The Soapbox: Yes, Women Writers Without Kids “Understand Human Emotions”

The death of Irish novelist Maeve Binchy earlier this week has inspired a lot of articles, most of them warm tributes to her kind heart, quick wit, and writing ability.

British novelist Amanda Craig took a different tack.

In a piece published today by The Telegraph, she wonders whether Binchy might have been a better writer if she had been a mother. The subtitle is even more blunt, asking: “Does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?”

We’re talking about an author whose books were eagerly awaited worldwide,  turned into Hollywood films, and sold over 40 million copies. And yet any pride she might have felt at those achievements should apparently have been tempered by the knowledge that she neglected to get herself knocked up.

Newsflash: You don’t need to have children to understand human emotions, you just need to not be a psychopath. (I can’t believe that’s a sentence anyone needed to type in 2012.)

As a single, childless woman over 30, I’m reminded on a regular basis that pop culture and many of my acquaintances see lives like mine as self-indulgent tragedies. Meanwhile, motherhood is fetishized to a ridiculous degree in our society, portrayed as not just a personal choice but the most important thing a woman can do.

And now I’m also expected to swallow Craig’s theory that women with babies write the most insightful books?

Even Craig acknowledges that her thinking is flawed, saying: “All novelists who have had children are acutely aware that the very best of our sex — Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf ­— were childless.” I know a few female novelists and none of them seem to obsess over the reproductive history of their literary heroines, but I’ll take Craig’s word for it.

She goes on to say, “All novels are written against seemingly impossible odds, of which having a child is only one.” But then she argues that motherhood is the most challenging situation of all, making the tired argument that childless women’s lives are easier. I know women writers who are sole caregivers for elderly parents, involved in time-consuming volunteer projects, or have more than one job just to pay the rent. I don’t doubt that raising children is an enormous responsibility, but telling women who aren’t in that position that their lives are so charmed they’ll never write a great novel seems like a double-whammy lack of empathy.

Craig also contends that Jane Austen would probably have focused less on romance had she ever gotten married. To which I say: Thank God she didn’t. Pride and Prejudice might have been more relatable to married people but it would hardly have been such an enduring hit had it contained the mundane details of Elizabeth’s life as Mrs. Darcy. Rather than this omission being a failure, it’s what makes the book such great escapism. I don’t need my favorite writers to have children, nor do I need them to write about them. In fact, I think the more women write about non-traditional life experiences and not fitting into traditional gender roles, the better.

Craig’s argument doesn’t just undermine women without children, it insults all of us by taking the focus from our work and our relationships and putting it on our wombs. And by pitting women against women rather than exploring the reasons mothers are often burdened with the majority of domestic tasks, she neatly lets men off the hook.

Speaking of whom, I hardly need to point out (but I will) that men’s output is rarely discussed like this. When a popular male author dies, people line up to talk about his genius, not his child-rearing abilities or lack thereof. The tragedy of David Foster Wallace’s suicide wasn’t that it deprived the world of his children, but of his words, and no-one has ever suggested otherwise.

Craig concludes that Binchy “might have dug deeper, charming less but enlightening more” if she’d had a child. Aside from the fact that discussing how any writer’s work could have been improved on the day of their funeral seems insensitive (not to mention redundant), this is a particularly cruel comment considering that Binchy and her husband were unable to conceive.

It’s probably true that Binchy would have been a different writer if she’d had children. But I can’t agree she would have been a better one.