Do writers make bad parents? Few agree with John Banville
His comment in an Irish Times interview that writers are bad fathers provoked a social media storm. Fellow writers react
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” claimed Cyril Connolly. What do Irish authors think about combining parenthood and writing in the wake of John Banville’s claim that writers make bad parents?
“I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer is. You take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones.”
John Banville’s generalisation, in his interview with Kathy Sheridan in The Irish Times last Saturday, that all writers make bad parents provoked an almighty backlash on social media over the weekend, not least from fellow writers. In the vanguard was David Simon, creator of the cult television series, The Wire, who tweeted: “Speak for yourself, f*******. Family is family. The job is the job.”
“This guy and all the guy guys of his generation who never learnt how to be adult men can do one,” offered Jon McGregor. “Young writers read this shit, and it gives them permission to behave like assholes, and never grow up,” tweeted Julian Gough, whose timeline is particularly interesting on the subject. “Male writers are particularly prone to glamorizing their flaws. But your flaws need to be transformed by, and into art. Not preserved.” Sinead Crowley made the point that “many women I know actually opt for writing precisely because you can do it with kids, or around kids”. “ART IS NOT THE ENEMY OF FAMILY, JOHN BANVILLE,” tweeted Sarah Maria Griffin.
I canvassed the opinions of a cross-section of Irish writers, asking them not so much to react to the statement of their fellow author, a former literary editor of The Irish Times, but to comment on their own experience of being a parent as well as an author, the challenges and the inspiration.
It was at home, after an evening spent at the pub discussing the literary life with a writer friend, that I came across the Banville bad father article. I read it as I supped a post-pub cup of tea. A cuppa very kindly made for me by my husband, who had earlier taken our sons to scouts and put our daughters to bed, while I was down the local. I was outraged at Banville's attitude. But not for the same reasons as it appears everyone else is. It was the sexism of his comment that offended me. This mother writer is a pretty poor parent too! How dare he suggest only male writers have a monopoly on selfishness and emotional neglect!
I have to confess I was surprised that the writers of Twitter were so adamant that he was trotting out a hackneyed excuse for negligent fatherhood. I had nodded in agreement with his words before being irritated by the sexist undertone. You see, I fully expect recriminations from my own offspring in years to come. 'Why did you love your book babies more that us, Mammy?', 'We wanted your attention, not just soppy mentions in your book acknowledgments!” And I'll have to say, 'fair cop, darlings.'
I understand what a lot of other writers had to say. That their children have made them better people, better writers. Fuller, rounder, more emotionally connected. Opened them to experiences they would never have had otherwise. My children have gifted me an excruciating vulnerability that I'm not entirely happy to have. Does it make me a better writer? I'm not so sure.
Quite apart from the emotional impact of having this bunch of little people, it's the practical matters that have impeded the writing life for me. I used to think I could write around them. But gradually those snatched writer moments during naps and Peppa Pig weren't enough. Yes, they kept my hand in, stopped me getting rusty. But they also began to breed stress and resentment. A frustration at the inability to fully immerse myself in my writing. I have kept count, and in one twenty minute stretch while writing this piece I have been interrupted 11 times by my children. Between questions about home work, or requests for chocolate (denied) or a demonstration of how the smallest one can now snap her fingers (she can't), each time I have had to turn away from the laptop, take a deep, patient breath and try to give them my full attention. It is not just the pram in the hall that is the enemy of good art but also the nits in the hair, the mouldy kit in the sports bag, the 2am vomit on the bedroom floor, the squabbles in the living-room, the ketchup on the ceiling, the house phone in the toilet bowl.
Perhaps part of my problem is the amount of children I have. In my quest for total creativity in my life, I have had four of the beautiful, unique, fascinating little creatures. This procreational overindulgence could be why I reached a tipping point a few years ago. That quiet, writerly thinking time, already scarce, came close to extinction. I had a choice. There was a road that diverged in a wood and I took the road that didn't lead to the playground.
They started getting less of my time, less of my attention. I withdrew into the universe in my head. Keen to inhabit my imaginary worlds, a god walking among her people. Less present in the here and now. Less present in the laundry and the homework. And I am able to withdraw and be selfish as I have a partner who picks up my slack. A partner who is always there and available for his children, no strings attached. Mrs Banville might relate.
In moments of lucidity I worry I will regret it. That in the future when they are grown and moved out, and call their father to keep in touch, I'll be sorry I didn't find a better balance. But maybe I'll just make excuses to The Irish Times instead.
Tríona Walsh's novel The Dead Ringer is due to be published by Liberties Press next year. She performs with fellow poets Kate Dempsey, Barbara Smith and Maeve O’Sullivan as part of the Poetry Divas
Like being attractive or funny, it's not for us to say whether we are good or bad parents; our children will decide, or, more likely, leave it open: a little from Column A, a little from Column B is invariably the verdict. The risk a writer runs by excessive absorption in the work at the expense of other humans is that the books end up dominated by a self-obsessed, solipsistic narrator surrounded by a gallery of unconvincing cardboard cut-out characters. One of the writer's jobs is to pay attention, and where better to begin than at home? Whether we find looking after our kids boring or rewarding or, again, a volatile mixture of both, enlightened self-interest should remind us that, like our mother, our aunt and our brother-in-law, they are also material.
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright
I was unable to respond earlier because I was looking after my toddler; now, with the help of Peppa Pig, I am dashing off a few lines. Parenthood is by no means a quintessential experience. I know writer friends who have blossomed after having babies; I know writer friends who have found themselves crippled, unable to write a word. But what I have learned is: I used to fear, very deeply, those vile lines about the pram in the hallway being the enemy of art. These days I love to think of JG Ballard's quote that the pram in the hallway was the making of his art. I feared that I'd never write again but I found myself writing the title story of my recent collection (Multitudes) on my iPhone at 4am, breastfeeding; at the kitchen counter with my seven-week-old in his sling, in snatches while he napped. It felt utterly transgressive, and yet necessary. It felt like writing for survival. Writing it, I broke through to a new way of writing, more truthful, more tender than ever. My writing hours have been severely reduced since my son was born. But I have produced some of my best work. I've found myself able to focus more deeply, more intensely, than before, in the handful of hours that I have per week. I've found that I care far less what people think, and that makes for bolder work. As does being a thousand times more vulnerable than I had ever felt before. I am very grateful that I am living at a time when the likes of Anne Enright (Making Babies made me laugh and cry and might just have saved my sanity), Doireann Ni Ghriofa, Sinéad Gleeson, Maggie Nelson, Zadie Smith, Rivka Galchen, to name but a scant few, are writing and talking fearlessly about what it means to be a mother and to write. The roles are not mutually exclusive, as I was terrified they might be; as indeed they might have been, but for a fearless few, a century, a generation or two ago. And as Peppa Pig finishes I stop the impulse to berate myself for not having spent this time reading a book with my son instead, and remind myself of Donald Winnicott's words that what a child needs is a mother who, writer or not, writing or not, is just "good enough".
Lucy Caldwell's latest work is Multitudes
My favourite photo of me is one where I’m sitting in bed, a laptop resting on my knees, seven months pregnant. My husband took it – despite my ‘Sweet Jesus, get out, I’m the size of a whale ’ protestations – for ‘posterity.’ I’d been shortlisted in the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller that year and the prize was a publishing deal.
The deal came, when my baby was a couple of weeks old and in my arms. My editor, in a scene not unlike one of those funny Late Late Show prize-winner calls, had to ask was I excited, she was that concerned by my muted response.
‘Oh, I’m over the moon,’ I whispered. ‘I’m actually crying. It’s just, I’ve a newborn and this is the first time he’s slept pretty much since he was born.’
I have four children, aged 2-11, and when I’m asked me why I write, I say – for them. I wrote my first book because my job in the Dáil often involved 12-hour days and my kids were growing up without me. It was tough to begin with, writing on top of a full-time job, but now I’m where I want to be, at home.
It’s not all champers and book signings. Somebody asked me recently what I do to celebrate publication day. Truthfully? The same thing I do every day. Laundry, dinner, baths and bedtime. The kids keep me grounded – no crazy author ‘throw my typewriter from the hotel balcony’ stories here.
Parenthood has taught me many things – patience, selflessness, multitasking (you haven’t lived until you’ve had a plot epiphany while changing a dirty nappy and got to yell: ‘Shit! I have it!’)
But more than anything it’s taught me that there is nothing – no job, no plaudits, no amount of money – more important or more rewarding than being a good mother. I like to think it’s a lesson that has made me a better person, as well as a better writer.
Jo Spain's latest novel is Beneath the Surface
I have sadly had to cancel all plans to have a baby with John Banville, but would like to have a boxing match with him about Henry James. More people should admit to being failed parents and the world would probably be a great deal healthier. I doubt v much, however, any woman writer would be looking to Banville for reproductive guidance. I think what he says makes great sense if he'd added two words “I have not been a good father. I don’t think any writer, like me, is." Because there's certainly an anxious, all consuming neurosis, with writing that can, if indulged, make you a very bad parent, partner, downhill skier and a contender for membership of the high cholesterol club.
I used to think of motherhood as liberation by limitation, but now I tend to wonder if I'll make it to next Saturday. But one of the most extraordinary sights of the recent refugee crisis has been parents with children squashed in boats in alarming proximity to the sea and then carrying, running with their small children in their arms or pushing v disabled children through the mud in wheelchairs, along a railway track in pouring rain for days, weeks. Parents who'll do anything to bring their children to safety and who are met with animosity, intolerance, inhumane conditions and barriers to doing so. When I see them, two things come to mind: how I endure nothing in comparison and that endurance can be found if you dig for it.
Anakana Schofield's latest novel is Martin John, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize
Parenthood is in no way the enemy of creativity: just ask the prolific 19th-century writer, Leo Tolstoy, whose wife, Sofia, wrote in her diary "I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture." (They had 13 children.)
Banville was self-confessedly a "hellish husband," but the outcry has centred around his attitude to his children. It occurs to me that Banville's children didn't die of his "bad" fathering. Someone looked after them. It occurs to me that there's an elephant in the room and she's over the age of 18.
Though parenthood is not the enemy of creativity, it is an activity that takes time, as does writing, as does being an accountant, a dentist, a politician, a sculptor, a hairdresser, or whatever profession a wife might dream of being able to have time to pursue. In the two-parent nuclear family it's possible to calculate mathematically the time it takes to do the chores, look after the children, and write the book (or work at dentistry, or hairdressing or whatever), and divide them between two people. It's also possible to question why it is that one of these two people might get to do most of certain of these activities, most of the time, and one the others.
"If I were a woman," says Banville, in the interview, "I’d be so furious all the time."
Joanna Walsh's latest work is Vertigo
Teenager: Dad? Are you in there? I’ve been knocking for five minutes.
T: It’s me, dad. Your daughter. I’m at the door of your office.
F: Term it my scriptorium.
T: Your, er, scriptorium. Sound. Can I come in for a sec?
T: I’ve brought your absinthe.
F: Leave it on the ottoman.
T: Do you need anything else, Dad?
F: Such as?
T: I could sharpen your quill? Or, I dunno. iron your cloak? Or feed the raven?
F: Merely solitude. And the necessary doom.
T: Only, if I was wondering if you might drive me to basketball practice tonight.
F: Ask your progenitress.
T: Mum’s busy.
T: Couldn’t you do it, dad? Just once?
F: Do you jest? Am I to leave the New York Review of Books waiting for my fifteen-thousand word disquisition on Nabokov’s use of the comma in the early drafts of Pale Fire?
T: Did you see where John Banville was saying in the Irish Times the other day that writers don’t make good fathers?
F: One does not subject oneself any longer to that vulgarian rag. It is a purveyor of low scuttlebutt, tittle tattle and envy. And their review of my recent novella on emptiness was jejune, at best.
T: I told my friends I’d see them at basketball practice. We thought we might go to a film afterwards?
F: Speak not to me of suffering! Every hour, I bleed! I ascend the rock face of language, clad in only the crampons of high lyricism. And then I am interrupted incessantly! By you and your fellow Persons from Porlock! You think prose of this muscularity yet luminescence writes itself, I assume? And then they award the Nobel Laurel to that rook-voiced banjoist, Zimmerman! O, forgive them, they know not what they do.
T: So, that’s a no, then?
F: Be gone.
T: But, dad, it’s my birthday!
F: The novel is dead.
Joseph O’Connor is a novelist and is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick
Motherhood meant the end of my writing life. I had written full time for 12 years and published 4 novels, but I couldn’t afford childcare so that was the end of that. I started teaching when my son was nearly 2, and then I could afford childcare. But I still wasn’t writing - I was now teaching. He was nearly 3 before I started writing part time again. Now he’s nearly 4 and the Arts Council recently gave me a bursary so I don’t have to teach. I write in the mornings while he is in preschool. I don’t yet know whether I am a better writer now that I am a mother, but I am certain that I am a better mother now that I am back writing.
Claire Kilroy’s latest novel is The Devil I Know
Worry is the bedrock that underlies my existence. It’s stable, at least, because I’m always worried. I’ve learned to efficiently convert nervous energy to kinetic energy, and so I actually move around and get things done, but when I’m writing I constantly have to shut down the ultra-wide, high-definition cinema screen in my imagination that plays a series of movies called THE DANGERS YOUR CHILDREN FACE. Some are obvious and natural, like disease, or speeding traffic, or unprotected waterways, or bullies; some are ridiculous but no less terrifying: in the past few days I’ve worried about the threat to my children’s safety and well-being posed by Asian hornets, sinkholes, melting ice-shelfs, magnetic pole reversal, solar flares and gamma ray bursts. Each worried minute of some fretful days brings wilder scenarios, fresh potential horrors. I subject my children to gentle interrogations daily. Was anyone mean to you? Are you happy? Are you hungry? Are you full? Did you chew your lunch properly? Are you happy? ARE YOU HAPPY? My daughter Lucy is nearly seven. She’s very chilled out. She told me recently that I have to relax. My biggest worry is that I’m not a good enough parent. But what’s the definition? The infamous opening couplet of Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ echoes every time I’m cross, or absent, or over-protective, or unsure what to do or say to make something better for them, but I do realise, in those moments of peace and clarity that happen sometimes - in the late evening usually, as they get tired and hug-hungry and the house becomes sane and still - that all we have to do is love them, and listen to them, and talk to them, and love them, and everything else will fall, loose and unordered and ill-defined, into place.
Donal Ryan’s latest novel is All We Shall Know
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
I was interested in John Banville’s comment that no writer could be a good father. He did not mention mothers but I guess that had more to to with context than with any intended gender bias.
I began to write my first novel just after my first child was born. All my books were written while I was a mother. I think you would have to ask my sons if writing made me a bad mother. My guess is they would say I would have been equally good or bad if I had not been a writer. And I believe that being a mother helped my writing .. and perhaps even vice versa. I wanted to have children and I wanted to write and both things happened. That was lucky, for me - one less thing to complain about.
Obviously being a parent affects the time available - especially since I had a job, as well as being a mother and a writer. But I feel too much of a big deal is made of this whole thing, the conflict of interest. Nobody asks - or not too often, nowadays - if being a vet or a carpenter or a teacher makes you a bad mother or father. I had two children, not ten. They went to bed at about eight when they were small; there were a few hours for writing. Then they went to school. And then they went to college, left home and there was all the time in the world. The children did not stop me writing, and the writing did not stop me looking after them. Indeed, if you don’t have a full-time job, writing is one of the occupations you can carry out at home, and in that way fits in nicely with being a parent. (I am good at juggling, and using snatches of time, I suppose I should point out. It’s nice to have a good long chunk of time in which to concentrate on a piece of work, but I can manage with bits and bobs.)
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s works include The Dancers Dancing
I was bemused; I thought even writers of a certain age knew better than to let this old chestnut slip, especially whilst in conversation with a journalist. I don’t think this thinking holds with the majority of writers who also happen to be parents. (I’ll just go ahead and assume ‘fathers’ was intended to be interchangeable with ‘mothers’.) I had several stabs at writing before I got serious, and it was the boredom of being at home with young children which finally motivated me. I write around their schedules and it seems to be working; my second novel is coming out next year, and I’ve started on the third. And only this morning one of my 7 year olds told me I was the best mother in the world, so. . .
Paula McGrath’s first novel, Generation, was published in 2015; her second, A Difficult History, is forthcoming next year (John Murray Press)
Having kids is hard work (I know because I have now two, both in primary school. Also, because I used to be one). Having a job is hard work (I know because I work as a freelance copywriter as well as write fiction). But is being a writer with children harder than being a copywriter with them? Or a shop assistant or a secretary, or any of the other jobs I’ve done? Course not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started to write eleven years ago as an antidote to the winter spent pushing a wailing baby around Dublin in the cold, often in tears myself. And yes, writing with children around means it’s hard to get long blocks of time, but I do get to spend far more time with them than I did when I sat in an office for 40-plus hours a week. Anything that gives you insights or shifts your perspective on the world (big and small) has got to be useful for a writer, and being in the company of children certainly does that, even if at a cost to my productivity. PG Wodehouse dedicated The Heart of a Goof (1926) to ‘my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time’. As with so much else, I think he nailed it.
Henrietta McKervey’s second novel is The Heart of Everything
No male writer in today’s world can jettison his family for the imagined life. You negotiate your working hours and for the rest of the time you get stuck in. My wife is busy and brilliant. She runs the events company Film Fatale, producing large events that take months of planning. So until recently I’ve been minding our daughter for much of the daytime.
I have the mornings to myself but admit the writing has taken a blow. I look at the word count of my current novel and reckon I’m about a year behind. I am trapped in a waking nightmare of interrupted sleep. Ceaseless vigilance keeps cortisol at a high simmer. Inspiration is dwindling. Exhaustion is absolute. Reading has fallen by the wayside. The characters who used chat in my head have gone quiet. My notebook is a little empty.
A few years ago, I sat drinking Japanese whiskey with Colum McCann in a bar in St Malo. He said, “why haven’t you got any kids? You should have kids, children teach you about life”. Well, now that we have got around to it, I see life a little differently. I read recently about the rape of Maya Angelou as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, and the subsequent murder of the rapist by her uncles. The other me, the childless citizen, would have been appalled at the idea of vigilante justice. But now I can feel their murderous rage in my bones. Being a parent has taught me about vulnerability in a way I just could not feel before.
I am writing this into my phone with my daughter napping in my arm. I have a novel on the go that is growing at about the same, daily imperceptible rate as my daughter. I will abide. As Lao Tzu once put it, nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
Paul Lynch is the author of Red Sky in Morning and The Black Snow
I got my first two-book deal the week I found out I was pregnant with my first child, which is the sort of ironic timing you get in novels rather than real life. I still had to write most of my second book when the new baby was born. He was not the obliging kind that takes long naps; he was the kind that didn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time, at any time. I mainly worked at night, and because my time was so limited I had the type of focus a brain surgeon would envy. It wasn’t easy, but writing never is.
I hope I am a good mother and a good writer. The two things seem to compliment each other rather than competing. Children impose a rhythm on your day, a predictability that can be tedious, but that very tedium is a gift to writers. We can let our imagination run free while outwardly engaged in the small repetitive tasks of parenting. It is possible to plot a novel while pushing a swing or building a train track; I know I have. As my children have got older my working life has ebbed and flowed around them and their needs. I think about life differently, because of them. I write about it differently. All writers are the sum of our experiences and influences. To write about life with any real understanding, it seems to me you have to be a part of it.
Jane Casey has written ten crime novels, including six in the Maeve Kerrigan series. The seventh, Let the Dead Speak, will be published in March 2017. She has two sons and lives in London
If I’m brutally honest, the ongoing struggle to be a good dad is the most difficult fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to create …
I have huge sympathy with anyone who tries to juggle parenting and writing (or any other job, for that matter) - ironically, I wrote a novel (Absolute Zero Cool) rooted in that very conflict shortly after my daughter was born. In the book, a writer thinly disguised as ‘Declan Burke’ fails to connect emotionally with his new-born baby because he’s absorbed in writing a novel. If memory serves, the fictional ‘Declan Burke’ approvingly quotes Graham Greene’s dictum that the writer needs a sliver of ice in the heart. In reality, and in retrospect, I think I was terrified of not being a good father, so I was deflecting.
Literary history is littered with great writers being bad parents; the idea that you can be both a great writer and a great parent doesn’t make for such good copy, I suppose. I was never in any danger of being considered a great writer, so maybe it wasn’t as big deal for me as it might be for other writers when I realised that I’d far rather my daughter considered me a good dad – on which the jury remains out - than a writer, good or otherwise.
I personally know people who combine being a good parent with being a good writer; the two are not mutually exclusive, although I appreciate that it all depends on the person. For myself, writing is tremendously challenging, enjoyable and satisfying, but it’s only writing; at the risk of sounding excessively sentimental, being a dad is all of those things, but multiplied by the mysterious infinite of the most precious kind of love.”
Declan Burke has just edited the Irish crime writers’ anthology, Trouble is our Business
I became a mother at 23 and my first serious task, after I recovered from a spontaneous symphysiotomy, was to return to university, where I started a crèche in first year, had another son in second year, became a separated woman in third year – weird title that, I always thought – finished my HDip and began teaching. After being sacked – no reason given but I can guess, and no, I haven’t had the time or the inclination to talk about it yet – I combined parenthood, working, writing, political activity and occasional socializing. Boy did I have a good time when I got out. Being a mother who is a writer involved learning particular organisational skills, the same would apply I presume if I’d been a cleaner or a lorry driver. I have the greatest respect for my two sons and their children and would not dream of intruding on their privacy by giving myself marks as a parent, one way or the other; no doubt they’re perfectly capable of doing that when I’m not listening.
Evelyn Conlon is the author of eight books and compiler of four anthologies. Her most recent book is titled Not the Same Sky
I’m a father to a six-month-old boy. My wife is still on maternity leave, so I’ve been able to keep normal work hours and leave the house every day to write in the library. The problem is I’m finding being a dad so exhausting that about an hour and a half of that time is spent sleeping. I never feel myself drifting off, but next thing I know I’m waking up with a start, there’s a book stuck to my face, and I’m blurting out something embarrassing regarding a dream I’ve been having. The thing that tires me out is not the parenting as such - it isn’t a physically demanding activity - but the broken sleep. Even though Rory now sleeps through the night, I’m still finding myself waking at 3am in accordance with how it was a few weeks ago. My body clock is all out of kilter.
My wife is due to go back to work after Christmas, and I had had hopes that I’d be able to work from home while keeping Rory fed, dry, safe and amused. But the other week I had dinner with two English writers, both dads to young kids, and they told me I was deluded if I thought I could work from home while looking after a baby. It is true - the few weekdays I’ve been left to look after Rory I’ve just had to put the laptop aside and give him my full attention. I do steal the odd half-hour, but I’m only getting going when Mr Blobby comes smashing through the wall again. It hasn’t been the most productive time of my life, but it’s been fun. I’m completely in love with him, and it’s just as well, because it immunises me to the nuisance.
Gavin Corbett’s latest novel is Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate)
Far from being bad for family life, my experience of writing for a living has been the opposite. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing at all if it wasn’t for my family as they were my inspiration when I first started my blog about family life in 2009. Writing allows me to work from home and be with my children far more than I could have been if I was still commuting from Kildare to Dublin every day. Of course my focus has to switch from my characters to my family when it’s time for the school run and homework and after school activities and playdates, but that’s fine. That’s normal! I’m uncomfortable with the notion that writing is so vastly different from any other profession. It isn’t. I’m a very busy working mum and have to make the most of every minute I get work while the kids are at school so that I can give them the time they need when they’re home. For every working parent, whatever the job, it is always about finding a balance. As for “selling my children for a phrase” … I’d love to read the phrase which was that good!
Hazel Gaynor’s latest novel is The Girl from the Savoy
I never intended to have children. I never imagined having children. I never envisaged a life with children. Indeed, I never even imagined when I was a young man that I would marry, which when I was growing up a long time ago was what went with having children, like bacon goes with eggs.
The Gods, however, had other ideas. The Gods excel at that sort of mischief. In 1981 I met a woman, now my wife, who was pregnant and absolutely certain that she did want children. We fell in love. The child she was carrying when we met was born, a beautiful girl. I married her mother. I adopted the beautiful girl. My wife and I then had four more children. (Not in that order by the way.) This was, I realise, not typical. We are the only people I know who have produced a family of this size. Did the Gods also plan that?
I write this having just spent the weekend in Dublin with my wife and three of my children, including my oldest, my first born, who is now herself a mother of three. Grandchildren was another ‘never imagined possibility’ in my young manhood.
And I cannot now, as I write this and following the weekend I have just had, imagine what it would have been like to have lived child free as I once imagined I would and to be child free now. The experience of fathering, with which I’ve been caught up since 1981, has been so all consuming and is still so all consuming that everything I once was, everything I once believed, has gone and I no longer have access to it. Indeed, I cannot even fathom, having been through all I have been through with the children, and even though some of it wasn’t easy, I cannot fathom how I ever imagined that the childless estate was preferable to what I had and have.
And the moral of this story? Obviously the Gods knew that I needed to be taught a lesson - this lesson - and thus they arranged matters so that I was, and I will be forever in their debt for their intervention.
Carlo Gebler’s latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales
I suppose you could make the claim that all parents who work are “bad parents”, or at least “compromised parents”. More often, though, I’ve heard this tiresome charge of “bad parent” levelled at writers, or writers themselves seem to embrace the notion. It’s a variant of Cyril Connelly’s oft quoted, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”!
Again, I won’t deny it, but extend the charge to all work-a-day parents. It’s just that the visible evidence of child rearing, of parental distraction - the lost hours spent carting children to football practice or piano lessons - is more glaringly obvious on the page than in the commission of so-called regular work.
That’s why I spent the first fifteen years of my marriage going without children in the selfish pursuit of Art. There was my time and now there is their time, and yet I believe that amidst the clamor of responsibility, good art and good parenting can still happen, and do happen.
Michael Collins’s latest novel is The Deah of all Things Seen
In my experience, writing is not bad for family life. Nor does it make you a bad parent. If I make mistakes as a mother, thats on me, not my profession. Writers are like any working parent, each doing the best they can to get the balance right.
As it happens, I’m not sure I would be writing, if it wasn’t for my family. Becoming a mother changed me. It gave me confidence and determination to follow my lifelong dream to be a writer. How could I expect them to reach for the stars, if I was afraid to do so myself?
I am very focused and have learned that as a working mother, I need to take my opportunities to write, when I can. Some days I can’t get near my laptop, so I create scenes in my head and store them there. Now the children are at school, there’s more structure to my work. I write every morning and some evenings too, when the children are in bed. Today, Nate my 4 year old had his MMR jabs in school. With ease I could leave my edits for an hour, to hold his hand.
Some days it’s trickier than others to balance my time between mothering and writing. One role involves noise and chaotic fun, the other requires solitude and quiet. While every day is different, ultimately, I choose my own hours, working around my families schedule. But somehow, it works. Writing, for me, has given me the freedom to be the mother I want to be.
Carmel Harrington’s latest work is The Things I Should Have Told You
Ann Power on her late husband Richard Power, author of The Hungry Grass (1969)
While being a civil servant had its advantages: you could be sure of a roof over your head and food on the table, it also meant that free time for your “real” work was limited to the left-overs of the nine-to-five job and at the period that Richard was writing The Hungry Grass, our six children were aged from ll years old down to a few months, so peace and quiet at home were hard to come by.
An old friend of mine who came to stay with us said after a couple of days, only half jokingly, “It isn’t flowers your guests need on their dressing-table, it’s ear-plugs!” For a few days Richard tried staying on to write in the office but this didn’t answer. Eventually we managed to work out a more or less satisfactory timetable: Weekends Richard kept for the family – he was a wonderful father; Mondays to Fridays I fed the children before he got home in the evening then the two of us had a quiet meal together and he wound down for a couple of hours. About 9 o’clock when the children were finally in bed, and the house was comparatively quiet, he would write for a couple of hours – long-hand, this was before the days of computers and he never really took to a typewriter. I had to admire the self-discipline that this involved.
I read John Banville’s quotes after pushing a couple of my kids into a cafe’s play area so I could have five minutes of peace with the paper. I managed two minutes. My response was that being a writer doesn’t necessarily make you a bad parent. Being a human being covers that base (insert appropriate Larkin poem here…).
Fatherhood was a spur to writing for me, though. I wrote the original Darkmouth for my now 11-year-old son, further reassured to find that what his age enjoyed happened to be what I enjoyed writing. He has since become an astute reader and editor, which is useful free labour. Where I’ve mined our lives, it’s generally been in the responses of Darkmouth’s flawed father – easily found when I look in the mirror.
Where being a father has proven surprisingly useful is during talks and events. Anything that happens at home that has even minor comedy value gets thrown into the set and aired in schools and festivals from Ennis to Edinburgh. The time my then three-year-old daughter’s bed collapsed on her because of my DIY skills turned out to be far more valuable than it appeared at 2am that chaotic night.
Shane Hegarty is the author of the Darkmouth series
Several years ago, I was asked to take part in a Radio 4 poetry show called ‘I wished I looked after my Teeth’. I was invited because I’d published a collection of poems entitled Can Dentists Be Trusted. The idea was that writers and poets are obsessed with their teeth. But I know from people’s reactions to my book that many people are obsessed with their teeth and frightened of dentists. They don’t write about it – that’s all. You don’t have to be a writer to be a selfish parent.
Martina Evans's latest poetry collection is The Windows of Graceland
Martin Doyle edits the Irish Times books section