Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.
I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.
Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:
Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.
It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.
Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.
In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”
Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”
It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”
Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.
Lewis’ Personal Experience
C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.
When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.
Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).
Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*
It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.
Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.
But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.
A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”
* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.
On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”
And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”
Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”
And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
11 thoughts on “On Choosing Between a Child and a Book”
It is ironic that in real life Lewis was awkward with children when he wrote so brilliantly for – and about – them. As a mother of two home educated children I can affirm that children do take away the time and energy necessary to write, yet I would not be the person I am now without my children so, hard though it was, I regret nothing
I love hearing people who made “sacrificial” choices who regret nothing. Having spoken with far too many people on their deathbeds, I have often heard the opposite. Not from those who invested their lives in others, but typically from those who focused on sating their own desires.
It’s easy to see that distinction in terms of financial stewardship. For example, person who tithes may contently go a decade between new cars, or forego “luxuries” (that most people consider necessities). But, whenever the Adversary attempts to puff their egos up, suggesting they are exemplary or holy individuals, all they need do is recall the widow who offered to God her two mites.
I didn’t really think of it as ‘sacrificial’ though in many ways it was. For years I had to grab the odd hour or two at a desk in the corner of the bedroom. And I really do think having children has made me a better writer
You understand what I mean… it’s not sacrificial in the terminal (life-ending) sense of sacrifice. But it definitely is a voluntary offering up of time and treasure that could be invested (or squandered) elsewhere.
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Brilliant conclusion, Rob! I also concur with Sarada, who commented above. Raising our three children helped mold me into the person I am today. They taught me to be less selfish and more patient. Now that they’re married adults, we enjoy a blessing that didn’t occur to me when they were young: they’ve become wonderful friends! Oh, and we can’t forget the supreme delight of GRANDCHILDREN. As for the quotes at the end of your thought-provoking post: I taught elementary school for twenty-six years. One of the administrators toward the end of my career talked about the impossibility of squeezing an elephant curriculum through the keyhole of time. It’s just as C. S. Lewis observed decades ago (and probably worse): we’re still struggling with how to teach fewer subjects and teach them better!
Thank you for your insights, Nancy. Becoming friends with our children after they become adults is wonderful. (And I’m not referring to chronological maturity, but once they have truly become mature.) Sadly, some people want to keep their relationship with their children emotionally stunted. Oh, and grandchildren… what a joy.
Dedicated educators, such as you and my wife Delores, face a daunting challenge. I fear your parenthetical comment is accurate. Still, we do the best we can… for the kids.
Wow! I can’t inagine choosing. I do both. Everyone’s journey is unique. Before I married I did a lot of writing. Now 21 years of being a dad I have time to clean up and edit those books. My son’s and daughter are raised and I feel I can now begin raising books.
You’re right, Gary, about it not actually being an either/or choice. I love your analogy of enjoying the time now to “raise your books!”
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