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Elizabeth Gilbert: Not made for “momming”

Thanks to Cathy Coley for sending me a link to Lucy Kaylin’s interesting interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed (as well as three other books). The interview is good reading for any writer or Gilbert fan, but the bits about motherhood — and choosing not to become a mother — are of special interest. Here are a few excerpts.

LK: While the book is fundamentally about marriage, you are also quite frank about not wanting children, which had been a big problem in your first marriage. How did you reach that decision?

LG: Where other women hear that tick, tick, tick and they’re like, “Must have baby,” for me, it was like, tick, tick, tick, “boom.” [Laughs] It was a biological clock, but it was attached to a bunch of C-4 explosives. I’ve often thought that if I had been married to somebody who wanted to be a mom, I could have done it. I used to say, “Man, I think I’d be a really good dad. I’ll be a great provider. I’m funny; I’ll go on trips with them — I’ll do all sorts of stuff.” But the momming? I’m not made for that. I have a really good mom; I know what she put into it. I didn’t think I had the support to both have that and continue on this path that was really important to me. I wasn’t married to a man who wanted to stay home and raise kids. So…

LK: You tell a story in the book that is pivotal for you, about your grandmother. She was born with a cleft palate and thought to be unmarriageable, so she got an education and took care of herself, one day rewarding herself with a $20 fur-trimmed, wine-colored coat, which she adored. Eventually she does marry. And when she gives birth to her first daughter, she cuts up the coat to make something for the child.

LG: That’s the story of motherhood, in a large way. You take the thing that is most precious to you, and you cut it up and give it to somebody else who you love more than you love the thing. And we tend to idealize that, and I’m not sure we should. Because the sacrifice that it symbolizes is also huge. Her marriage and her seven children, in a life of constant struggle and deprivation — it was heavy. And that beautiful mind, that beautiful intellect, that exquisite sense of curiosity and exploration, was gone.

I went to Africa when I was 19, and when I came back, I was showing her pictures. And I remember her stopping me and just — she had to collect herself. And she said, “I cannot believe that a granddaughter of mine has been to Africa. I just can’t imagine how you got there.” I think that her story is so central to my story. To be able to choose the shape of your own life — you sort of must do that, as an act of honor to those who couldn’t. There were times, especially when I was traveling for Eat, Pray, Love, when, I swear to God, I would feel this weight of my female ancestors, all those Swedish farmwives from beyond the grave who were like, “Go! Go to Naples! Eat more pizza! Go to India, ride an elephant! Do it! Swim in the Indian Ocean. Read those books. Learn a language. Do it!” I could just feel them. They were just like, “Go beat the drum.”

LK: Now that you’ve been hit with this tsunami of cash, is there any threat that it might insulate you from the kind of rugged, spontaneous travel that made you famous?

LG: I’ve actually never traveled less than since I got hit with a tsunami of cash. When I was in Mexico when I was 20, I remember meeting this American couple who were in their 60s, and they said, “Oh, it’s so great that you’re traveling now, before you have kids, because you won’t be able to then.” I know this is a thing that people do; they go traveling for a year, and then they hitch their leash to the wall and put their face in their feed bag and that’s the end of it. And I thought, “But I might want to keep doing this,” you know?

You can read the full interview here.

Gilbert clearly believes that banging the drum and having children would not be compatible. I can understand that perspective. I can also understand how suburban inertia can look very much like being hitched to the wall with your face in a feedbag. <shiver>

I have to admire Gilbert for knowing who she is, what she wants, and what she doesn’t want. And I have to thank her for reminding me that I DO NOT want to waste my life face-down in a bag of oats. (A bag of Entenmann’s chocolate-chip cookies, maybe.) But really. It’s a good thing I read this interview while still full of New-Year adrenaline. I’m considering posting pictures of feed bags all around my desk just to make sure I stay on track.

What about you? Have you banged any drums recently? Is drum-banging compatible with your brand of motherhood? Or are you too occupied cutting up your treasured coat in order to fashion something new for your children?

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. thanks for posting, i am running at the moment, but i must say i was completely gobsmacked by her appraisal of all of us in her wording. if that is what it looked like to her watching her g-ma, fine, but she can’t possibly discount the rest of the writers and lovers of life who have children.

    i immediately went to toni morrison and jk rowling on this one. neither extremely successful authors published their books before they had their children and if anything, their children gave them the motivation to do so.

    January 6, 2010
  2. oh, and i leave for my writers’ retreat tomorrow. going to bang the drum (but quietly) with six other women writers who all have children and/or grandchildren!

    January 6, 2010
  3. Good she knows herself…but I still find her immensely unlikable (the reason I did not like Eat, Pray, Love) because I find her self-centered and selfish. Such a person could never be a mother, surprise surprise. I don’t know what lessons to draw from this article or why she is even talking about motherhood.

    While I often wish for more freedom, I think I would be missing out on a truly deep life if I hadn’t had children. Sure, I would be more free to write, but what would I write about? What would I know? Sure I would be free to travel, but what would I be taking a break from?

    Motherhood is a struggle, and I know it gets in the way of my writing life…yet I write. And I struggle to find the travel…but I travel. I read. I learn languages. I see shows on Broadway. I have the capacity to make family-supporting money. Apart from the freedom to take a year to travel the world (and the money that came with the resulting book) what does she have that I don’t have? Better yet, what do I have that she doesn’t have? I have three talented offspring who are going to contribute great things to the world. And in a few years I’ll still have them…and the ability to go to Africa.

    Man, she gets my back up.

    January 6, 2010
  4. Being a Mum. Frankly it makes me a better person and puts me through all and to my extremes. From laughing my head, to blowing a gasket . To have to do thing for others whether u feel like it or not. To feel absolute fear if u child is hurt through to deliously happy when they’ve achieved something. More than any travelling or personel achievement will ever do. Oh I was the gal that never thought of kids …let alone 4. I was on my art path. Now it the pavement next to the road ..going forward with life. Believe me I get bored with the continuous housewife stuff but I’m so damn fortunate to be able to live this life:) Kids aren’t around forever anyway.

    January 6, 2010
  5. I love Elizabeth Gilbert, loved EPL, and love being a mother. I admire and am inspired by her because she flies the flag of gusto. Her gusto is directed at travel and food and spiritual exploration. Mine has been directed for the last 20+ years at raising three intelligent, funny, caring boys, now young men, and building a warm nest around them and myself and their dad. The thing about gusto is that it really can only be directed in one direction. You can’t parcel out gusto. And I think, if asked to think about it a bit more, Elizabeth Gilbert would agree that it’s not motherhood that is a leash, but motherhood without enthusiasm that is unappealing. I too would have chosen travel and spiritual exploration over three sons if that were the case. Instead, I haven’t been leashed to but immersed in my particular passion. It’s not a choice between freedom and family, in other words, but between brands of passion.

    Nice post, M.!

    January 6, 2010
  6. BetsyG #

    Brilliantly put, Gale

    (I still don’t like her though. As readable as I found Eat, Pray, Love, I developed a dislike for her by the time she left Italy.)

    January 6, 2010
  7. Gale, your clarification of “motherhood without enthusiasm” is well put. She sounded quite game to play the traditional male role. Food for thought in and of itself.

    As a woman who doesn’t have children, has traveled a good bit, been caregiver for four years to an elderly father, and now wonders whether “to have or not to have” my own children in this lifetime, I appreciate the voice of a contemporary woman committed to living a life true to her core.

    Believe it or not, women without children in our culture ARE suspect. Worse: a woman, without children or a husband or partner….I’ve struggled for years now to really pardon the looks, questions, inferences…but the truth is, we don’t trust women on their own in America, any more than we trust women who don’t have kids. It makes people nervous. I don’t think (haven’t conducted a proper poll), men receive the same scrutiny I’ve received for being someone who enjoys friends, family, strangers, children, teens, seniors, foreigners, etc – but hasn’t had life line up neatly to raise a family. (I know raising a family is NOT a neat enterprise, but there are a few circumstances that do have to come together.)

    Perhaps rather than find ourselves on the defensive about her choices is to recognize her difference and make room for her in a culture that is somewhat narrow (still) in its view of women and our potential contributions. We all owe that to the next generations, whomever they may be.

    January 6, 2010
  8. what BetsyG said. 🙂 I’ve never read EG’s books, but back when Miranda posted a video of her a while back, I had the same reaction. She really rubs me the wrong way. And her comments in this story solidify that. Exactly, Betsy, great that she knows herself, but to me she does come off as arrogant and condescending.

    Toni, i have several close friends who don’t have children and don’t plan to, married or otherwise. i value them and their contributions to the world and to my life just as much as my friends who do have children. i work my butt off straddling both sides….Mom, full-time educator and artist who has a life far outside her children and family. personally, i’m not the least bit defensive about EL choices; i’m just offended at her approach.

    January 6, 2010
  9. i hope i am banging a motherhood drum …. doing motherhood as best as i can … full force …. loud … joyful …..but i also have some other drums going right now …. and suspect i’ll find some more to bang along my path …. somehow i think it is not what path you choose, but what your approach to that path is ….

    all that said, i am certain motherhood will always be my favorite endeavor … the best thing i ever did ….. interesting that without trying it, e.gilbert knows it isn’t for her ….

    and .. having read eat, pray, love, i am not surprised at all that she chooses no kids ….

    January 6, 2010
  10. i’m way too happy and busy to even consider falling into the leash and feed bag metaphor ….

    January 6, 2010
  11. *personally, i’m not the least bit defensive about EL choices; i’m just offended at her approach.*

    thank you, kelly. that was what had me gobsmacked. i am all for any chloices anyone makes that is right for them, but i felt insulted by the way she cavalierly wrote off the multi-faceted choces of so many of us.

    certainly, we’ve all illustrated here previously that we don’t always manage the balance so well or that to do so is easy, but i do hope in finding the balance -as i finally feel i’m beginning to after 15 years of parenting among other things – that i am teaching my kids that a multi-faceted life is a perfectly fine option if they so choose one.

    January 6, 2010
  12. In my knee-jerk reaction to LG’s voice, I did not mean to suggest any superiority of one choice over another. I have not always been happy with my choices and at the same time on a deep level I don’t judge others’. So many of us live our lives by accident anyhow, which choices made for us. There are so many ways to live your life, so many ways to be a mother, so many ways to be an artist, to be a woman. Vive la difference! It can all be made to work, even if literally “having it all” is a bit of a fantasy.

    I’m glad to hear others don’t care for her. I thought I was the only one. She is a beautiful writer, though, else I never would have finished that book.

    January 6, 2010
  13. Goodness, where to start. I found it really interesting that she thought she would make a really good Dad – quite bizarre really. Surely one’s approach to parenting can be what ever you want it to be – if you want to be the bread winner and your other half (if there is one) the stay at home parent then fine. Why in this day and age do we have to equate parenting roles with gender. Next thing that I found interesting was her reflecting about her sense of the “weight of my female ancestors” in terms of wanting to go out and do things for the mothers of mothers of mothers. Hmm, slight irony there (not something her daughters will be able to do, since there wont be any). Having said that, I do fully respect any woman’s choice not to have children – there are many and varied ways to have a rewarding and fulfilling life and not all of these involve having children. But I wont be contributing further to Gilbert’s “tsunami of cash”.

    January 7, 2010
  14. Jennifer Cole #

    I, too, must give kudos to Gale for her thoughtful reply. Elizabeth Gilbert is cool, and the book was excellent, but I have read articles about her, she seems to be increasingly… well… smug. Perhaps success does that to a person? It would be interesting to hear what she thinks about children and not having them when she is 75 and it is too late.

    January 7, 2010
  15. It is hard being a mother and she is perfectly entitled to hold opinions on not becoming one but I think her blanket statements about motherhood are really negative, and thankfully very far off what most of us experience. If you want to be a writer, artist, you’ll find a way…it’s slow and it’s hard and I feel like exploding sometimes with the tedium of motherhood, the endless minding of two small children, the patience required, the not getting to finish a book nevermind write a paragraph… but I also feel like exploding with happiness a lot of the time [when I am not cracking up!] and I feel more creative than ever with my life so varied and full. I wrote a book while on maternity leave, got it published and it sold thousands. I won a creative writing competition for something I wrote seven weeks after giving brith and it was published nationally. Just completed NaNoWriMo and I’ve two under 3 years old… Not wanting to blow my own trumpet but to make the point I did nothing before having my children, except talk about writing. The clock that started ticking for me was a good one, after I got pregnant saying ‘ok, tick, tick, baby coming, save yourself, grab what you can and get creative, make some space and guard it’. Being a mother made me create, and being creative makes me a happy mother (mostly!) 🙂

    January 7, 2010
  16. emmajaner #

    Wow. I’m not familiar with Ms Gilbert’s work, but judging from this interview she is capable of beautiful writing. Like others, though, I found her smug generalizations a little hard to swallow.

    I am also struggling with “Eat more pizza!” as an inspirational message. I only wish somebody had warned me before I went and committed myself to a life of mothering that I would lose the right to choose how much to pizza to eat. Or maybe I’m missing something?

    January 7, 2010
  17. It’s awesome that Gilbert knows herself well enough to know she doesn’t want children. If only all women could be as thoughtful prior to kids.

    But I have to say…why can’t we be banging drums *together with* our kids. Being a mother means being an example for our children – and a joyful, exciting, passionate life is a great example for any person!

    January 7, 2010
  18. It’s interesting that Gilbert has such a high opinion of her own mother — and yet has no interest in being one herself. Is it really that her own mother set the bar so high that Gilbert doesn’t feel she would ever measure up? I don’t think so; it sounds to me like the huge sacrifices that Gilbert’s grandmother and mother must have made are to Gilbert an integral part of being a good mom. Her model was that good mothering required total sacrifice — and no drumsticks.

    Where Gilbert goes wrong is in assuming that the entirety of her female ancestors would have chosen to go to Naples and pig out on pizza if given the “A or B” choice. I don’t know that that’s true — and it does belittle the beauty of living a Swedish farm life.

    Fortunately, we do have choices, and as Gale says, it’s not so much about which drum you bang — as it is about banging it loudly.

    January 8, 2010
  19. @Christine: “But I wont be contributing further to Gilbert’s ‘tsunami of cash'”

    LMAO ;-D

    January 8, 2010
  20. Interesting observation, Miranda. My parents always found the time to travel–includuding a three-week trip to Japan in 1972, which was pretty unheard of–and that serves as my example. If her view of motherhood (I would say parenthood, but she seems to think these restrictions don’t apply to men) was based on 100% sacrifice, I can see why she wouldn’t want to emulate that if she wanted to be a writer and world traveler.

    Sometimes our own mothers serve as models for what will we emulate…and sometimes they serve as models for what we will run the other way from!

    January 8, 2010
  21. Liz #

    One day, I hope women without children can say, “I choose not to have kids and because of that I am fulfilled.” WITHOUT inferring mothers are burnt-out husks, “kept” women, or using the word “feedbags.”

    And I hope mothers can say, “I choose to have children and because of that I am fulfilled,” WITHOUT inferring women without children are selfish, masculine, empty, going to die alone with no one around their bed, etc.

    I just wish everyone, when describing their choices in life, would tell us of the positives or negatives of THEIR OWN decision, WITHOUT slamming the other side. I can get behind Elizabeth Gilbert (though I found EPL to be a “cute” book written by a very emotionally immature person) if she says, “Hey, I followed my path, I listened to my inner-voice and I feel great!” But to insult women who have children (and her ancestors who cannot defend themselves) by hitting them in the sensitive spot (namely how much a mom sacrifices) is just very immature. All that yoga and pizza really didn’t help her grow all that much, IMO.

    It’s twenty-ten. I am no longer comparing myself to anyone else but MYSELF. To sit on any little labeled island and reassure yourself that you’re good simply because all those other people are bad is not the way to go. Let’s inspire and be inspired by each other. Let’s all graduate emotional High School and stop tearing one another down.

    January 8, 2010
  22. Eat, Pray, Love is one of my favorite books of all time. Reading her story helped give me the courage and motivation to make major changes in my own life.

    She views motherhood much differently than I do, and that’s ok. I wouldn’t change a thing about my life as a mom. I love my sons and would not be who I am today without them.

    Having said that, I have many other interests that I completely gave up when I became a mom. I lost myself. What I take away from EPL and Gilbert’s attitude in general is to follow your own path….whatever that may be. For her that means not having children. For me that means balancing my different roles in life.

    January 8, 2010
  23. Juliet Bell #

    What an amazing discussion. I read “EPL” for the second time just recently, and I must say I loved it even more the second time. From this discussion I can see we come to our book reading as we do all things in life, from our own vantage place. I didn’t even notice the parentling remarks – at least not enough to hold onto them – I did LOVE all the spiritual stuff (my interest at the moment). I do wish her, as I wish everyone, an abundant life, and am happy to have bought the book twice. [Yes…I’d forgotten I’d read it already when I bought the second copy – which says something either about me, or the book, or both.]

    January 8, 2010
  24. BetsyG #

    I developed an aversion to her early on in EPL when it became clear to me that she was willing to write about personal things as long as they made her look sympathetic. Fine that she didn’t want to talk about the dissolution of her marriage, but come on…explain the boyfriend that she apparently acquired while still married. Own it. I felt she was being dishonest with the reader when she said she was trying to protect her ex. I guess my view of her went downhill from there, and by the time she couldn’t stop looking at herself in the mirror wherever it was she fell in love, I really did not like my narrator at all.

    Clearly in a minority in this opinion…but then, I love Jonathan Franzen, who seems to rub a lot of people the wrong way with his sensibility in his non-fiction. Seems to me he is very goodhearted and honest, but others read him as an arrogant and judgmental. All in the eye of the beholder.

    January 8, 2010
  25. Wow. I guess I’ll just jump in by saying that I, too, loved EPL – but her comments here seem as if she’s leaning too much on generalizations – which never really work as a sound, logical argument, do they?

    Truthfully, I became myself as a full person, upon having kids. I came into myself creatively. I began to not settle for things. I wrote frantically. My well of inspiration seemed boundless. I suppose one could contribute it to the fact that I’m getting older, and moving into the middle-aged years, when a woman (or man) tends to dwell in self-reflection and self-actualization. But my children honestly woke me up, in many different ways.

    For me, children have given me the greatest gift I’ve ever had in life- and that is, the opportunity to really explore and know myself fully, in every sense of it. I finally feel as if I’m on the right track.

    Is it because of them? Would I be experiencing this if it *weren’t* for them? Who knows…? And, really, does it matter? The fact is, women can live their lives genuinely with children, or without.

    January 8, 2010
  26. And the sacrifice she talks about – well, yes. Mothers DO have to sacrifice, to some extent. But that’s one of the lessons – and helps us to become stronger and more gracious humans because of it. Less self-involved and egotistical, I think.

    Again, I don’t think that children are necessary in order for someone to find this gracious, ego-less aspect of themselves. And of course, there are those mothers who never find it. It’s more of a personal journey, and what you make of it as an individual. It’s who you are as a person, and what you do with what you’ve got, I suppose.

    January 8, 2010
  27. Wow, just coming into the discussion now, and funnily enough, read EPL for the very first time last week.

    I loved it. Loved Gilbert (but then I tend to find arrogant people highly entertaining, if only for their certainty and bravado). And I appreciated her honesty about her perceptions of motherhood. Depending on the day, I might be inclined to agree with her because offensive mental image aside, some days I do feel very much like my head is in a feedbag because I don’t get too much support to go be my own person from the self-sacrificing mothers I’m decended from.

    I remember clearly how taken aback I was right after I got married. My grandmother asked my opinion about something and I gave it. Then, without missing a beat, she asked, “Well, what does Tom think about that?” I hate to say that this is the norm now whenever pretty much anyone in my family asks my opinion.

    Later, before I had kids, my good friend Beverly (also a newlywed) and I decided to go to the beach for a girl’s only weekend, and you would not believe the flak we got about that from our traditional southern mothers and grandmothers. We couldn’t leave our husbands and go galivanting to the beach by ourselves! Heaven forbid someone might think we were pretending to be single! Heaven forbid our husbands should have to fend for themselves for two nights! It was totally scandelous to them.

    So that was the sort of crap I’d grown used to dealing with when I became a mother. There was this (cultural?) expectation that my interests, my opinions, my geographical location, my entire being were permanently tethered to those of my husband and, to an even greater degree, to my children when they were born.

    And I feel like I’m constantly fighting against that. From the sounds of it, my situation may be different from many of yours in that regard. But in the course of the day I don’t get too many opportunities to be selfish without having to really fight for my right to feel that way.

    I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. But I am a low energy introvert homebody. I can totally understand why a more adventurous soul would want a different type of life for herself and would excuse herself from the barn altogether. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, it just makes me take stock of my inertia and work at broadening my own horizons.

    January 8, 2010
  28. wow, i’ve just arrived back from my writing retreat to see this conversation. I knew it would spark something here! so glad i emailed that link to miranda!

    i like that many of you really saw what i saw in the article. my problem was with how she negated our choices to reinforce hers. i also appreciate what those of you said to support what gilbert had to say. believe me, i have well advised a few good friends who started to consider having kids, that that really wasn’t what they were about. and they thank me everytime they see something i’m going through with my kids that is on the tough side. i’m all for people making educated decisions about whether or not to have kids. or another one.

    i confess i have not read EPL. but i saw the book club day on oprah about it. i remember feeling somewhat jealous for her ability to take the travel opportunites to find herself that she took, while realizing, in the choices i made, i also found myself. i made a lot of hard choices to do so, but, you know what, they were mine.
    i didn’t need to go to an ashram in india to do so. she didn’t need to have kids to do so.

    i have a bit of the struggle that brittany talked about, too. i think i have a culturally imposed voice in my head that negates my choices which put my wants or needs first, before my children and husband. i spent a lot of mental energy justifying taking time for me to have fun without my kids or my husband or in order to write. you would not believe what i put myself through in order to take this writers’ retreat this weekend! it took a writer friend back in boston sending me a check so i couldn’t use affordability as an excuse again. he recognized how much the retreat meant to me for me to finish my book.

    you know when the last one i took was? my 11yr old was a toddler.

    but also like sarah, dublin and mary/opheliarising, i found that in having kids, it opened me up creatively in ways i never could have imagined previously. my life is so much richer for the depth of love i have for my kids, and for knowing them as the people they are.

    liz hum, you rock. i think therein lies the crux. the age old crux of respecting differences. over my retreat this weekend with 5 other women writers (all of us mothers or even grandmothers) we had a recurring mantra

    ‘different isn’t wrong’

    it seemed to be a very effective phrase to help us respect our own differences living and working closely together for four days and nights.

    of course, so did the wine and hot tub sessions every night after 8-9 hours solid writing by day.

    i’m so happy this discussion happened!

    January 10, 2010
  29. Liz W #

    I agree with Liz – well said!

    Why can’t people be happy that Ms. Gilbert really examined what she wanted and made the correct life choices to get there?

    I truly believe that if one is happy with their own life, with their own life choices, they’d be happy for Ms. Gilbert. I think those that have a need to knock Ms. Gilbert down are just jealous because they are not happy with their life choices. At least this is pretty obvious to me: those that criticize are usually miserable themselves and have to knock others down to build themselves up. It’s sad, really.

    Be happy with yourself and happy for those that found their path! Otherwise maybe it is you who should examine yourself!

    Peace and Cheers!

    September 4, 2010

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