Have you ever heard of May Sarton? Sarton, who lived from 1912 to 1995, was a poet, novelist and memoirist in an era when most women stayed home and had babies. She published more than 50 books. I recently read her Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973. It describes a year she lived alone in a small town in New Hampshire. Although she battled loneliness and depression, she was convinced that solitude was essential to her career as a writer. She did not see how she could have succeeded if she were married and had children. The demands of motherhood did not allow the necessary time, energy or focus. Although many friends visited and she often went out for public appearances or to spend time with a mystery lover she called X, she was always anxious to be alone again.
A wonderful list of Sarton quotes at Goodreads.com includes this one: “It is harder for women, perhaps to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented… the cry not so much for a ‘a room of one’s own’ as time of one’s own.”
I found myself having a lot in common with Sarton, except that I still believe it is possible to write and raise children. The early years might be difficult, but once the kids start school, you have guaranteed hours when someone else is taking care of them. It worked for me those years when Fred’s youngest son lived with us. He was just turning 12 when he moved in, and he was a self-sufficient kind of boy, so I was able to work all day on my own writing and my job writing for a local newspaper. I could have become more involved in Michael’s life, volunteering at school, baking cookies, or whatever, but my work was always a high priority. I often think God planned for me to be childless, so I could be a writer. Too often I burn dinner while I’m engrossed in my work. How would I care for a baby?
Of course, many moms these days need a job outside the home, and that makes it hard to do anything else. Sarton was wealthy. She had a maid, gardeners and a handyman taking care of things around the house while she spent hours perfecting a line of poetry.
Then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for Eat, Pray, Love and several other books. Readers of her work know she chose to be childless. In an interview for Omega, she says she struggled with her decision. Motherhood seemed to be the natural path, but it didn’t feel right for her. She finally decided, “Okay, this is my path. I’ll take it with its risks and with its liberation because it’s mine.” Her decision, which left her free to travel, write and explore, feels more right every year, she says.
A lot changed between 1973, when the women’s movement was just beginning to blossom, and 2015. Women have more choices these days in lifestyles, careers, and reproductive decisions. Perhaps if they switched eras, Sarton and Gilbert would have made different choices.
What do you think? Can you devote yourself completely to your career and be a mother, too? Has not having children given you freedom to do things you wouldn’t have been able to do if you were raising a family? Or have you put everything on hold while still hoping to have children? Please comment.