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The Choice and Challenge of Being a Writer-Parent

PUBLISHED: May 24, 2013


Poets & Writers (March/April 2013)

Poets & Writers (March/April 2013)


A recent issue of Poets & Writers features the married writing couple Victor LaValle and Emily Raboteau. “Books and Babies,” the magazine says on the cover. How do writers balance it all?

The article focuses on six writers: Raboteau, LaValle, Christa Parravani, Anthony Swofford, Fiona Gardner, and Uche Nduka. While each of these writers offer valuable insights about how their lives have changed since becoming parents, what the article fails to address are the practical concerns these writers face. In the six pages dedicated to the topic of “Books and Babies,” only one reference is made to “teaching schedules.” But this could mean many things. Are they adjuncts? Do they have tenure? Do all of them teach or do some of them stay home with their kids? Do some write full-time? Do they sell their plasma? Though the article repeatedly refers to “the demands of being an artist,” the specific nature of these demands is never named or explained.

The article further neglects any discussion of daycare, babysitters, housekeepers, nannies, family support, help from neighbors or any of the other (often expensive) networks on which working parents have come to depend. While some attention is paid to the imbalance of demands placed upon female writers over male writers, just what those demands are and how these writers resolved them—by relying on family for help, by typing while breastfeeding?—remains unstated. We learn simply that these writers mustered energy and found that being “stuck in the house for the rest of the evening” helped to facilitate writing work.

Rather than explore the financial challenges to being a writer-parent (and thus opening up a conversation about these concerns), the article focuses exclusively on the nonmaterial. We learn about these writers’ feelings (“complicated”), their spousal dynamic (“supportive partner with similar values”), the effect of parenthood on one’s writing (“motherhood changes one’s writing” and “made their writing better”), and concerns over the prospect of their children reading their work (“anxious”).

How can we talk about “life with babies” if we don’t talk about the economic dimensions of the experience? When interviewing writers about this topic, I found that it is in fact not the disruption to writing time that worries writers the most. Rather, adding more financial demands to lives already defined by financial instability was a pressing factor. Many writers I spoke to would be unable to afford childcare.

“My partner and I live a modest but comfortable life,” says 29-year-old Laura Van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. “We would need a lot more money to raise a child. What feels like a windfall for us now would go toward covering bare necessities if we had a child.”

D., a 34-year-old writer based in San Antonio, Texas, told me, “I work 6 days a week to pay my bills and survive. I have almost no income left over, little to no time for housework … I try to carve out 30 minutes to an hour of [writing] time a day, but I know a child would monopolize the little time or money I currently have.”

“Writing,” says Cathy Elcik, a 37-year-old writer in Boston, “is done in what most other people call their leisure time. My vacations are usually built around writing. I look forward to days off where the hours stretch out writing.” Elcik, who is deeply conflicted about whether or not to have children, says, “When you’re a writer, there’s the wage job and then you go home and the writing competes with family life. What wins in that battle for hours?”

Writers who give talks, do readings, and attend conferences may feel additional uneasiness at the prospect of a child at home. Van den Berg, who cobbles together a salary from multiple gigs, says that having children would require that she “curtail traveling—which is, when traveling for paid events, an important part of my income.”

Lack of financial resources invariably leads to less time available for writing. For many, the prospect of putting writing aside, even temporarily, leads to a real fear over personal well-being. Yael Goldstein-Love, 35, author of The Passion of Tasha Darksy, says, “I’ve never managed to go more than a week without working on some piece of fiction. I’m unmoored when I don’t have a fictional world taking shape inside of me.” Similarly, Elcik told me, “When I’m not writing … the depression that is always at the edge of my mind gets storm clouds.” D. echoed the sentiment: “When I don’t write I feel like a stranger in my own body … Rarely writing would undoubtedly make me suicidal or homicidal. I’m not saying this for comedic effect either. I have a medical history of anxiety and depression.”

The Poets & Writers article is not unique. When it comes to articles about balancing writing with kids, it’s tough to find frank discussion about money and time. On writer Cari Luna’s blog, Luna invited 22 parent-writers to discuss their experiences. Geraldine Brooks says, “My writing job starts when the school bus arrives. I watch from the kitchen window as it pulls away and pour a fresh cup of coffee. On the way to my study, I pick up the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I let it fall open at random and read whatever poem I find. Then, pump primed by those buffed and honed words, I sit down to work.”

Whether Brooks is supporting herself and her family through her many books, articles, teaching, or all of the above is not clear.

Other writer-parents do make reference to financial circumstance, yet their experiences are often discussed in terms of luck. Sophie Littlefield says, “When my children were twelve and fourteen I made the decision to write full-time. I was lucky in that I had been a stay-at-home parent and our household was supported by my husband’s salary.”

Jane Smiley says, “I should stress that I was living first in Iowa City and then in Ames, Iowa. Ames was a uniquely great place to write and have kids, because Iowa State had a great child development program, and the daycare in town was very up to date and wonderful … I was lucky to live in Ames.”

This emphasis on luck, or atypical circumstance, seems to imply that for the average writer hoping to balance income-earning work with writing and parenting, only one solution is available: be lucky.

In her introduction to the series, Luna raises the question, “How to balance writing the novels with editing other people’s books for money?” It’s a great question. But she quickly dismisses the issue by saying, “That’s a different story.”

On the contrary, for the majority of writers who have kids or are thinking about having kids, balancing paying work with writing work while also raising a child is the entire story.

Because the conversation about having children is often framed in terms of values and attitudes as opposed to economic conditions, many writers I have spoken to feel that the decision not to have children makes them appear selfish, self-absorbed, overly ambitious, or cold-hearted.

Thirty-year-old Kelly Davio, author of Burn This House and editor of The Los Angeles Review, asked me, “Is it wrong not to invest energy in a child? Does it make me a bad person?” Similarly 48-year-old J. of British Columbia, who says that she’s felt that her “lifestyle was not very suitable to having kids” told me, “I guess in a way it is being selfish for my own goals in life.” And 37-year-old Ilan Mochari, author of Zinsky the Obscure, who feels that he would “be much more open to becoming a parent if I had disposable income and the time it creates” referred to his “next long handwritten draft” as “self-absorbed” in comparison to starting a family.

Yet all of the writers I talked to, far from being selfish, have thought quite seriously about a potential child’s best interests. For many, writing time is not just a means to getting ahead in one’s career or to publish, but a necessity on par with food and shelter. All of the writers I spoke to worry about the quality of childcare they could provide, knowing full well that children are needing and deserving of such care.

When articles about being a writer-parent do not address financial dimensions of this experience, many writers wind up feeling quite alone in the decision-making process. D., whose undergraduate and graduate school debt totals $88,000, told me, “If a publisher gave me $500,000 to publish my manuscript, I would likely get pregnant in the next two years. That amount of money would allow me to pay off my school debt, not have to work full time, and provide me with more writing time … Until I answered [your] questions, I wasn’t aware the extent to which my choices were situation-based.”

Elcik said she feels the pressure of “a choice against a person you’ve never met [versus] an art that’s fed your soul through the balance of the shittiest lows in your life…When you sacrifice a child at the altar of your book, there’s a pressure for it to be fucking phenomenal. Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert can decide not to have kids, fine, but who the fuck are you with your story that three people will read.”

Goldstein-Love also remains unsure—and her mother, who is also a novelist, worries for her. “She thinks it would be a big mistake for me not to have children, given how much I want them.” Goldstein-Love, who grew up watching her mother “turn out gorgeous novel after gorgeous novel” never thought she would have to decide between writing and motherhood. Yet she says, “If I had financial stability—either through my own work or my partner’s—I’d have had children years ago. I’m 35 and neither my partner nor I make enough money to support a child, and I’m not sure when we will. My partner knows how much I want a child, and he supports me in that desire in the sense of saying that, yeah, when we have some more money we can try to have kids.”

Naturally, not all child-free writers have agonized over the decision. Van den Berg has expressed no desire to have children. Davio told me, “I’ve always had a very clear vision for what I want from my life: a loving partner, the time to write, and fulfilling work.”

Of course, there is no one right answer for everyone. Each writer must make the writing life—with or without kids—viable in his or her own way. Still, any conversation about balancing parenthood with writing ought to include the specific circumstances of writers’ lives.


About the author: Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review and a founding member of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Her fiction has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, The Somerville Arts Council and awards from Briar Cliff Review, Byline Magazine and was listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Stories of 2013. Other stories have appeared in Hobart, Eclipse, Folio, Night Train, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. In 2011 and 2012, The Review Review was named “Best of the Best” among Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers. She teaches at Grub Street in Boston.


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Andrew Scottt's picture
»A recent issue of Poets & Writers features writer Victor LaValle and his pregnant wife, Emily Raboteau. “Books and Babies,” the magazine says on the cover. How do writers balance it all?« So Mr. LaValle is allowed to be a writer in this opening, but Ms. Raboteau is not? Be fair, please. Ms. Raboteau should be called a writer immediately; failing that, Mr. LaValle should instead become “sperm-provider” in the first line. Seriously, there are at least 10 ways to let readers know these two individuals are writers expecting a child without falling into such a problematic introduction. Yes, we’re told Ms. Raboteau is a writer in the second paragraph, but that only reinforces the suggestion that her writing is secondary to her uterus.
Jane Friedman's picture
Thanks for the feedback, Andrew. We’ve updated the intro to avoid any implication that Raboteau’s writing is secondary in her life.
Lisa Romeo's picture
Thanks for addressing this. I had similar reaction to the P&W article. Many times my writing students and/or editing clients – most have FT day jobs and children too – get depressed about how long it’s taking them to finish a project and are tempted to compare their situation to other writers who (to their eyes) seem to churn out a lot more material in less time. I have to remind them of all the ways many other writers are *lucky* – not needing a day job because of spouses who earn substantial salaries; parents /in-laws providing free childcare, or being able to afford childcare when school is not in session; teaching schedules that allow (and/’or make it mandatory) to write, etc. Yet, I’m also continually impressed by writers who have kids, day jobs, and even care for elderly relatives and still *find* (steal?) the time to write. Which makes me think that contemplating the impact of a child on the writing time/financial resources would put anyone off…yet once a family is formed, parents (particularly mothers) who are writers are extremely adept at incorporating the writing. Somehow, the writing gets done. More slowly, but that old expression (Need something done, ask a busy person) is something I see in action every day. Sometimes in my own house!
Adam Stumacher's picture
Adam Stumacher · 10 years ago
Thanks for an engaging post. I had similar concerns about the Poets and Writers piece, and you do an excellent job of discussing that article’s failure to address the economic realities that most writer-parents face. That said, this post exhibits a bias of its own, as only authors who chose not to have children are interviewed here. Plenty of folks who aren’t particularly wealthy or “lucky” find a way to balance the demands of writing and parenthood. By failing to include these voices, this post presents the reader with a false choice.
Jenn De Leon's picture
Jenn De Leon · 10 years ago
Thanks for sharing, Becky. I agree that the decision to have children–for writers and non-writers alike–is complex and personal, and yes, includes factors that include finances. However, I wonder how people define ‘financial stability’ in this conversation. Are we talking about providing (organic) food on the table? Private school tuition? The latest Uggs for our daughters? I find myself reacting to this post–and the Poets & Writers article–less as a new mother and more as someone who did not grow up with shared definitions of ‘wealth.’ Wow, that was a lot to type while breastfeeding!
Jennifer Niesslein's picture
I think P&W didn’t address the economics because it’s a huge issue that affects people in all walks of life. Ann Crittenden does a really excellent job of laying it out her book *The Price of Motherhood.* Slightly off-topic, but there are some organizations that help artist-parents. This year the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund is accepting grant applications from poets and writers of creative nonfiction. (The money can be used for childcare.) The Sustainable Arts Foundation and Pen Parentis also offer grants.
Cari Luna's picture
The economic challenges are very real for most of us, but, as Lisa says in her comment above, “Somehow, the writing gets done.” The nature of my blog series leaves it to each participant to share what they choose of their parenting/writing experiences. It’s interesting to note how seldom money issues are discussed. Perhaps because, as a society, we aren’t comfortable talking about our personal financial situation in so public a way? I suspect that’s why I shied away from it in my introductory post, though it wasn’t a wholly conscious choice. I agree, though, that a frank, open conversation about the various ways writer-parents are able to (or fail to) address the economic realities and make time and space for their writing would be useful. It’s a conversation I’d be glad to take part in.
Hannah's picture
Hannah · 10 years ago
Argh. story of my life. Working full time, sending my first poetry manuscript out to contest. Meanwhile, baby is screaming his head off.
Catherine Elcik's picture
Catherine Elcik · 10 years ago
Given that much of the literature on work-life balance is inherently skewed toward the assumption that that balance includes children, I for one was happy to be invited to comment in an article that focused on a minority who is told every day in myriad ways that our choice is somehow a confusion of priorities, and that basically we will come to our senses. And I take issue with the idea that everyone quoted in the article has chosen not to have children. I’m 38 now and still deciding with the added pressure of a clock winding down. It’s a deeply painful choice with a maze of shades of greys to lose myself in every month. Kudos to Becky Tuch for staking out some space for the minority view.
Becky T.'s picture
Thanks for these very thoughtful comments, guys. I interviewed people who don’t (yet) have children because I wanted to show how heavily economic factors weigh on their-decision process. When the prevailing literature doesn’t address financial concerns, or offers vague sentiments about how to deal with financial problems, it presents a false view of what it really means to juggle writing with raising kids. Cari Luna, I’m so grateful for your comments. I would love to see the conversation grow on your blog. Jenn, always glad to hear ideas. Varied concepts of ‘wealth’ is a truly meaningful conversation. What I’m talking about here, however, is people trying to put food on the table and pay their rent while also fulfilling their creative dreams and raising a family. To suggest that fears over one’s ‘financial stability’ are invariably fears about not having organic food or not having the latest Uggs is to dismiss very real concerns that people have about basic forms of survival. Adam, interesting feedback. I make no claims about people having to choose one thing or another. Rather, I am simply arguing that if we want to understand how writers actually “balance it all,” then we need to look not just at the writing/parenting balance but at the writing/parenting/earning-money balance. Obviously, “be lucky” is not a proper solution to financial concerns. So then where are the frank conversations about financial challenges writer-parents face? Lisa, thanks for your feedback. Yes, writer-parents who make it work are nothing short of inspirational. Jennifer, thanks for the book recommendation and the info about grants. Hannah, good luck with your poetry manuscript! :)
Becky T.'s picture
P.S. Jenn, I didn’t mean to imply that your comments were dismissive! (You’re one of the most sensitive people to these issues that I know.) Rather, just pointing out that what’s really at stake in the conversation concerning ‘financial stability’ is not luxury items but basic goods such as housing, health care, etc.
Amber Kelly-Anderson's picture
Interesting take on this topic. Although I dabbled in writing at a young age, I didn’t really start my career (if it can be called that) until I was already having kids. As a full time professor, my writing career has grown as my children have. It means that my writing time is highly scheduled with the help of a supportive spouse. Saturday mornings and early weekday mornings are for catching up on writing, completing revisions for my editors, and any professional correspondence. Creative pieces get written during summer and Christmas break (one of the blessings of academia) and revised/submitted during the school year. The one element that I find most challenging is trying to create a longer work. There just isn’t the time while my kids are young. It is also disappointing that I can’t run off to every conference or literary event that I’d like to because of practical matters. But on the upside, it does keep my writing time focused because I know it is precious. Thanks for looking at an important element of this issue.
Kerry Gans's picture
Having children is a personal decision for everyone in any job, and writers are no exception. I have a 3-year-old and the time I need to dedicate to her is enormous. I can usually squeeze a couple of hours a day out to write–and that’s without needing to work outside the home. So, yes, your writing time goes away very fast when you have a kid. That is one of the reasons we decided to stop at one child. I had always wanted 2, but after I had my first I realized that my few precious hours a day of writing would disappear completely with two children. And–selfish or not–I knew I did not want that to happen. I am most fulfilled when I can write, and I firmly believe that the best parents are those who feel fulfilled in themselves. And I also knew I would not be happy identifying only as MOM. I need to be someone outside of my maternal ID. So we’re sticking with one, and as much as it broke my heart to make the decision at the time, it is the right one for us.
Erika D.'s picture
There are so many sentiments that I want to second here, particularly the idea that work-life balance is something that a lot of (most?) people struggle with (not just writers, and not just parents) and the notion that definitions vary (one example I’ll contribute: “financial stability” means something quite different to parents of children who have disabilities/special needs than it does to those with typically-developing offspring). And yes, it’s refreshing to see included here voices of writers who don’t have children, whether they may yet become parents or not. It’s funny, but every time I begin to write additional comments that might incorporate some of my own circumstances and deep (if sometimes conflicted) feelings about the matters embedded in this post and in other people’s comments, I end up dissatisfied with what I’ve written. Which maybe means that I need to find/take the time and mental space to really work through my thoughts in writing. We’ll see. Right now, my lunch hour (at a traditional full-time, year-round office job) is about to end!

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