The work-life balance for women authors
Written by
Amanda Craig
July 2010
Written by
Amanda Craig
July 2010
THE LIFE-WORK BALANCE Now that the school holidays have begun, I am once again pondering the life-work balance. I suppose everyone is confronted with this; as a writer you are ideally suited to bringing up children. Or are you? I have always treasured stories about how women authors keep a kind of green belt around their working lives, though a description in Dorothy L Sayers’ work about how her alter ego, Harriet Vane, managed to keep her small son quiet by instructing him not to bother her until both clock hands pointed to noon roused some scepticism, even as a teenager. I try to be stern (the “I’m not to be disturbed unless you have a broken leg” line) and taught mine how to cook, read and do their own homework as soon as possible. However, like many of my generation I am also a surrendered mother. Even though my younger one is nearly fifteen, I still drive him to and from school most days, because he has been mugged twice and I’m not madly keen on it happening again. Writing during term time is constrained by this – I know I have to be home by 3.30, which means any interviews I do as a journalist, or meetings I have as a novelist, are curtailed. I can do some evening events, like talking to book groups or chairing discussions, but the sort of things that men do are beyond me, as they are beyond a great many of my sex. Every now and again I get cross and threaten to go to the famous writers’ retreat, Hawthornden Castle, where you can live in luxury for a month just writing and being served exquisite meals. Needless to say, I never do this, and strange to say neither do the other over-worked mums I know either. I didn’t have the confidence to apply when childless, and now I’ll just have to wait until my twenty-year sentence has expired. The thing is, it doesn’t get any easier. If the first ten years of motherhood are a hard physical slog, with constant broken nights and illness, as well as the usual financial constraints, the second are more of an emotional slog. Nobody tells you that when your own children are teenagers you get a lot of turbulence as they fall in and out of love, flog themselves to pass exams or fail to prepare at all, get bullied, get drunk, get lost and so on. This drains a considerable amount of energy that could go into writing; and yet, I have no regrets. My sex may be totally ignored by the literary establishment (and a piece in the Daily Telegraph by Harry Mount this week, lamenting the absence of literary page-turners did precisely that) but I think that the experience of having and raising children enlarges us as writers. The novelist Candia McWilliam claimed, famously, that “every baby costs four novels”. Few female novelists with children manage the novel a year that is the ideal rate of productivity; whenever I look at, say, the production rate of a childless author like Iris Murdoch, I sigh with envy. I also remember a piece AS Byatt wrote the year that Possession came out about how she suddenly realised her children were grown up and she was free. Yet most of us manage one every other year or two. Furthermore, even if it sometimes feels like (in the words of one of my characters) being shackled to a lunatic, the experience of having a child forces you to see the world afresh, and opens up whole areas of human life. Not enough writers seem to celebrate this, I think. There is a democracy to motherhood that is much like the democracy that can arise in any other kind of long-term emergency. (Perhaps the reasons why sensible women loathe the cliques and trouble-makers at the school gates is that they run deliberately counter to this.) When you have a child, you have something in common with women of every kind of background. I know that the big leap between my first two novels, and A Vicious Circle was partly due to suddenly finding myself not only talking to mothers from very different social backgrounds, but invited into their homes. A male writer would simply not have this opened up to him; Orwell, who is one of my heroes, had to go undercover as it were to write Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. He idolised the working-class, whereas I am just interested in people and the human condition. I am not a political animal, as he was, but I am passionately curious about the here and now. When you become a mother, you are given a free pass into some of modern life’s most hidden aspects. I am able to write about the lives of the poor, and the dispossessed, because I have been allowed into them as a person and this is a privilege I have both sought and been given. Yet the work-life balance remains very hard to achieve. What motherhood gives with one hand, it also takes with the other. To work in an office is tiring, not least because of the commuting often involved, but the domestic coal-face can be just as stressful. I have always worked, and always earned even when seriously ill, but I am not the principle bread-winner in my family. Inevitably my own work takes second place to the smooth running of family, household life and supporting a more successful partner. I do have a cleaner, though nothing like the army of immigrant helpers I needed when seriously ill five years ago – an experience which of course informed the writing of Hearts and Minds. There are plenty of women who write in far more adverse circumstances, but we all, I suspect, achieve what we do by cramming our “real” work into the interstices of our lives, getting up early and going to bed late, feeling permanently tired and stretched. Some people look forward to a time when this isn’t the case, but I’m not sure that I do. The writers I most admire are those who, in Kipling’s words, “fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run.” Anthony Trollope, for instance, wrote most of his novels while working for the Post Office (whose post boxes he invented). He composed and wrote, in long-hand, as fast as the fastest typist can type if his Autobiography is to be believed. People like to imagine that all they need in order to produce their own novel is more leisure, but I suspect the complete opposite is due. Despite the image of the artist enjoying the freedom of the garret, unencumbered, most of us produce our best work in between sorting the laundry, making fishcakes for supper, overseeing piano practice and watering the garden. With which words (there being a drought on) I must leave to switch off the tap....

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  • Thanks for posting this - though I must say that as a mother of a five- and a two-year-old and a beginning writer, I am most discouraged to hear that you don't think it's that much easier when they get older! This reminds me of a film I saw recently, a documentary called Who Does She Think She Is? - have you seen it? If not, you should!