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Can childless women really understand the full range of emotions that women go through?

By Victoria Fryer 

Maeve Binchy was, as some of you may know, a prolific Irish author whose novel Tara Road was selected in 1999 as an Oprah’s Book Club pick—which, at least here in the United States, is a pretty big deal.

Binchy died in 2012, and among the many obituaries run of her, “few omitted to mention that she was childless,” one article states. Perhaps some people think this is relevant information in an obituary, but many people believe this is relevant to her as a writer as well.

There is a debate among some: can childless women really understand the full range of emotions that women go through?

I agree with the writer of the above-linked article, who goes on to write, “Women without children can see and feel human life just as acutely and can imagine the feelings of parents convincingly.”

Writers are nothing if not keen observers. We watch the things people do, the ways in which they interact with one another. We listen to overheard conversations. We (at least sometimes)—much to some people’s chagrin—mine lives and conversations and situations for material.

In another article on Maeve Binchy’s passing titled “Motherhood Does Not Make Every Woman a Better Writer (Or a Better Person Either),” the author writes about how she herself writes much about the sibling relationship—even though she was an only child.

And there have certainly been men who wrote good female characters. Ester Bloom at The Hairpin recommends Larry McMurty, Michael Cunningham, and Jonathan Franzen.

There is a commonly repeated maxim about writing that says, “Write what you know.” But what I’m hearing more and more is people saying, “Write what you don’t know.” Because that’s how you learn. That’s one way we can help get diversity and equal representation into the literature (there are a lot of other, more important ways, but they’re out of the scope here!).

As writers, we create our way into understanding other people on whatever ways we can. And this, of course, is not just a writing issue. Could we, as childfree and childless people, ever understand what a parent friend is going through? Of course we could—through listening, empathizing, and trying to understand.

If we could do nothing but write what we knew, literature would be all memoir and so limited. If we limit ourselves to the thoughts and feelings we’ve experienced, even parents would be leaving out such a huge range of human emotions, that it wouldn’t even be worth it. Similarly, as people, if we come from a place that believes we cannot understand what another person is going through just because we haven’t experienced it, maybe we aren’t listening hard enough.

I think Maeve Binchy—along with any number of other childless female authors—knew that.

Victoria Fryer is a 31-year-old writer and content strategist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two pit bulls. You can find her on Twitter @extoria.

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