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. I answered the question dutifully, noting that Woolf apparently considered having children early in her marriage, after seeing the delight that her sister, Vanessa Bell, took in her own. But over time Woolf came to see reproduction as unwise, perhaps because of her own psychological instability. Or maybe, I suggested, she wanted to be a writer and to give her life over to her art, which she did with extraordinary success. In the talk I had quoted with approval her description of murdering “the angel of the house,” the inner voice that tells many women to be self-sacrificing handmaidens to domesticity and male vanity. I was surprised that advocating for throttling the spirit of conventional femininity should lead to this conversation.
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.
The line of questioning was familiar enough to me. A decade ago, during a conversation that was supposed to be about a book I had written on politics, the British man interviewing me insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruit of my loins, or the lack thereof. Onstage, he hounded me about why I didn’t have children. No answer I gave could satisfy him. His position seemed to be that I must have children, that it was incomprehensible that I did not, and so we had to talk about why I didn’t, rather than about the books I did have.
As it happens, there are many reasons why I don’t have children: I am very good at birth control; though I love children and adore aunthood, I also love solitude; I was raised by unhappy, unkind people, and I wanted neither to replicate their form of parenting nor to create human beings who might feel about me the way that I felt about my begetters; I really wanted to write books, which as I’ve done it is a fairly consuming vocation. I’m not dogmatic about not having kids. I might have had them under other circumstances and been fine — as I am now.
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.
We talk about open questions, but there are closed questions, too, questions to which there is only one right answer, at least as far as the interrogator is concerned. These are questions that push you into the herd or nip at you for diverging from it, questions that contain their own answers and whose aim is enforcement and punishment. One of my goals in life is to become truly rabbinical, to be able to answer closed questions with open questions, to have the internal authority to be a good gatekeeper when intruders approach, and to at least remember to ask, “Why are you asking that?” This, I’ve found, is always a good answer to an unfriendly question, and closed questions tend to be unfriendly. But on the day of my interrogation about having babies, I was taken by surprise (and severely jet-lagged), and so I was left to wonder — why do such bad questions so predictably get asked?
Maybe part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is: Are you happy? We ask it so reflexively that it seems natural to wish that a pharmacist with a time machine could deliver a lifetime supply of tranquilizers and antipsychotics to Bloomsbury, so that an incomparable feminist prose stylist could be reoriented to produce litters of Woolf babies.
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.
The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us.
Even those who live out the best version of the familiar story line might not find happiness as their reward. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I know a woman who was lovingly married for seventy years. She has had a long, meaningful life that she has lived according to her principles. But I wouldn’t call her happy; her compassion for the vulnerable and concern for the future have given her a despondent worldview. What she has had instead of happiness requires better language to describe. There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person — honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.
Part of my own endeavor as a writer has been to find ways to value what is elusive and overlooked, to describe nuances and shades of meaning, to celebrate public life and solitary life, and — in John Berger’s phrase — to find “another way of telling,” which is part of why getting clobbered by the same old ways of telling is disheartening.
The conservative “defense of marriage,” which is really nothing more than a defense of the old hierarchical arrangement that straight marriage was before feminists began to reform it, has bled over into the general culture, entrenching the devout belief that there is something magically awesome for children about the heterosexual two-parent household, which leads many people to stay in miserable marriages. I know people who long hesitated to leave horrible marriages because the old recipe insists that somehow a situation that is terrible for one or both parents will be beneficent for the children. Even women with violently abusive spouses are often urged to stay in situations that are supposed to be so categorically wonderful that the details don’t matter. Form wins out over content. And yet an amicably divorced woman recently explained to me how ideal it was to be a divorced parent: she and her former spouse both had plenty of time with and without their children.
After I wrote a book about me and my mother, who married a brutal professional man and had four children and often seethed with rage and misery, I was ambushed by an interviewer who asked whether my abusive father was the reason I had failed to find a life partner. Her question was freighted with astonishing assumptions about what I had intended to do with my life. The book, The Faraway Nearby, was, I thought, in a quiet, roundabout way about my long journey toward a really nice life, and an attempt to reckon with my mother’s fury (including the origin of that fury in her entrapment in conventional feminine roles and expectations).
I have done what I set out to do in my life, and what I set out to do was not what the interviewer presumed. I set out to write books, to be surrounded by generous, brilliant people, and to have great adventures. Men — romances, flings, and long-term relationships — have been some of those adventures, and so have remote deserts, arctic seas, mountaintops, uprisings and disasters, and the exploration of ideas, archives, records, and lives.
Society’s recipes for fulfillment cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigmatized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness. Of course there are people with very standard-issue lives who are very happy. I know some of them, just as I know very happy childless and celibate monks, priests, and abbesses, gay divorcees, and everything in between. Last summer my friend Emma was walked down the aisle by her father, with his husband following right behind on Emma’s mother’s arm; the four of them, plus Emma’s new husband, are an exceptionally loving and close-knit family engaged in the pursuit of justice through politics. This summer, both of the weddings I went to had two grooms and no brides; at the first, one of the grooms wept because he had been excluded from the right to marry for most of his life, and he had never thought he would see his own wedding. I’m all for marriage and children, when it and they are truly what people want from their lives.
In the traditional worldview happiness is essentially private and selfish. Reasonable people pursue their self-interest, and when they do so successfully they are supposed to be happy. The very definition of what it means to be human is narrow, and altruism, idealism, and public life (except in the forms of fame, status, or material success) have little place on the shopping list. The idea that a life should seek meaning seldom emerges; not only are the standard activities assumed to be inherently meaningful, they are treated as the only meaningful options.
People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.
While many people question the motives of the childless, who are taken to be selfish for refusing the sacrifices that come with parenthood, they often neglect to note that those who love their children intensely may have less love left for the rest of the world. Christina Lupton, a writer who is also a mother, recently described some of the things she relinquished when motherhood’s consuming tasks had her in their grasp, including
all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish. I mean here the writing and inventing and the politics and the activism; the reading and the public speaking and the protesting and the teaching and the filmmaking. . . . Most of the things I value most, and from which I trust any improvements in the human condition will come, are violently incompatible with the actual and imaginative work of childcare.
One of the fascinating things about Edward Snowden’s sudden appearance a little more than two years ago was the inability of many people to comprehend why a young man might give up on the recipe for happiness — high wages, secure job, Hawaiian home — to become the world’s most sought-after fugitive. Their premise seemed to be that since all people are selfish, Snowden’s motive must be a self-serving pursuit of attention or money.
During the first rush of commentary, Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker’s legal expert, wrote that Snowden was “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Another pundit announced, “I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us.” Others assumed that he was revealing U.S. government secrets because he had been paid by an enemy country.
Snowden seemed like a man from another century. In his initial communications with journalist Glenn Greenwald he called himself Cincinnatus — after the Roman statesman who acted for the good of his society without seeking self-advancement. This was a clue that Snowden formed his ideals and models far away from the standard-issue formulas for happiness. Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.
There is a paradox at the heart of the happiness question. Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago on studies that concluded that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed: “Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.”
I did finally have my rabbinical moment in Britain. After the jet lag was over, I was interviewed onstage by a woman with a plummy, fluting accent. “So,” she trilled, “you’ve been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge.” The implication was clear: I was an exceptionally sorry specimen on display, an outlier in the herd. I turned to the audience and asked, “Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?” They laughed with me; in that moment, we knew that we were all weird, all in this together, and that addressing our own suffering, while learning not to inflict it on others, is part of the work we’re all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things. There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer.