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.

 

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Childless and Keeping My Secret

So, we’re at this restaurant, sitting outside, a big happy group of writers attending a workshop at the University of Arizona. Each of us submitted a prize-winning essay to get here. All day, we have been discussing the craft of writing and the writing life. We feel like equals despite varying ages and the fact that we come from all over the U.S. But now, the workshop on break, cocktails in hand, I realize that everyone is talking about their children. They’re talking schools, toddlers vs. teens, funny and frustrating things their kids do. They’re showing pictures on their phones. Suddenly I don’t fit in.

Seated in the corner, I smile and nod as if I too left a house full of kids at home. I do not want to confess that I am different, so I eat my salmon and cornbread and pretend I’m not. I also don’t admit that I do not struggle to find time to write. I struggle to fill the bottomless well of time I have at home when it’s just me and the dog. They know my husband died because that’s what my essay is about. Bad enough that I’m a widow and I’m one of the oldest people here. I am not going to tell them I don’t have children.

After dinner, I volunteer to walk the two miles back to the campus with the young, fast-walking group. I struggle to keep up, but I’ll be damned if I say it. I can do this. I can fit in.

Are you ever embarrassed because you don’t have kids? Do you ever pretend you do? It’s easy when you’re among relative strangers. Everyone assumes people of a certain age are parents until you tell them otherwise.

I’m not proud of being childless. I feel like I messed up. Truly. I didn’t make motherhood happen. No matter how successful I might be otherwise, there’s this moment when a colleague asks, “How old are your kids (or grandkids) and I have to admit that I never had any. I’m not one of the childless-by-choice people who boast about not having children, who say, “I never wanted any, and I’m happy with my life.” With the implied if you don’t approve, that’s your problem.

To be honest, most people don’t react much when I tell them. They go back to their own conversations, and I go back to smiling and nodding. I can share a little bit in the conversation. I helped raise my stepchildren, I do have a niece and nephew, and hey, I was a kid once. But it’s not the same.

As I was getting on the plane to come home to Oregon, I overheard a conversation in which two strangers discovered they were both going to Portland to welcome new grandchildren. Sigh.

Do you ever feel like you need to hide the fact that you don’t have children? When does this happen? Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad and gotten caught? Please share in the comments. Let me know I’m not alone.

*************

In spite of a few awkward moments, I had a wonderful trip to Tucson. The weather was perfect, the workshop was wonderful, and I got to spend time with my husband’s cousin Adrienne and her husband John, delightful people I look forward to seeing again soon. They gave me a room, a car, and food and let me bask in the sun after months of Oregon rain. For more about my Arizona adventure, visit my Unleashed in Oregon blog.

Thank you to Lisa Manterfield for enriching the blog last week with your great post about aging without children. Let’s all support Lisa by following her Life Without Baby blog and buying her book. I’ll be posting a review soon and adding it to our resource list.

 

 

Can a childless author write believably about motherhood?

Can a childless woman write believable stories about pregnancy, babies and raising children? That’s something I often wonder as I write my novels and stories. In my most recent book, nobody has babies. My main character, PD, and her late husband were never able to conceive. The people she interacts with either don’t have kids or have children who are grown up. That’s pretty much what my life is like, too, although PD’s story is not about me.
I recently read a wonderful book by Oregon author Monica Drake called The Stud Book. It’s not what you think. The title comes from the records zookeepers keep of the animals’ mating and breeding activities. However, in addition to the zoo animals the character Sarah is monitoring, she and her friends are all dealing with babies. Sarah keeps having miscarriages but desperately wants a baby. Georgie just gave birth to her first child, and Nyla has two older kids but is now pregnant again. The author, who is a mom, describes their experiences in such great detail that it’s obvious she has experienced this stuff. The chapters about Georgie and her new baby are so real they must have been based on real life. Drake seems to know exactly how the C-section stitches feel, how the breasts feel when she’s nursing, and how it feels when the baby’s skin touches her own.
I don’t know these things. I can guess. I can imagine. I can ask other people to describe them. I can read and search the Internet, but down deep, I’m faking it. Does that mean I can never create fictional characters who have babies? Then again, can I write about men, people of color, people of different religions, people working jobs I’ve never done, or people younger or older than I am? I hope, with enough imagination and research, I can write about all kinds of fictional characters, but I wonder if that’s true.
What do you think?