Leila Sales goes by many names: editor, writer, chocolate eater. But she isn’t sure if she wants mother added to that list. Ultimately the choice should be hers alone, though there are a number of stigmas associated with women who choose not to reproduce. One word that is often thrown around is selfish. After an argument with her boyfriend, Sales fell down the rabbit hole and discovered that both writers and non-mothers alike are branded with the scarlet S for pursuing a path other than motherhood. But is that such a bad thing? Here, Sales talks about what she found and how it inspired her latest book, Tonight the Streets Are Ours.
A few years ago, my boyfriend and I got into a knock-down, drag-out, stay-up-until-five-A.M. kind of fight. I don’t remember what kicked it off, but I remember what it was about: I didn’t know if I wanted to have children someday.
I didn’t know for sure that I didn’t want kids. After all, I like kids. I was an all-star babysitter for years. I used to be a camp counselor. But the idea of having offspring of my own seemed like it would require an outrageous amount of self-sacrifice. I love to travel and explore new places; that’s hard to do with a toddler in tow. I feel relaxed only when I have a neat, quiet house, with everything in its place: “Neat” and “quiet” are not words traditionally used to describe children. I enjoy the freedom to go for a bike ride, read a book, or meet friends for dinner pretty much whenever I see fit. Being a responsible parent curtails that freedom.
And then, you know, there’s the writing thing.
I have two careers. By day I edit children’s books at a major publishing company, and by night and weekend I write YA novels. I’m lucky that both of my jobs bring me enormous joy and satisfaction. But it’s already hard enough to give them both the time and commitment that I want. To also fit in the travel, the house-cleaning, the bike rides and meals with friends—it’s a complicated juggling game. To fit in raising children as well would mean either dropping some of these pursuits entirely, or doing it all but probably driving myself crazy and doing a crappy job at most of it.
So I said this to my boyfriend. It’s not that being a mother is not an admirable or fulfilling goal, but it would have to be something I really, truly wanted in order to make it worth the sacrifices I’d need to make.
My boyfriend’s response (and this was where the argument began) was that I was being selfish.
I was shaken by this accusation. “Selfish”—could I really be as terrible as that? But when I started reading up on it, I found that this is a common critique of women who choose not to be mothers. I also found that my concerns are shared by other female writers.
In The New Statesmen, Laurie Penny wrote: “You cannot be a writer and have writing be anything other than the central romance of your life, which is one thing they don’t tell you about being a woman writer: It’s its own flavor of lonely. Men can get away with loving writing a little bit more than anything else. Women can’t: Our partners and, eventually, our children are expected to take priority.”
In Overland, Helen Addison-Smith wrote: “Writing takes time—great swathes of clean, empty time, unsullied by children or housework or deep worry about money or skincare routines. To be a writer is to be selfish enough to grab time and spend it churning words around.”
All of this made me wonder: Even if we unquestioningly accept that it is selfish to choose not to have children, why is that sort of selfishness an inherently bad thing?
Obviously some selfishness is bad: cutting in line, refusing give up the subway seat that you don’t need for the handicapped man who does, or failing to listen to your friend’s story about his divorce because you’re too interested in talking about what you ate for lunch today. We all know that selfishness can be taken too far. You shouldn’t act like everyone else’s lives are less important than yours is.
But what few people tell young women is that the opposite is also true: Selflessness can be taken too far, to the point where you lose track of your own identity and passions. You shouldn’t believe that everyone else’s lives are more important than yours is, either.
That idea is what inspired one of the major themes in my newest novel, Tonight the Streets Are Ours. The protagonist, 17-year-old Arden, takes great pride in being “recklessly loyal” (a phrase that I got from an Anne Spencer Lindbergh novel). Arden believes one of the best things about her is that she puts the people whom she loves first. Their priorities and needs always supersede hers.
This is a behavior that Arden picked up from her mother, the sort of super-mom who works on every school project alongside her children and makes every wholesome meal or Halloween costume from scratch. But when the book begins, Arden’s mom has just snapped. After eighteen years of putting everyone else first, she ditches her family and runs away to New York City. She tells her children, “I only knew who I was in relation to somebody else. For years I was somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s friend, somebody’s daughter. And for once, I wanted to be somebody for myself.”
I’ve already heard from a reader saying, “That’s so irresponsible of Arden’s mom. If she wanted to live in NYC and do whatever she wanted, then she shouldn’t have had kids in the first place.” And maybe that’s true. But personally, I understand this tendency in Arden and her mother to go to extremes, to love others too much, to give and give—and then panic when they realize they don’t have anything left. And I’ve also already heard from many readers saying that they relate to Arden and her mother; that they, too, have followed the supposedly admirable path of selflessness and then found that they went too far.
I still don’t know if I will or won’t raise children of my own someday—and, if I do, whether I’ll find a way to do it that’s loving without being self-denying; loyal without being reckless. But the characters in Tonight the Streets Are Ours ultimately figure it out. So I’m hopeful that it can be done.
Leila Sales is the author of the novels Mostly Good Girls and Past Perfect. She grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Chicago. Much like the characters in This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila regularly stays up too late and listens to music too loud. When she’s not writing, she spends her time thinking about sleeping, kittens, chocolate, and the meaning of life. But mostly chocolate. Leila lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York, and works in children’s book publishing.