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 by vocation: a valid choice?

As I watched the naming of our new pope on the TV in the church office with our pastor and other members of our liturgy committee this morning, I got to thinking about people whose vocations require them to give up marriage and children. Whatever our new pope, Francis I, may be, he is not a biological father (although when he was a priest, people called him “Father.”) About 50 years ago, when he was a young man, he took vows that required him to remain single and celibate for the rest of his life. Catholic nuns and brothers take the same vows. The idea behind this is that they can’t devote themselves fully to both the church and the families they might have.

One might argue (I often do) that women should be allowed to be priests, and that priests should be allowed to be married. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and I do see some logic in total devotion to the church. In fact, a female Episcopal priest I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book is allowed to be married but says she decided she couldn’t be effective as a priest if she was torn between church and family.

We’re not all Catholic, of course, but let’s think about giving up family for vocation. When priests or nuns vow to be celibate, nobody calls them selfish or deluded as they do with us lay people who announce that we’re not having children. Nobody speculates about their fertility. Religion isn’t the only vocation where it’s hard to do one’s work and raise a family, too. I know of many people in the arts and sciences, for example, who have decided to devote themselves to work rather than having children. When I had other people to take care of in my own life, I always felt torn between their needs and my desire to focus on work.

Until modern times, a woman’s only acceptable role was to be a mother, but things have changed. The jobs of priest or pope may be not be open to us, but most other careers are and they might not mesh with motherhood. Is it valid to decide to give up family and focus completely on work? What do you think? Do know anyone who has done this?

There’s a great photo collection on Pinterest of childless/childfree women who have achieved great things. Click here to see it.