Kelly Davio

                   I’ve never loved the term “child-free.”
No one is “free” of children, whether they like it or not.
We live in community, and children are part of that community.
No one is child-free any more than one is people-free. . .
I would love to see a greater conversation between women writers that focuses
on our common professional goals, not on congratulating ourselves
for our personal choices.

KELLY DAVIO is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House, coming from Red Hen Press in March, 2013. She is Managing Editor of The Los Angeles Review, Associate Editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal, and a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. She is a Pushcart nominee whose work has been honored in Best New Poets, and who has published poems in journals including Gargoyle, The Cincinnati Review, Bellingham Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers’ Workshop, and teaches English as a second language in Seattle, Washington.

This summer, Kelly Davio posted an article from The Telegraph on her Facebook page that struck a chord with me. In this article, the beloved Irish author Maeve Binchy who’d recently passed away was ripped to shreds by Amanda Craig’s disappointing (and for many, based on the comments, reactions, and articles spawned, infuriating) essentialist doctrine that says women are ‘fulfilled’ or can only reach their full emotional potential through motherhood. In Craig’s disheartening article, she lessens Binchy’s credibility as an author because she was childless, arguing that she might have had a better sense of the complexity and depth of human emotion, had she borne and raised children.

I’d long thought I was infertile and it was only a fluke, at least that’s how I see it—beautiful, joyful, but a fluke nevertheless—that I gave birth a few years after adopting. Do I think that through the birth canal somehow I magically learned to write better? Absolutely not. In fact, I began writing seriously and prolifically through my infertility and then after the adoption of my son.

Of Craig’s article, I also wondered why fathers or non-fathers don’t get this kind of slack. My own husband does the lion’s share of housework and child rearing so I can focus on writing. While the article does offer some insight into the difficulties and prejudices still facing many writers who are moms, it also serves to pit women against each other, as if childless/child-free and mother are somehow two diametrical poles… so far from each other.

In considering this somewhat repulsive article, I decided to interview The Los Angeles Review managing editor and writer (with a poetry book forthcoming and a YA book in the works) Kelly Davio, who’d posted the following in response to Craig’s article:

“This kind of war, battled out in the same fashion as the body-image war and the mommy war, must be very convenient for the establishment; the more we women distract ourselves with trying to outdo one another or simply convince ourselves that we’re better than one another, the more we keep ourselves down. I don’t know if I’m seeing a greater quantity of invidious material floating around semi-legitimate media outlets lately, or if I’m simply more aware of its presence, but I’m becoming more and more depressed at the way women scold and shame each other simply to feel better about personal inadequacies or to justify life choices. I’m grateful that women writers like you, Jenn, are taking issue with this in venues like your blog, and I would love to talk with you about it at some point!”

See, Kelly doesn’t have children. And she doesn’t want children. So, for this next conversation in the Mother Writers series, I decided to chat with her in order to give voice to the perspective of a successful writer/editor who chooses not to have children in order to offer presence for women who either cannot or choose not to have children but perhaps who may consider themselves “mothers” or “mother figures” in other ways. One of the goals of my writing (and the focus of my next poetry collection) is to show the ways in which even women who are not biological mothers and how even men do “mothering work,” in order to include perspectives of aunties, adoptive and foster moms, and gay and lesbian parents, so even though I’m focusing now on mother writers because these conversations offer me personal inspiration, I imagine that such a conversation, by its very nature, could also seem to preclude and exclude women writers who do not necessarily classify themselves as mothers. I feel like this type of shutting down or shutting out is the opposite of the kind of productive, inspirational environment I’d hoped to foster in the forum of my blog, and this realization came to me after reading Amanda Craig’s article.

Here are Kelly’s trenchant, insightful responses, in which she discusses the effects of her own choice to not have children on her writing and how perhaps categorizing women by “mother” and “infertile” and “childless” might not be all that productive at all.

CONVERSATION WITH KELLY DAVIO

1.  According to Amanda Craig in her assessment of Maeve Binchy in The Telegraph, “a childless writer [has] more time and energy.” She says, of mother writers, “Even if you are truly, madly, deeply in love with your children, there are times when you envy those for whom the school holidays are not a total drain. Somehow, we are never the ones who get to work in Hawthornden Castle, the luxurious writers’ retreat which offers a month of working time uninterrupted by cooking, cleaning or child care. It’s no coincidence that women with children begin to win serious literary prizes once they are over 50.” As a child-free woman writer, how do you respond to this, and Maeve’s article as a whole?

Amanda Craig’s claims are so sweeping and self-serving that they’re actually quite funny. Take the claim that childless writers have more time than mother writers. If we assume that all childless writers are independently wealthy and don’t have to work, and all mother writers are saddled with childcare round-the-clock, well, maybe. But what of writers who have extreme time constraints because of their day jobs? I know a few physician writers who’d be surprised to learn they have all the time in the world to write by virtue of being childless.

The claim that childless writers also have more energy than mother writers is equally problematic. What about writers like myself who deal with chronic illness? We don’t exactly leap out of bed in the morning with energy to burn. The dichotomy that Craig draws ignores all facets of a woman’s life other than her childbearing status, and that’s some lazy, limited thinking.

What I find truly hilarious is Craig’s wistful remark about those of us who aren’t totally drained on school holidays. I wonder if she remembers that those of us who do not have children, even many of us who teach, don’t get days off for school holidays!

As for the invidious claim about writers’ residencies, whether mothers are made fellows less often than non-mothers is something I can’t speak to, not having access to those institutions’ rosters. But I have to chuckle at her implication that, somehow, not having to be interrupted by cooking and cleaning tasks would mean more to a mother than any other busy writer. Trust me: we childless people have to eat (and clean up the evidence) as well.

The multiple flaws in Craig’s article range from the funny to the truly irresponsible, and while I can shake my head and laugh at the sillier of her claims, I find articles such as the one Craig wrote about Maeve Binchy dangerous. Polemics like that article, which paints Binchy as an emotionally stunted human being because of her infertility, serve no purpose that I can see other than to divide women into warring factions. We women have enough to accomplish in the limited cultural space we occupy; fighting with one another about who’s a better human being and why is a terrible distraction.

2. Why have you chosen not to have children, and have you received cultural resistance as a result of your choice? Do you feel that you “mother” in other ways?

As I mentioned apropos your previous question, I’m someone who’s had to deal with some tricky medical issues, which is something I’m only just beginning to speak publicly about. Having a child would be, in my specific circumstance, bad for me as well as bad for a child. Even if I had a strong drive to become a mother, it wouldn’t be a responsible choice for me to do so.

There’s also the fact that I, at a young age, had the opportunity to experience caring for infants in a way that some others haven’t. When I was a teenager, my two younger brothers came into our family through adoption. I was very involved in caring for my brothers–I know all about waking up with a baby in the middle of the night, about taking care of a sick kid, about the kind of exhaustion one feels listening to a baby wail all night long. By the time I was in college, I’d changed more diapers than many of my new-parent friends have to date. I adore my brothers, and I’m blessed to have them in my life. But they taught me, simply by doing what babies do, that caring for infants and toddlers is not something that I want to do in my life. It’s not something in which I take joy.

The choice not to have a child isn’t mine alone, of course; my husband, my partner of 10 years, was also a big part of the decision. We’re very happy with the life we’ve built together. The two of us are a complete family.

I’ve absolutely been criticized for my decision, though. The backlash ranges from the smug (“just wait; you’ll change your mind.”) to the vaguely insulting (“having a kid would really mellow you out,” or “don’t you want to have meaning in your life?”) to the nasty (“anyone who doesn’t want a child is too selfish to deserve one anyway.”). I’ve thought a great deal about why people have reacted to my life choices the way they have. I’ve come to think it’s a combination of two things: first, I think people who feel quite strongly about their interests have a hard time understanding those whose interests lie elsewhere. I, for example, can’t fathom how some people go years without reading a single book. Aren’t their lives empty, I wonder? Perhaps people are reflecting a similar mindset on me without realizing that it’s hurtful. Second, I think there’s the fact that there are people who view difference as a threat. There are those who claim that gay marriage will invalidate their heterosexual marriages. That’s a claim I have a hard time taking seriously, but it’s one that’s widely voiced. Perhaps there are some parents who take the life choices of childless people as a direct insult to their own personal values. Whatever the reasons, I do wish people would think a bit more carefully before airing their criticisms about my or other non-mother’s life; unwelcome commentary isn’t particularly edifying for anybody.

I have found allies in surprising places, though. A number of years ago, I was teaching survival English to women refugees–we worked on things like how to ask for emergency medical attention, how to write your name in English, how to provide your address, etc. Basic survival skills. During the class, I met one young woman from Oromiya, a region of Ethiopia where polygamy is still widely practiced, if not legal. Over time, I came to understand that she had been one of 30 or more children in a family with five wives. I could tell from the way she counted off her family members that this was a point of pride for her. She also lit up when she talked about her own sons. So when she pointed at me and asked “babies. Many?” I shook my head and said “no babies.” She looked concerned, and asked “why?” I think I must have frozen. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task of explaining, using the basic vocabulary we’d learned, my life choice to someone whose world looked totally different from mine. But when she saw the look on my face, she smiled and me and said “it’s okay,” and went back to what she’d been writing. I wish most Western women could apply that same sort of grace in dealing with those who choose different paths. It is, just as she said, okay.

While I may not be a mother myself, I do think I make a significant contribution to kids’ lives in my role as an educator. Unlike many writers, I have no desire to teach in the university; I feel my real talents like in working with middle and high school kids. Teenagers aren’t always a popular demographic among adults (even among their own parents!), but I’ve been working with teenaged ESL students for the past seven years, and have watched with pride as my kids develop into critical thinkers, readers, and writers. I hurt with them when they’re struggling, and celebrate with them when they succeed. I don’t buy the charge some have leveled against me or women like me that I’m a cold, uncaring person simply because I don’t have a child; my professional life consists of nurturing other people’s kids.

3. In what ways does your decision to remain child-free affect your writing (or not!)?

I’ve had to do a great deal of research! My novel in verse, Jacob Wrestling, focuses, in part, on a young couple’s unplanned pregnancy. I struggled with writing about pregnancy and birth because I’ve never experienced it myself. I spent a great deal of time in research, and a number of my friends who are moms very generously gave me the benefit of their stories. They answered the questions that I had, and shared their deeply private, personal experiences with me to help me write authentically about something I haven’t gone through. I’m grateful to them for it.

4. You’re an editor, educator, and writer. What role does creative writing play in your life? In what ways can creative writing help/support/foster relationships for women writers in particular?

Creative writing is at the heart of everything else I do; the teaching and editing are both in support of my creative writing habit (though they both take plenty of time away from the task of writing). I’m the sort of writer who’s constantly working on a book-length project, or maybe even several such projects. If I go a day or two without writing, I feel something’s wrong. I think that’s because writing is–for me and maybe for other women–a way of having a voice. We don’t live in a culture that necessarily values the voice or opinions of the outsider, and writing is a way for us to make cultural space not just for ourselves but for others as well. When we tell the stories that matter to us, we demand to be heard. We create dialogue about what matters to us, not necessarily to mainstream culture.

5. This series so far has focused on how mothers juggle the responsibilities of child rearing with writing, but I know that you have a very hectic schedule and that it’s not only “mother writers” who need to make difficult decisions between writing and other important life events and conflicting desires/interests/responsibilities. How do you make time for your writing/creative endeavors? What pulls you away from writing? What drains your creative energy? What feeds your creative endeavors?

What doesn’t pull me away from writing? That’s the real question! I’m lucky if I can find an hour each day to work on my own projects, because teaching and editing–if you’re doing them properly–are enormously time consuming. I also find them enervating rather than energizing; I tend to throw all my resources at whatever I’m invested in, and there’s usually very little left for me and for my projects. I have to get creative about finding time and energy for my own work, and often that means seeing far less of my family and friends than I’d like to. In fact, some of my friends like to refer to me as a hermit because I’m so infrequently able to get out to social events. But my writing is my priority, and I have to make sacrifices in order to make it happen. However, I don’t know any writers who have endless time for their work, and I think we all have to prioritize at the expense of other things we love. As for what feeds my creative work, I couldn’t honestly say. I feel compelled to write. It’s simply something I have to do.

6. Are there challenges particular to women writers, shared both by mothers and women who are childless or child-free? In other words, do you buy what Craig argued about childless women being, in practical matters, like a man? Or, are there shared issues for women writers, despite motherhood status?

I think the statistics that VIDA has given us in the past couple of years, which prove what women already know about our liminal status in the publishing world, show that the industry marginalizes women’s work in terms of what it publishes, reviews, and awards. Those numbers do not lie. If Craig has any data showing that women like myself are magically free of gender bias, I would love to see it. But the best of our research today shows that women–not moms, women–have obstacles in the publishing industry. Perhaps the greatest problem with Craig’s philosophy is that she interprets gender quite narrowly indeed. I feel that, for her, “woman” equals “person who gives birth,” and that’s a definition that crowds out not only people like myself, but also trans women, women with infertility, and the list goes on. And I’m not a fan of that sort of exclusion, but of inclusion.

7. I know that when I was struggling with infertility, an article such as Craig’s would have deeply cut me, especially when she makes statements such as, “No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child. One reason why so many contemporary women writers have focused on this is that it is new territory, precisely because the great female writers of the past had not experienced it,” and “Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer. I make no moral claims for motherhood ­— which can bring out the worst in a person, in the form of vicarious rivalry, bitchiness, envy and even mental illness — but going through the ring of fire does change you and bring about a deeper understanding of human nature.” As a child-free writer, how do you respond to arguments such as this? Do you believe you’re missing out on some rich territory for your creative life by not bearing and rearing children?

I find Craig’s statements about mother/child bonds and deeper understanding of human nature pretty self-serving. It’s fine for Craig to claim that those who live a different life are missing something–of course we are! We’re all limited to our own lives. Craig herself is missing something: finding out what it means to be a childless writer. Straight writers miss the experience of what it is to be gay. White writers miss the experience of what it means to be in a racial minority. Simply because one lives a life that is different from someone else’s does not mean one is doing oneself some kind of professional disservice in the writing world. It simply means that we all live our own lives. If we could understand human nature through a single experience–be it motherhood or something else–then I imagine we’d have a far greater number of enlightened human beings roaming the earth.

8. Do you believe categorizing writers as mothers or childless/child-free has any particular value? Do you have any suggestions for opening the conversation between women writers that is less divisive and more inclusive of our common interests and struggles?

First, I’ve never loved the term “child-free.” No one is “free” of children, whether they like it or not. We live in community, and children are part of that community. No one is child-free any more than one is people-free. But that aside, I would love to see a greater conversation between women writers that focuses on our common professional goals, not on congratulating ourselves for our personal choices. Whenever I scan the AWP catalogue of panels, I’m surprised to see a large number of panels devoted to The Poetics of Motherhood or The Poetics of Childless Women or some such topic, and I wonder what would happen if we could just gather women in a room and talk about how to advance our cultural currency, our art form, and our interests as women in the writing profession. What if we stopped preaching to our individual choirs and started collaborating on our common interests?

9. As an editor, you come across what you term as “mother bird” poetry. Would you describe what this means to you, and do you have any advice to offer “mother writers” who seek to publish their creative writing?

Ah, the dreaded “mother bird poem!” What I jokingly refer to as “the mother bird poem” is a poem that asks the reader to care about a child simply because the poet cares about that child. That sort of poem usually boils down to “my kid is astonishingly smart and beautiful and amazing and I stand it awe of its being.” Unless the writer makes the reader feel something about the child in question, those statements are unearned and uninteresting. The mother bird poem stands in the Pantheon of Poems I Don’t Like along with the “retiree contemplating a garden poem,” in which we simply read rundowns of flower species, “the penis poem” in which a guy catalogues the qualities of his genitals (it never stops stunning me how many guys like to write this sort of poem!), and “the breakup poem” in which someone discusses his or her deep heartbreak at length.

Now, I’ve accepted and published poems about motherhood, about flowers, about breakups (never about penises, thus far). The poems that succeed in making their way into print, whatever the content, are poems that don’t rely on the poet’s interest in a topic but that make this reader care so deeply about the topic that she can’t look away. I want a poem to take my breath away, not to tell me what to think. Moms who write should feel abundantly free to write and submit work about their children, so long as they have enough distance from their subject matter to realize when they’re being sentimental, and to fix the problem before they send the work out.

Thank you for sharing, Kelly. This conversation has helped reinforce for me how necessary it is for women to share our individual experiences–the personal is political always, isn’t it?–in order to find our commonalities rather than focusing on that which separates us.

I wish you all the very best in your writing and can’t wait to read your forthcoming poetry collection.

Love,

Jenn

*Editor’s Note: For another movingly articulate response to Craig’s article, check out Melanie Notkin’s Huffington Post blog, “Novelist Maeve Binchy Was Childless, Not Heartless.”

Craig’s original article “If Maeve Binchy had been a mother” can be found here.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Conversation with Kelly Davio, managing editor of The Los Angeles Review « Jennifer Givhan, Poet & Novelist
  2. Jennifer Simpson
    Oct 14, 2012 @ 16:14:07

    Great interview! as a childless writer myself I do feel like I SHOULD be getting more done on my own projects, and am in AWE of writers (male and female) who manage to parent and write, but I think it’s insulting to imply that they are better writers because of it..

    Reply

  3. Trackback: On Interviews and Broaching the Scary Stuff « Kelly Davio
  4. Jeannine Hall Gailey
    Nov 21, 2012 @ 04:08:27

    Lovely interview, Jenn and Kelly!

    Reply

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