author – activist – faculty – mom
So, I’m a novelist and a working mom, which is why it’s taken me weeks to respond to the notable sexism in James Wood’s article “Sins of the Father: Do great novelists make bad parents?” in the July 22nd issue of the New Yorker. I’ve been telling myself to ignore it, because as a working mom and artist, I don’t have time. But for the very same reasons, I can’t seem to let it go.
There are numerous outrages in the article, but I’ll focus on an early question he poses: “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” As a woman trying to do just that, of course, I was curious as to how he would answer the question. I was quite disappointed.
Although it’s not framed as a book review, it turns out that the article is really a comparison of memoirs by children of John Cheever, William Styron, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow. Which is fine, but then the proper question would be: how did four white, heterosexual men from the US, born in the teens and twenties, who were among the most lauded authors of their time do at parenting? The answer was that these four guys did a lousy job in many ways. Another disappointment was that the article didn’t even get into clear specifics of how these families’ lives were financed. Did the mothers wage-earn? Did the male writers have day jobs? Did the writing support the family? Did they have inherited wealth? This was an article about privileged men, but it purported to be universal. I couldn’t really apply the big question to my own life as a novelist and mother, because the article didn’t consider any female writers. I get so outraged that these four men’s lives are supposed to tell me something profound about the human condition, when really they just tell me something predictable about sexism that I already know: men have not historically been expected to do any real parenting, and entire families can be organized around supporting daddy’s work in the world.
Where is Toni Morrison, the single mother who managed to win both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes while working and raising two kids by herself? Where is Pearl S. Buck, who also managed to win both, as a wife and mother who bore and adopted children? In light of these women’s careers, I would ask this alternative question: when will men stop using their “sacred devotion to creativity” as an excuse for why they can’t be bothered with domestic work when women like Morrison and Buck have shown clearly that it can be done? And a follow up: why is it that men’s devotion to their families is posed as a potential threat to their creativity but their alcoholism, drug abuse, womanizing, and just general brooding and self-absorption is not? This is the issue that so many heterosexual couples bump up against when they have a kid: the man still feels entitled to leisure time, but the woman understands that parenting may be a working pre-dawn to late nighttime crash endeavor.
I notice this in my own marriage, as my guy watches Netflix while I hustle to work on my blog entry. Although I would also have leisure time if I wasn’t always writing some pesky novel. The book is going to be great, by the way. So I can answer James Wood’s question easily. Great novelists can make fabulous parents. I’m already a fantastic mom and hope soon to be a wonderful novelist. And here’s the formula. I have enough contemporary female conditioning that I expect to work my ass off in the triple shift of domestic work, wage-earning, and artistic production. Plus I have enough feminism and ambition to fight to make my work successful in the world. But ultimately, my daughter will be the expert at how successful I will have been as a parent. Maybe, thirty years from now, she’ll have written a memoir complaining about growing up in a messy house, being dragged to countless women artists support groups, and co-sleeping in the glow of me reading, writing, and editing on my smartphone at all hours.