"My Own Actual Real-Life Childcare Crises Are So Present in My Mind"

A Conversation with Susan Choi

Maybe I should feel bad that I spent the better part of an hour talking to novelist and National Book Award winner Susan Choi about childcare but I have no regrets. The author of Trust Exercise, American Woman, and My Education, among others (including a children’s book - don’t sleep on this parents!) was generous with her time and open about the ups and downs of a writing career, including the different ways in which children impact the work over time. Come for the attempts to demystify the connection between material circumstances and access to the creative life, stay for the recollections of a non-sleeping baby on a book tour or the time Anthony Bourdain entertained her three-year-old at a professional event during a childcare crisis. Like both parenting and writing, our conversation is full of logistical details that ultimately coalesce into an encompassing narrative that (hopefully) helps strengthen human connection and understanding. Or, at the very least, it may inspire you to seek out as much childcare as you can possibly afford.

Photo credit: Heather Weston

You agreed to this interview so I assume you don't outright object to being asked about motherhood and writing.

No, not at all.

Since starting this project, I think often of Lauren Groff, who has famously refused to talk about how she balances the two, which I totally understand. I get the double standard. But I also think there are many writers, women especially, who have set up their lives in such a way that they kind of become the default parent. Or maybe it’s the flexibility that can be a part of a writing life that then turns into something else when you have, say, a pandemic or your childcare falls apart for other reasons and the question of managing things can become gendered. I guess that's a long-winded way to ask: how do you feel about this question?

I'm glad to answer the question because I'm coming at it from the perspective of always really wanting to demystify the writing process, whether it's acknowledging the role that financial stability or the lack of financial stability contributes to whether or not it's possible for someone to be a writer. I just think that as someone who grew up utterly mystified by the writing world and really not understanding things like the connection between affluence and access to a creative life until I was much older and sort of understood that apart from genius there are other, totally different reasons underlying, for example, Virginia Woolf’s enormous productivity or Henry James’ enormous productivity. The way in which our literary history tends to kind of obfuscate these material circumstances I think is damaging because there is then this way in which it becomes possible to pretend that the level to which you're resourced and the role that your gender might play in your life and in the level to which you’re resourced- the extent to which all of that stuff determines who manages to write at all and who manages to become a voice that’s heard versus who remains a voice that’s never heard. All that stuff has to be acknowledged. I feel like motherhood and the role of domestic labor in our lives – and who does it and who doesn't – is important to see. I think it should be visible. I also think that Lauren's refusal of that question is a different way of drawing attention to exactly what we're talking about and so in that sense, I completely agree with her. It's just that my way of drawing attention to it is paradoxically to answer these questions but from the same place, completely agreeing with her point.

Absolutely. It is so helpful to hear writers say, ‘Of course I have full-time childcare,’ even if you yourself cannot have full-time childcare, just knowing that that's how the work gets done. Or when writers say, ‘I woke up every morning at four o'clock because I didn't have full-time childcare.’ I think it's just the more information people have-

The acknowledgment that there is no magic trick that people are performing where they're somehow having 48 hours in every day. I've always been really affected negatively by stories like- I don't even know if these stories are true but I remember somewhere acquiring this story of Carol Shields writing The Stone Diaries sitting at her kitchen table while taking care of a house full of children who would just come in and need things from her and she would meet their needs and then go back to her writing. I have no idea if this fantasy has any basis in reality and if it does, good for Carol Shields and she's obviously a superhero. But that kind of story has always, to me, required a corrective because these are multiple jobs that one person is trying to do. Parenting is a job and writing is a job and the question of how to do two jobs at one time is not answered by like, ‘Oh, just try harder.’

I had not heard that Carol Shields story but I think we all have a version of that. I remember reading an article about Marilynne Robinson where her kids said something like, ‘Oh, I never noticed that she was writing.’ My kids see me writing all the time, or at least trying to, so am I doing it wrong? There are only so many hours in the day. You were an established writer before you had children. How was that transition?

It was a series of transitions because my first book was written after I left an MFA program and had a full-time job. That was the first lesson in ‘oh, I suddenly don't have unlimited time and I need to learn how to use it better.’ I did and so published my first book. My second book was also written pre-kids. It’s a little embarrassing to even remember this chapter of my life, but I do remember thinking I've got to get a second book out before I have a kid. By that time, I was in a serious relationship. I had met the person who would become my husband, from whom I'm now separated, but with whom I had these two wonderful children. And so I was on the road to some sort of domestic situation. The transition from getting that second book published, and then having a kid was pretty much on schedule. But then trying to write the next book was this really challenging period of time that I have to say is probably best evoked by the fact that I cannot remember it very clearly, if you know what I mean. I didn't sleep very much and I didn't have enough childcare. The main thing that I can say looking back is that period was characterized by me being in constant denial about how much childcare I really needed to be able to return to my life as a writer.

It's a real thing.

Constantly thinking ‘if somebody just came for a couple of hours a day, okay, three hours a day. Maybe if somebody just came for three hours a day, three times a week, or maybe five hours a day three times a week?’ I just couldn't get a grip and accept the fact that- part of it was I really enjoyed being a mother to a young child and I'm kind of glad that I went through that tug of war with my first where it was constantly just really pushing it to the limit of how little childcare can I get away with having?

That's so validating because I was completing coursework and writing my dissertation – not writing a book but similar – and, also, for monetary reasons thinking, okay, how much can I get done with this minimal amount of childcare. Everything was always pushed to the limit: if I have this nap plus this childcare, I can do it.

Right. Of course, financial concerns were a huge part of it too. Everything was part of it. It was pride, I can do all of this. There was also a form of selfishness; I didn't want to share my son with other people. I was deluded enough to think it would be better for him if he was always with me. And, yeah, money. And I think the best way to measure how hard it was, was how different the picture became when my second child was born because when my second child was born, it all went out the window almost immediately.

Did you write a book between the two? What was the timeline there?

I did write a book between. I did somehow write a book after my first son and before my second son and that was during the era of never having enough childcare and also having no space in which to work. The reason that I can remember that I actually did write a book was neighbors in my apartment building got a transfer out of the city but didn't want to sell, they wanted to keep their apartment as a pied-à-terre in case they were able to come back to New York. And I persuaded them to let me write in their apartment, which was literally upstairs from my own apartment. It was kind of an amazing situation but there was comedy to it because my son's babysitter would arrive, I would say, ‘bye, I'm going to work,’ and then I would sneak upstairs to this empty apartment which had windows opening onto the same air shaft that my windows a floor below opened onto, and sometimes I could hear my son.

That's hard. I was going to say no commute and also a separate space are the dream but that changes things if you could hear him.

No commute and also a separate space was very helpful, but then sometimes hearing him was not helpful. I did write my third book under those circumstances and sold it and was pregnant. Basically, the timing did not work out well in this case because the book ended up publishing within months of my second son being born. My second son, Elliot, was born in October of 2007, and the book published in February of 2008 and I went on a book tour with a newborn. What's the math there? November, December, January, February, I mean, he was four and a half months old.

That's not really a sleeping baby or a scheduled baby or anything.

No, he didn't sleep at all. To whatever extent he had been sleeping, that was destroyed by the book tour and I didn't sleep at all and there were terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible times on this book tour. I was so sleep-deprived, I would call people- I would just cry on the phone because I was so exhausted. I couldn't think clearly and I remember having this discussion with my husband on the phone about whether it was safe to put Elliot in the bathtub to sleep because I really needed to close the door between me and him and we were in a hotel room. My husband was terrified and was like, you have to call- we had a local friend. He was aware of the fact that I was actually rather unhinged. So that was the second book. The second book was written before the second baby, but the book published only very shortly after the baby was born.

There was more work to be done for the book even after the baby.

Right, but that was still a book that had been written while I just had one child. Once I had two children and was trying to write another book, it was a completely different situation than before, and that's what I was saying about just measuring the distance between the way I tried to deal with having one kid and write versus two. Because with my second son, the full-day daycare was for two-year-olds and literally, his first day was the day he turned two. He turned two and I showed up there and was like, ‘There you go.’ It was a really, really different approach because with my first son, as I've said, I had these crazy patchwork schedules where he went to preschool for like two hours and 45 minutes, then a babysitter would come for a few- just this absurdity. And so I went from being a minimalist with the childcare to being kind of a maximalist where I was like, ‘Just give it to me.’ And it was still not enough time but at least I wasn't fooling myself anymore that the only way that I could be a good mother was to somehow not have childcare and be writing.

There are so many factors, obviously, but the childcare seems to me to be just the most basic, fundamental. You cannot be a working writer with young children without that. So then you were able to write another book once you got that figured out?

Yeah, it wasn't easy because, with every addition of something in life, it gets harder. I did finally write a fourth book. Even with the increased childcare, it was probably the hardest process I ever went through. It was a nightmare. It took me a really long time and I had a false start. I wrote an entire book that was unpublishable that my publisher didn't even reject. My editors read it and said, ‘Do you need more time?’ It was like, ‘Don't make me reject this book.’

That's so good to hear because those things do happen.

They happen constantly.

It obviously did not derail you.

Oh, it derailed me horribly. A lot of time passed. The third book and the fourth book were separated by five years, the fourth and the fifth by six. That’s a lot of time.

Was there ever a point where you thought, ‘I have killed my writing career by having children,’ or did you still have that belief in yourself of, ‘No, I'll get back to it’?

I don't know if I ever thought that children- I've many times thought like, ‘I'm never going to write another book.’ I still feel that way right now. I am kind of used to it. I pretty much feel that way almost every time I finish a book.

So, independent of children.

Yeah, I wouldn't say that children are the factor really at all. I don't know, maybe this is partly just the gilded perspective. My kids are much older now. It changes so much. It's kind of breathtaking how much it changes, and saddening in a way. My children are teenagers and the way in which they engage my mind is totally different.

How so?

I have vastly more time to myself, but at the same time the mental load, to use the famous term, is completely different.

Big kids, big problems?

I wouldn't say big problems but just different problems and problems that are complex and challenging and super engaging and that I care a lot about. When my kids were little, I spent enormous amounts of time, I'm sure, researching, like, the best high chair. I don't even remember really what I did anymore but they're people now whose lives are inextricably bound up with mine. And so it's not just doctor's appointments or parent-teacher conferences or clothing or social life or psychological wellbeing during a global pandemic or college coming up or high school coming up or the fees for the baseball team are due. I don't know, I'm still trying to work it out, but my relationships with my children are my primary relationships and to the degree that every relationship requires constant work and engagement, those relationships do. I think about my kids every minute of the day, practically. Do they need something? Do we have something coming up?

And the quality of that is different than it was when they were young?

Yeah, because when they were young, the needs were much simpler in a way. This is a real simplification, but I vividly remember a fellow parent of older children saying to me when my older son was a toddler and my younger son, I think, had not even been born yet and my older son had freaked out at some party and I was trying to calm him down and this fellow parent said, ‘It's interesting, as they get older, their physical needs really diminish, but their psychological needs are so much more enormous.’ And that's just one piece of it. It's much more complex than that. And I'm not saying my kids have complex psychological needs, but they're-

Insofar as they are people, they do.

Yeah, they’re complex, fascinating people and our lives are joined. Sometimes it feels like when they were little, it felt easier to know what to do at any given moment.

You feed them, you put them to sleep.

Yes, you feed them, you put them to sleep, but also you put them in the school that they are going to go to. I don't know, kids become people and all people are different. My kids are two very different people and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help them live their best lives, not to quote Oprah. And so it's a different kind of wonderful, but big distraction that- frankly, I could spend all day long on the management of my children's lives.

Do you feel that it's more of a distraction from writing at this stage with them as teenagers?

It's harder to turn it off. When they were little, as long as I had a caregiver that I trusted – and luckily I did or I wouldn't work with them – walking out the door and walking away, it was a lot easier to turn my mind to something else. It's harder now, even though I have scads of time to myself. It doesn't escape me that, on a given Saturday, I can spend four hours lying on the couch reading a novel while both my children are in the house with me, which is amazing. But at the same time, both my children are in the house with me but we're all engaged in these complicated projects of life together. And so I can lie on the couch and read a novel but it's really hard to take my mind to writing a novel because somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, ‘How are we going to tour colleges? There's a pandemic going on.’ ‘Should we buy another set of acrylic paints? Are these ones used up yet?’ ‘Should we do our shopping online or should we try to go to a store?’ ‘Is it possible to see somebody safely? I feel like the kids are really isolated.’ Just constant thought.

[Note: Light spoilers ahead for Trust Exercise and My Education . Whether you forge on or not, you should read both of those books immediately.]

I want to turn to your books for a minute. You’ve talked about how Trust Exercise started out as a side project while you were working on something else and spending all your “interventionist's writerly anxiety” on that thing. And then in the meantime, that side project became “one of those children that has to raise herself and somehow ends up more tough as a result.” It was so interesting to me to hear the book described like a child, both because I'm obviously very interested in the way that writing and child-rearing sound some of the same notes, and because the structure of that book uniquely allows for that kind of resonance with the relationship between a parent and a child. Parenting young children can feel a little bit like a power trip in terms of getting to set the conditions for someone else's life but I have to always remind myself that sooner rather than later, that someone is going to pipe up with their own narrative that may or may not match mine.

It’s so funny. That makes sense to me, but I don't even remember saying that. That child who has to raise herself, who did I say that to? It's really funny.

It struck me because I'm reading all of these things as a parent of young children and also as someone who's trying to find the line of how much of myself goes on the page. As you said, your lives are so closely linked so once you become a parent, as a writer, your material is not just your material anymore, it's also somebody else's material. I struggle with that sometimes. I know it's different for fiction, obviously, as opposed to nonfiction, but that question of how much am I drawing on my life on the page is a real one for me. Because it's not just my life, it's other people's lives.

Yeah, that’s complicated, and I'm glad that I don't have that to deal with yet, exactly. There are small children in some of my books who were definitely inspired in certain ways by my children when they were small but there's nothing there that they could say, like, ‘How dare you write about me.’ But this thing of your children developing their own narrative of your shared life, it happens really early, really early. Pretty much as soon as they have continuous memory. It’s very peculiar because there's almost a certain blindness to it where god only knows what they think. I have no idea, I truly have no idea. Every once in a while, I get a flash and it can be very unnerving, especially given that they're teenage boys and not super prone to sharing, certainly not to oversharing, their thoughts or feelings. It's really interesting to recognize the fact that you're a character in their story. And you probably are not going to love the way they would depict you if you were to hear them tell the story.

I know it's a blast from the past, but I really need to talk to you about Martha Hallett and Regina Gottlieb, your characters in My Education. For me, that was the having small kids book in a lot of ways. Both of those characters at different times in the narrative have to deal with the logistics of trying to write within time constraints because they don't have adequate childcare. It's not what the book is necessarily about but that has become more and more fascinating and relatable to me as time goes on, particularly the part where Martha's husband fires the nanny without discussing it with her first because if you're a writer-parent, that’s an absolute a nightmare. He does it under the guise of not tolerating the way the nanny is disrespectful of Martha but it's actually the worst punishment you can inflict on a parent trying to do a job, as we've seen throughout this pandemic, taking away someone's childcare when they have work to do. Then we find out in the end that she's been working for him for years.

Oh my God, you're right. I don't remember this. As you're describing the book to me, I'm laughing because I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I totally forgot. I don't even remember her name. Like now I'm remembering stuff about her that's cracking me up. What was her name?

Lucia.

Okay, Lucia. Right, yes. She goes and she's working for Nicholas after he cans her.

You find it out at the end and I went back and reread to try and find when exactly she started working for him but it was definitely clear that he had been able to live his life and do his job because she was helping him. Not only with childcare, but in taking care of the home and being a wife, doing some of the wife stuff for him, and in that way had enabled him to be both the scholar and the parent in a way that Martha doesn't end up managing. She does not have a successful academic career the way he does even though it's clear from the beginning that she's a very intelligent and capable person. You must have been writing that book when you already had children and I'm wondering to what degree childcare was on your mind.

Oh my God, it was completely in my mind. That book was written in the crucible of me having the two kids, that was the book that I wrote after kid number two came along, and when they were little. It's all I thought about. You're making me laugh because I wasn't even really conscious of the fact that childcare drama played such a large role in that book, but you're right it does.

It's brilliant because it's actually really subtle. That whole thing with her husband at the end, it hit me because I have been in that crucible for a while now.

I've completely forgotten about it but 2009 to 2012 was probably the period of major composition of that book. It came out in 2013 and my kids were- I can't do the math here. My kids were born in 2004 and 2007.

So they were little.

It was just part of the landscape. Who knows, if I can manage to write another book, maybe all the children then it will be teenagers because now the world of teenage children to me seems like the world. I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah, everyone's children are teenagers’ just because I know all the same parents and we all age at the same rate, and all of the children that used to fill my house and eat pizza are now teenagers, who, if you can get them to come in for just the pizza for five minutes, it's amazing. I can't believe they spent all this time with me. But yeah, that was that period. My own actual real-life childcare crises are so present in my mind. I can remember vividly the major crisis moments of childcare from that period. I said I had vague memories of some parts of childrearing, but those days- three days spring into my mind immediately of acute childcare crisis. The day that this sitter quit, the day that sitter- this drama happened. Having to take both of my kids to a professional event because my childcare fell through and I showed up at an important- or at least I wanted to show up in the guise of a grown-up writer, all these other writers with a three-year-old and a nursing infant, too, because my childcare fell through. And I remember Anthony Bourdain, may his soul rest, amusing my three-year-old for me.

Oh my God.

Because I was the writer who showed up with little kids in a complete state.

It's a great story, but at the time it must have been harrowing.

Because we’d had this childcare crisis that blew up and my husband had an office job and it was like, either you don't go to the thing that's really important to you or you go with your tiny children. There's not tons of moments like that but a handful are indelible. It's just funny because I literally completely forgot- I know in My Education, Regina grows up and has a baby by the end, but I just totally forgot about how Martha has that baby. It’s funny, Martha also forgets that she has this baby. She's like, ‘Oh, right, my baby.’

Which she can when she has childcare. It's kind of what you said earlier where, if you know that you have good childcare, you can kind of detach yourself somewhat easily for the little kids. If you can have that time and that space difference, you can think.

Right, Martha has that au pair who comes. I think what your writer’s antennae are tuned to is constantly shifting in your life. That was a period where it wasn't just that I was having childcare drama in my life, but because I was, my antennae were picking it up constantly. I vividly remember that au pair in her real incarnation because I ended up at dinner with this young woman who was a student, she was European, I don't remember what country she was from. She was a student when I met her, but she had worked and lived all over the US as an au pair to very wealthy people before becoming a student. And she sat at dinner and talked about her former employers in such scathing- I just remember dying inside listening to her talk like that. I thanked God that I didn't ever have enough money to have an au pair because it was incredible the way she talked about these people and just the way she laid them there with such contempt and all those stories went straight into My Education. That au pair who shows up talking about her lame-o former employers, those stories were all stories that I heard this woman tell at dinner where I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I wonder how these people would feel if they heard you talking about them.’

Right, speaking of competing narratives. As a parent, if you want to do anything else, you have to let other people into your life, and sometimes in a very intimate way.

Oh, yeah.

It's definitely very fertile ground.

Oh, you’re bringing my mind totally back there. It's very fertile, right now I'm thinking like, ‘Oh God, there was so much stuff I never wrote about from those years.’ It is very fertile ground and I think a lot of books have been written about nannies and childcare but it's so complicated in this country and also in this city. It's like the racial dynamics in childcare is just- I don't know if you've read Luster by Raven Leilani, have you read that novel?

Yes, it's fantastic.

Oh my God, that book. I know that that protagonist isn't a nanny, but when she's sucked into the family's life and they're like, ‘Our adopted daughter is black, this is so great, just hang out.’

You mentioned that you are having a hard time writing now but that that's a normal between books thing for you.

It is. I feel like it's worse now than it's ever been, but I think I've felt that way before. I'm pretty sure this is the same. I just am constantly thinking ‘if I could just get this part of my life taken care of, then I could concentrate on writing,’ and then there's always another thing. The pandemic has not had this effect on me that, apparently, it has had on other writers because I know writers who are like, ‘Oh, this has been amazing, I wrote two books in the past six months,’ and I'm like, ‘Wow.’

I think it's very feast or famine from what I can tell, just from Twitter.

Right now, I really do feel like my concentration is just broken into a million pieces but I think I've been here before and if that's the case, then I definitely managed to get out of the mode and write something so I do hope that that will happen again.