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."