On fighting sentiment

An extract of an interview in the Paris Review with Louise Erdrich (highlighting is my own):

By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. I hate to ­pigeonhole myself as a writer, but being a female and a mother and a Native American are important aspects of my work, and even more than being mixed blood or Native, it’s difficult to be a mother and a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Because of the demands on your time?

ERDRICH

No, and it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re ­always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time ­because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual. Either you end up writing about terrible things happening to children—as if you could ward them off simply by writing about them—or you tie things up in easily opened packages, or you pull your punches as a writer. All deadfalls to watch for.

Having children also makes it difficult to get out of the house. With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. … There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.

A lot has been written about the challenges of being a mother and a writer (actually, a lot has been written about the challenges of being a mother at the same time as being just about anything else). Lauren Sandler wrote in June in a piece for the Atlantic that perhaps the only way for a female writer to have a successful career while also being a mother was to stop at having only one child (using Margaret Atwood and Susan Sontag as examples). The inevitable backlash was led by Zadie Smith, who said that being a mother was no threat to creativity. And, of course, nobody has ever suggested an optimal number of children that men should have if they are to be successful authors (or have they? If you’ve read something like this, please post a link in the comments – I’d love to read something like: “Dickens had 10 kids. Ergo, to be a really good writer, you should aim for your children to number in the double digits”.)

But Louise Erdrich’s insight is the best explanation I’ve seen for how motherhood can both stem and free a writer’s creativity. And you don’t have to be a novelist to relate to what she’s saying. Increasingly sentimental and afraid of anybody becoming hurt (because everybody, even a fictional character, has/had a mother)? Yip. Feel compelled to write about terrible things happening to children (and to obsess over the terrible things that could happen to my child) as if this could ward off danger? Yes. (Louise Erdrich finds her books consistently being “hijacked” by abandoned children, she says, doubtless because of her own fears of being a bad mother.) And all of this happens on a primal level, totally beyond your (conscious) control? Definitely. Just before and just after having the baby, I was so determined that I wouldn’t change when I became a mother. That just because I had gone through the (really quite routine) experience of procreation, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t still myself – the only thing that was different now was that I had a tiny baby to look after. It hadn’t turned me into a different person.

But, of course, it had. And, despite myself, motherhood continues to change me and my understanding of life. It makes me less self-absorbed, less able to “slack off”, more receptive to everyday kinds of comedy. I’m constantly afraid, and constantly alert – when I’m watching my daughter do mundanely risky things like climbing the jungle gym or crawling down the stairs backwards, I feel like a cat with its ears pricked, ready to spring into action (though in reality my reflexes are far from cat-like, as evidenced by a traumatic tumble my daughter took down five stairs about a month ago while I was standing right next to her. It taught me that top-heavy toddlers fall head-first faster than mothers’ feet can move.)

And, being a mother – mostly – keeps me off the gin.

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56 thoughts on “On fighting sentiment

    1. miche17 Post author

      Thanks, Erin! I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Like I said, I was so convinced that I wouldn’t change at all – and for a while, I’d swear that I hadn’t. But now I look back at the person (and writer) I was before, and I hardly recognise myself. It’s the weirdest thing!

      Reply
  1. macdshrews

    Motherhood seems to be a double-edged sword in so many ways. It has made me both more creative in some ways and more neurotic in many others. Ultimately, though, I think it is has made me a more thoughtful human being, which must count for something in the literary world, right?

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Absolutely! Being more thoughtful and more understanding of people and their motivations not only makes you a nicer person, but it also helps you to create realistic, perfectly flawed, empathetic characters as a writer, I’m sure of it. I know what you mean about being more neurotic! I’ve definitely become more morbid and dwell on things that would never have crossed my mind before.

      Reply
  2. Barbara Rath

    I enjoyed reading this. But rather than writing about terrible things to ward off evil, my issue is I avoid these topics to invoke protection. If I don’t think about them, they won’t happen, right? Perhaps avoidance alerts the protection gods, but it sure makes for boring fiction!

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Thanks for this, Barbara! I think superstition can work both ways, surely? And I must say, it *is* hard to think of good novels in which nothing terrible happens. Except maybe Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse books, where the most awful thing to happen is some shocking social faux pas. But I guess “terrible” is relative.

      Reply
  3. hejafred

    She nailed it! I became a full-time writer after becoming a mom, and wondered why I was always pulling my punches, so to speak, in my writing. “Consistently too tranquil” was a critique of one piece. It’s that instinct to protect from harm. To pad the walls.

    That’s it. Today, I’m gonna go push my kids off a swing set and see what happens. (Just kidding.) Being a mom really has made me more compassionate. I just need to reach past that and not be afraid to put my characters in danger.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Thanks for this super response! I’m so glad this post encouraged you to be braver with your characters. Though I can’t take any responsibility for your pushing your kids off their swings. 😉

      Reply
  4. gemmaloveschocolate

    Great article. I don’t have kids myself, but am on the verge of marriage and at a strange stage where I am holding kids at a distance and wondering whether the dilemma of work versus children is a battle I want to fight. I guess you wouldn’t be living if you didn’t thrust yourself entirely into whatever role you choose to have in life, nor would you know what you might reap from it. Thanks for the insight!

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Thanks for your response! The work vs children battle is really tough – I’m lucky to be in South Africa, where childcare is really quite affordable, and I haven’t had to give up my job, much less my career. But even so, it’s got to a stage now where Lil A’s needs have become so much more complex and I feel like I don’t trust anyone else to shape her personality or development. So it’s a battle that might not be over yet, for me. But that just shows that there’s no right way to approach it – like so many other things in life, you just muddle through as best you can, and keep assessing the situation as time goes by. Best of luck with your decisions – you’re so right, you never know what any role in life will give or take away, and that’s what makes change so exciting and terrifying.

      Reply
  5. R.J. Koehn

    Oh man, yes it changes you. And it definitely affects sensibilities. Just after my first son was born I remember sitting down to watch one of those chasing-after-a-serial-killer shows. A common occurrence in our house. However, this time we found ourselves flinching, and not feeling as interested as usual. It all seemed just too dark and dangerous to watch now that we had an infant in the house. We couldn’t watch shows like that for months…

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      I know exactly what you mean! I tried to start watching the Killing when Lil A was a few months old, and just couldn’t. The idea of brutality and violence directed at a young woman when I so loved my little girl was just too much.

      Reply
  6. brookiebrooke2

    It amazes me how we can stand in such contrast to the person we were just mere days, weeks or months before giving birth.
    I am more prone to happy things now (commercials helped me find that I too had tear ducts!), happy endings, which before would have made my skin crawl and have been found no where in my writing. But now I’m constantly looking to help brighten the possibilities of life for my girl.
    And holy crap, my tiny one fell down the stairs today after I refused to carry her up them. I had mom guilt all day. Meanwhile her father returned her to me months ago with a blue golf ball on her head and a busted lip. Pretty sure he was able to go on with his work day. Not a bad man, just not a mom.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Isn’t it the worst when they fall and hurt themselves? The incident I spoke about in this post, where Lil A fell down five stairs while I was right next to her, left her with big bruises and me with a lingering paranoia about stairs. It hasn’t happened again and it made her more cautious, but whenever I see her going down the stairs, I get pins and needles in my feet and my heart starts racing. My husband was with her when she pulled a trestle table down onto herself and broke her finger when she was 11 months old, and I still don’t think he’s recovered – so I guess some dads also suffer from “mom” guilt.

      Reply
  7. dailydepartures

    motherhood does allow you to look at things with new eyes; also, you look at things through the eyes of your children. seeing things from new and different angles…from different perspectives… this is something you can call upon when you are writing. (not that you can have that skill w/o kids… but in my case, it fostered the ability)

    Reply
  8. SJ

    I’ve gradually realised that being a mother has shaped me as an observant writer, well, as a writer-in-the-making at least. Thanks for your interesting article.

    Reply
  9. thoroughbred24

    Being a mother sends all the blood rushing to your heart!! sometimes the head takes second place and the lioness in us comes out roaring whenever our cub looks to be in danger. your are quite right – it heightens our sensitivity to the world around us, especially as it relates to our child. And yes, sometimes the lioness needs to sit on her hands and let her cub encounter the world around her – but woe betide ANYTHING that stings or bites or plays too rough lol
    A very insightful piece

    Reply
  10. britta326

    I love what she says about “fighting sentimentality” as a mother. On the opposite end of the spectrum of being fearful that someone might get hurt, I find myself being overly sentimental about all those special newborn moments. My kids are still very young so maybe as time goes by and hormones level out, I won’t be so “this is such a beautiful moment” all of the time. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it certainly plays a part in my writing. My youngest is almost a year old and I am definitely starting to get to those “comic scenes” moments, which is fun to play with as a writing mother. Overall, my children inspire me more than anything else, but motherhood intertwined with a writing life is certainly a unique twist of content. Thanks for writing this piece.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      I know what you mean – it’s hard not to be overly sentimental and sappy all the time when you’re faced with so many special little moments. But it’s just as important to keep a sense of humour – sometimes things are so exasperating that all you can do is laugh! Thanks for your response.

      Reply
  11. thedaughterdiaries

    Since becoming a mother, I cry more, empathize more, protect more, lecture more and FEEL more emotionally than I ever thought possible. My two girls are teenagers now, but the need to protect them doesn’t dissipate with time. I agree that this does make me more sentimental as a writer, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I love what you said about “comic scenes” because I think that it’s so important to keep your sense of humor! Parenting is sometimes a comedy circus, and that’s why I simply must share it through blogging!

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      A circus – that’s for sure! Thanks for your response. I wish it had been me who’d had the insight to write about “comic scenes”, but it was Louise Erdrich, in fact, the writer I was quoting. I totally relate to everything she said in that interview, which is why I just had to share it in this post!

      Reply
  12. Erin

    It is so interesting to me how many of us insisted before children that we wouldn’t change after we were parents. I did the same thing, of course, and if I were the same now as I was before children, our family would be in a sad state of affairs. Why does everyone think that the changes that happen as parents are so awful? I suppose when you’re young you don’t want to have to act old and responsible, which is what most parents are. Even so, we were all wrong, the changes are for the best. Great read.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Erin. For me, I think it had a lot to do with the obliteration of me as an individual – which is what I feared would happen as soon as I become a mom. I wouldn’t be Michelle anymore – I’d just be the baby’s mother. As it turned out, though, you’re right, all the changes were for the best. And if anything, becoming a mom made me *more* unique, because I am the only one in the whole world who is mother to Lil A!

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Juggling Family and Writing Commitments… | Mandy Eve Barnett's Official Blog

  14. melibelleintokyo

    Every sentence is such truth, huh. Accurate and banding us together, in our responses, in our reflexes, which despite seeming as taut as a rubber band ready to be fired, can be rather loopy and slack. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who should have prevented my little one’s topple down some stairs. And yay to the sense of humor gained and maintained. Best is that we are writing everything down, keeping a record of all this change. Great post, thanks!

    Reply
  15. Stacy Feyer-Salo

    For me, motherhood has blossomed my creativity. Or maybe it has just forced me to put pen to paper and get something done before the nap is over. Either way, somehow, miraculously, I found a way to harness creativity in my new role of mother.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Wonderful! I think the important thing is getting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) as regularly as possible, even if it is just in the few stolen moments between doing other things!

      Reply
  16. R M Nicholls

    That comment about grabbing a pen before the nap is over made me smile Stacy – I used to have so much time, and now I have to steal moments to write… and I write more.

    Wonderful post, it really resonated with me.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      I know what you mean! It’s the paradox of somehow getting more done the less time you have! Thank you for your comment and letting me know that this post resonated with you. 🙂

      Reply

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