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Why so few babies in literature?

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”

Why indeed?

This is one of the first questions Marie Darrieussecq asks in the memoir she wrote to recount the birth of her first child and her transition to motherhood. (Read the review of this book here)

What is a baby?

Why so few babies in literature?

What about the discourses around them? Why do we say “baby” and not “the baby”?

What is a mother? And why women rather than men?

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé, 2013 (jacket blurb)

It turns out there are actually some babies in literature, and Darrieussecq manages to find a couple, in James Joyce’s Ulysses for example. In her own motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work: On becoming a Mother (2001) Rachel Cusk also comes across babies in Tolstoy and Edith Wharton. Both Darrieussecq and Cusk come to realise with some surprise when they become mothers that the literary canon only offers very few representations of babies and of motherhood in general. This is an issue because it deprives women first from an access to knowledge about the experience of motherhood, and more particularly childbirth, and second because it doesn’t allow women to reach a form of sublimation via the artistic representation of a life-changing event. Marie Darrieussecq can’t find a single baby in Sarraute, Duras or Woolf, the three main figures in her female literary pantheon, and realises that this is a voluntary stance:

The baby is wrapped into a thick diaper of discourse, it is therefore the most possible minor subject for literature. It is left to women, then – ‘baby’ is their nickname – and those who truly intend to write give it a large berth.

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé, 2013 (43)

The baby then is not considered as suitable material for literature, because it is women’s business. Motherhood, like literature, are both bastions of the patriarchy. Jessie Greengrass, the author of the novel Sight (2018), asks a similar question to Darrieussecq’s in an article she wrote for The Guardian: why does literature ignores pregnancy? Her contention is that the representation of babies in literature is caught up in male discourse and issues: they are often but a mere element of the plot, rarely are they really represented for themselves. Babies’ literary function is mostly metaphorical: they are the the symbol of their mother’s sin, and their absence is a sign of barrenness and failure.

Babies and their mothers are excluded from the field of so-called “serious” literature for cultural as well as material reasons. Marie Darrieussecq has given us the cultural explanation: babies are of little interest to men, whose point of view prevails in what constitutes appropriate literary subjects: it’s their experience–of life, sex, marriage, as well as war and death–which gives the canon its foundation. The experience of women is often viewed as a minor subject, an appendix to men’s universal experience. Babies are not a literary object because they are dependent on women. Only once they grow away from their mothers to become individuals in their own rights will they become a suitable literary subject.

But there is also a material reason to the absence of babies: their mothers are the ones who know best about them and who should therefore be writing about them, yet they are often simply too busy to do so. It is difficult to hold a pen and a baby: it is first a question of time and energy, as well as an issue of moral legitimacy. Should a woman be doing anything else than taking care of her baby? Susan Rubin Suleiman shows that we live in a society where childcare is mostly devolved to women, and once they become mothers, they rarely find enough time to write about their experience. Referring to the works of US sociologist Nancy Chodorow, who has shown that parenthood was essentially framed as a woman’s job, Rubin Suleiman concludes the following:

Chodorow argues that only a radical change in modes of parenting, so that fathers and men also ‘mother,’ can effect a change in the feminine psyche. If such a change should ever occur on a large enough scale to make a difference, the conjunction of writing and motherhood, like most other conjunctions involving motherhood, will become an altogether different subject. In the meantime, I shall argue that that particular conjunction is (1) a problem, (2) a woman’s problem, and (3) a problem that must be considered as much in psychological as in sociological terms, if not more so.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Writing and motherhood”, 2011 (115)

If mothers don’t write about their experience, it’s because the patriarchal institution that is motherhood won’t let them (see the review of Adrienne Rich’s book on the subject), and this fact in turns becomes a moral prescription. If a woman doesn’t have the leisure to write, it means that she shouldn’t enjoy that leisure, because every minute spent writing is a minute away from the child, whose care is essential, especially in the first months. Psychoanalysis has played a large role in turning the mother into a passive object of the child’s desire but in refusing her to be a desiring subject. For Susan Rubin Suleiman, paraphrasing Hélène Deutsch:

Mothers don’t write, they are written. […] this is the underlying assumption of most psychanalytic theories about writing and about artistic creation in general.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Writing and motherhood”, 2011 (116)

Men’s writing is not constrained by similar taboos, quite the contrary. Susan Stanford Friedman has shown that the Romantics especially have made a liberal use of the childbirth metaphor to represent literary creation. One “gives birth” to one’s work, with more or less pain. But for Friedman this amounts to appropriating and invisibilising the real-life, non-metaphorical experience of childbirth, as well as the deep injustice in the organisation of parenting which contributes to the silencing of women:

Facing constant challenges to their creativity, women writers often find their dilemma expressed in terms of the opposition between books and babies. […] Male paternity of texts has not precluded their paternity of children. But for both material and ideological reasons, maternity and creativity have appeared to be mutually exclusive to women writers.

Susan Stanford Friedman, “Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor”, 1987 (52)

This dilemma between motherhood and writing, which so often plays out in female writers’ autobiographical writing(including Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which tells of the vacillations of a woman writer considering motherhood) is hardly ever mentioned by male writers for whom becoming a parent does not necessarily spell the end of one’s writing career.1 The very possibility of being a father as well as a writer is never really questioned.

Only female writers really do seem to be concerned by this conundrum: should they have children – and if so, how many? Alice Walker explains in an autobiographical essay entitled “A writer because of, not in spite of, her children” (1976), that the vision of motherhood as hampering creativity is the result of a patriarchal vision of a mother’s role, and that the experience can on the contrary foster a new sense of creativity. Yet in another, later essay she defended her choice of limiting herself to one child only:

Someone asked me once whether I though women artists should have children, and, since we were beyond discussing why this is never asked artists who are men, I gave my answer promptly.

“Yes,” I said, somewhat to my surprise. And, as if to amend my rashness, I added: “They should have children– assuming this is of interest to them— but only one.”

“Why only one?” this Someone wanted to know.

“Because with one you can move,” I said. “With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”

Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digression within the Work(s)”, 1979, in Mother Reader, ed. Moyra Davey (140)

And those mother writers, what do they talk about? And when?

Dolls’ pram, Larvik Museum, Wikimedia Comons

According to the famous quote by Cyril Connolly, “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. What the British art critic is alluding to here is the painful encroachment of trivial daily life matters with one’s artistic vocation, a cliché of artistic creativity since the Romantic period. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti decides not to have children because she is afraid of not being able to reconcile her role as a mother with her role as an artist. She stages a dialogue with her partner:

 If you can get that existential satisfaction from parenthood, would you feel as much desire to make art? He said that one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both, because both art and parenthood take all of one’s time and attention.

Sheila Heti, Motherhood, 2018 (51)

Doris Lessing solved the matter in a far more radical manner, as she started her literary career after she had become a wife and a mother, at a very young age. She abandoned both her husband and her children to pursue her vocation as a writer and dedicate her life to the communist party, an event she describes in her autobsiographical novel A Proper Marriage (1954), as well as in the first volume of her autobiography, Under my Skin (1994), in which she wrote a sentence that would remain famous: “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with young children.” For Lara Feigel, who dedicated an essay to this event (Free Woman: Life, liberation and Doris Lessing, 2018) Lessing had no choice but to radically alter the course of her life as she was persuaded that, in 1950s South Rhodesia, motherhood was incompatible with the life of a writer, and was also an impediment to her desperate quest for freedom.

Feigel contrasts Lessing’s decision with Rachel Cusk’s own reflections, some fifty years later, with A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001), which caused quite a stir when it was published. At the time when Cusk wrote her memoir, the possibility of being a mother and a writer was not deemed impossible, just… extremely complicated. Cusk explains how the baby’s arrival all but shattered her sense of self in a myriad irreconcilable pieces:

To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall the hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed at being one means to fail at being the other.

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Wok: On Becoming a Mother, 2001 (62)

Cusk explains in her memoir that she was only able to resume her writing through a complete rehauling of her family life, which is viewed with some suspicion by their friends and family

My partner left his job and we moved out of London. People began to enquire about him as if he were very ill, or dead. What’s he going to do? they would ask me avidly, and then getting no answer, him. Look after the children while Rachel writes her books about looking after the children, was his reply. Nobody else seemed to find this particularly funny.

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Wok: On Becoming a Mother, 2001 (18)

Note how writing about one’s experience with children is suspected of standing in the way of the actual care of the children. There is something outrageous about this swapping of gender roles, when no one would even thought of wondering who was taking care of the children when their fathers were busy writing – except mayby Nancy Huston2.

Another question appears at this stage: if women actually find the time to write when they are mothers to small children, how much time to they have? What kind of time? Mothers only ever manage to carve time to write out of their day almost surreptitiously, in between other tasks, early in the morning or during naps and playtime. Their time is stolen, almost illegitimate. What can they do with that writing time? Marie Darrieussecq remembers at the beginning of Le Bébé:

I lay the baby flat on his stomach across my lap, I silence him by giving him my little finger to suck. With my right hand left free I can write.

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé, 2013 (33)

In other words the mother needs to keep her hands free if she is to write, even if, as I have already shown in my review of Darrieussecq’s memoir, she needs to change the structure of her writing in order to accommodate the baby’s presence in her life. Similarly Cusk explains in the introduction to her on memoir that she had to resort to a circular, thematic type of writing rather than a linear one in order to testify of how motherhood changed her perception of time.

Another way of accommodating the constraints of small children is what I call “naptime writing”: the possibility of writing becomes dependent on the baby’s sleep, which is often fragmented and disorganised, especially in early infancy. Yet for Maggie Nelson, who wrote the groundbreaking The Argonauts (2015) and inaugurated a new phase in mother writing, this connection between sleep and writing is another cliché which forces women into a specific role as carer only and is a demonstration of what she calls “matrophobia”. In an interview with readers of her work, she refuses to conform to the clichés that would have her writing and her identity changed by motherhood: “I did not go to the fragmented form because of naptime.” She also rejects the vision of the self as inevitably shattered by motherhood: “There’s a continuity of person!”

Let’s end of that positive note then: there is no contradiction between being a writer and a mother, the baby doesn’t need to turn her mother away from her artistic vocation. But the literary canon is going to have to let mothers – and their babies – in.

  1. I can only think of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who in the first volume of his autobiography does question the possibility of being a good father and a writer []
  2. She has explored this particular issue in Journal de la création (1990) and Professeurs de désespoir (2004 []

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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