end.
“I was extremely absorbed at that time. I was thinking about creativity.
I was thinking about what you do with a life.” A year later, she began to
write. Her first published work, “The Hungry Self,” was a groundbreaking analysis of women, eating disorders and creativity. Her most recent book, “My Life as a Boy,” was published earlier this year.
She looks at me thoughtfully, and then says softly, “If you’re having a
baby when you’re 40, you don’t have to go through the struggle I went
through with being torn by a self that’s being born and a baby that’s being
born. For me, I would say without any doubt, two births took place at the
same time. And I can honestly say that the birth that was more compelling
to me was the birth of myself. And the child seemed a distraction. The
child had every reason to demand and get my full attention. But the self
inside me, which was new, fretful, fitful and emerging, made the same
demands. It was very hard to meet both of those babies’ demands at the same
I have chosen to meet the demands of my writing self first. But I know
that the longer it takes to fulfill those demands, the more remote
motherhood becomes. And now, at 36, I realize I want both.
“Sometimes, an artist’s timetable is too long to find herself.” I’m
speaking with Whitney Otto, author of “How to Make an American Quilt,” whose newest novel is “The Passion Dream Book.” She talks with me from her home in Portland, Ore., and her energy is palpable even over the phone. Otto gave birth to her son, Sam, 5, when she was 37.
“In my new book, I have this character who asks her friend if she ever
thinks about having kids and her friend says, ‘Look, I don’t even want a
dog. Men want a lot of you, but kids want all of you. And do you want to
look at your child across the table and think, but for you, I could have
I’ve stumbled on the other side of mother-love, the “black part of
motherhood,” as Otto calls it. “If you have a kid around 40, your life is
kind of set. There’ve been times when I’ve thought, God, if I didn’t have
to race to daycare now. If you didn’t have to keep me up all night. If I
didn’t have to think about your needs. I never had a parent, a friend, a
lover, a job, a school, a career, that demanded my time like an infant did,
24 hours a day.”
Otto is hardly alone. Motherhood, by definition, entails complications,
both drudgery and joy. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in “Gifts From the Sea”: “How desirable and how distant is the ideal of the contemplative artist … the inner inviolable core, the single eye.” Mothers, by contrast, live lives of “multiplicity, not simplicity, fragmentation, not unification.”
Fifty years later, this fragmentation still breeds conflict.
“I think ambivalence about motherhood is one of the big no-nos. It’s
considered sacrilege. Women talk about it constantly in a ‘ha-ha I’m just
joking’ kind of way.”
Susie Bright, author of “Susie Bright’s Sexual State of the Union” and a Salon columnist, sits on the deck of her
pumpkin-colored Victorian in Santa Cruz, Calif., and talks with me on a cold, clear
spring day. I am struck by her fierceness and softness, and by her
irreverence toward motherhood — an institution worshipped
but not valued. Bright had Aretha, 7, when she was 32.
“There’s a lot of humor about what a pain in the ass it is to be a
mother. Like, ‘Do you want to hear what my kid did today? You want to hear
what ridiculous thing happened while I tried to be a full-time mom and work
full-time?’ It’s the dark humor of the American female experience — being a
working mom. That everyone is just ready to crack up because they can’t do
it all. Your life is some sort of cruel satire and you just have to keep
laughing. It’s hard for women to talk more plainly about it.”
And even harder to talk about never wanting children at all — the
choice made by writers like Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty and Simone de
Beauvoir. I understand this choice, but it is one that speaks to my head
and not my heart. I was curious to talk with someone who would speak
plainly about the decision not to have children.
It’s late at night and rain is pouring down in torrents. I’m
interviewing Mary Gaitskill, whose novels include “Two Girls, Fat and Thin.” She is in San Francisco promoting her new collection of stories, “Because They Wanted To.” Her lime-green and cherry-red hotel room looks
like a psychedelic replica of the inside of “I Dream of Jeannie’s” bottle.
I’ve always wanted a child “someday”; Gaitskill never has. “I’m 42 and I decided a long time ago I didn’t want to have children.
I’ve never wanted to have any children. The idea of pregnancy disgusts me.
I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Not in other people. But the idea of
being pregnant myself has always filled me with horror.
“I remember once one of my neighbors said to my sister that she was
going to grow up to be a mother, and ‘you,’ he said, ‘are going to be a
scientist.’ And I was perfectly happy to hear that.”
I’m trying to ferret out some ambivalence, but it’s not there.
“I never questioned it until I got into my 30s, because around that
time a lot of women around me were suddenly expressing these desperate
desires to have children. And I began to think, ‘Why is it that I don’t?’
But I just don’t think it’s my fate.
“I’m just not a person who can do a lot of very demanding things at
once. I think if I had had a child, even just one child, almost all my
energy would have gone into that. And if I had written, it would have been
much less and much less intensely.”
Gaitskill seems always to have seen an unavoidable conflict between the
demands of mothering and writing. But for many women approaching
motherhood, the picture isn’t as clear. Laurie Wagner didn’t think having
a child would put the brakes on her work.
“No kid was going to stop me from being the person I imagined myself to
be — dynamic, productive, work-driven.” Wagner is one of my closest
friends. We sit in her Alameda, Calif., studio and talk, her fingers tapping nonstop on
her desk. She had Ruby, 2, when she was 35. Her book “Living Happily
Ever After,” which has interviews with couples who have been together over 30 years,
was published last year. Her upcoming book, “Motherland,” which features interviews with
mothers of children under 4, will be published next spring.
“As a mother I imagined myself fit, and still real smart and brainy and
together — had the kid scene together, had the home scene together, had a
good connection with my husband, even better than before … But motherhood has been really complicated for me. It has had a lot of dark corners. It’s wasted me in some ways. It stopped me in my tracks.”
I ask her if she feels resentful of the time Ruby takes up.
“Yeah. I think there’s something about motherhood, feeling like you want
to be with your child and far away from them in the same moment.”
I ask Wagner, “Is it harder for you to achieve your creative potential
now that you’re a mother?”
“Sure, because if I hadn’t become a mother, I would have worked harder.
Taken more risks. I’d be pushing it. I’m so ambitious and hard on myself,
and I probably would have reached a lot more potential because I would have
whipped it out of me. But as a mother, I can’t. I have to be a human being
at 4 every day. I have to be a walking teacher for my daughter.”
Sue Halpern, editor-at-large of the magazine DoubleTake and author of
“Migrations to Solitude,” is one of the few writer-mothers I interview who
feels no resentment that her ambitions have been thwarted. She lives in the
Adirondacks with her husband, writer Bill McKibben, and their daughter
Sophie, 4. Halpern had her daughter when she was 37. She tells me about
the “Heisenberg Principle” of having children.
“Sophie is much more interesting to me than any book I could possibly be
doing at the moment. I don’t find other people and other peoples’ issues
more compelling. I don’t feel that the learning curve is as great. I don’t
feel at all resentful.
“But if you had asked me that before I had a baby, if you had asked if
by having a child you weren’t able to do the substantive work that you
actually could do, would I be resentful? I probably would have said yes.
But now there’s substance to the whole hypothetical question — here’s this
child, here’s this family, here’s this situation, here’s your life. There’s
just no theoretical way of discussing that anymore.
“It’s the Heisenberg Principle in action. Obviously she changes
everything — put Sophie in your life, put a child in your life and every
single thing changes. Your entire consciousness has changed.”
I ask her how.
“A writer told me before I had a child that having a child is better
than any byline you’ll ever get. And I thought, yeah, probably, uh-huh. But
it didn’t mean anything to me when he said that. But it’s true. It’s not
obvious until you blow off the byline to spend time with your kid. I think
that this notion of you, yourself, being in process, being created, at the
same time that your child is growing, to me, is a lot more compelling than
anything else I could do.”
Sue Miller, author of “The Good Mother,” “Family Pictures” and
other novels, has a similarly sanguine view of writing and motherhood. On
this warm summer day, her voice fills the phone with musical laughter. She
had her son, Ben, 30, when she was 24. She got divorced when he was
2 and a half years old, went to work at a day-care center and didn’t pick up
writing again until her son was 10.
“I’ve always felt life is long. That there are second and third acts.
And as it turns out, that is the case. I just never felt that Tillie
Olsen-ish sense of deprivation or denial. In fact, I think that I’m a better
writer for having stopped for some years, for having given myself over
to life in a different way — a passionate and committed way. It had its
limitations, to be sure, but I never thought of those years as wasted in
any sense,” Miller says.
For Miller, unlike Chernin, motherhood did not compete with her
writing. Like Halpern, Miller sees herself growing along with her child.
“Our parents saw themselves as being very adult very young,
but it seems to me we did not. I don’t know many people in my generation
who did. And that makes it possible to learn from your children. You don’t
feel that you’re ‘there’ already or you have to act ‘there’ the moment
they’re born,” she says.
“Having a child was the way I became an adult,” Miller continues. “I think that may be true for a lot of people. Noticing, looking at my son and other children, looking at other families, has obviously been something that dominated my work. The notion of how the self gets formed, what our ideas about
ourselves are as opposed to the realities of ourselves, that’s a
preoccupation of mine intellectually. That’s something that was fed
tremendously by being a parent.”
Motherhood has left an indelible mark on Miller’s writing.
“I feel I’ve called on those years thousands of times for small moments,
large moments, ways of thinking, characters. I enjoyed my son very much,
and all of his friends too. I entered into a lot of different lives. I
can’t imagine better training for a writer. I also quite honestly think that my life as a mother helped my writing. A lot of the issues I think about — who we are fated to be vs. who we try to make ourselves be, the role suffering has in our lives, what we make of it, what we make of ourselves via suffering — these things have all been filtered through my experience of being a mother and watching Ben be my child. The other life is unimaginable to me at this point.”
As I interview these women, I know that I am exploring, to varying
degrees, privileged lives — women with established careers, and for those
with young children, enough money to buy some child care. But privilege
often includes guilt.
“Sometimes I feel like a bad mother.” Cookbook author and artist Mollie
Katzen is sitting in my living room. She’s a petite woman with cascades of
hennaed ringlets. Her first book, “The Moosewood Cookbook,” created a revolution in vegetarian cooking. We’ve been friends for 10 years. Katzen first became a
mother at 33, and again at 42. Her son, Sam, is now 13, and daughter Eve is 5.
“I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m a good enough mother. I
definitely feel a fair bit of guilt over sometimes preferring my work to my
kids.” I see her cringe as she struggles to be as honest with me as she is
with herself. “I more often wake up in the morning dying to get to my
work. I’m not often dying to get up and play with my kids.”
“But I vowed that my kids would not pay a price for my career, so I set
aside time for my kids that’s inviolable. I used to feel resentful that
male artists didn’t have to think about the things I have to think about. I
used to sit in my studio, painting, and think, shit, Richard Diebenkorn
didn’t sit in his studio wondering what his family was going to eat for
dinner. Richard Diebenkorn didn’t sit in his studio wondering about whether
his son was getting to his aikido class on time. Male artists and writers
have license to lose themselves in their work. And when they get home,
dinner will be on the table. And their kids would be taken care of.
“I’m no longer angry about this. No matter how evolved modern marriages
are, I’m still the one who thinks about dinner. If I ask my husband to
think about dinner, he’ll think about it. But if I don’t ask him, he won’t.
The fact that I do has kept me balanced as an artist and a human being.
Having a family was my impulse to keep myself grounded, connected to
others, humanized. I no longer resent that I am a woman and that comes into
play. Men have more opportunities to cut that part off. I don’t envy that
in men anymore.”
Listening to these women, I begin to see that my questions
reflect my fears: Do you resent the time your child takes up? How has
having a child thwarted your ambitions? But buried in these transcripts are
also missives of wonder and strength.
“So much of what she gives me and so much of the relationship of being a
mother to a daughter is making me who I am. I would not have been that
person otherwise,” says Halpern. “And I do feel that there’s something so
fundamentally creative about bringing new life into the world and
stewarding it through. It has the feeling of a magnum opus in a way that
almost nothing else does.”
For Bright, “Aretha has given me the strength to do the right thing for
myself that I wouldn’t have done if it had just been myself. So many life
decisions I had to make, if I thought, what was the best thing to do for
Aretha, it really was the best thing to do for me.”
Katzen says, “There’s an element of being a mother to these kids that
helps my creativity. They inspire me to explore the big spiritual questions
– the questions of being. Having children was an opportunity to give and
receive love in a way no other experience could. And I didn’t want to go
through life without that.”
Neither do I. If I’d had a child before I became a writer, I might never
have become one. Just as I knew there was a part of myself I could only
know through writing, I now sense there’s a part of myself I can
only know by becoming a parent.
“That’s the beauty of not having a child,” Otto says. “You didn’t even
know that your heart was closed.”