"It may not seem so at the time, but … babies don’t stay babies for very long, whereas writers live for decades." - Ursula K. Le Guin
I didn’t think it possible to admire the novelist Ursula Le Guin any more or any better than I did.
Smitten with her writing, I had subjected three semesters’ worth of college students to her sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness before resigning myself to the fact that most of them weren’t that into it.
Learning of her death earlier this year, I felt bereft as if I had lost a close mentor.
Then, I discovered this:
Thirty years ago, Le Guin took up the very question that animates this space. Are procreation and creative work compatible endeavors? Le Guin used some of the same methods and arrived at many of the same conclusions that I have on this blog.
Maybe I should’ve been jealous, that a writer of infinitely more imagination and empathy and power had ranged over similar territory. But I just fell deeper in love.
In 1989, The New York Times published an essay by Le Guin titled “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book.” The essay reworked material she had presented in several lectures, and it would reappear in the collection Dancing at the Edge of the World.
In the piece, Le Guin targets the myth of the solitary artist. The idea that to do good writing or painting or coding requires withdrawal from the world of relationships, from our human responsibilities to others. Underneath this myth of course is the labor, often female, that enables and sustains such a monastic devotion to craft.
Le Guin, in short, was out hunting “the art monster” – a term that novelist Jenny Offill coined in 2014’s Dept. of Speculation. The art monster is the specter of an unfettered creative life without kids. It haunts Offill’s poet-protagonist after her daughter is born.
Le Guin concerns herself with the art-monster’s opposite: the woman she calls “the artist-housewife.”* While Offill highlights the monstrosity of a rabid preoccupation with one’s art, Le Guin observes that it is the artist-caregiver who has been viewed historically as ‘unnatural.’
She notes the silences around the lived experiences of such a creature:
writers who are mothers haven’t talked much about their motherhood…nor have they talked much about their writing as in any way connected with their parenthood.
To fill in the considerable gaps, Le Guin turns to history. She profiles nineteenth century writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Oliphant, who produced ample quantities of both books and babies in their day.
Le Guin is interested in why these authors not only endured these challenging conditions but “endured them willingly.” She concludes that they saw the juggle of caregiving while creating as not only a constraint, but also an advantage:
[Oliphant] seems to feel that she profited, that her writing profited, from the difficult, obscure chancy connection between the art work and the emotional/manual/managerial complex of skills and tasks called housework, and that to sever that connection would put the writing itself at risk, would make it, in her word, unnatural.
Reading Le Guin’s essay, there it was again: that spark of connection, of recognition across the generations, which keeps me researching and writing about these earlier lives. There she was, reaching out from the past to offer solace and encouragement to a fellow artist-housewife:
To have and bring up kids is to be about as immersed in life as one can be, but it does not always follow that one drowns. A lot of us can swim.
Le Guin was in her fifties, with grown children, when she developed that piece for the Times. There’s a practiced assuredness to her argument that belies her vulnerability as a young mother and writer in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
Le Guin met her future husband, the historian Charles Le Guin, while literally en route to a PhD of her own. She was traveling to France aboard the Queen Mary, to conduct dissertation research on the sixteenth-century poet Jean Lemaire de Belges.
But academia had never called to her as powerfully as the fantastical realms within her own mind. So, instead, she married, left the program, and followed Charles to Georgia, then to Idaho, and finally to his tenure-track position at Portland State.
Over a period of seven years, Le Guin would give birth to three children: Elisabeth (1957), Caroline (1959), and Theodore (1964). This time was also a prolific one for her writing. She had several short stories published in the early 1960s, followed by a rapid succession of novels in the mid- to late-1960s, including the ground-breaking A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Although Ursula was the primary caregiver, she recalls that Charles "undertook fatherhood in the most matter-of-fact way as a completely shared responsibility." This partnership began the day they took Elisabeth home from the hospital, and Le Guin, struggling to put on the diaper correctly, handed the baby to Charles. According to Le Guin, her relationship with Charles "made all the difference to her writing."
At the time, fulfilled by her traditional family life, Le Guin struggled with what she saw as the dictate of feminism to throw over her domestic role in favor of her art. As Julie Phillips explains,*
(Le Guin) found mothering not a waste of her talent, as some feminists suggested, but 'terrifying, empowering, and fiercely demanding on her intelligence.' .... But liking motherhood made her feel unwelcome as a feminist.
She embraced the moniker ‘novelist-housewife’ in part as an act of defiance toward what she read (perhaps in part out of insecurity or misunderstanding) as an attack on her choices, her loves.**
In an interview with Terry Gross from 1989 (the same year that “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” appeared), Le Guin articulated her Theory of The Long Game.
As she explained,
“I feel a certain obligation to sort of stand up and be counted as a woman who has had kids and brought them up, and also done creative work, which — particularly in the arts — there does seem to be almost a sort of agreement that this can’t be done. …
“The fact is, creative work has replaced having a family for some women. That’s fine. Having a family has replaced creative work for other women. That’s fine. Then there are some of us who really need to do both and are perfectly capable of doing both…”
Le Guin wrote some of her most iconic novels while she was actively raising her children. In the interview, she affirms the desire that some of us have, including Le Guin herself, to do some of each at the same time. She does not suggest that we postpone our art or science or activism or entrepreneurship for decades.
But she also wants us (i.e., fellow parents of young children) to keep in mind that raising kids won’t always require so damn much of you:
“There is a time during one’s life when, if you are responsible for the care of your kids, it is very hard to do other creative work. You have to do it around the edges, in the middle of the night, or you never can get up before your kids, so it’s usually late at night. Or, if you have the money, you hire some kind of baby sitter or some kind of child care.
“It’s hard. Your energy, your creative energies are being spread thin and strained. On the other hand, you are living an extremely rich life at the same time. And this is going to enrich your work, inevitably, I think. It may not seem so at the time, but … babies don’t stay babies for very long, whereas writers live for decades. …”
Despite our culture’s emphasis on youth and youthful achievement, there is a future for those of us who don't make it onto our profession's '40 under 40' lists. The potential for rich creative fulfillment doesn’t end with the onset of menopause. To the contrary, those later decades might be when we are most primed and able to act on that potential.
I associate Le Guin with the Long Game in yet another sense. Thirty years later, her project of calling attention to and validating the creative work of caregivers remains unfinished.
I was reminded of this recently when I came across an interview with the filmmaker David Lynch (who’d probably be cool with identifying as an ‘art monster’?!). Now 72, he has a five-year-old daughter and a fourth marriage, yet he confesses, "I'm not the greatest parent." He affirms that he loves his kids, but is impatient with the way that relationships can interrupt, impede on his work:
It’s like I’ve got a compulsion to do stuff and anything that gets in the way of that — it’s so painful. Relationships, if they’re not smooth and I don’t have room to work, they’re a torment. I can love people, and I do love people, but I need the space to work. I’ve always needed it but I haven’t always faced the music about how much I need it.
So, this stereotype persists, and the silences about alternatives also persist. Earlier this year, the author Lauren Groff made headlines when she refused to answer an interviewer’s question about how she balances work and family until more interviewers start asking that question of male writers. I agree that we need more perspectives from fathers, and I respect and admire her choice: in this case, her silence was a catalyst, the starting point of a conversation.
In general, though, we need to hear more, not less, from women and men who are creators and caregivers, and who are willing to “stand up and being counted" as such. Recall Le Guin’s words above: “writers who are mothers haven’t talked much about their motherhood…nor have they talked much about their writing as in any way connected with their parenthood.”
Let's get to work.
* For these glimpses into Le Guin's marriage and interior life, I am indebted to Julia Phillips' research presented both in 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin and her biography of another science-fiction writer, Alice B. Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr). Phillips is also writing Ursula Le Guin's official biography, so stay tuned...
** Later, Le Guin's stance toward feminism changed, particularly as more explicitly feminist SF writers like Joanna Russ called her out on her reliance on male protagonists. There are still shades of that earlier uneasy relationship, however, in that 1989 essay, as when Le Guin observes that the book-or-babies myth is not just a misogynist one but can also be a feminist one.