The Most Important Thing

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016

The Most Important Thing


Sigrid Nunez

THERE WAS A TIME during my childhood when I believed that all children were unwanted. My own mother, a German war bride whose first child had been born out of wedlock, made no secret of the fact that having three children had not been planned, nor was it, for her, something happy making. She and my father had met at the end of World War II, when he was a soldier stationed with the occupying forces in her southern German hometown. She was eighteen years old when the first of her three daughters was born. Not until two years later, when she became pregnant again, did my parents marry (a delay that has never been explained). By the time their second daughter was born, they had moved to New York, first to the Fort Greene housing project in Brooklyn, and a few years later to another, newly built project, on Staten Island, which would be my home from the age of two until I went off to college. The circumstances of her own youth (the war, the too-early pregnancy, the immigration to America with a husband who was in all ways an unsuitable match and whom she considered beneath her) ensured that she would always see herself as unlucky, as someone who had been cheated. Whatever good might come her way from having had a family (and that good would not come before the children were grown), it was the bad that marked her, that made her life what it was.

Part of it—a very large part, surely—was that, like her own mother, she was not a maternal woman. To her, a child, any child, was a brat.

Speaking about one of the neighbors, she would say, “She’s pregnant again,” rolling her eyes in contempt. About someone she’d run into at the mall: “Her stomach is out to there.” As if this were some kind of disgrace. To hear my mother, you would never think expecting a baby could mean anything good, let alone a bundle of joy.

But she was not one of a kind. When I think of the people among whom I grew up, it’s as if I were looking back not fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern beliefs in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun.

I am talking about people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin—people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder. Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children. (Don’t let’s think about the pets.) And just because a child was too young to earn a living didn’t mean he or she couldn’t be put to work. I remember children who spent far more hours doing housework and other chores than at play. In some families, unlike our own, it was understood that such chores took priority over reading, schoolwork, or any kind of study.

Though I can recall many who were good-hearted, I can think of few women in our neighborhood who’d bring to mind the word maternal. The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both, seemed to be anger. It was part of the chaos of that place and time: you never knew when some grown-up was going to fly off the handle. Children were forever being screamed at, sworn at, slapped around, or worse. (Goddamn kids: heard so often we could have been forgiven for thinking that if the Pied Piper of Hamelin had come to town, our parents would not have wept.) The berating or whipping of a child in public, often before a smirking crowd, was nothing rare. And the suffering of anyone subjected to that particular humiliation was so obvious and so dreadful that it was hard to believe the parent inflicting it could possibly also love that child. One girl I knew was so devastated by the experience that she later jumped out a window (thankfully, one low enough that she survived).

My mother was not alone in her habit of attributing almost all errancy on the part of children to malice rather than to carelessness or weakness or ignorance. Children were manipulative; they were little con artists, masters of sophisticated cunning. Outpourings of childish emotion were often dismissed as faking, or just a bid for attention. Even getting sick was viewed with suspicion: You could have made it to the bathroom! In elementary school, many of the teachers also appeared to be stuck in a darker age when children—boys, especially—were seen as nasty by nature, short adults who, unless relentlessly shamed and disciplined, above all corporally (usually by paddling, but I can recall countless episodes of more serious roughing up), were sure to grow up rotten. (The existence of ample proof in that increasingly crime-ridden community that this kind of punishment was having the exact opposite effect of deterrence went ignored.)

At some point, of course, I came to understand that not all children had been unwanted, and that, like people everywhere, most of the parents I knew, the mothers in particular, had counted having a family among their life’s sweetest dreams. The problem for many of them arose from being unable to prevent having more children than they’d wanted, or from having them come along at times when they couldn’t help being more burden—Another mouth to feed! Where’s he gonna sleep?—than blessing. And I began to understand how a person could love his or her children and at the same time deeply resent them. I didn’t ask to be born! How familiar is the defensive child’s self-pitying cry. But I have known many whose lives were formed—or deformed, perhaps I should say—by having been made to feel guilty for all the trouble they caused by coming into the world.

Yet none of this meant that I didn’t want to have children myself. More accurately, I took it for granted that I would. Motherhood was like school; it was inescapable. It went along with marriage—and I didn’t know any girl who imagined a future for herself that didn’t include marriage. It’s true that you could always point to one or two women about whom it was said, “She never married; she was a career girl.” But such women were never held up as models, and if there was something about being a secretary or a teacher or a nurse (pretty much the only careers open to women back then) that was more wonderful than being a wife and mother, it was hard to see what it was. (The oddball female who was content to be married without having kids was invariably described as being too selfish for motherhood, an occupation seen as demanding such great self-sacrifice that it was second only to taking the veil.)

And besides, I liked babies. There was one in particular, the youngest child of the family that lived next door, with whom I was even obsessed. I remember thinking little David was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Whenever he appeared I would stop whatever I was doing to stare at him, wondering equally at his Gerber-baby perfection and at the tumult of wrenching tenderness within. Love. I was eight years old. His mother indulged my plea for a photograph, which became a prized possession. In school I made him the subject of a writing assignment, not a word of which I can remember today. But I never forgot the response—from my teacher and from the principal, to whom she showed it, and from my mother and from David’s mother, to whom my mother showed it. This might have been the first time I understood that if you cared passionately about something and you managed to express it by putting down certain words in a certain order, you could touch people; you could win their praise.

And I would always love children. In fact, I find those who do not strange and even frightening. I get flustered when a person says to me, “I don’t like children.” I was a child, I want to say.

Once, when I was six or seven, walking with my mother down a certain mean Brooklyn street, we passed a group of surly-looking boys gathered on a stoop. As my mother quickened her steps, dragging me along, one of the boys threw something at me: the wooden stick from an ice-cream pop he’d just finished eating. I tugged my mother’s hand. “Mommy, that boy hit me!” Marching on, staring grimly ahead, she addressed me in a voice that was like a slap: “And what do you think I can do about it?” At which a certain knowledge sank into my bones, and with that knowledge a fear that would never wholly leave me.

In Book Three of his autobiographical novel, My Struggle, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the terror his father made him feel—“every single day of my entire childhood”—and how he would console himself with fantasies of dying. About raising his own children, Knausgaard says, “I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.”

I remember that when the time came to think seriously about whether or not to have children, the same idea occurred to me: the crucial thing would be to make sure that they not be afraid of their mother. It was a goal I believed I could achieve. But there was something else. As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe?

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe. But when I looked around, from what I could tell, this could have been said of a lot of people.

It was not that I thought most people were bound to make terrible parents, only that the group that would make ideal parents was surprisingly small—especially given that those who chose to have children far outnumbered those who did not.

I remember a woman, a mentor, who once asked me if I thought I’d make a good mother. When I told her honestly that I didn’t know, she was mightily displeased. It was as if I’d confessed to being a bad person. But I am astonished at those who are unfazed by the prospect of child raising. A male friend of mine, childless but confident, once assured me, “You just give them lots and lots of love.” Perhaps only a man could believe it is as simple as that.

I belong to that generation of American and European women who, having come of age in the 1960s, discovered that so great a gap existed between our mothers and ourselves that we had almost nothing in common. And for us, the lucky daughters, reliable birth control, legal abortion, and changes in attitudes toward a woman’s rights and her place in society brought about possibilities the likes of which women before us could only dream. She never married; she was a career girl (like I see you girls are all alone tonight) was now something to laugh at, a line from some scathing feminist joke.

If I had grown up shaky about the kind of parent I’d make, I believed from early on that I had a vocation to be a writer. Although in my youthful, naive way I gravely underestimated how difficult such a life would be, I stuck to it, and I was steadfast in not letting other things distract me.

No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children. Colette, who wrote beautifully and piercingly about her own mother, gave birth to an unwanted daughter whom she neglected. Doris Lessing declared herself “not the best person” to raise the two young children she left behind when she moved from southern Africa to London to pursue her career. Why? “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”

Another fact hard to ignore: motherhood is one of the most significant as well as one of the most widely shared of all human experiences. In Western culture, it has always been essentially synonymous with womanhood. Yet who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject?

If you were a girl who loved above all to read and write and who could not imagine an adulthood in which these activities did not hold a central place, you probably knew even before puberty that you were headed for conflict. For is it not a truth universally acknowledged that, for a woman, the central place is reserved for her kids?

“And then my children were born,” writes Natalia Ginzburg, in an essay called “My Vocation,” “and when they were very little I could not understand how anyone could sit herself down to write if she had children. I began to feel contempt for my vocation. Now and again I longed for it desperately and felt that I was in exile, but I tried to despise it and make fun of it. I spent my time wondering whether there was sun or not or wind or not so that I could take the children out for a walk.”

There must be thousands of gifted, ambitious women who have been haunted by the case of Sylvia Plath, perhaps none so much as those who came of age around the time of her transformation from a gifted, ambitious, and tragically self-destructive woman into a celebrity feminist myth. The American edition of The Bell Jar, Plath’s only novel, appeared in 1971, eight years after its (pseudonymous) publication in England, where, a month later, at the age of thirty, Plath had killed herself. From that highly autobiographical book and from her many confessional poems, as well as from a collection of letters to her family that was published in 1975, and from the reminiscences by various people that came out in the wake of her death, a horrible-fascinating story emerged.

Here was a woman who could not have been more sensitive to the competing demands of career and family, a woman who appears never to have been without an anguished ambivalence toward motherhood, about which she wrote brilliantly and sometimes hysterically, morbidly. Though genius and pathology set Plath well apart from most other literary aspirants, as from most people in general, it was, for many women, an irresistible temptation to read lessons into that doomed life. That she had wanted to have it all was indisputable. (“I am the girl who wants to be God,” she told her diary.) Fierce ambition was there from the start, the determination to “whip” herself “onward and upward.” Always, the desire to write great things, not merely to succeed but to be famous, immortal. But the rest of life must not be left out. The promising poet must also marry (and the man, it goes without saying, must be someone even smarter and more talented than she) and start making babies while still a dewy young thing. And in all matters having to do with the role of wife and mother, such as cooking and housekeeping, she must also shine. Plath could not bear the thought that her intelligence and ambition might take away from her womanliness. On the other hand, even as a schoolgirl she had worried about future motherhood holding her back from literary achievement, which, for her, meant not just sitting down to write, but being prolific, winning prizes, publishing a best seller.

Like Ginzburg, she would make room for thinking about whether the sun or wind was right for taking the children out for a walk. But to feel contempt for her vocation, to despise or make fun of it, was unthinkable. And she would not be “exiled.” Rather than take time off from work as Ginzburg did, and as so many other mothers of young children do, she would go full speed in the other direction. Writer, supermom, domestic goddess—why couldn’t a woman be all three? Live to the hilt! To the top! The motto of her fellow poet Anne Sexton, who also suffered from mental illness and also took her own life, could have been Plath’s own.

What she seemed not yet to have learned was that it is one thing—and an extremely good thing—to be a perfectionist writer but quite another to be a perfectionist wife and mother because, in the latter case, too much lies outside one’s control.

If she hadn’t given up her first two children, said Lessing—who believed this act of hers had been brave—if instead she’d been forced to spend all her time with them, she would have ended up an alcoholic. I am surely not alone in wondering how different Sylvia Plath’s life might have been if she hadn’t chosen to start a family at the same time that she was trying to launch her career. I had a college professor who, with Plath’s story very much in mind, used to warn her female creative writing students: “You girls all want to set up your domestic lives before your careers, and that’s a mistake.”

It is soothing, then, to consider Virginia Woolf, who, though she, too, suffered from depression and psychotic breaks, and ended up, aged fifty-nine, in the River Ouse, was capable of a kind of contentment and fulfillment that Plath in her much-shorter life never found. Woolf might be called angry, for she was that, and she might be called bitchy, for at times she was that, too. But she was not cruel like Plath. She was not filled with hatred like Plath. She was not as calculating or vengeful or paranoid as Plath, and she does not seem to have been as deranged. Taken as a whole, and despite its grim ending, Woolf’s life strikes us as one of enviable beauty and dignity, full of soaring triumphs and humble, everyday satisfactions. (Having a stable marriage, as Plath did not, was surely a big help.)

Yet Woolf, too, fretted about the kind of woman she was and sometimes beat herself up for being inadequate. A history of mental disorder had led doctors to advise her strongly against having children—advice with which neither she nor her husband quarreled. But still there came a day when she looked back and thought that, in spite of all she had achieved as a writer, not having children meant that her life had been a failure.

I believe that fear of being a failure plays a large part in goading many women who are ambivalent about motherhood into maternity.

That, and the fear of missing out, as neatly put by the narrator of this one-sentence story by Lydia Davis called “A Double Negative”:

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

There is no ignoring society’s expectation that its members shall reproduce. (“Happy Mother’s Day,” a barista automatically greets me, even though I am by myself.) Resisters must be prepared for widespread disapproval and even, in some communities, isolation. Object of curiosity, pity, embarrassment, scorn: I am keenly aware of having been, at one time or another, all of these—though, in my case, I’d say this has had as much to do with my remaining single as with my being childless.

Any person who marries but rejects procreation is seen as unnatural. But a woman who confesses never to have felt the desire for a baby is considered a freak. Women have always been raised to believe they would not be complete and could not be thought to have succeeded in life without the experience of motherhood. (Did Woolf believe that her husband’s life must also be judged a failure for reasons of childlessness? I doubt it.) That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants—and should want—both.

A graduate student of mine tells me, with some heat, “I do plan to have kids one day, but I certainly hope they won’t be the most important thing in my life!”

Am I wrong to think that perhaps, if this is how she feels and continues to feel, she ought at least to consider not having kids?

I can hear her respond, with equal heat, “But that’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to a man.”

In any case, she will learn soon enough that her honesty isn’t likely to be met with understanding. When Michelle Obama (to name just one prominent, accomplished woman) announces, “I’m a mother first,” she is of course saying what most people want to hear. (It is inconceivable that any woman running for public office today could get away with explaining that although she loves her children dearly, for her, being a leader comes first. President Obama has often been heard to say, meaningfully, “I am a father.” No one leans in expecting to hear first.)

Grace Paley once jeered at the idea that had been put over on women that taking care of children was a profession, a specialization, that had to be done perfectly. To her, this reeked of self-importance. “That is not a profession for grown-up people, to bring up one child,” she said. “It’s a joke.”

Jeanette Winterson has said she does not believe her own literary success would have been possible if she had been heterosexual. In an interview she gave to The Paris Review in 1997, she said, “I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children. Where is she?” Speaking of her younger self, Winterson said, “There was a part of me that instinctively knew that in order to be able to pursue my life, which was going to be hard enough anyway, I would be much better off either on my own or with a woman.”

Things have changed since 1997. It is no longer only heterosexual couples who create nuclear families. Still, I imagine countless women nodding when they read on: “The issue of how women are going to live with men and bring up children and perhaps do the work they want to do has in no way been honestly addressed.”

These days you might say the issue has, in fact, been honestly addressed, though without bringing it any closer to being honestly resolved.

Winterson was born in 1959. In the interview, she mentions how for some women of her generation, the solution was thought to be putting off maternity until they were near middle age—more or less my old professor’s advice not to set up your domestic life ahead of your career. What happened to them, Winterson says, was that they ended up exhausted.

A generation later, at least among people I know (mostly other writers, artists, and academics), many more men are involved with child care, and to a far greater extent, than used to be the case. Nevertheless, as we keep getting told—as if we needed to be told—in most American households, the burden of what has always been thought of as woman’s work (known for damn good reason as never done), including the child care, still falls to the woman, whether or not she also works outside the home, whether or not she outearns her husband, whether or not she has, or is trying to have, a career. In fact, there are plenty of working mothers who do 100 percent of the housework. And for every writer father I know whose career is if not thriving, at least progressing, I know a writer mother whose career is stuck or in decline and who is struggling to get by as much as any woman I’ve ever known. Speaking of struggling, I want to add that although women have always written fiction about the experience of taking care of children, it is only with Knausgaard’s Struggle, an international literary hit that contains much minutely detailed description of such things as diaper changing, baby feeding, and dealing with tantrums, that the world has sat up and found this confessional domestic material, now that it is revealed through male eyes, not just worthy of interest but sensational.

Three years before Winterson, Alice Munro also gave an interview to The Paris Review, in which she said: “I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, ’This was a hard-hearted young woman.’” Munro confesses to not having been there for her small children and knowing that they suffered for it. “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other.… This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”

Back to the important thing. What was most important to me. Make no mistake, this was a writer first. More recently, in an interview for The New Yorker, answering a question about whether she considers herself a feminist writer (she does not), Munro says, “I do think it’s plenty hard to be a man. Think if I’d had to support a family, in those early years of failure?”

Here’s my question: Is there any way for a woman in the young Munro’s position to escape being judged—by herself, by the world—as hard-hearted?

All the years when I was considering whether to have a child, I kept wondering how on earth this was supposed to work. It did not help that among older, established writers I knew, there were precious few models. What I saw was a huge group of dysfunctional (mostly divorced) parents whose children all seemed to have problems. It did not help that with each passing childbearing year, I was discovering more and more how incompatible my writing life was with any other kind of life. For one thing, writing turned out to be a torturous process. (I might not have been able to relate directly, but when David Rakoff described writing as being like having his teeth pulled out—through his penis—I thought that I couldn’t have said it better myself.) For another thing, I wanted to write novels, and there was no getting around the fact that novel writing required long stretches of uninterrupted solitude. Many times, just having a man in my life seemed like one person too many, with the relationship inevitably coming between me and my work. And since writing novels is rarely a lucrative profession, like almost all writers, I had to do some other kind of work in order to live, meaning that a substantial amount of time had to be given up to teaching. Finally, it did not help that my career coincided with a period in which the publishing industry has been in a state of chronic instability, not to say crisis, forcing me and most writers I know to accept precariousness and unrelenting anxiety as occupational hazards. All this contributed to my sense that starting a family was as reasonable as building a house on quicksand.

Who knows. If I’d gone ahead and had a child, maybe what happened to Natalia Ginzburg would also have happened to me. I would have begun to feel contempt for writing, my bundle of joy replacing it as the most important thing. This is not impossible for me to imagine. But the picture that comes far more readily to mind is one in which I am typing with one hand and batting a toddler away with the other. And how would I have felt in that situation? I know exactly how I would have felt: angry, frustrated, burning with resentment toward the child, and no doubt toward its father, too. Full of self-loathing, tormented with guilt for having made my child the adversary to my vocation. And if there is one thing I am certain would have destroyed me, it is this conflict.

Because, in the end, it came down to another question I kept asking myself: Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love—oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over. “Children detect things like that,” acknowledged Munro.

Some years ago, my mother, a big animal lover, was devastated by the death of her dog. “You know,” she confessed to me, “I feel worse than I would if you had died.” This is somewhat less awful than it sounds. At the time, she and I had been estranged for years, whereas she and the dog had been companions for almost as long and now its death had left her alone. In fact, even before she said it, imagining how bereft she must feel, I’d had the same thought myself.

My mother was not without kindness or decency. She did not abandon her children or neglect them. But she could not forgive us our existence. (I didn’t ask to be born!) She was human, and we humans always insist that someone must pay for life’s unfairness to us. If nothing else had made me a feminist, this would have been enough: the fate of women like her, forced by society to give their lives to something they neither wanted nor were in any way suited for. Of her three daughters, none would give birth. One decided to adopt; it did not go well.

Mother. “The holiest thing alive,” according to English Romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Our own culture likes to sentimentalize motherhood with a certain kind of mushy tribute, as in those Procter & Gamble “Thank you, Mom” commercials aired during the Olympics. But if being a mom really were something held in high esteem—if it were even regarded with the same respect as other work that people do—women everywhere would probably be a lot happier and more fulfilled than we know them to be.

Now that I have passed the age Woolf was when she died, I can look back and say, thank God, I do not feel that my life has been a failure because I didn’t have children. (A failure in other ways, yes, for other reasons, but not for that one.) To forgo motherhood was the right thing to do. But whether it was a choice I made or one that was made for me is perhaps another question.

“But you love children,” people say to me. Meaning, surely I must have regrets. It is true that I’d rather spend an afternoon hanging out with someone’s kids than with many adults I know. And not too much time passes in the course of my days without my remembering that I have missed one of life’s most significant experiences. But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.