“[If Susan Sontag] had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters—would she have been the same writer?” Lauren Sandler asked the question in a recent piece on The Atlantic entitled “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid”. It did not go over well with authors Zadie Smith, Aimee Phan, or Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley, among others who left comments on the post critiquing Sandler’s thesis.
I am Jane Smiley. I have written 23 books. I won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. My last novel, Private Life, was named best novel of the year by the Atlantic in 2010. I have been short-listed for the Orange Prize (Horse Heaven). I have three children of my own and two stepchildren.
I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque?
Interestingly, the New York Times ran a similar opinion piece just a day after Sandler’s. In “Progress At Work, But Mothers Still Pay a Price“, writer Stephanie Coontz highlights research that shows a “motherhood penalty”. Specifically, she writes:
Much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women. Motherhood, writes the sociologist Joya Misra, is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States. According to her research, conducted with Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.
But the motherhood penalty is not just related to the tendency of mothers to cut back their work hours because of lack of child care or other family support systems that allow them to continue working full time. The sociologist Shelley Correll at Stanford University points out that mothers earn 5 percent less per hour, per child, than comparable workers who are childless women. They are also less likely to be hired if they leave or try to change jobs.
As a writer who doesn’t yet have children, I don’t know what to make of articles like these or others like it. On the one hand, there’s the feeling that “if you make the choice to have children, lady, you are going to pay for it.” The decision, and the culpability for a supposedly lackluster career, lies with the woman.
Conversely, there is little discussion about the realization many women (and men) come to (sometimes right around the time they decide to start a family) that life in the C-suite is not that awesome. In her bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg notes that many women “lean back” when they begin to focus on finding a partner and/or having children saying they end up creating a situation in which their job is unfulfilling by the time they realize their goal of having family, but Anne Marie Slaughter’s viral article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” highlights the very real workplace demands that often fight with the demands of parenting at the highest tiers of working life.
There is also little respect paid to our mothers’ who had more children on average than we did and were able to get shit done. Said “shit” may not have been running a company or a country, but many juggled jobs/careers with marriage and parenting, and managed to make it work in spite of little to no help from our fathers and unsupportive employment laws.
Either way, it’s time this conversation expands to factor in the men who make us mothers. Whether a couple decides to have one child or ten (like Dickens), no matter what career they’re in, they will have to make adjustments, choices, and sacrifices. Some will be model parents even as they soar to the heights of their careers in spite of the challenges. Others will be content to leave work at work come quitting time and concentrate on the business of raising their children. Many in between will struggle to find a manageable balance between domestic desire and career ambition. Furthermore, most will find themselves moving between the different states at different times.
But, to be clear, I don’t believe a writer’s success hinges upon how many, or few, children they decide to have. Alice Walker may have believed “with one [child] you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.” But that was Alice Walker. And maybe the same is true for Sandler. But not so for me (when I have my kids). And not so for Smith or Smiley as they reminded Sandler in the comments, or Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steel, Stephenie Meyer, Mary Higgins Clark, Isabel Allende (most of whom are among the most powerful authors in print), et al.