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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Motherhood: the Ultimate Writing Accessory?

August 6th, 2012 at 23:08

The Frisky pointed to an article in the Telegraph by Amanda Craig about Maeve Binchy’s career, and the difference between women writers who are mothers and those who are not.

At first, coming in on a wave of The Frisky’s outrage, I thought it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. After all, it did acknowledge a whole bunch of pros and cons for juggling writing and motherhood, and seemed to be balanced. But the more I read, the less balanced it seemed. Because it’s not as it turns out an article about how women are screwed no matter what they do (though that is the ultimate message). It’s an article about how women writers who are also mothers are simultaneously a suffering underclass, and a tribe representing superiority.

How about this:

No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child. One reason why so many contemporary women writers have focused on this is that it is new territory, precisely because the great female writers of the past had not experienced it.

So much wrong with this. Never mind the exclusion of the male parenting experience, or the ridiculous romanticisation of mother love, but I’m sorry, are you really saying that NO great women writers of the past were mothers, or wrote about motherhood? It’s not that novels by mothers about children were automatically considered ‘slight’ or ‘domestic’ and ignored by academics or anything?

It’s hard being a mother and a writer. I know this fact quite intimately. (It doesn’t make me a better writer any more than having one arm in a plaster cast while typing would make me a better writer, though it does make me a more tired writer) But I also know that in a hundred different ways, it’s easier now to be a mother and a writer than it ever was in the past.

That doesn’t mean that all women writers are obliged to represent motherhood. No one would actually think that was an acceptable thing to say in this day and age, would they?

What I took from that article is – women can’t win. Women writers who are not mothers are going to be pointed to because of their ‘childless state,’ and maybe taken less seriously because of that, but women writers who are mothers are going to have to fight AS WELL to be taken seriously in both spheres. The same is true for any working mothers, actually, lest we forget the continuing use of the term ‘mommybloggers,’ or the way that the Australian prime minister is constantly harangued by the media and the public for not having children that they can complain she is neglecting. (so selfish of her, they could have filled so many pages whingeing about those imaginary neglected children!)

This article, to my mind, isn’t just suggesting that Maeve Binchy’s writing was somehow missing something because she hadn’t had the experience of squeezing a baby out of her vagina and keeping it alive for the next eighteen years, but is ALSO suggesting that women who don’t have children but write novels somehow have an unfair advantage over those who do both. As if they are cheating at life.

Maeve Binchy was an awesome, intelligent lady who wrote hugely successful books and was beloved by her whole community as well as her friends and family. She had a long and rich life and gave so much joy to so many people. Why on earth would anyone think it was appropriate to write now about how she didn’t “have it all”?

Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer. I make no moral claims for motherhood ­— which can bring out the worst in a person, in the form of vicarious rivalry, bitchiness, envy and even mental illness — but going through the ring of fire does change you and bring about a deeper understanding of human nature.

Um, so does experiencing front line combat, or climbing a mountain, or surviving a devastating bushfire, or running a marathon, or I don’t know, achieving your life’s desire to write and publish excellent novels. But it’s amazing how many people don’t have their lack of those experiences discussed at great length. We don’t talk about how Jane Austen never shot and skinned her own deer, or George Eliot was crap at whitewater rafting, or the Brontes never drove a Mini Cooper.

Seriously, they never ONCE drove a Mini Cooper. How can we claim their books are good when they never experienced everything that humanity has to offer?

The idea that Maeve Binchy might have written deeper, more enlightening novels, had she experienced motherhood, is patronising and awful. The idea that maybe she wrote about the WRONG THING because her books weren’t about parenting is bizarre and offensive. You would never hear anyone say either of those things about a man. But you can bet that had Binchy been a mother, that motherhood would have at some point been used as a stick to beat her, either for not being a good enough writer or not being a good enough mother or, as with Enid Blyton or any number of other women, both.

We’ve had hundreds of years of women’s writing being dismissed for being too domestic, and the most interesting thing Amanda Craig can think of to write about a writer like Binchy is that she wasn’t domestic enough?

That’s pretty bloody shameful.

Check out these obituaries of Maeve Binchy, which talk about her rich life, wonderful personality, and how much she was loved by her family and friends. The life she had, and the laughter she inspired. This is how she should be remembered.

Oh and if you are female, Karen Healey wants you to tell her why you’re awesome. Hopefully you’ll find that thread as inspiring as I did, and a necessary antidote to the ridiculousness at the Telegraph.

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6 Responses to “Motherhood: the Ultimate Writing Accessory?”

  1. Susan Loyal Says:

    I’m trying to remember one single Binchy novel where the parent-child relationship isn’t significant, and I’m failing. I never noticed a lack of verisimilitude.

    I will now, forever, envision Charlotte Bronte driving a Mini Cooper across the moors at high speed, laughing. (If only Mr. Rochester had given Jane the keys to a Mini Cooper instead of a pearl necklace! But then she would likiely have felt compelled to leave the keys behind and take the coach anyway. Silly creature.) The idea of Emily in a Mini Cooper is simply too frightening. Wet pavement, wild night, high speed, bad crash, here we come.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Funnily enough, Binchy was a child once if not a parent, so could cover that experience. (Also a lifetime of observation and imagination probably helped, essential tools of the trade)

    Emily would totally crash the car.

  3. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Can’t get a picture of a gun toting Austen out of my head. Wonderfully written article, perhaps you should write for the telegraph. But then its all about site hits for them isn’t it.

  4. catsparx Says:

    Really fucking well said!

  5. Shelleyrae Says:

    As you say – we can’t win, if we don’t have children we are missing something, if we do have children we are missing something Arghh

  6. Emily Says:

    I like this article – it’s always the females that face this sort of prejudice. I’m a teenage writer, which means that I haven’t experienced motherhood nor many of the experiences an adult would have. Does that mean I can’t write? Of course not. It’s like saying JK Rowling didn’t go to Hogwarts so she can’t write about magic. Ridiculous.

    Thank you for writing this article!

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