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Maeve Binchy’s Infertility Still Biting Her in the Ass After Death

Amanda Craig’s article about writer Maeve Binchy popped up in my Reader while I was in the middle of writing myself, and I decided not to read it until I had put a few projects to bed because the title alone filled me with disbelief: “If Maeve Binchy Had Been a Mother.”

Maeve Binchy wasn’t a mother due to infertility and she explained in the Daily Mail years ago,

Of course I wanted children. Bright, gorgeous, loving children. I could almost see them. But it was not to be and 30 years ago things were very different.  Fertility drugs were not as developed and adoption was impossible after the age of 40.  So my husband and I went through the sad, disappointed bit and then decided to count the blessings that we already had and ‘get on with it’.

She tells the story of how her friends lent her their children, sending them to London to stay with her, and how these children grew up with Binchy and her husband serving as an extra set of grandparents, a role they played well into those childrens’ adulthoods when they had children of their own.

I bless those good friends and family who lent us their children, and never minded that we played the roles of ageing enfants terribles, allowing them more freedom in some ways than parents ever would, but yet indulging our own anxieties under the cover of having bad nerves.  Our many ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’ will never really understand what a great role they played in filling a gap that could have been sad and destructive but in the end turned out to be so joyful.

So now that we have established why Maeve Binchy had no children and how this affected her emotionally.  And from the article, it sounds that while she obviously did not have daily parenting responsibilities, she spent a considerable amount of time standing in as a guardian once the children were older and could travel for a visit.  Not exactly the life Craig envisions for childless writers (who apparently are just oozing with free time like snails leaving trails across the pavement) in her article.

So I need to start (before I touch the actual content) by saying that this article is unnecessarily cruel.  The woman was infertile.  It was a source of great sadness for her during her life.  Asking whether she could have been a better writer if she had been a mother is thoughtless at best and hateful at worst.  It was a medical condition, entirely outside her control.

Could you imagine someone writing an obit for John Lennon and saying, “yeah, sure he was a great songwriter, but since he grew up without a father from the age of five on, he couldn’t really write realistic songs about being a son.  Maybe if he had grown up with a father, he could stretch beyond writing songs about love to write songs about familial relationships as Cat Stevens so eloquently did in ‘Fathers and Sons’ or Harry Chapin did in ‘Cats in the Cradle.’  Two song writers with fathers.  It’s really too bad that Lennon was so limited in his song writing and never knew the deep love between a father and son.”

You know why you’d never read an obit like that?  Because it’s fucking cruel.

And it’s equally cruel to take Maeve Binchy’s medical condition — something entirely outside her control — and use it to muse on how much better she could have been as a writer if she didn’t have it.  But beyond doing a disservice directly to Maeve Binchy, Craig demeans all women by reducing us to the capabilities of our uteri.  Can you procreate?  Then perhaps you won’t be so limited to such boring subject matter as (yawn) relationships.  As Craig states,

Maeve Binchy’s warmth and interest in other people included their families, but I can’t help but feel that her detailed portraits of ordinary life might not have been so predicated on the relationships between men and women had she had a child.

Her insensitivity doesn’t just extend to Binchy.  Jane Austen, she muses, maybe would have gotten off that limited topic of romantic love and moved on to more important things if she had just parented a child.  After all, “No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child.”

The reality is that every writer, every piece of art can be done better.  Art is never static; there is always a word that can be tweaked, a brush stroke that can be changed.  Writers will tell you that they keep editing until their publisher pulls the manuscript out of their hands, and even then, when I read aloud from my book, I still tweak sentences here and there rather than reciting what is on the page.  So this article serves no purpose — of course a different life may have brought with it the influence of different subject matter.  I think we can all agree that our experiences (or lack of experiences) changes how we see the world, and we bring that with us into our art.

But to predicate all women’s writing on the event of childbirth is — again — reductive and insulting to women.  Parenting can change a person’s writing focus, or it might not.  And there are plenty of things including caring for an aging parent, an ill partner, or tending to one’s own poor health that affects the amount of time a person can dedicate to writing; the divide isn’t between parents and non-parents, but those who are able to make time and those who are not regardless of the why behind those time constraints.  Parenting doesn’t trump all in being the sole timesuck.

And when we read between the lines, what Craig is doing is taking a caregiving role — parenting — and making that the focus of womanhood.  And when we do that, we limit ourselves.  Women do not have to be caregivers nor should men be shunted away from the role and told it’s too “feminine.”  What Craig has done is take a truth of womanhood (we often fall into the role of caregiver both due to societal norms or biology) and make it a limit for womanhood (women should serve as caregivers because it makes them more well-rounded, far-reaching writers).  And while I expect men to build the glass ceiling over my head, I hardly think women need to step into that role of constructor of limits for other women.

Craig’s article was such a huge disappointment for women writers.  We could take the time to hold each other up; to support one another in producing books.  Or we can take Craig’s lead and muse on why someone else was just so damn limited in their writing abilities (not like Craig, mother that she is!).  On one path, we fill bookstores with quality fiction that reflects aspects of society.  On the other path, we shriek like harpies and our male counterparts notice and ask why women feel as if they need to yank on the backs of other women in order to feel as if they’re rising to the top of the pack.

Men, you have probably noticed, are not writing similar articles asking if Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote, or Philip Roth (sorry to knock you off prematurely, Mr. Roth) could have been better writers if they had just experienced fatherhood.

And interestingly enough, women also aren’t writing articles asking if Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote, or Philip Roth could have been better writers if they had been fathers.

We only seem to write these types of articles about ourselves.

33 comments

1 Arwen Rose { 08.13.12 at 9:27 am }

I was so shocked that anyone could write something so utterly cruel as this article, which they published on the day of her funeral no less. I am still on total shock that someone could be that mean and sick to the core. I have never read Maeve Binchy’s work but I would be far more inclined to read her books over this dreadful bitch of a woman Craig. Excellent point about Kafka, Sartre etc. Shocking.

2 Audrey { 08.13.12 at 10:06 am }

Holy crap! I can already hear the comeback from Craig being “she could have adopted”. People are insensitive assholes, most often when the object of their criticism (who is no doubt a far better writer in this case) is unable to respond.

3 tigger62077 { 08.13.12 at 11:01 am }

I intentionally did not read the original article, because I knew that I would rage. I did, however, read this piece. It’s more or less the same article…but regendered. “If Maeve Binchy had been a father: Does a male novelist need to have experienced fatherhood to truly understand human emotions?” http://regender.com/swap/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9446816/If-Maeve-Binchy-had-been-a-mother-….html

It’s an interesting read. We shove women into this role, insist that they must be a mother in order to understand things, but when you turn that same article into being about a man, it really highlights the downright silliness of the idea.

4 loribeth { 08.13.12 at 11:14 am }

I wrote about this on my blog, as did several others I’ve read. I thought Craig’s piece was just the absolute height of insensitivity, particularly since the writer herself had just DIED and (as Arwen points out above) wasn’t even cold in the ground yet.

I didn’t know until this kerfuffle that Binchy was childless, and I haven’t read her most recent books, but I have read every one of her earlier volumes & loved them. I have found that even hardened critics tend to give her a thumbs up. You could go a lot further in search of someone who has a better understanding of the human heart — mother or not. :p

5 sushigirl { 08.13.12 at 11:15 am }

When I was growing up, Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors. I’m not sure how well known she is outside the UK, but wrote historical novels aimed at kids. Her characters fought the Vikings, fled from Celts, and all sorts (The Eagle of the Ninth is one of the best).

I looked her up on Wikipedia recently and found out that she had no children, was never married, and was a wheelchair user for most of her life.

I think writers are limited by their imaginations and skills rather than by their own life experiences. And since Craig’s written about parenthood where it’s not particularly relevant, that says more about her limitations than Binchy’s.

6 Bea { 08.13.12 at 11:23 am }

I have a cringe reflex that kicks in whenever someone claims that other relationships are less than parent-child relationships. As a parent – and I love my kids and everything – but I just don’t think this is true. Maybe it’s true for Craig. Maybe it says more about her adult relationships than about the general nature of parental love. Maybe she’s limited in her writing by this.

I don’t know. I clicked through and read and there’s some things about parenting she said that are true enough, and I guess it’s a unique experience at least in some ways, well, everyone’s experience is unique, really, isn’t it? although not as unique as some would like to think (noting your examples of other care-giving roles especially).

To claim that only parenthood can teach you the true depths of human nature is to completely dismiss what happens on the road less travelled. To overgeneralise from your own life experience and what led to your own personal growth and insight, and ignore the experiences you did not have. To sound, in a way, like you’re desperately trying to seek out a silver lining because you feel like you’re under a bit of a cloud. Maybe that last sentence is unfair. The previous ones aren’t. I just don’t buy it.

Bea

7 Cristy { 08.13.12 at 11:30 am }

OMG! What is the cause of this onslaught from fertile-identified writers towards infertiles? This is one of many attacks in the media that judges the worth of a person based on their ability to procreate. And it baffles the hell out of me. How is it we can assign the value of a person’s time on this planet based solely on whether they had children or not? That their worth comes down to genetic legacy?

I think what we as a society need to start asking the authors of these articles is as well as ourselves is ‘why demean someone based on this?’ Why assume that one’s life is complete or not based solely on their ability to bear children (btw: I found it equally disturbing that one of the reasons Beyonce was awarded “sexy woman of the year” was because she had given birth)?

If nothing else, I think this piece speaks to the limitations of Ms. Craig as an author, revealing how limited she is as a human being. Frankly, this whole piece screams of jealousy. But like the average ‘mean girl’ in high school, she’s choosing to attack instead of embracing her fear and growing. I pity Amanda Craig.

8 Jenny { 08.13.12 at 1:12 pm }

I was stunned by this article. The undercurrent of jealousy and bitterness was all too obvious to me. (Funny that: a bitter fertile. Who knew they existed?) Clearly this woman envies the success Binchy achieved and needed some way to cut the woman down in order to bolster her own fragile ego.

Once I got over my rage (ok, I’m still not entirely over it, but I’m calmer now), I started to feel very sad for this woman and for anyone who thinks like her. Yes, being a mother is surely an amazing thing. But a woman should not be defined by that alone. And to suggest that only a mother is capable of true selflessness and depth of feeling is ignorant in the extreme. If she had bothered at all to research Binchy’s life, she would have discovered (as Mel pointed out) that Binchy was infertile. If she had an empathetic bone in her body, she might be able to imagine how utterly heartbreaking that would have been for Ms. Binchy. And perhaps she could have come to the conclusion that infertility renders an entirely different, but no less significant, depth of feeling than motherhood does.

If anyone is lacking when it comes to human emotion, it’s Ms. Craig.

9 kateanon { 08.13.12 at 2:15 pm }

This article bugged me, so bad.

“All novels are written against seemingly impossible odds, of which having a child is only one. Modern women are extraordinarily lucky in that we can usually choose whether to become mothers;”

Really? I disagree, Ms. Craig. I would have chosen to become a mother, but no matter which way I pursued motherhood, it evaded me. Becoming a mother has impossible odds, when you think about it. Conception, pregnancy, childbirth, these things all carry such chances.

To think that the childless only succeed because they aren’t busy parenting, and then to condemn them for not having children is asinine. Perhaps the author believes deep in HER heart that SHE may have been more successful if she didn’t have children, but doesn’t have the balls to say so.

10 It Is What It Is { 08.13.12 at 2:23 pm }

As others have said, Craig’s article actually speaks volumes about her as a person…the position she took, the decision to publish this on the day of Binchy’s funeral. There is a quintessential lack of depth there and lack of humanity.

That said, it’s such a backwards thing to even ponder. Sure, Binchy’s infertility makes her an easy target for the cheap shots taken in Craig’s piece, but we wouldn’t ponder how her writing would have been different if she was a lesbian, or transgendered, or of a different religion or ethnicity.

Good for you for calling her out and all who make punching bags out of infertile women, especially those who are childless not by choice.

11 Illanare { 08.13.12 at 3:50 pm }

I read the article after reading about it on Loribeth’s blog. It was sickening, but I was heartened to read that most of the commentators felt the same way. I go back to the article periodically (which pains me because that newspaper represents the complete opposite of my political views!) to see if there has been an apology or follow-up, but no. In fact, Craig has even been on Twitter to complain about people trolling her article!

12 Sharron { 08.13.12 at 4:44 pm }

When are women going to give other women a break? FFS, it never ceases to amaze me. I am Child free by choice other women don’t just ask if I have any kids, but then proceed to tell me I should have. No thought as to if I may be dealing with infertility. I have NEVER had a man tell me I should have kids, or don’t know what I am missing.

13 jjiraffe { 08.13.12 at 4:52 pm }

Wow. Talk about tasteless, crass and lacking a simple understanding of the human condition: this article is about as gross as it gets.

Also, I call massive BS. Some of the world’s greatest writers were not parents: Proust, Woolfe, Dickinson and my favorite writer of all time, Jane Austen.

Craig will be long forgotten ( probably in a few days) but these legends and their words will still be read by many for many years. In the end, I guess that’s the best response to this nonsense.

14 Tara { 08.13.12 at 5:03 pm }

wow..just wow. I kinda want to punch the person who wrote that “article” in the face – that doesn’t make me a bad person does it? :P

15 Another Dreamer { 08.13.12 at 8:20 pm }

Well said Mel. I’ve never read anything by the Maeve Binchy, but that article is just cruel.

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.13.12 at 9:11 pm }

How sad that one woman deconstructed another like so.

17 Lisa { 08.13.12 at 9:58 pm }

Wow. That was sad and nauseating. I think what bothered me the most was that as an infertile woman, one of the things I worry about the most is what my legacy will be. This woman just attempted to crap on Ms. Binchy’s legacy. Shame on her.

I must say, though, that the comment section is quite impressive and made me a little warm and fuzzy.

18 a { 08.13.12 at 10:38 pm }

I really hate it when foolish, self-involved navel-gazing is put forth as some sort of deep philosophical analysis. I skimmed the article, since I didn’t want to feel much dirtier than I felt after reading the first couple paragraphs, and the overview for me is that this woman is thinking “I write so much better than that romantic nonsense that Binchy puts out…and yet she’s so successful and I am not.” Ugh.

So, why is it that women feel it necessary to cut down other women to make themselves feel better? I mean, I’m sure I do it mentally, but I really try to never let that sort of thing escape my mouth, my pen, my keyboard, etc… Except, I do complain about women cutting other women down. It’s a generalization, sure, but people keep giving me so much evidence to back it up. And they always pick the most vulnerable point.

However, if I were looking for a hook for a new blog, it would be a literary review blog dealing solely with the unfortunate personal lives of authors. We could start with your list of “what if they had been fathers” and then we could move on to “what if he hadn’t been an alcoholic” or “what if he hadn’t been using opium that day.” Too bad I’m not literate enough for that sort of thing. It took me too long to come up with additional categories…

19 Geochick { 08.13.12 at 10:45 pm }

Ugh.

20 Justine { 08.14.12 at 12:24 am }

WTF?

I was reading Whitman yesterday before I wrote my post about the Body Electric, and was feeling depressed about the fact that women were reduced to uteruses. Uteruses that helped Whitman write poetry, but uteruses nonetheless.

But this article reminds me of people who challenged me in graduate school, when I was studying comparative ethnic U.S. literatures as an ostensibly white female, saying that I could never really understand/critique/get the literature if I weren’t Black/Mexican/etc. It’s sort of the reverse accusation: that you can’t really write about being a parent if you haven’t been one. I don’t think that’s true, but I do suspect that there are a lot of people out there who think it is. And yet: you’re right … why don’t they seem to ask that about men?

21 St. Elsewhere { 08.14.12 at 1:15 am }

I guess Marilyn Monroe would not have died if she had children. Ms. Kahlo would have turned out even more masterpieces if her fertility was her friend.

I am horrified at the article, and what it tries to assume. Tearing someone down like this, and saying that they could be better if they had children is horrible. And there is a whole lot of envy too.

BTW, Mahatma Gandhi may have been the ‘Father of the Nation’, but he would never win parenting awards for being an actual Father…but we don’t say it. Not only is there a gender bias in fertility related judgement, there are harder lines drawn for women than men.

22 Mud Hut Mama { 08.14.12 at 3:22 am }

Yuk! But I am heartened at the comments under the article and hoping that many are from people outside of the ALI community.

23 Anna { 08.14.12 at 7:36 am }

Thank goodness for the comments section there, it is shocking and the fact that this was published seems to me an unpleasant reminder of the prejudice that exists and is permitted expression against IF women. As I’m only regularly exposed to the writings on fertility and parenthood from the ALI universe I sometimes forget that some people thing that this kind of writing is ok.

Thanks for drawing my attention to this.

24 Anna { 08.14.12 at 10:38 am }

I was incensed when I read this article! This was very well said.

25 Mali { 08.14.12 at 3:32 pm }

Mel, I love that you highlighted this as did Loribeth. Like everyone here was incensed. For once though, the comment section was worth reading. Ditto the comments here, with special kudos to Bea.

And I was telling someone the other day about Binchy’s article and the way she organized the visits of her nieces and nephews. I’ve taken notes for when my niece is old enough to come stay. I particularly liked the idea of scrap booking and cocktails!

26 Chickenpig { 08.14.12 at 4:52 pm }

Too true!

27 caitsmom { 08.14.12 at 5:13 pm }

What a great post to come back to the blogosphere for! Thanks for thoughtful discussion with some spice.

28 Dee { 08.15.12 at 12:16 am }

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Ms. Binchy’s novels over the years.

Amanda who?

29 Carol { 08.16.12 at 3:25 pm }

Don’t know if anyone’s pointed this out yet, but Maurice Sendak was asked in an NPR interview if he ever wanted children. I think the interviewer pointed out that many gay couples today are using fertility treatments to have kids, but Sendak said no, although he would have preferred a girl “”I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son, I would leave him at the A&P or some other big advertising place where somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right.” Also, in a 2011 interview for the Atlantic with Joe Fassler, he said, “I think people should be given a test much like driver’s tests as to whether their capable of being parents! It’s an art form. I talk a lot. And I think a lot. And I draw a lot. But never in a million years would I have been a parent. That’s just work that’s too hard.”
So, maybe Craig would be a better writer if she hadn’t had children. Less distraction, and so on.

30 battynurse { 08.16.12 at 4:05 pm }

Wow. The meanness of people never ceases to amaze me.

31 {sue} { 08.17.12 at 9:58 pm }

Very cruel. I believe that heartbreak and pain mostly INFORMED Maeve Binchy’s writing, as it does in so many cases, whether infertility, mental illness, poverty, etc. Those deep emotions are the undercurrents that filled her characters and made so many readers relate to them.

32 Farah { 08.18.12 at 3:18 pm }

Unbelievable. (remove the political parties aside while reading the rest of the comment) I read an article last night on how when Sarah Palin was announced as the VP Rep. Candidate – the gasp was all buzzing about whom would be watching/raising her children if she was voted to become VP … But when Paul Ryan ( whom has children very close in age of Sarah’s kids) No one questioned or worried about who would be watching/raising his kids. It’s a double standard. Woman are penalized if they have kids because people think it is weird ..and Woman are penalized if they have kids because obviously – kids are interference in reaching a woman’d full potential. Wow. Such Hogwash

33 Marlene { 01.17.13 at 6:55 pm }

I was devastated when I just learned about Maeve’s death. I’ve read every book she wrote that I could lay my hands on. Her stories transported me right into the middle of her story & kept me there until the end, wanting more. I wish I could have written this when she was alive to appreciate that her stories were so well received. I’ve never married, nor had children but I’m from a large family and I have many children to watch grow up and to love. One doesn’t have to produce children to make yourself a better person.

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