Rebecca Solnit, the essayist best known for Men Explain Things to Me—a book whose lens on gender and violence expands much further than the brief excerpt on “mansplaining” that it’s become known for—has written a new essay for Harper’s called “The Mother of All Questions,” and it’ll be one of the best things, easily, that you could read this week. The opening:
I gave a talk on Virginia Woolf a few years ago. During the question-and-answer period that followed it, the subject that seemed to most interest a number of people was whether Woolf should have had children.
Solnit gives a polite, studied answer to this question, which is stupid when asked about anyone in retrospect but especially stupid when asked about the dead author who wrote A Room of One’s Own. Later, Solnit considers:
What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, “Fuck this shit,” which carried the same general message and moved everyone on from the discussion.) After all, many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.
She then remembers being asked that question, repeatedly, herself. Why not with the babies? Solnit doesn’t have children, although she’s “not dogmatic” about it: in her essay, she explains the circumstances that have brought her to this point. And then comes the big boy, emphasis mine:
But just because the question can be answered doesn’t mean that I ought to answer it, or that it ought to be asked. The interviewer’s question was indecent, because it presumed that women should have children, and that a woman’s reproductive activities were naturally public business. More fundamentally, the question assumed that there was only one proper way for a woman to live.
But even to say that there’s one proper way may be putting the case too optimistically, given that mothers are consistently found wanting, too. A mother may be treated like a criminal for leaving her child alone for five minutes, even a child whose father has left it alone for several years. Some mothers have told me that having children caused them to be treated as bovine non-intellects who should be disregarded. Other women have been told that they cannot be taken seriously professionally because they will go off and reproduce at some point. And many mothers who do succeed professionally are presumed to be neglecting someone. There is no good answer to being a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.
I’d like to inscribe that last sentence in tiny Wingdings around the ring finger of my left hand. It occurred to me very early in my life that I was grateful to my mother for pausing her working life for a chunk of years to take care of me, and also that I had distinctly and permanently curbed her career prospects. It occurred to me again, reading this, that ever since I graduated from college, conversations with my girlfriends (not exactly devoted to tradition, any of us) have frequently revolved around the type of dread-laced, prematurely exhausted timing questions that arise when you are born into a body that many people see as pre-ordained into service to other people. (What’s truly scary is that only the latter group of people is primarily composed of men.)
The idea of motherhood hovers like a cloud, as do most potentialities that are specific to the female body. From early adolescence, girls get that very first inkling that it will be difficult to fit in their innocence as well as their experience as well as their independence as well as their dependence of choice. If only the realization that there is not exactly a right way to do this—that every possible way involves either compromise or exploitation—came sooner, or easier. I could keep quoting this Solnit essay forever, but for now, just two more paragraphs:
Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.
We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.
Read the rest of the essay here.
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