Hilary Mantel said a silly thing this week – caught as ever by my roving satirical eye. This is how the Guardian told it:
You know, I was perfectly capable of setting up a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, ‘Now is the time to have a couple of children, and when I am 30 I will go back and I’ll get my PhD.’ But society isn’t yet ordered with that kind of flexibility, and is incredibly hypocritical about teenage sex, teenage mothers and so on.’
The author, unable to have children after a debilitating illness, added: ‘Having sex and having babies is what young women are about. And their instincts are suppressed in the interests of society’s timetable.’ Other women pushed their careers, only to realise in their late 30s there was a part of life they hadn’t experienced, and which they wanted, she said.
Clearly teen pregnancy has been a curse of the last two or three generations. But Mantel thinks that without early childbirth people will get this aching biological sadness in their late thirties. Personally, I’d skip the childbirth and take a chance on the aching sadness.
But the article got me thinking about writers and paternity. You’d think the old saw was universal, that the pram in the hall is the enemy of promise. But it ain’t necessarily so: John Irving was raising several kids in his early twenties, as was Stephen King. Carl Hiaasen married his high school sweetheart and became a father at seventeen. He once related a bittersweet memory of seeing people his own age drinking and partying on the Miami beach while he walked home to his wife and son. Still, he wrote excellent fiction and journalism. Closer to home, there’s Jenn Ashworth and Emily Morris, both young parents and excellent writers. (Cyril Connolly is now remembered for the ‘Enemies of Promise’ piece and very little else.)
I wonder if there’s a causal relationship. Perhaps having so much to do concentrates the mind. Still, it can’t be easy. King’s novel The Shining grew out of the harder side of parenthood, and in his classic Playboy interview, he recalled his experiences of being a young dad and a struggling author:
I loved my wife and kids, but as the pressure mounted, I was beginning to have ambivalent feelings about them, too. On the one hand, I wanted nothing more than to provide for them and protect them—but at the same time, unprepared as I was for the rigors of fatherhood, I was also experiencing a range of nasty emotions from resentment to anger to occasional outright hate, even surges of mental violence that, thank God, I was able to suppress. I’d wander around the crummy little living room of our trailer at three o’clock on a cold winter’s morning with my teething nine-month-old son Joe slung over my shoulder, more often than not spitting up all over my shirt, and I’d try to figure out how and why I’d ever committed myself to that particular lunatic asylum. All the claustrophobic fears would squeeze in on me then, and I’d wonder if it hadn’t already all passed me by, if I weren’t just chasing a fool’s dream. A nocturnal snowmobile would whine in the dark distance, like an angry insect, and I’d say to myself, ‘Shit, King, face it; you’re going to be teaching fuckin’ high school kids for the rest of your life.’ I don’t know what would have happened to my marriage and my sanity if it hadn’t been for the totally unexpected news, in 1973, that Doubleday had accepted Carrie, which I had thought had very little chance of a sale.
Filial love is perhaps the most enduring love, but it’s not pure. It’s heavy and complex and strange.