Are writers worse parents? Some, for sure. Whether it’s lack of presence, behaviour modelling, or disposition, there’s a certain portion of every segment of society that probably shouldn’t be parents.
That said, I have four kids and I have given up so very, very much in my so-called career to be as good to them as possible: residencies, teaching gigs, jobs, editorial positions, etc. But the biggest sacrifice of all has been time.
I usually work a day job (because kids = more food and activities, families = solid roof, and teens = allowances and gaming systems), so that’s eight hours, minimum; then I help with homework (homeschooling now), household duties, driving people places, doing bedtimes when they’re younger, etc. It basically leaves about an hour each day in which I just want to suck back two beers and fall asleep.
And I don’t really feel they’re old enough yet for me to fuck off to a two- or four-month residency or semester at a distant school, so I turn down offers. I even try to keep my book tours packed into about one week of hectic travel so I can minimize the time away from them. My partner and I, both being writers, have developed systems for supporting each other through this, but before her, it wasn’t an option.
I’ve got friends on both sides of this: on one hand there are those who chose to not have children (or can’t) and have been able to flit about the world chasing every opportunity and writing whenever it suited them, and on the other are people like my buddies Mark and Pete, who are rooted up to his knees in dadding and are reliable, loving caregivers. (Further are those who gave up writing altogether, bu that’s a whole other post.)
When Mark and I have a beer we end up talking parenting more than writing. Sometimes, I suppose, we lament the missed opportunities. More accurately, we look at the lives of our friends without kids and feel a sort of envy, but not one that is strong enough to incite action on our part. Neither of us are going anywhere until all our genetic messages-in-a-bottle are settled in the world and ready to make their own lives.
So, am I shittier parent? No, I don’t think so. But in trying to preclude that, I admit that am a reduced writer, at least in opportunity. Am I resentful? A little. I used to be much more resentful. Not of the kids, mind you. Just of like… the situation. More of a regret, much in the same way I’m sad I didn’t stick with Judo just as I was getting near a higher level.
I sometimes daydream about having been born a century back. I’d marry someone who does all the work, then after they cook dinner, and while cleaning up and tend the kids, I’d fuck off to my study to write. Then later the kids would show up for a half hour dandle on Dad’s knee and head to bed. Then I’d write all night and wake up when they’re in school. Then rinse and repeat. It’s much easier to be great when you’re selfish.
It’s all a distraction, of course, but everything is grist to the mill. The pram in the hall, the lack of the pram, the spouse, the job, the lack of the job, the lack of the spouse, the chores, the chaos, the drudgery, the unvarying routine. Life can be difficult, but for writers it often seems to be more difficult than for most – or maybe they just complain about it more. Pity poor me. The provocative, publicity-seeking title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume, self-regarding autofictions My Struggle – the series’s Norwegian title, Min Kamp, deliberately intended to recall Mein Kampf –is not just a sick joke, it’s a boast. I am a terrible father! I’m a terrible son! Behold, readers, and worship the colossal wreckage!
While Knausgaard is widely acclaimed for his frankness about his struggles with his family and his life, others are roundly condemned. John Banville was only the most recent victim of his own honesty when in an interview with the Irish Times last year he admitted that as a writer you “take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones . . . . You see, because you have to concentrate so deeply, and have to sink down into yourself as far as you can go, you lose sight of the people around you. The people you are writing about can be more real than the people you live with, which is very cruel on the people you live with”. Cue the righteous with their indignation, among whom David Simon, creator of The Wire, was perhaps the most outspoken: “Speak for yourself, fucknuts”.