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.