Mothers and Maeve

Today a headline stopped me in my tracks.

‘If Maeve Binchy had been a mother …’

and the sub heading:

‘Does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?’

…then a caption, beneath a photograph of the late Maeve Binchy, which although most probably written by a sub-editor, added to the bizarreness of it all:

‘Maeve Binchy, who had no children on whom to lavish her affections’

The offending article was this one , by Amanda Craig in The Telegraph.

Let me confess: I have never read anything by Maeve Binchy. This is probably partly because she’s one of my Mum’s favourite authors. I grew up seeing her books damp and crumpled next to the bath, then buying her latest release and wrapping it up every other Christmas Eve. I don’t know why the fact my Mum read her stuff put me off, probably because we didn’t share the same taste in music or anything else, but I’m sorry I never took a look and I intend to do so now.

I might not have read any of Binchy’s books, but I do know that she was a talented and successful author. I couldn’t quite believe that in the immediate aftermath of her death (not that it would be any less shocking at any other time), someone was trying to say she might have been a better writer had she been a mother. I read the article, expecting Craig to answer the question at the top with ‘no’, but she basically concludes that Binchy would have been a better writer if she’d had children. The tone of it makes it sounds as though Binchy should have had children and the fact is, she couldn’t.

Although I am currently writing about my experiences of having a child, this ‘being a mother makes me holier than thou’ attitude is humiliating and offensive. It’s as though mothers are part of some smug club that peers down at those who haven’t experienced the joy of a leaky nipple. Everyone can experience and express human emotion, regardless of whether they’ve had a child. When I was pregnant with my son, I was told by health professionals and other parents that life would feel complete and I’d be enveloped by an all-consuming love the moment my baby was placed in my arms. Don’t get me wrong, I love my son immensely, but this widespread belief that you will feel suddenly whole the second you have given birth doesn’t happen for everyone. Personally, I was shaking, trying not to think about the fact my insides were being stitched back in and attempting to fathom what the heck I had done.

Thankfully, despite the absence of the widely promised moment of transformation, my love for my son was a fast grower. We’ve developed an incredibly close relationship that is as much about companionship as it is the traditional parent-child dynamic. I imagine my experience of motherhood is very different to that of people in a more conventional set-up – and that’s just it, isn’t it? Every relationship is different, be it between lovers or mothers and their children. We can learn about the way things work for others from observing the humanity around us – and good writers don’t need to give birth to be able to do that.

If those who haven’t had children can’t know love well enough to write about it, what of those who have never found their soulmate? In recent years, I haven’t had too much in the way of serious romance: I don’t meet new people through my job, time is scarce and having a child makes things complicated. My experience of true love is pretty limited, but does that mean I would struggle to write fiction about it? I hope not. I have listened carefully to and comforted friends going through almost every type of romantic struggle imaginable. To meet someone who you care for, with whom you agree on all the important things, who you fancy so much you think you could devour, whose mind you adore and who you want to be with so constantly and so closely that it’s impossible to be apart – Jesus, that is the ultimate (that’s how it goes, right?) It’s elusive for me, but I think I could still write about it.

Although Craig’s article talks about motherhood in the context of writing, there’s a notion that generally, those who haven’t experienced parenthood can’t fully know the human condition. And it’s nuts. What about homosexual writers? Developments to allow them to become parents have only happened relatively recently. Would a childless lesbian, for example, be less capable of enlightening than a straight woman who had gone through ‘the ring of fire’ as Craig calls it? Of course not.

Craig doesn’t say ‘mothers make better writers’ but she might as well. There are those who choose not to have children and there are those who desperately want to have them and cannot. I detest the notion that having a child makes you complete as a woman, or in some way emotionally superior. As Stella Duffy rightly points out in this excellent response to the article, you don’t see male writers being judged over whether or not they’re fathers.

There are different kinds of love. Not all of us experience all the kinds of love in our lifetime, but good writers can research and observe real life enough to be able to accurately write about them all. Having children is not the only way in which a woman can be complete. The attitude behind Craig’s article is an insult not just to the memory of Maeve Binchy, but to writers and to women, childless or not.

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