Have you seen this cartoon?
Yeah, I know. When someone is wrong on the Internet, trying to convince them (or anyone) they’re wrong is tilting at windmills. But for some issues close to my heart — like working parents, or poetry readings, or now, The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid — I can’t help myself. I just have to pipe up.
And here’s the thing: I’m not even going to try to convince anyone (including you) that anyone’s wrong. I just want to say what I believe. So, here I go:
First, can we agree that the editors at The Atlantic probably chose a headline that was sure to get people’s hackles up? Okay, now that we’ve agreed on that:
Can we stop? Can we stop pretending there’s a secret to being a successful mother-writer? Can we also stop pretending that the secret to being a successful mother-writer is access to affordable childcare and a partner who shares equally in parenting (although I admit this would be pretty sweet)? Can we also stop pretending that being a successful mother-writer is harder than being a successful mother-anything-else? Can we also stop pretending that it’s harder to be a mother-writer than a not-a-mother writer, or a not-a-mother anything else? Can we also stop pretending that there’s a secret to being a successful writer, regardless of motherhood status?
(We will not stop pretending that generations of institutionalized and cultural ideas about women’s roles at home and in the workplace still influence women’s lives because we’re not pretending about that. That’s been pretty well-documented, and we’re working on it, and let’s not stop working on it.)
Would some examples be helpful?
Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a non-mother writer who’s caring for a chronically ill spouse or an aging parent?
Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for my friend who cares for her adult brother with severe mental illness to find time for her life’s work?
Is it harder for me — yes, still a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a writer who has the *Secret Number* — one — child, who happens to be a special-needs child?
I’m thinking no.
Is it harder for me — who just said to her children, to quote Joan Didion: Shush, I’m working. Why don’t you ride your bikes to the park. — to find writing time than a mother of one, who has no playmates on standby? I don’t know, but I kind of don’t think so.
So first off, can we agree that life is very life-like and we all have responsibilities and relationships that tug us away from our life’s work from time to time? Mother, not mother, writer, not writer. Et cetera.
Okay, moving on:
Do we all need better access to affordable childcare, eldercare, family-care? Yes.
Should we all have partners who share equally in parenting and household-running? Probably. Personally, I’m not waiting around for that (although I am trying to influence the next generation in my very own family). My husband, though very supportive in many ways, works a job that requires many hours and lots of travel — he is simply not here to do half of the child-rearing or household-running. Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to be the way upwardly mobile jobs are going in this economy, and I can’t change it in time for it to be different in my near future.
Can we now get back to the question of The Secret to Being a Successful Anything?
Friends, there is no secret. Not for being a successful writer or anything else. There are only two things:
The first is to define success for yourself. If I define success as winning the Yale Younger and then directing the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, I’ll never be successful — I’m too old for the Yale Younger and I haven’t the credentials for academia. Lucky for me, I have my own idea for what it means for me to be a successful writer. Would that success be obtained more easily or quickly if the particulars of my family situation were different? Possibly, but I will never know. We all have one life. This is mine. I’ve never believed that you can have it all — especially not all at the same time — so I’m doing the best I can to have the most important things as I go along.
The second is to be bound and determined. No matter how many kids. No matter if your house just burned down. No matter if your cats are sick, or your spouse is sick, or your job is requiring extra hours right now. Find a way to do your life’s work, whatever it is that you feel called to. There will be bleak seasons, there will be long slogs. There might even be months or years where you’re just only keeping your foot in the door. Yes, you will have to sacrifice. Yes, this requires discipline. No, it is not worth losing your health (physical or mental) over. But find a way.
End of spout. Forgive me. Amen.