The Mother’s Vocation and the Writer’s Life: A Conversation Between Katy Carl and Meredith Mccann

What happens when a writer has a child? How many young, childless women publish more sparingly than men, and is this “leaving before you leave” (á la Sheryl Sandberg), or evidence of crushed hopes, or a kind of imaginative thrift that will yet bear fruit? Or a combination of these? It can be difficult to talk about specifically feminine gifts and trials without being seduced by generalities, but we, the current and former editors in chief of Dappled Things, have decided to take our private discussions to a public forum. Many mothers have contributed to Dappled Things, and we know that some of them (including Katy Carl herself) have cut back because of mothering. We wish to prevent some of the losses while celebrating what we have won at such cost.

Meredith McCann: There are so many things to be said about women and writing, motherhood and writing, but let’s begin with one stark and startling fact: women contribute much less often than men do to prestigious journals. There was an uproar when VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts began publishing their tallies of female bylines in 2011, revealing that women authors comprise a third, a quarter, or an even slimmer slice of the pie at fancy magazines like The Paris Review and Harper’s. Some blamed sexist editors, and some asked how the pie charts were of any use without corresponding charts of how many women were submitting their work. I decided to do my own count for Dappled Things, and two trends are clear: we receive about 32% of our unsolicited submissions from women, and about 36% of the authors we publish are women. So women submit less to us, but have a slight edge when they do.

Katy Carl: That’s pretty good news about Dappled Things, anyway. If we aren’t publishing any more women than the big magazines are, at least we aren’t publishing any fewer! The more I think about the VIDA statistics, though, the more I wonder if they represent a case of what my good friend Rosemary calls “putting the negative first.” Sure, it’s interesting to know what proportion of those who publish are women, but it’s only a small piece of the picture. Why not begin a discussion with all the points of confluence between the mother’s vocation and the writer’s life? Mothers at home and writers both work in rhythms that are determined by daily motivation and inner need far more than by any external demands. Both must set their own schedules and their own goals. Both seek to make sense of reality, for themselves and for others who rely on the veracity of their perspective. Both engage in culture-building. Both concern themselves more with authenticity and wonder than with appearances or worldly standards.

Against this backdrop, the result of the VIDA Count becomes more surprising, not less. If there are really an equal number of talented men and talented women out there, and they’re submitting to the big magazines in equal proportions, then there must be some reason why fewer of the women are getting published. If they’re not submitting in equal proportions, there must be some reason for that too. And I don’t think it’s likely to be one simple reason, but a nexus of reasons. But if what I’ve said above about motherhood’s compatibility with writing is true, then even though motherhood is still most likely a part of that nexus, I don’t think we can pinpoint it as the sole cause. There’s this myth lurking in our culture that motherhood has to be opposed to every other pursuit in your life if you’re going to do it right. That myth is the direct root both of the careerist-feminist mindset and of the reductionist mindset that boils women’s value down solely to their biological and material functions. Both mindsets are unhealthy. In order to live as whole human persons, we can’t accept either manifestation of the myth.

MM: You are a mother and a writer, and I know that you have been working out the difficulties of being both for several years now. Could you share your experience of how becoming a mother changed you, and how your writing was affected, for better or worse? I’d like to hear your thoughts on career and ambition. From a young age, I was just as you described yourself in an unpublished essay:

Since I was very young, despite heavy pressure to choose a profession, I harbored the instinct that while attracted to many pursuits I was not suited for any of them and that I would be happiest within the daily rhythm of life at home. For a long time I concluded with shame that I simply had an unserious mind and that this was a burden I would have to learn to live with—to conceal if possible, to make light of if not. This was while I supposed that I would spend most of my life in a profession out of necessity, not desire.

I also long concealed this same tendency in embarrassment, even though the person I most want to be like is my mother, who devoted herself full time to raising me and my brother and sister. Currently I teach Latin part time, and the rest of my day is devoted to writing, not-writing, reading, editing, visiting my mother and sister, and cooking/keeping house. Newly married, I understand that a child would upend this peaceful life in ways that I can barely imagine, but I’m excited about the prospect.

KC: It’s an exciting prospect, for sure. Of course it will also upend your current equilibrium, but I want to reassure you on a point that scared me before having my first child: it won’t upend all equilibrium forever! Let’s address another myth contemporary culture perpetuates: that motherhood somehow plunges you irretrievably into some state of chaos and lack of control. Nope. It is a major paradigm shift, and it comes with more responsibility than you’ve ever had before. So there is a huge learning curve, which does bring some initial chaos. After the dust settles, your time, space, and priorities are structured very differently. You will have to re-learn how to have reasonable expectations of yourself. But it’s not only possible, it’s necessary, to maintain high expectations and to restore peace and order. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.

I need to hear this myself, since I’m facing this learning curve and initial period of chaos all over again. As we speak, I’m waiting to go into labor any day with my second child. When I had my first, who is now three and a half, I had this sense that motherhood shouldn’t change me, that if it did I was somehow doing it wrong. Anyone who has had a child will know how patently absurd I was being, in one way. Of course parenting changes people’s lives, and if we aren’t growing as persons in the process, then there is something wrong. At its best, parenting has the potential to be profoundly transformative for the better. But I think it is right to resist the popular-culture image of parenting as a thing that diminishes you, degrades you, beats you down—an image Sally Thomas has identified as one “in which a mother appears, and feels, powerless and even negated before the forces of nature which are her children.” Good parenting, I think, will involve some “passive diminishment,” some sacrifice of the will and the passions, but that should be happening in a way that is spiritually healthy, not damaging.

It took me some time to learn the difference. After Frederick was born and I figured out (quickly!) that I couldn’t just proceed with my life as before, I started to believe that his needs had to come not only before my wants but before my needs as well. Not only that, I started putting his needs (and wants) above everything else that had ever been important, including my own desire to make literary art.

Since I had always experienced this as in part a professional wish, and had experienced all pressure to perform and produce in a professional way as incredibly stressful, it’s no surprise that choosing the opposite felt incredibly right and liberating—in a way, for a while. I was so giddily happy, so full of love for my child and so passionate about establishing the best environment for his growth, that I didn’t notice myself cruising for a burnout. Within the past year I have learned that however hard I try to make an optimal environment for a child’s flourishing, I won’t succeed if I try to do it in such a way that the pursuit of it is opposed to my own flourishing. Part of my flourishing is bound up with doing this kind of work, and part of my children’s flourishing will be bound up with having good working habits modeled for them on a daily basis. Not only do they need to see me working, they need to know that while they themselves are of vital importance to me, they are not the center of all existence.

So I came back to writing, and I think I came back improved in some basic ways: I have a bit more to say now that may be worth saying, a bit more concrete human experience, a bit more compassion. But in another way there hasn’t been much change. Many of the problems I already had as a writer have stuck with me. I still nitpick and overedit myself, I still procrastinate, I still get caught up in non-essentials, I still have trouble finishing one piece before moving on to another. Motherhood has neither solved these problems nor made them worse. It has just intensified the challenge of finding time to address them, while I also try to facilitate my children’s growth and formation as best I can.

MM: This is good news, and I wish you all strength and joy as you welcome your second child! I believe that you’ll hold on to yourself even as you make room for someone new. I vividly recall the frustration you experienced in the last few years, the way you felt torn in two by your desire to concentrate your whole attention on writing, and your desire to concentrate your whole attention on Frederick. That aching between two callings should feel familiar to anyone who knows Gerard Manley Hopkins: the man famously swore off writing for seven years, believing poetry to be incompatible with his priesthood. When he began writing again, his mature style sprang forth, Athena-like, despite the long interval of silence—so he seems to have reaped a rich crop from his sacrifice. But he never published any of the poetry, partly because it was too avant-garde, partly because desire for fame would have wreaked havoc on his long project of dying to self. The more I look at his life, the more sympathetic likenesses I see between his life and the life of a modern American mother: his struggles with burnout, his frustration as menial work (grading hundreds of exams) ate up his time and creativity, and that lacerating guilt that can seem excessive to outsiders (“Five wasted years almost have passed in Ireland. I am ashamed of the little I have done, of my waste of time, although my helplessness and weakness is such that I could scarcely do otherwise”). To be honest, I feel a mix of awe and frustration when I contemplate Hopkins’ renunciation of literary ambition. We’d do well as writers to invoke his aid, but not to follow him in that respect.

KC: That’s a brilliant analogy between modern mothers and Hopkins; we have a great friend in him. We also have one in Tolkien, who wrestled to balance devoted fatherhood and an academic career with his creative desires and who allegorized his own struggle in the story “Leaf by Niggle.” Niggle, a painter, works constantly but with little result on a huge canvas of a magical, gorgeous tree (stand-in for Tolkien’s Silmarillion). Part of his hold-up is a tendency to procrastinate, but more obstacles arise from the need to maintain his derelict potato field (academic career) and tend to his querulous neighbor Parish (duties to others in the order of charity). Not far into the tale, Niggle dies from pneumonia, contracted while fetching a doctor for the not very unwell Parish, and leaves his painting unfinished. But after a stint in Purgatory (where in a twist familiar to mothers, Niggle “had no ‘time of his own’ . . . and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it”), Niggle emerges into the foothills of Heaven. Here he finds that the painting he strove for but could never achieve on earth is complete, real, and alive forever: “There stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. . . . “It’s a gift!” Niggle cried. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.” This outburst of praise hints at another interpretive key to our dilemma: receiving who we are and what we do as a gift, not seizing it as a right. When we seize it as a right, when like covetous characters in Tolkien’s other works we “name it unto ourselves,” it can become an idol that crowds out the possibility of grace.

MM: It’s certainly possible for a mother to idolize writing, to the point of becoming a bona fide Bad Mother—look at the sins of the novelist Alice Walker, exposed by her daughter in the Daily Mail several years ago: “From the age of 13, I spent days at a time alone while my mother retreated to her writing studio—some 100 miles away. I was left with money to buy my own meals and lived on a diet of fast food.” And the story of neglect only gets worse after that! Most of us, though, are unlikely to fall into such extremes of narcissism. It’s worth noting that Rebecca Walker rebelled by becoming a devoted mother—and conversely, that our daughters may reject the sort of motherhood we model if they see that we have become thwarted and downtrodden by its duties.

KC: Yes, and I think the pursuit of a false ideal tends to thwart and oppress us in itself, whether it’s an unhealthily career-worshipping or an unhealthily self-negating one. Either way, there’s a lot in contemporary culture that encourages us to wear ourselves down in the pursuit of something abstract, some idealized image that can’t truly fulfill us, when what really matters is these people, this home, the souls given to us to care for—including our own. If Blessed John Paul II is right that “God entrusted the human being to woman,” and that we are responsible both for “bringing full dignity to the conjugal life and to motherhood” and for “assuring the moral dimension of culture . . . a culture worthy of the person” (Christifideles Laici, no. 51), then clearly we have plenty of work to do in the world today on both fronts.

MM: And that brings us full circle to the VIDA statistics. After reading responses from both editors and writers, I’ve decided that the pie charts represent opportunity more than they represent exclusion. Sure, there are still people who will punish you for being a woman, but I can only read so many editors saying, “Nearly all the men I ask to contribute contribute; only the half of the women do,” and so many women writers saying, “Oh yeah, now that I think of it . . . ” before I conclude that it would be profitable to submit more of my work. Because I’ve been that reclusive soul. I finish poems and then sit on them because they aren’t as good as Plath or Larkin at their finest—or simply because I’m not anguished about my lack of external validation. So far, the “correct” response to VIDA has been to belittle those who suggest that women submit more, and to ask that editors . . . query large numbers of women until they achieve gender parity! How are these solutions actually different, except that the latter treats women like meek Cinderellas who need an editor to ride in on his white horse and carry them where they themselves never knew they wanted to go? So yes, let’s pledge anew to reject abstractions. If God entrusted the human being to woman, let’s feel confident that He made the right decision, whether we’re writing a book or reading one to a child.


  1. says

    This is really an excellent conversation (and thanks for the mention!). I come at things as, now, an older mother — I’m 49, my oldest child (of 4) is almost 20, and my youngest is 10. I was an M.F.A. student when I was pregnant with my oldest and when she was a baby. Certainly having her made me a lot less patient with the world of the graduate creative-writing program, and I eventually chucked it, which I’ve never regretted, though it meant a degree of isolation from any writing community which persisted for a long time afterward. But then, I’ve never been much of a joiner, so that didn’t bother me quite as much as it might have, I guess.

    When my fourth child was born, my earliest graduate-school teacher and mentor, whose friendship had meant a lot to me but had been cooling steadily over the course of my then-decade of motherhood, outright dropped me as a not-serious person who had sold out the cause of poetry. I know this for a fact because years later she wrote and told me just that — as if it were a perfectly reasonable thing to have done. I mean, we can’t be having these mothers in the club! With their total lack of commitment! I can laugh about it now . . .

    This same mentor is the editor of a collection of essays, still on my shelf, by women poets about their relationship to tradition. The starting point for the book is T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and Eliot’s use of the pronoun “he” whenever the antecedent is “poet.” This now seems to me to be an awfully thin platform from which to launch an entire book, but a remarkable number of women poets responded with essays about their greater or lesser feelings of alienation from poetic tradition. A lot of the essays are drearily predictable — “of course now we have abortion, so women are free to write poetry as never before” — and at least one invokes Margaret Atwood’s injunction not to have a child, or if you really must, to have only one and no more. Even then, though many of the writers do have good and useful things to say about their lives as poets, the idea of poetry’s taking the place of children in a woman’s life left me cold — and I was far more in their camp, in my rather stupid twenties.

    But there are a couple of essays to which I’ve returned for sustenance since. One is by Anne Stevenson, whom I knew slightly when I lived in England in my thirties; it’s what I now know is a typically acerbic piece dismantling the idea that Eliot was somehow deliberately out to exclude women from the poetic tradition. If you know Stevenson’s essay collection Between the Iceberg and the Ship, in the U Michigan Poets on Poetry series, this essay is included under the title “A Letter to Sharon Bryan,” and it’s well worth the read, as is the whole book. Anyway, in the context of these other women poets, Stevenson’s essay was a gust of very bracing fresh air.

    The other essay that’s stayed with me is by the poet Pattiann Rogers. In it, she confesses — and it’s significant, I think, that I’d characterize this as a confession — that as a mother, she often found her children completely satisfying, that for periods of their lives, she didn’t even feel the urge to write much, because they were so interesting and fulfilling to her in themselves. She notes that this was particularly true during their teenaged years, something which I’ve seen borne out in my own experience. Life with little children can truly be exhausting (and they can feel like a force of nature!), which doesn’t make it not good, but I don’t think there’s a young mother alive who doesn’t wish she got more sleep on a regular basis or pine for a trip to the grocery store that doesn’t involve getting people in and out of car seats and in and out of shopping carts and in and out of the store without some meltdown, or somebody stealing something (I once got home with a zucchini I know I didn’t buy. I don’t know how my then-preschooler managed to smuggle it out of the store, but he was a genius at that sort of thing, which made shopping with him, or going anywhere in public with him, always kind of fraught).

    Teenagers, on the other hand, really are great. They’re the payoff for all the hard work, in my view. And they can do dishes and vacuum, which also helps. AND they think it’s cool when magazines with Mom’s writing come in the mail. My oldest is currently an English major at the University of Dallas, and she’s wrapping up her “Junior Poets” semester, during which she’s lived and breathed Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop is, hands down, my favorite poet; I spent a lot of time in grad school reading her and writing about her. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have a child choose to read her, to call up to ask for scansion help, or to recite the first 90 lines of “The Moose” from memory, because she’s got to do that for her panel examination. Apparently my indoctrination schemes have worked better than I could have dreamed. My 16-year-old, meanwhile, lives and breathes biology and works for a large-animal vet, so he’s bringing home all these funny stories about things that happen with horses, cows, llamas, camels, and teams of racing pigs . . . It’s a whole world outside my purview, and I keep thinking that someday I’ve got to write a short story involving a veterinarian and his 16-year-old assistant. Never the dull moment, as they say.

    What Katy says about these periods of equilibrium/disequilibrium with babies is certainly true, and I find that motherhood and family life has remade me, and my vision of what I want to do with myself, in ways I’m largely grateful for. You don’t stay in that place of upheaval with each new life, but the normal you find on the other side is never the same old normal. And I think that’s good and healthy for a writer, or for anyone. There’s always going to be some kind of refiner’s fire, and children have always seemed to me to be one of the more enjoyable ones.

    I’ve gone through phases as a mother when I’ve written a lot, and phases where there’s been nothing — the latter is always scary, because you think maybe this is it and you’ll never write again, but I do think that God uses those fallow times for something. I’d far rather write far less, and publish sparingly, and have it be good work, than — whatever the alternative would be. I can’t imagine writing lots and lots all the time, and submitting work continually; I just don’t work that way. It took me 16 years to finish the short story that will appear in the Christmas Dappled Things, if that gives you any idea. Look for a novel from beyond the grave. And — well, that’s the way it is. Knowing these gender statistics isn’t going to change the way I work or the rate at which I send things out. Sometimes “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

  2. Amanda says

    If Beauty is objective and knowable, then we can trust that Art that is sincere, true and good will be recognized, even if not in a timely manner. Men and women are significantly different, and produce different kinds of art. And Motherhood, too, is a kind of art: for what can be more beautiful than a life well lived, a life given to Christ?