I was just gonna bring it up as a quickie, but after thinking a bit and discussing the matter with my cat Demosthenes, I had to expand it. Amanda Craig, noted writer/gestator, wrote an article in the Telegraph, “If Maeve Binchy had been a Mother…” [ellipsis in original] arguing that a recently deceased Irish author, Maeve Binchy, had unwittingly fogged her window and clouded her view of the great safari of life via of her stubborn refusal to spawn.
The fact that Maeve Binchy was unable to have children was not one that Amanda Craig felt was important enough to look up.
More than once, Binchy uses the anachronistic phrase ‘women writers’ unironically. A woman writer!? That kind of ovary-shriveling foolishness just just pops my monocle. So I had two thoughts. The first: why don’t men writers face these problems?
I then pondered: wait, why is “men writers” so jarring to read? Oh, because a man writer is just called a writer! Duh! Unless, of course, he’s a writer specifically about men, like a sports writer writes about sports.
As Craig is herself a writer, I figure she’s familiar with the difference between adjectives and nouns. If she really wants to diminish women who write without looking like a total hack, she should try calling us “writresses”* instead.
Wait, she thinks she’s promoting reproduction?
Maybe I am not giving her enough credit. She could be a brilliant satirist. Craig, in defending motherhood, makes it sound absolutely horrible. Her description sounds so miserable that the only comparable experience I have is when my seventh-grade teacher told me there would be no roller coasters in heaven, but I wouldn’t mind because God would make it so I didn’t want to ride roller coasters anymore. It’s always disturbing when you realize descriptions of heaven sound indistinguishable from those of a 1960s asylum.
She really says this:
And all mothers born in the post-war years have experienced the shock of growing up with all the education and ambition once accorded only to men, then finding it hard even to remember times tables once you’ve had a baby.
What a waste, educating all those girls. All mothers born in her generation experienced the shock of forgetting 7×4. And this experience will make me a better writer because how?
…motherhood…which can bring out the worst in a person, in the form of vicarious rivalry, bitchiness, envy and even mental illness…
So have babies! So you might lose your mind and become a bitch. Big deal. At least you won’t woman-write about boring stuff like relationships with people who aren’t babies.
As a woman human, Craig argues, Binchy owed it to herself and to her audience to tend to a larval human and learn to put herself last. Oh, sure, shirking her feminine duty might have gotten her some stupid awards in her pathetically offspring-deficient twenties, thirties and forties for the writing she selfishly did while babies across the nation soiled themselves and demanded to be fed, but at what cost?!
What did she have to show for it? Stories about friendships between women? Novels about romantic relationships between adults? The satisfaction of a self well-actualized? Boring. She could have had A BABY! Now who will be there to tend to her grave?
Mothering, not parenting.
In case anyone wasn’t clear on the sexism of this theory that women need to parent in order to achieve fully-human status, Craig makes sure to exclude men from this requirement entirely:
These days, when even lesbian authors such as the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Emma Donoghue, writer of the Booker-nominated Room, have children, it is sufficiently rare to be remarked upon.
And you childfree heterosexu-gals don’t want to be weirder than lesbians, do you?
Her linear theory of universal womanhood leaves out a whole lot of women. Transwomen? Check. Intersex women? Check. Infertile women? Check.
Yet the above comment is revealing for leaving out a lot of parents. If it’s the bond between a parent and a child that makes the writer, why she didn’t shame straight male writers into reproducing by invoking gay dads?
The Moral of the Story
The thing ya gotta remember when encountering this argument is that the question “should women be this or that?” is almost always a distraction from the real message: women are open to scrutiny; men aren’t.
If any lingering prejudice against the female sex can be assumed to have vanished, which is debatable, there is no practical difference between a man and a woman writer when the latter has not had children.
Craig explains what an endless time-suck children are, noting that each child has a proposed theoretical opportunity cost of four – FOUR – books! It also, according to Craig, means abandoning the idea of any major awards before age 50. The second shift must be that ‘practical difference.’
Having children interrupts women’s writing, but apparently doesn’t do a thing to men writers. Instead, she takes granted that the men writers will have wives to handle that stuff.
I wonder what their wives would have written if they hadn’t been gaining keen insight into the human condition that only putting yourself last can provide.
I admit, I have an egg in this fallopian tube. I’m a woman; I write; I have birthed no babes. I do not intend to, as I called dibs on my food by eating it and would prefer not to share. I have friendships with men and women. I write about those friendships now.
Perhaps Craig is angry that she paid her dues to the patriarchy, worked the second shift, and left four books unwritten for every child. Perhaps her hand is out grasping in the dark for that promised cookie.
*The his/hers alternation between the suffixes “ter”or neutral/”tress” is common in English, e.g. waiter/waitress, actor/actress. Some examples have fallen out of use due to gender segregation, e.g., seamstress has the male counterpart “seamster” and teamster has the female counterpart “teamstress.” (The fact that the root words end in ‘m’ is what triggers the extra ‘s’ through a process called excrescence). I’m on a personal mission to bring the term ‘hipstress’ for a female hipster into vogue.
Spinster is an interesting exception to this rule. The feminine ‘spinstress’ exists, but it appears to be a relatively recent backformation, perhaps to fill the gap created by the pejoration and subsequent loss of the original meaning (that being, a woman who spins) of the word ‘spinster.’ “Spinster” has had the dual meaning of a woman who spins and an unmarried woman beyond the usual marriageable age for at least six hundred years.
[Edited to correct the author’s name]