Can a childless novelist write about moms?

An early reader of my new novel Up Beaver Creek, coming out in June, thanked me for writing about a woman who has no children. My protagonist, who calls herself PD, is unable to conceive with her husband. They are starting to look into adoption when he is diagnosed with cancer. He dies, and she moves west to the Oregon coast to start a new life as a musician. Lots of things happen along the way to make it interesting, but none of it is about having babies.

PD meets a colorful group of new friends, including a lesbian couple, a bipolar man who has created a garden out of glass and cast-offs, a young soprano who becomes her best friend, and a music store owner who likes to jam.

Most of the characters don’t have children. Even for those who do, the children do not play a big role in this book. Did I do this on purpose? No, I think it’s the just the way I see life. I do not live in the circle of mothers and grandmothers. I occupy the circle of women who live alone. Occasionally those circles cross. Is this a handicap? Can I write about something I have never experienced? I worry about that sometimes.

Ages ago, I wrote a never-to-be-published novel titled Alice in Babyland. I was still fertile back then. Our main character, Alice, is surrounded by people having babies. It’s driving her nuts. It’s not a very good novel, but it’s how I was feeling at the time.

My published novel Azorean Dreams ends with Chelsea and Simão getting married and preparing to “start a family.” You just know they’re going to have a flock of Portuguese kids. But readers will have to imagine that part.

I have been rewriting another novel I’m calling Rum and Coke. The characters do have children. One of them is pregnant. I’m struggling to get it right, to make the children real people and the relationships and challenges among parents, grandparents and kids authentic. I will never know how it feels from the inside, only from the outside. There are a lot of other things I have never experienced. I count on research, observation, and imagination to write about them. Can I do that with motherhood? I sure hope so.

Think about the books you have read or, if you don’t read books, the movies and TV shows you watch. How often are people portrayed as permanently childless by choice or by chance? We see a lot of single parents and a lot of couples with kids, but how many do we see without children?

The book I just finished reading yesterday, Hot Season by Susan DeFreitas, has no children, but the characters are mostly college students under age 25. Presumably, they’ll think about that later. In the book before that, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, nobody was talking about babies, either, but Louisa was very young, and Will was a quadriplegic contemplating suicide. The focus was on making him want to stay alive. I have ordered the sequel, After You. We’ll see if babies show up there. (If you have read it, don’t tell me.)

Is the tide turning? Are we getting more books where the characters are not moms and dads? Is fiction beginning to reflect the fact that one out of five women in the U.S. and other developed nations is not having children and the number seems to be growing?

I’m pleased to offer PD as a strong, childless woman. I hope that not being a mother doesn’t mean I can’t write about mothers or anyone else.

Your thoughts?

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8 thoughts on “Can a childless novelist write about moms?

  1. Hi Sue, I am so pleased to hear of your upcoming book and that it includes a woman of strength. In my view, the fact she is childless is secondary. I do believe that more stories are beginning to incorporate women who are childless. Did you see “By the sea” with Pitt/Jolie? I can’t recommend it. If you’re going to do a movie or write a book about infertility, it’s no service to fellow womanhood to display the character as out of control and willing to hurt another person. Depressed? Sure. Sad? Of course. Make them real but not pitiful, like a lost and confused puppy in a rain puddle. Most women I know in this position are incredibly strong and have accomplished a great deal in spite of the monumental personal setbacks they have experienced.

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  2. I definitely feel that a woman without children can write a book that includes motherhood or parenting. As you said, there are so many things that we may not have personally experienced in life, but we still know about them and can still write about them. It may be from a different perspective, but there are so many perspectives. I think it is fair to say, that even if you had 10 authors who were mothers that wrote stories which included children, that their perspectives would all vary. I enjoyed reading a book that included a woman who did not have children, as it made it relatable to me. I believe that even women with children will appreciate it, because it is a woman that lives differently than they do and for many mothers, I imagine, it may be a good change of pace.

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  3. Does a writer have to be a murderer in order to write about murder? Nope. Unless there are a lot more murderers out there than I realised! I really hope we will start seeing more representation of childless people in books, films, on TV. And not that tragic unhappy ending that seems to be the only narrative offered. Good luck with your writing – I’m going to check out your book. x

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  4. I really, really want to say yes of course an author can write about being a mum without being one. But Im not really sure. I have no birth children, not by choice. I was a foster carer for 4+ years, with 4 kids aged 8 to 18.

    I felt things and did things as a foster carer that I never would have thought, I cared and loved more than I thought possible. I felt that “other” sort of love people talk about. I was angry when people hurt the kids, I ached when they were in emotional pain. I went from saying that I would never mess about cutting up apples for kids (if they want it, they can bite it, eh?), to cutting it up because I wanted them to eat it.

    I got to learn about the latest toy fads, characters in their TV programmes and novels. And how they felt the need for the latest must have items to fit in at school. I was so, so busy. Always thinking about the next grocery shop, how was I going to get them all to places they need to be at different times, remember to fill in the reply slips for activities at school, to fit everything in.

    It was an experience like no other. It was several years ago now and I’m starting to forget how it felt. How I felt. I am grateful I had the chance to do it, although when it ended I suffered alot of pain for a long time.

    Can you write about it without having experienced it. The practicalities I think, probably yes. The emotional side, less so. You could take whatvothers have said and re-present it perhaps.

    If you turn the question around, how would we feel about a mother, perhaps with several children writing about our childlessness and how it feels to live this life. Could they do it justice?

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