I am getting up there in age. Not elderly, by any stretch, but I’m reaching that point where if I want to have a kid I need to start trying tomorrow. But I don’t know if I want to have a child. My biological clock never started ticking, but it did rattle a few times. I don’t have a partner, so there is no one else’s opinion to consider. I like kids, I do. I think I would be a good mother.
My concern, though, is with my career, and I know that is such a cliché! I work in the arts, and after years of struggling I’m only now beginning to establish myself. I worry that having a child would kill whatever future as an artist I might have. Friends have told me horror stories about that, how taking care of a child kills your creativity. Other friends tell me I’d be missing out on the greatest human experience, that it would deepen my work. A decision has to be made, but I don’t know how to start even thinking through the issue.
I am sure that there have been a lot of people quoting Cyril Connolly at you, am I correct? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” It’s a worthless quotation that adds nothing to the conversation, and yet people will want to prattle that out at every mommy war opportunity.
The reason why it’s so difficult to think through your decision is because people keep pretending like there is one way this motherhood thing could go, when in reality there are millions. For every woman writer who just never got around to finishing that novel after having a kid, there is a woman who became a writer only because of her children (Astrid Lindgren), a woman who produced prodigiously despite her children (Penelope Fitzgerald), a woman who had children and then left them in the care of others to focus on work (Muriel Spark), and who knows how many women who decided not to have children for the sake of their careers, only to watch those careers never materialize.
There is no way to know how things will go beforehand. It is one of those great unknowns. And if you’re trying to nurture this tiny, fragile thing into being, and I am of course referring to your career as an artist, it’s no wonder you’re not in the mood for wild experimentation.
That’s why it’s helpful that the others before us did some of their experimentation out loud. We can see how it went for them and adjust our expectations accordingly. Perhaps what you need is a good Worst Case Scenario. See if it puts you off the idea altogether. One such worst case scenario is the story of Rebecca West, and her son Anthony. She, like you, was just starting out in her career as a literary critic. She was beginning to make a name for herself as a woman of letters, and she had many novels which she had not even yet started to conceive.
And then she met H. G. Wells. And she got pregnant. And she had a son, named Anthony. And Wells was married, so West was left alone to raise her child. And she consistently chose her writing career over her son. At least, that’s the way Anthony saw it when he decided to write a lightly fictionalized novel about his childhood. It’s called Heritage, and in it Rebecca becomes Naomi Savage, an actress who throws her son over for any job opportunity that comes her way. “I cannot have my entire life disorganized by that child,” she announces. She is something of a selfish little monster in that book.
Anthony West did not become much of anything, and he deeply blamed his mother for that. He was primarily a drinker and a sometimes writer. Rebecca produced a great number of books and articles, although her reputation was damaged heavily by Anthony and H.G. Wells. She is still as known today for being a bad mother as for being a writer of talent — as evidenced by her most recent biography, harping endlessly as it does on West’s failures as a wife and mother while breezing over much of her literary output.
Heritage is a deeply silly novel, but that is one way it could go. Luckily there are a million others. Once all the conversation, all the debating, all the uninvited input you will get from everyone around you finally dies down, it will come down to a very quiet yes or no. But once you make your decision, you should know that whatever it is, many women have made that decision before. And their stories are here to help you figure out what comes next.
If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at email@example.com.
Illustration by Thea Brine.