The Mommy Wars Just Got Literary

The mommy wars just took a turn for the literary. A couple of weeks ago Lauren Sandler, author of the new book “One and Only: The Freedom of Having and Only Child, and the Joy of Being One,” wrote an essay for the Atlantic about whether keeping families small is the secret to success for many female writers.

It was only when I was working on a book investigating what it means to have, and to be, an only child that I realized how many of the writers I revere had only children themselves. Alongside Sontag: Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis, and more. Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, female artists) should have children. She replied, “They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one.” Why? “Because with one you can move,” she said. “With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”

Bestselling authors like Ayelet Waldman, Jane Smiley and Zadie Smith took to the comments section and Twitter to express their frustration with this notion that being a mom to multiples somehow detracts from a woman’s potential for success.

Zadie Smith wrote in the comments:

I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten - I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon - or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family. As for the issue of singles versus multiples versus none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.

In the end all parties agreed, as Smith points out, that the issue is ultimately the barely existent support mothers get from their governments, partners and communities and not how many children they have.

While, yes, of course, better policies would help, I am not sure the answer is quite that simple. All of Smith’s examples are already established writers who, I assume, have the money, and therefore time, to continue writing. (As for the Dickens and Tolstoy examples, well let’s just say I am fairly certain they never ran to the market with one in the Baby Bjorn and the other in the umbrella stroller because they were out of milk — or their ages’ equivalent.)

For writers like me, those of us who have not achieved enough material success before our childbearing years to supplement a life where we can work exclusively on serious, literary things, I am not sure that simply having better policies is the answer after all. Most of us have to hustle a bit to pay the mortgage and bills and can only hope there is a little leftover to pay for childcare for work that may never yield income. I can say with near confidence that if I stick with one, I will have more money, and therefore time, to do the type of writing I cherish most. All the subsidized daycare in the world is not going to change the fact that, during the early years, children require significant amounts of money and time.

Don’t worry mom and dad, this doesn’t mean no more kids. As one of four it is nearly impossible for me to separate childhood with siblings, and, like most parents, I want to do my best to recreate the magic of my childhood for my kids. But, barring any significant success in the next year or two, will number two likely set me back some? I think so.

Your Stories

  • "I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"

  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

  • "Tu B'Shvat is more than a New Year for Trees -- it is a call to action. To observe Tu B'Shvat isn't to read and pray, but to do, to plant, to place one's hands in contact with the Earth....While we may mark Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day once a year, we are responsible as Jews to act as environmental stewards every day."David Krantz - Aytzim: Ecological Judaism

  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

  • "Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"Rabbi Naomi Levy

  • "The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."Dr. Aryeh Cohen

  • ""I have never felt that repentence, prayer, and tzedakah would change my fate. Rather, I feel that through honest reflection, refinement, and a sense of responsibility, I do have incredible power to affect the decree for others.""Cantor Ellen Dreskin

  • "Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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