"She was not a mom," writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in Sempre Susan. "Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David's glasses were, she'd pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do." Did Sontag need to be more "momish"? And if she had been—or if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters—would she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?
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."
It's been noted, correctly, that to have Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg currently leading our conversation (one perhaps inadvertently, the other quite intentionally) about how to manage work with motherhood means listening to women who can afford entire staffs of people to care for offspring, at home in Sandberg's case, and even at work in Mayer's. Most women can say, that ain't us, babe. For writers or the rest of struggling and shrinking middle class, how do we render ourselves something other than sitting ducks?
And so I look to Mary McCarthy's gutsy example of how she created a brimming life on a relative shoestring. In a letter to Hardwick and Robert Lowell—which later found its way into one of Lowell's sonnets—McCarthy wrote, "I would long ago come to New York to see a lover, then to see a psychoanalyst, then an editor or publisher, then a lawyer, and finally the dentist. I can't quite make this work out to the Seven Ages of Man." She had taken an apartment in Stuyvesant Square, leaving her husband, Edmund Wilson, and son on Cape Cod, where she would return for weekends. How like a husband of McCarthy, to have spent the workweek in the city, developing her career, nourishing her independence, protecting her privacy, and then joined the other gray flannel suits on the highways and trains leading spouse-ward on Friday afternoons.
Eventually McCarthy left Wilson and took her son with her to Bard College, where she secured a teaching position. She was suddenly a single mother in the sticks. McCarthy would return to the city on weekends, to go to the theater, book parties, dinners with editors and friends. Reuel, her son, would be in tow, but he was dropped off at his father's, or more often at the hotel with one of McCarthy's students as a babysitter. McCarthy and Wilson fought bitterly for his custody of Reuel, who was to stay with McCarthy during the school year and with Wilson during vacations, until boarding school claimed him at age 11. By then, his parents had found partners who, as Wilson's daughter Rosalind put it, "were living for them to a large extent"—partners whose primary job was to attend to life's details so the writing could get done. Rosalind recalls her father saying about McCarthy: "I think she's got her life arranged so she can work." Even with boarding school, a new caretaking husband, and a relatively engaged father, managing her focus with one child was difficult enough. Would the world have known Mary McCarthy with two?
Despite the hundreds of thousands of words McCarthy left behind, she never addressed the question of family size. Neither did Hardwick. "What McCarthy and Hardwick made of their lives over the next three decades—separately, as writers, professional women, wives and mothers and together as friends, comrades, and occasionally angry rivals," writes David Laskin in Partisans, a history of their circle, "speaks volumes about the roles and consciousness of women intellectuals in this era—an era the two of them did a great deal to define."
Like many women, Hardwick found motherhood grueling, though rewarding. When writing about Sylvia Plath, who saw new motherhood as her muse, Hardwick coldly dismissed the notion that women somehow become infinitely more productive and creative upon the birth of a child. It surely didn't help that Lowell himself was wrestling with psychological problems of the most dogged kind, living in and out of institutions as Hardwick attempted to raise young Harriet. When Harriet was three, and Lowell was in no state to parent alone, Hardwick found friends to care for their daughter while she took a two-month trip to Europe. She couldn't abide the notion of canceling the trip in service of maternity, but she did feel an inner conflict. "I'm very excited about the trip, but very reluctant, nearly ill really to leave Harriet, and very reluctant to be flying about everywhere, risking her orphanage," Hardwick wrote in a letter. "It is more myself, my own missing her, and wanting to get back safely that bothers me." Harriet was fine. Hardwick never wrote about herself—overtly—after her doomed marriage to Lowell. Instead, she chose to discuss how other women writers were perplexingly shortchanged by domestic concerns. Its Hardwick's literary criticism that exposes her frustrations with "the text of the family."
It's a text that Joan Didion largely avoided, during her prime, but in the past decade she has opened the curtains on her own life as the mother of an only child. She followed The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of enduring the loss of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, with Blue Nights, a memoir about the subsequent death of her daughter, Quintana. When she and Dunne adopted Quintana just days after her birth, Didion was 31, with a stunning career established. Just before Didion went to claim her child at the hospital, her sister-in-law offered to take her shopping at Saks for a layette and bassinette. "Until the bassinette it had all seemed casual, even blithe, not different in spirit from the Jax jerseys and printed cotton Lilly Pulitzer shifts we were all wearing that year," she writes in Blue Nights. A plan to report in Vietnam was already in place when Didion got the call from the doctor that her daughter had been born. It was 1966, the year the American military presence was to exceed 400,000 soldiers. "It was not widely considered an ideal year to take an infant to southeast Asia, yet it never occurred to me to adjust the plan," she wrote. "We had assignments from magazines, we had credentials, and we had everything we needed. Including, suddenly, a baby." The trip was cancelled not because of the baby, but because Dunne had a book deadline.
Quintana once nailed a list of "Mom's Sayings" to the garage door that read: "Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I'm working." In reviews of Blue Nights, "shush I'm working" became a symbol of Didion's maternal negligence. What's wrong with "shush I'm working?" ("Where was Quintana," quipped Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, "when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents' house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother." Flanagan wrote about her own adventures in parenting and housework while a full-time nanny was caring for her twins.)
I don't think it was Didion's work that can take the blame responsible for Quintana's frustrations and fragility. Despite the fantasy many of us writers have of finding our John Gregory Donne, a partner with whom we can intensely share consuming passions and manuscript drafts, I think the totality of their fulfillment together excluded their daughter. Every only child with happily matched parents experiences the lopsided triangle—especially in what Slouching Towards Bethlehem era psychologist Salvador Minuchin termed an "enmeshed" marriage—but the geometry of the Dunne-Didion home was legendarily acute.
Of course, there's a price as well to being the divorced recipient of maternal intensity. When Sigrid Nunez fell in love with Sontag's son David Rieff, he was still living with his mother on the Upper West Side—the only way they could shack up was if Nunez moved in with her too. The Sontag-Rieff bond was as legendary as the Didion-Donne one, but hardly one we idealize; Sempre Susan could have flowed from Euripides' pen as surely as Nunez's. Still, if the marker of a good mother is to raise a child invested in bettering the world, Rieff's own humanitarian writing and work surely complicates an easy read of his own already complicated narrative. McCarthy's relationship with her son was far less intense, lightened by shared custody with engaged father Edmund Wilson. And despite Robert Lowell's mental illness, it appears that Hardwick's daughter, Harriet, may have had the most relatively untroubled upbringing of all. Hardwick, it seems, tended her child as devotedly as she did her own prose.
These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not "momish"ness—it's not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal. McCarthy once said in an interview with The Paris Review, "I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you're older, I think, is that—how to express this—you really must make the self." That's still true today, for parents, writers, and anyone who believes in the business of living.