The Patronizing Questions We Ask Women Who Write

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Photo: Tony Evans

I’ve been fantasizing about writing fiction a lot lately. I lie in the bathtub and think about what utterly batshit things I could hide in a novel, things I’d never have to answer for. I’m sure that “So, how much of this character is autobiographical?” would get annoying fast, but anything would be preferable to the question I keep getting about my actual, nonfiction writing lately: “What’s your son going to think?”

I’m writing a book of personal essays about motherhood right now, and I have a 2-year-old son, so the question is, at least on its surface, understandable. But it’s also not new. People have been concerned about what my mother and my (hypothetical) children would think of things I’d written — things that had nothing to do with them — long before I ever got pregnant.

I’ve been a woman on the internet without much of a filter for a decade now, but in 2010, my friend Melissa Gira Grant and I co-edited an anthology of personal essays about sex called Coming & Crying. The title, as I like to say at parties, speaks for itself. (“It’s okay, you can laugh, it’s tongue-in-cheek.”) When it somehow comes up in conversation — with in-laws or publishing professionals, say — I think about all the people who warned us of these exact moments. The book started as a Kickstarter project, which meant sharing the process publicly; there was a lot of communication, and while most of it was life- and art-affirming, much of it was what I would characterize as “concerned.”  

“What if you have a kid some day?” “Are you going to regret this in ten years?” “What does your boss think?” “What do your mothers say?”

I’ve been thinking that surely these questions loomed disproportionately large in my memory. But then I went to a friend’s reading the other night, where she and three other women writers read nonfiction writing about sex and sex work. The audience questions moved from “Do you ever feel in danger?” to “Is it hard to have a romantic relationship?” to the ever-popular “Does your mom know, and what does she think?” The overall tenor of the Q&A was admiration meets panic and concern, and never touched on the writing itself.

These sorts of questions are understandable, but revelatory. When a reader or interviewer asks someone how they reconcile their personal and writing lives, the implication is that a reconciliation must take place, that their idea of a writer or artist does not compute with their idea of a woman who has relationships. Or worse, their idea of a woman is “mother, daughter, girlfriend, friend” not “writer, artist, public person.” The curiosity can start to feel like incredulity, more patronizing than anything: “You’re so brave.” When we got such responses to Coming & Crying, Melissa was smart enough to find them tedious at best and offensive at worst. I was young and green and a little too willing to oblige: “My mom is a backer!”

Six years later, Melissa has published a book the traditional way and I am under contract. I do have a kid, and my mom did read the book (she was proud, bragging about it to our strict Catholic family; she said my piece made her a little sad but that it was well-written). No, I would not necessarily publish an essay about having sex in a bar bathroom with a near-stranger in the year 2016, mostly because I can’t imagine it happening, but I feel nothing but affection for my younger, hornier self. We were so sincere! We tried so hard! It’s not a perfect book, but I am so glad we did it and am so proud of all the work we did and how hopeful and open the whole process was.

“What will your kid think?” and “Are you worried your son is going to hate you when he grows up?” and “Are you going to let him read it?” and “What’re you going to do when your kid Googles you?” are all questions that, even when offered lightheartedly and in a spirit of ostensible support, feel less like genuine questions and more like a chastening. “Remember, you’re a MOM” and “Remember, you have a mother” both mean “Remember, you’re a woman, and there are consequences.”

We don’t ask male artists to consider the consequences of their work, we don’t reframe them as fathers or boyfriends or sons. We don’t keep trying to pull them back down to earth, to admonish them, the way we do women. We not only give them the benefit of the doubt — assuming they’ve done their own calculus as to how much is worth what, whom they’re willing to betray or embarrass or make uncomfortable and why — we operate as if their work is worth all that. There is a confidence, an assertion of self required in writing that we so often confuse with recklessness, but isn’t necessarily the same thing. I can be ruthless, daring, even “crazy” in my writing and deliberate and thoughtful in the choices I make with it later; to doubt that is insulting, but I’m not surprised it makes people uncomfortable. People have absurdly narrow ideas of what a good mother looks like.

Unfairness aside, though, it’s obviously something I think about. My writing about parenthood is not about my son. (“Where is the character of your son in this book?” a potential book editor asked me recently. “Well, he’s a fetus in the book and then a new baby,” I said. “He doesn’t really say much.”) That it’s about me and not him feels like an important distinction to me, and it comes up when my writing involves anybody else. His story is his own to tell, or not. But that’s not really what people mean when they express their concern, is it?

It’s more like, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” or “Aren’t you worried?” Let me say this: I am embarrassed and worried all the time, and that is why I am a writer. You do not need to bring up hypothetical consequences of my work as if in an effort to trap me, to surprise me, to make me turn red and throw my laptop in a river. I go through all of that every damn day, in the hour or so it takes me to work myself up to open a Word document.

But I do open it up, and I do it deliberately. A child reading their parent’s own complicated account of ushering them into the world will fuck them up, temporarily or no; I’ve seen Baumbach movies, okay? I have no doubt that my writing will come up in my son’s hypothetical future therapy sessions; that if things go as hoped career-wise, his friends or romantic partners might read my books and tease him about them. I can already see him rolling his eyes and trying to grab it out of their hands.

Yes, I would choose him over my writing if I had to, but I don’t. “When he’s a teen he’ll hate me regardless,” I tell my well-meaning friends. Never mind that he might be proud of me. That he might appreciate that we gave him a good life, that he might be relieved to know that I did all I could to make sure I was able to be a happy, present parent to him. That I knew myself, and knew what I needed. Never mind the possibility that my son will inevitably reconcile his childhood ideas of me as his mother with the reality that I am a complicated, intelligent adult with her own feelings and desires.

My writing pays our bills, gives me incredible flexibility, and fulfills me creatively. Sure, it makes me miserable sometimes, too, but not writing out of some sense of maternal — or worse, feminine! —  propriety would both be a betrayal of self and make me terrible to live with. Wondering what my 2-year-old son is going to think about my writing career does not rank high on my list of things to panic about before falling asleep.

I imagine he’ll feel the way I still do when my mom mentions meeting someone new and making them nachos at her apartment — like he wished his eyes could float out of his head and spin around into space and then come back as he groaned, “UGH MOM, C’MON.” Maybe he’ll feel the way my mom feels when she reads me writing about sex toys for the internet — initial horror and embarrassment, followed by the begrudging acceptance that the people you love are complicated and human. That they are people, not just women, not just mothers and daughters; which makes things complicated and hard and enraging sometimes, too. If those are the consequences, well, I’ll keep on taking them.