Reading My Way to a Decision About Motherhood

I always thought I would have kids someday. I wanted a baby before I turned 30, I used to say. But as I approached and then sailed past that arbitrary deadline, I became less and less sure. Motherhood always sounded like something that another version of me would be ready for, someday. But then real life caught up with that hypothetical “someday,” and I wasn’t ready. I loved the life my husband I had built together—quiet evenings at home with our two cats, international trips every year or two. A home office devoted entirely to my writing; a career that I clawed and scraped my way into, in which reading and writing are the central focus of my life. Did I really want to upend all of that?

This doubt crept in slowly, until it grew into a near-constant internal debate. My husband was wavering, too, but without the urgency to make a decision that I felt. We talked ourselves in circles about it, never arriving at anything even resembling a decision. So eventually I decided to look where I always look when I want to understand something: books.

At first, searching for books about motherhood felt overwhelming—there are so very many out there. I eliminated the self-help and how-to, looking only to novels and memoirs—I wanted to glimpse the experience of motherhood as closely as I could vicariously, to step into the lives of mothers, real or fictional (especially mothers who are also artists or writers). I wanted, basically, for someone to show me, in detail, what my life would look like if I had a child, and how I would feel about it. I wanted a crystal ball, and books felt like the closest I was going to get.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill book cover

The book that’s most often quoted in conversations about women who want both children and art in their lives is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, so I started there.

When I got to the oft-quoted line, it rippled through me like nausea, or jealousy. I underlined, like I know so many women before me had: “My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

I do marvel sometimes at how I ended up sharing my apartment and my life with another human being—even another adult, whom I love. I sometimes resent his attempts to talk to me about logistical things, or his day, or whatever is on his mind, while I’m doing the silent, invisible work of writing something in my mind. I imagined those intrusions multiplied and amplified a thousand times by the presence of a child. I recoiled.

In the line, “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits,” I see a desire to be comfortable with these intrusions. A desire to want less. But I don’t want less. I don’t even want to want less.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti book cover

“Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself,” writes Sheila Heti in Motherhood.

For most of Motherhood, I nodded along, yes, yes this is what it feels like to be trapped inside this indecision. But then near the end, the narrator pushes through this dark tunnel of uncertainty. She describes reaching the other side: “The time for deciding has passed. I can’t say it outright, or accept that I have missed my chance, or that I did everything in my power to miss it—that I wanted to miss my chance. That it was a chance I never wanted, yet I felt obligated to consider it—to consider it until the very last second—before turning away.”

She continues: “I held fast against the wave that tried to sweep me into its slumber—the slumber that makes babies—for it’s certainly a kind of slumber to do what nature wants. To have avoided its grasp feels as blissful and intimate as having a child, but the opposite of a child, in how what I’ve won can hardly be seen.”

I caught my breath and read that passage again. I realized that I’d been imagining that if I decide not to have children, that would mean always living with a certain amount of doubt; that I’d be forever waiting for the regret to sink in. The idea that the indecision could come to an end without that end being either motherhood or this anticipation of regret (if not regret itself) felt like a revelation. This passage pulled at my own desire more firmly than any description of motherhood had yet. What I want, more than I want a child or a childfree life, is to make a decision and feel sure it was the right one.

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen book cover

Rivka Galchen’s fragmented memoir Little Labors offers some hope in the opposite direction. She describes something that I’ve imagined as the best possible outcome of motherhood as a writer, on the days when I imagine it optimistically: “The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma [what she calls her baby] made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”

Galchen provided a glimpse of the ideal I was almost afraid to hope for: that motherhood and art could not only coexist, but nurture each other. But then later in the book, she also nails one of my greatest sources of anxiety about becoming a mother-writer: guilt over the closed office door. Of memoirs written by children of writers, Galchen notes: “There is a certain consistency of complaint, I have noticed, among these memoirs: the child comes to show something to the writer-parent, who is writing in a room during the day-time hours, and the writer-parent says to the child, I can’t right now, I’m working. There are also often descriptions of the looming, hostile, uncompromising door of the home office.”

This is part of what I dread: that even if I managed to hold onto my work through the storm of motherhood, it would forever be weighed down with an anchor of guilt. My work is the most free, joyful part of my life. I hate the idea of apologizing for it.

The Blue Jay's Dance by Louise Erdrich book cover

Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance presents an idyllic image of the mother-artist: “The ability to look at reality with an unflinching mother’s eye, while at the same time guarding a helpless life, gives the best of women’s work a savage coherence.”

On the other hand, she acknowledges: “Reliable birth control is one of the best things that’s happened to contemporary literature.” The books that have gone unwritten in favor of childrearing stretched endless on a shelf in my mind.

A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk book cover

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work was the cold-water plunge of tough love in this stack of books. “It is when the baby sleeps that I liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life,” she writes with such longing that I feel the urge to grip my current life with all my strength and refuse to let anyone—including myself, and my hormones, and my desires—take it from me.

“I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like, and I wonder whether as a gender we contain a Darwinian stop upon our powers of expression, our ability to render the truth of this subject,” Cusk writes. I’ve long wondered this, and it’s part of why I turned to books—expecting more honesty from books than from conversations. Who will admit, when asked directly, that they regret parenthood? That’s one of those things you’re not allowed to say. But maybe, I thought, if left alone with hundreds of pages to tell the truth in, a writer might be brutally honest. Cusk doesn’t exactly say that she regrets motherhood, but she sure doesn’t try to smooth the edges of her discomfort, either.

Bring Down the Little Birds by Carmen Giménez book cover

Carmen Giménez’s Bring Down the Little Birds has a similar unvarnished feeling of derangement, or estrangement from the self. She describes the claustrophobic constriction of time: “In alone time I remember pre-motherhood alone time, how vast and useless it was. Today I get two and a half hours in which to work.” But she also articulates a bigger, deeper, more existential challenge to the writer self—not only a lack of time, but a shuffling of priorities so the writing self is not only squeezed out of the schedule, but out of the psyche. “I couldn’t write: my fire had been rerouted,” she puts it simply.

This splitting of desire is the real fear. If it were purely an issue of logistics and scheduling, I wouldn’t be so afraid. I wrote a book while bartending full time and editing part time and writing multiple freelance articles a week. Time can be found. But what if that drive, that unrelenting desire to write, is eclipsed? Who would I be then?

Splinters by Leslie Jamison book cover

And most recently, Leslie Jamison’s Splinters affirmed my greatest fears and most tender hopes, all at once. Jamison captures the beautiful, small moments, like her 13-month-old daughter picking a Cheerio up off of the floor and tenderly offering it to her mother, more vividly than anyone else I’d read. The moments of heart-bursting love for a tiny person that everyone promises will outweigh the hard stuff—this love that’s supposed to be worth the rest. But she simultaneously shows just how hard the hard stuff is; like the fact that her daughter tried to feed her that floor-Cheerio because she was delirious with flu but still had to be on duty as a mother, so she was supervising play time while lying on the floor and shivering with fever.

Jamison offers the counterpoint to Galchen’s image of writers’ children forever scarred by the closed office door: “M. F. K. Fisher’s daughter once said one of her strongest memories from childhood was the click-clack of her mother’s typewriter after she went to bed at night. For the rest of her life, that sound made her fall asleep better than any other—made her feel at peace, at home.”

But also: “The first day I left my daughter to write, when she was four months old, felt like planning the logistics of a coup,” and “I felt more like half a mother and half a teacher, constantly reaching for each identity as if it were a dangling toy—mother, teacher, mother, teacher—until the elastic tether of the other self snapped me away again.”

None of these books were exactly the crystal ball I’d hoped for, letting me glimpse my own potential future—though I saw glimmers of it in each of them.

What this reading project helped make tangible for me, though, is that it’s not a question of either loving motherhood or resenting the sacrifices it requires; of either being happy or miserable; fulfilled or floundering. The likeliest answer seems to be is that all of these things will coexist, running alongside each other. This feels obvious in retrospect; is, in fact, what the mothers I know in real life have told me. But still I went looking for a more clear-cut answer. What these books gave me instead, individually and as a chorus, was a firm insistence that no such clear-cut answer exists—either in a decision about motherhood or in the experience of motherhood.

One last quote from Rachel Cusk says it all: “Like all loves this one has a conflicted core, a grain of torment that buffs the pearl of pleasure; unlike other loves, this conflict has no possibility of resolution.”

And, of course, even while writing about how much more difficult it is to write with children than without them—all of these writer-mothers finished and published these books in which their struggle is represented, while mothering. That in itself feels like a message of reassurance from one potential future.

Little Mother

Even before she lost custody she questioned her maternal drive


Job Title: Mother/grandmother to a professional triathlete and her family while they travel internationally