Photo by Judith Ebenstein

On Parenthood, Writing and Money

The calculations of a freelance life

Lauren Sandler—whose book about only children, One and Only, I reviewed for The New Republic—has been on the receiving end of some backlash after publishing a piece on the Atlantic’s website about women writers who had only one child. The essay is hobbled by the inflammatory headline: “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” I read the piece as a musing on Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, et. al, rather than an insistence that the best female writers are mothers of onlies. But other women writers who are mothers of multiple children, like Jane Smiley, Rebecca Mead and Zadie Smith disagreed. “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd,” Smith says in the comments to Sandler’s piece.

Indeed, that is absurd. And when the firestorms about pieces like this erupt, we miss the actual point that Sandler’s book makes, which is that more children need more resources (Smith makes this point, too, eventually). I’m nowhere near the caliber of writer as Smith or Smiley. And I can only speak for myself on the calculations that go into having more children when you already have one.

I’ve already written ad nauseam about my complicated pregnancy and so I won’t recap that in full here. The gist of it is that for most of my pregnancy I was out of commission as a writer. My family took a financial hit because I couldn’t earn money for a chunk of the year, and we only got by because my husband has a steady white collar job with health insurance.

After my daughter was born, I went back to work after five weeks. Freelancers don’t get maternity leave, and not only did we need the cash, but my feelings of worth as a writer are quite tied up in whether or not I’m earning money from my work. This has to do, in part, with knowing how vulnerable women are when they have to rely exclusively on their husbands for support (this is no comment on my marriage, which is strong. Merely a historical feeling that makes me uneasy. As my beloved Oma always said, “A woman should have her own money”).

We currently have childcare 32 hours a week. That is what we can comfortably afford, and that is my writing time. Sometimes my parents come and pitch in on Fridays when I have a lot of work, because I am lucky to have retired folks who live nearby. I often work nights after my daughter goes to sleep, because I am also lucky to have a kid who is a regular sleeper. My husband is a wonderful partner and he takes my daughter fully in the mornings if I have a deadline. He can’t get home from work until after our daughter is asleep most nights so I have her in the evenings until she goes to sleep.

Before my daughter was born, I had a full time job and wrote a novel on top of that, without taking any time off for book leave. I would love to write another book, but I need to earn money, right now, to help pay for that 32 hours a week of child care. I can’t afford to spend time writing something that might not sell. I’m happy with that tradeoff, and I love the work I am doing right now. I guess I could write a novel in some of the time I spend with my daughter, or seeing friends, or watching TV, or running, but I don’t want to. We all make our choices.

I can’t (and won’t) tell you the calculations that go through my husband’s head when he’s thinking about whether we have a second child. But I can tell you some of what goes through my head. Can I give up another year of writing, if I get as sick as I did with my first pregnancy? Can we afford childcare for that 32 hours a week with a second child? Will those free hours I steal in the evenings to write disappear if we have another? Will I just be too tired to care about writing another book five years from now after we emerge from the exhausting fog of caring for small children? And that doesn’t even get into the expense of having kids once they’re in school, and what that means for our future, and for our ultimate potential retirement.

When, in the course of this conversation about parenting and creativity, people Tweet things like, “A lot of parent-writers write at 3am before going to a job, or after the kids are in bed. Choices, sacrifice,” it just ups the martyrdom stakes. I don’t doubt that some parents can function after waking up at 3 a.m, and that it’s worth it to them to do so. But I don’t know that that’s something we should all aspire to—it’s not something I aspire to, at least. I think both my parenting and my writing would suffer if I were burning myself out like that. This is becoming more than a woman’s problem, by the way—as it should be. I think creative men who are fathers also make these calculations.

I want to reiterate that these are high fucking class problems to have. We’re financially secure, we’re never worried about where our next meal is coming from, I can freelance and see a lot of my awesome kid because my husband has health insurance. I’m ridiculously privileged that I get to pursue a creative career in the first place. There are a lot of women writers who are a lot more talented than I am who don’t have that kind of security, who also want to have kids or already have them. But when we get lost in these pointless discussions of what is the “right” number of kids we lose sight of what this issue, ultimately, is really about.

It’s about money, and privilege. If we had all the money in the world, I would have another kid tomorrow. Maybe another two kids, I don’t know! But I’m glad Sandler’s book exists because it gives me a framework to think about these issues, and it’s given me license to think the thought—maybe I don’t want more kids because it would be too difficult to write and enjoy our life—without making me feel like a horrible mother and/or person.