A recent piece in the New Yorker by James Wood took a look at the parenting skills of great novelists and concluded that “only a handful of great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.” Great novelists, it seems, tend to be lousy parents.
I came across a reference to this in a blog post by Stephen Martin on The High Calling. There he notes that is own writing career (and that of many other writers he knows) actually benefited from the presence of his wife and children in his life.
This set me to thinking about how my children affected my career, back in the days I thought in those terms. I can honestly say that having kids motivated me to be more intense about my career as a lawyer and drove me to work harder to achieve success. But I have to also admit that the effect of that was to separate me from them more. I took the responsibility of being a parent very seriously, but I translated that into working long hours and climbing the corporate ladder. I was an absentee parent during much of their childhood. I was a good “breadwinner” but not nearly as good a father as I should have been. My kids turned out fine, and I doubt many people would accuse me of being a bad parent, but I know I would have been a much better father had I ordered my priorities differently.
Now that I’m in the second half of life, having ditched the city suit-and-tied life, I’ve consciously chosen to prioritize being home and with my wife, rather than trying to earn a lot of money. So far I’ve been very successful at earning very little money and at spending lots of time with my wife.
Looking back, I know now that I could have made that decision long ago. For better or worse, had I done so I would have spent a lot more time with my kids.
I admire folks who don’t buy into the rat race model. We’ve gotten to know a wonderful farm family in our community who chose farming because it would maximize the time they get to spend together, working as a family. The father was a pilot and a missionary in Africa. He and his family took up sustainable farming, despite no experience with it, and now they’re operating a successful natural dairy and grass-fed beef operation. They work together on the farm every day, as a family. It is extremely rare for anyone to make a decision like that in our culture. For those few who do, I say good for them.
One further thought on the great novelist/lousy parent connection. Frequently those who achieve the pinnacle of success in their careers are messed up people in their personal lives. They’re often alcoholics. They often have failed marriages (often several of them). Frequently their children end up hating them (or barely knowing them). They often die unhappy, sometimes at their own hands. While that may be something of a caricature, there’s plenty of truth in it.
Obviously those are not lives folks should seek to imitate. Rather, it seems to me that it is those who live modest quiet lives, dealing humbly with the ups and downs of life, who are leading lives worthy of imitation. Even if they never write a great novel.