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You Can’t Have Both! Or Can You? Janet E Cameron

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers | The Big Idea
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By Janet E Cameron

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The year I turned 40, I realised that I’d have to resolve a few long-term dilemmas in my life, if only to keep from getting too depressed when that birthday rolled around. One area I needed to deal with was my writing – I finally got the nerve to treat it as more than a hobby, started applying to graduate level programmes in creative writing and settled down to work on my first novel. The other worry that had been hanging over me was fertility.

I’d had a few tests and doctor’s visits over the past five years and nothing seemed to be wrong, but then nothing was happening either. Still, I continued to tell myself there was no need to panic.  Until I had my first appointment at a fertility clinic and was told that I’d left it far too late, and IVF was my only viable option. I’d have to start as soon as possible, the doctor said. I’d been accepted to a post-graduate programme in creative writing and was still teaching part time, but I had no choice: I’d have to fit this in as well. (The pregnancy and IVF deadline also put a fire under me in terms of finishing the novel, but I can think of less expensive ways to get motivated.) I started school in September. The first course of injections and pills began a month later.

It was around this time that my grad school had a guest lecturer for a week, a global literary superstar. We hung on his every word. He announced that he had office hours in the afternoon, and sternly added that there was no way he wanted to sit in there by himself. So, despite knowing next to nothing about his work, I decided to make an appointment along with everyone else.

janetcameronBig mistake! We stared at each other for a while. We exchanged bland comments about real estate in Nova Scotia. He asked me a few questions, including whether or not I had children. Then, several minutes into this marathon of embarrassment, we had the following exchange (transcribed from memory):

Visiting Eminence : You said that you haven’t had kids yet. Now, what does that mean?

Me: Oh, well, I’m starting IVF treatments soon…

VE: Isn’t that nice! You’ll have a book finished, and you’ll have a little baby too. (long pause) Although…let me tell you, you can’t have both.

Me: Wha?

VE: You can be a mother and have this wonderful rosy glow and be surrounded by your beautiful family. Or you can a solitary writing creature. But not the two together. Writing takes everything. So you’re gonna have to make a choice.

(Awkward silence. The Eminence is unfazed.)

Me: So…you really think I can’t have both?

VE: That’s right. You gotta choose. (smiling) Pick whichever one you’re terrible at, and get ridda that!

Me: (brittle laughter)

Then we went back to making vague noises about real estate.

When I was calmer, I realised that the Visiting Eminence had done me a favour. He was honest about something most people tend to sidestep. Can you be a mother of small children and a writer as well? Or pursue any occupation that requires long hours and full, exhausting concentration?

Of course you can. Women can do anything, right? That’s what I was educated to believe. (Although in many ways this is a cop-out: taken to its logical extreme it means that men don’t have to worry about housework and childcare because they’re partnered with an omnipotent being who can juggle two or three different existences effortlessly and may not even require sleep. But that’s a whole other story.)

I started asking people what they really thought about this question – being a writer and a first-time mother at once: was it possible? I used the conversation with the Visiting Eminence as a jumping-off point. Some people were appalled at VE, told me there were plenty of respected female authors with children. But others listened to my story and wearily said, ‘There’s some truth in that.’ Or even, ‘He’s dead right.’

Funnily enough, the people who most often disagreed with the eminence tended to be men. The people who agreed with him? Women who’d had children. I tried making a quick list of all the successful writing mothers that I knew. They were either people with reserves of energy I couldn’t begin to imagine having myself or women who’d started publishing in their late thirties and forties, at an age when their kids were close to graduating from high school. As for me, I’m forty-three and only beginning to make some progress. Would having a baby mean the end of it – for a year, for five, forever?

As it happened, this wasn’t a question I had to answer just then: the first round of IVF was a failure. I found out on Stephen’s Day 2010, and the first thing I did to take my mind off the crippling disappointment was to turn on the laptop and start working on the novel. There were two more IVF attempts, each one starting with high hopes and ending with depression, and every time I got more bad news, I’d bury myself in the book. ‘Going to spend some time with my fictional son,’ I joked to a friend at the end of another round.

Is it over? Yes, and no. After the last attempt, I was told that I had only a 15% chance of success using my own eggs. So I’ve had to accept that I will most likely never meet my own child. This person will not exist. However, with the possibility of donor eggs or adoption, time is no longer the factor that it was when I was turning 40. I could put it off for another six months, a year, longer. And I have.

Now I’m not sure what to do. I’ve been waiting to make a decision until get the second book in shape, anticipating that a baby will bring an end to the writing, either temporarily or otherwise. And this ‘otherwise’ is frightening. How can I give up writing when I’ve struggled for most of my life just to get to this point? But then, suppose I say no to kids, and find that I don’t have another book in me. Imagine the pressure I’d feel to write something good enough to justify losing a family. Imagine the resentment I’d feel towards my family for causing me to give up the best part of myself. Either way, it seems a cruel choice, and not one I could imagine anyone asking a man to make.

So, what’s the answer? Can you have both?

(c) Janet E Cameron

If you’d like to comment on this article, pop over to Janet’s blog here – she’ll be collating the responses for a future post!

A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com

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