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.
Because of the demands on your time?
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.