Is a childless writer handicapped?

Is a writer–or any artist–without children lacking an important component for her art? Can she ever portray a complete human experience without having experienced giving birth and raising children? On the other hand, can a mother ever be free to fully pursue her art?

This discussion, which never ends, came up recently after the death of bestselling Irish author Maeve Binchy. Most of the news articles mentioned her childlessness. In an essay in the Daily Telegraph, writer Amanda Craig argued that Binchy would have been a better writer if she had been a mother, giving her a “deeper understanding of human nature.” Binchy, who struggled with infertility, had written about how much she wanted children but was unable to have them. It wasn’t a choice for her. But did it make her less of a writer? Many famous authors of the past, including Virginia Woolf, the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen, were childless. In their day, it was believed you couldn’t be both a successful writer and a mother. Which argument is right?

For me, I admit I have some gaps in my knowledge. At a meeting last night, things moved into talk about doing a program at the local schools. Suddenly the parents in our group had all these suggestions that obviously came from their experiences with their kids. I felt like a guy must feel in a discussion about makeup: clueless.

Although I haven’t had the same experiences, I have been a child, growing up with other children. I have been a stepmother, and I have been around other people’s kids and families all my life. That has to count for something. If I wanted to volunteer at the school, I could learn what those people at the meeting know. I have also raised dogs–which makes parents of humans roll their eyes–but this week, as I’m treating Annie’s third ear infection this year, I feel pretty darned motherly. (It’s getting much better, thank you.)

Let’s look at the other side of the equation. Because I live alone with my dog, I have been able to spend my day like this: I got up when I felt like it, did a little accounting before eating a leisurely breakfast with no one else to feed, spent over an hour playing the piano and starting to write a new song before going to a doctor’s appointment, decided on the spur of the moment to take myself to lunch at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the ocean, then came home and spent the next three hours finishing the song. Even without children, I have never had so much uninterrupted time. For songwriting, I need complete concentration. I need to be able to keep going over the song, smoothing out the bumps until I can sing and play it with confidence, and that takes hours.

Whether it’s writing, music, art or whatever our passion, it is easier without children. Of course, when we’re done, we wish we had somebody to share it with, but let’s be honest. A childless woman has a lot more freedom to create. Whatever grief or loss we might feel, that is a blessing for which we should be grateful.

Your thoughts? 

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11 thoughts on “Is a childless writer handicapped?

  1. It IS possible to be a mother without giving birth, of course. As a foster parent, then as an adoptive parent, I learned far more about myself and about life than in any other context. Ten years later, I'm still learning.

    Motherhood teaches you about love in a way that few other experiences can . . . or at least, few experiences have for me. I didn't become a mother until I was 38, so it could be argued that somehow I might have picked up on some of these life lessons anyway. But most of them are directly linked to motherhood. There's nothing quite like having a captive audience to put things in perspective.

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  2. Maeve Binchy
    “Her novels, which were translated into 37 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide… was mourned as the passing of Ireland's best-loved and most recognisable writer. Her books have outsold those of other Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien and Roddy Doyle. Recognised for her “total absence of malice” and generosity to other writers, she finished ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Stephen King in a 2000 poll for World Book Day. “

    but never mind all that…let the MommyBloggers/media obsess over ” but did she have children? did she *understand*?”

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  3. The experiences are bound to be different. I've had all sorts of interesting-deep-etc experiences, emotions, spiritual happenings since becoming stepmom to an older child, and then more-new-different ones since becoming a biological mom. I've also had more-new-different experiences since my husband got a traumatic brain injury.

    I think mother-writers are interesting to women now because for so many years, writing was supposed to be a Guy Thing. Most of the women who broke into writing novels and such were childless, and so now it's considered exciting that we're supposed to

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  4. Magdalen, I think you're right. It was supposed to be a guy thing, so much so that some of the early women writers wrote under male pseudonyms. Perhaps being childless was part of the idea that you needed to be man or act like a man to succeed as a writer. Thank God things have changed now, even if we do see a you-have-to-have-kids-to-get-it backlash.
    BTW, I'm sorry about your husband's brain injury. That has to be tough.

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  5. I have wondered this same thing about women writers but many writer write about things they haven't experienced. I think 'mommy' bloggers forget writers were kids once too.
    While some may say they experience a love like never before being a mother, being childless has opened up my eyes and mind. For eg, I never knew there was a such thing a childless by choice. If I had become a parent, I may not have been so open minded. Like most women 40ish, I was raised to believe women only had one path in life. And if I was to be a parent by some miracle, I would still be respectful of other people's choices.

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  6. Great post. I can't imagine anyone reading Jane Eyre and thinking Charlotte Bronte didn't understand the full human experience, regardless of being childless. Just one more reason I admire her so much!

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  7. Childfree and childless women are stereotyped as cold, loveless, and incapable of emotion. It's like you can't feel anything unless you've had a baby. No-one would place this standard upon a man.

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  8. Really interesting post. I went on a writing course for a day recently and the entire class was made up of women with only myself and one other lady there not having children. For the first half an hour the women with children discussed how many kids they had, what their children's names were amongst a whole lot of other mum things. I felt totally excluded until someone had the forethought to ask a really good question “so what are people writing at the moment?” I wish mothers didn't need to feel the need to bond firstly over there children. Whilst I felt excluded it made me realise how full my life was with so many other things unrelated to kids. That is what I bring to my writing a totally exceptionally different point of view. As important as anyone with children's point of view. I would actually turn the question around and ask what amazing learnng and life experiences do you miss by following the well trodden path of having children?

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  9. Thank you, Anonymous May 15, for your wonderful comment. I really like that we have a totally exceptionally different point of view. It gives me comfort and will make others feel better, too.

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