Authors debate whether more than one child limits career

Mom and baby
Mother Renee Rachelle and her 6-month-old daughter Stephanie in 2003 in New York City.
Mark Mainz/Getty Images

In The Atlantic earlier this month, author Lauren Sandler argued that when it comes to career success, having one child is best.

Sandler is a parent of an only child and an only child herself.

From The Atlantic:

It was only when I was working on a book investigating what it means to have, and to be, an only child that I realized how many of the writers I revere had only children themselves. Alongside Sontag: Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis, and more. Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, female artists) should have children. She replied, "They should have children — assuming this is of interest to them — but only one." Why? "Because with one you can move," she said. "With more than one you're a sitting duck."

Sandler wrote in The New York Times that research shows an only child isn't worse off than a peer with siblings:

"Consider the data: in hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings," she wrote. "And endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else. It turns out brutal sibling rivalry isn't necessary to beat the ego out of us; peers and classmates do the job."

A number of authors came out against her argument, including Zadie Smith:

I have two children. Dickens had ten — I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (i could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon — or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What is a threat to all women's freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse.

Writer Aimee Phan also responded and said the article misses the point.

"The number of children does not matter," she wrote. "The support network the woman has in order to have both family and writing is what is most important."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.