Motherhood vs. career: Sigrid Nunez’ take

sigridnunez-bymarionettingerI was sort-of listening to Fresh Air on NPR the other day while going through old photos when I suddenly realized the guest, author Sigrid Nunez, and host Terry Gross, were talking about childlessness. I started taking notes.

Nunez has a new book, The Friend, in which a childless woman inherits a Great Dane left behind by a friend who committed suicide. I’m looking forward to reading it because, you know, dog. Also because it sounds wonderful. Watch this clip of Nunez reading from her book. I think you’ll fall in love with her just like I have.

This is her seventh published novel. I had forgotten Nunez was also one of the authors included in the book Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I reviewed it here at Childless by Marriage in 2015.

In her essay, “The Most Important Thing,” Nunez talks about her decision not to have children. They just didn’t fit with her career, she decided after considering the lives of other woman writers. “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of the highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children,” she observes.

The rest of Nunez’s essay is devoted to great women writers who gave birth to unwanted children, who left their children behind, or who, like Sylvia Plath, were famously anguished at not being able to have both a meaningful career and kids. She did not want to be the mother who shooed away her child because she was busy writing.

On NPR, Nunez, who never married, said she had never had a relationship with a man that felt strong enough to have a child, and she never thought she would be a good single mother.

But unlike many who choose to be “childfree,” Nunez does not downplay the effects of choosing not to have children. Gross asked if people warned her she would regret her choice. Here is here answer:

“Yes, and I think that that’s very reasonable. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, missing having had children is enormous. I don’t – you know, I did what I had to do, or, you know, my life turned out as it has. But it’s never – I’ve never not been aware that in not having been a mother and not having had a child I have missed one of life’s greatest, most interesting, most meaningful experiences. I did. I did. But, you know, you can’t do everything. You can’t have everything.”

That’s not the same as regret, she stressed. She simply knew she could not have the life she wanted as a writer and be the kind of mother she would have wanted to be. Now in her 60s, she admitted she worries about being alone in old age but will just have to deal with it.

So this raises the question, once again: Are there certain careers, especially for women, which are simply not compatible with motherhood? In my Childless by Marriage book, I quoted an artist who said she couldn’t possibly do her art and raise children. I still remember that freezing afternoon when we were both selling our wares at an outdoor fair. She was so sincere she made me feel like a slacker for even asking the question.

At this point in my own life, I’m reluctant to leave my writing and my music even for the dog, so would I really be happy immersed in children and grandchildren? I thought I would be, but I’ll never know. How about you? Do you feel a conflict between career/art/vocation and the possibility of raising children? Do you think, like Nunez, that we might have to choose one or the other?

I look forward to your comments.


5 thoughts on “Motherhood vs. career: Sigrid Nunez’ take

  1. What an interesting interview. I particularly like the thoughtfulness behind Nunez’s comment that she knows she has missed out, but accepts that it was her decision.
    As to your questions, I think there are some women who can and do have the career and become mothers, but there are many more who can’t do both, whether through lack of support, finances, energy, career flexibility, etc. I know there are some who make the decision to be mothers and then are shocked that the career falters. (I always remember a SIL who used to tell me in the 90s that my feminism was no longer relevant. Then she had a baby, and found herself instantly categorised as a mother, rather than a junior partner in her law firm. I think she has different thoughts about feminism these days!)

    I quit my job to become self-employed for a number of reasons, but wanting to become a mother was one of them. I don’t think I regret that, but I wonder if I hadn’t tried to become a mother whether I would have done things differently. I’m pretty sure I would have.


  2. I struggle with the dichotomy of mother and career as I’ve spent many of the formative years of my professional life *trying* to find someone to become a mother with. I also have invested in my career. But I never became a mother and also my career is not where I want it to be. Did I actually end up choosing between trying to have children (and failing) and having a successful career?

    Has my career been impacted by my efforts to find a suitable partner? Yes…likely for better and for worse, I can’t say what the net impact has been. I’ve moved to bigger cities for relationships, but then those moves have also had opportunities open up for my career. Some relationships opened my eyes to challenges I might not have realized I was having in my career, so in some sense they had a positive impact. But grieving lost partnerships and lost future family also brought a lot of emotional effort and struggle that extended over long stretches of time that has significantly impacted the energy I have available to my career.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is as I look back on my path, do I regret putting so much time and effort into finding a partner because of the impact it had on my career? Had I known in my early 20s graduating from college that I would never have a family of my own, would I have made different career decisions over the last many years? I’m not sure…probably? Looking back there is a part of me that would have been relieved at not having to put up with the shenanigans of so many unsuitable men for so many years.

    Do you have to know early on that you won’t have children to have an amazing career? I feel like I’m trying to make the best of both situations (not having kids and not having an amazing career), but neither was a definitive choice.


  3. I am self-employed and I’m currently struggling. I poured myself into my work because children never materialized. A lot of my friends I met through my work. We’ve bonded. Some are mothers, and I’m in awe of anyone who can balance their life enough to nurture children and have a kick-ass career.

    I’m 44 now and I’m finding I don’t care so much about my work anymore. A few business decisions I’ve made have fallen flat because I’m in a rut and can’t seem to catch that energy again. I’ve been sick, and I’m seeing that most of my friend relationships aren’t really all that I built them up to be. I’m just not finding the support. These lovely woman have been awesome to bounce ideas off of. Or to help each other in a jam. Some I felt really close to. But we’re not.

    For me, it’s not so much that I’ve chosen a career over children. But that I’ve completely picked the wrong people to invest in. And now I’m blessed to have a potentially AMAZING career – but I don’t want it. I want tea and books. I want antique jaunts and mountaintops. I want rainy beach days, smelling the tide. And each day that passes I KNOW I have to do something. This career I’ve nurtured isn’t going away. It’s my chain but my lifeline. It’s my freedom and my jail. What if I had children? Would they balance it all out or make it worse? I don’t get the luxury (or I have been spared) the knowledge of how that would have played out.


    • Anon S., it sounds like you want my life here on the Oregon coast. Tea, books, antiques and all. And I can hear the waves from my back yard. It’s tough if you need a job here though. Thank you for sharing this.


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