Should a writer have children?
Note: I’m away at the World Science Fiction Convention for the rest of the week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on June 15, 2015.
Early in My Struggle, the extraordinary autobiographical novel in six volumes by Karl Ove Knausgaard, there’s a moment that made me sit up and pay attention. Knausgaard is describing life with his three children, with all the small joys and frustrations it carries, and it culminates on a note of utter despair:
The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure…Every day I see families who successfully organize their lives in this way. The children are clean, their clothes nice, the parents are happy and although once in a while they might raise their voices they never stand there like idiots bawling at them…Why should the fact that I am a writer exclude me from that world? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean our strollers all look like junk we found on a junk heap? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean I turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean that our children do their utmost to get their own way, whatever the consequences? Where does all this mess in our lives come from?
There’s a great deal more in this line—Knausgaard, while an exceptionally graceful writer, doesn’t shy away from repeatedly hammering at the same point—and it leads to a bleak conclusion: “I know I can change all this, I know we too can become that kind of family, but then I would have to want it and in which case life would have to revolve around nothing else. And that is not what I want.” And although I don’t see my own life in such stark terms, I can’t help but feel a glimmer of recognition. When you’re a writer, it’s all you can do to keep your own work under control, and it becomes all that much harder, as I’ve learned firsthand, if you’re simultaneously dealing with the borderline chaos that accompanies a small child, let alone three. Everything becomes a series of compromises: the bed is unmade, the dishes unwashed, and you ignore or live with exactly as much as you can afford. It affects your writing as much as anything, and even if you’re clever about strategizing and managing your time, you’re left with the nagging sense that you’re neither the best parent nor the best writer you could be. And it’s enough to make you wonder if a writer has any business having kids at all. (The fact that the majority of writers do, in fact, appear to have children and a fairly conventional family life doesn’t make the question any less worth asking.)
Really, though, it’s just a special case of the more general issue of how kids fit into a life of simplicity. On simple living forums like the one on Reddit, one of the baseline assumptions seems to be that children don’t have a place in a truly simple life, or at least make it a more difficult proposition. Writers may not have it worse than your average parent—if anything, I’m lucky that I have a job that allows me to spend so much time with my daughter—but the tradeoffs are particularly vivid. Much of a writer’s time is spent guarding the citadel of his or her solitude, not just as a practical matter of finding enough hours to crank out some pages, but to preserve the degree of detachment that the creative process requires. When you’re a parent, that sense of holding yourself apart is obliterated, and your circle of aloneness grows ever smaller in both time and space. Similarly, most writers learn to keep the externals as simple as possible, both as an immediate tactic for survival and as a lifelong strategy for enabling happy accidents. When children arrive, you’re suddenly confronted by enough complications for a second job, and between daycare, toilet training, trips to the doctor and afternoons at the playground, most of your inner resources become devoted to satisfying the demands of the insatiable creature in your house. And you’re already doing that with a novel.
But what I’ve found is that having a child has made my life more simple, not the opposite. It imposes a kind of ruthless editing of the nonessential: one by one, the things that I took for granted have fallen away, from going to the movies to sleeping late, and I’ve found that I don’t really mind. And it forces me into the sort of perpetual engagement with the world—largely through my daughter’s questions about it—that a writer needs more than anybody. When you’re single, or married without kids, you find ways of filling your spare time: few of us can spend more than five or hours writing without burning out, and the rest of the day is occupied with miscellaneous activity. Having children leads to a fundamental reorganization of those free moments. You find yourself streamlining relentlessly, to an extent that wouldn’t occur to you if you didn’t have that internal pressure, until you’re left with work, kids, and not much else. That’s simplification in its purest form, and it leads to a series of renunciations, a letting go of the superfluous, that stick to an extent that they otherwise wouldn’t. If a writer’s psychic goal is strip away the meaningless while focusing intently on the meaningful, having kids is as effective a way as any. It’s not reason alone to have them, and it doesn’t prevent all kinds of complications and compromises from being introduced in the meantime. But if, like Knausgaard, you find yourself with a stroller in your hands and an unwritten book in your brain, you can take consolation in the fact that your life is exactly as simple as it needs to be.