Has the Parent Plot Ousted the Marriage Plot in Contemporary Fiction?
Peter Ho Davies Reflects on the New Coming-of-Age Moment
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, a friend described it as “the ultimate deadline.” Many writers I’ve known since have determined to finish their books before a baby arrives. Some do, of course, but the deadline wasn’t so ultimate in my own case. I was five years into my first novel when my son was born; still two years, as it turned out, from finishing it. Two years during which—haunted by Cyril Connolly’s pronouncement that “there’s no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”—I felt at times like both a bad writer and a bad parent.
Still, whether a writer meets that deadline, the looming of it acknowledges a shared anxiety: a lingering writerly ambivalence about parenting (Connolly’s line dates from 1938, though he’s only expressing what women writers had intuited for generations) most commonly understood in terms of competing claims. How to balance one act of creation against another? None of us—writers or parents—like to pick a favorite among our books or our children, but how much worse the implicit choice between books and children?
It’s a truism, of course, this idea that the demands of being a new parent infringe on our writing time (not to mention our sleep), but “quality” time is a concept that might usefully be applied to both writing and parenting. Before my son’s birth, for instance, I was the kind of writer who wouldn’t even bother to sit down at the desk unless I had a couple of hours of uninterrupted writing time. After, I learned to make feverishly efficient use of the thirty or forty minutes of his nap time (and years later to maximize the “golden” weeks between the end of my school year and his). Time has become more precious to me, but parenting has also made me a less precious writer. (Case in point: that novel I was writing when our baby was born? It made it onto the Booker Prize longlist. I learned that it hadn’t made the shortlist while changing his diaper in a restroom which, mercifully, didn’t leave much time for self-pity. Shitty news, shitty writing days, shitty first drafts…all turn out to be metaphors.)
Writerly wariness about parenting, though, extends beyond the competing demands on our time. Claire Vaye Watkins sums it up in her groundbreaking essay “On Pandering,”: “About a year ago I had a baby, and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.” She rightly points out the gender bias against parenthood, specifically motherhood, as a literary subject. I suspect all writers struggle with how to address an experience at once so profound (a new life!) and so banal (a new diaper!).
The first year of parenthood seems especially challenging to write about, let alone write during. Fictional babies reflect this, hovering awkwardly between object and character, resisting our usual narrative strategies. They are at once central figures, yet passive; intimates yet unknowable. Any new parent, spending all their waking hours with a baby yet still feeling intensely lonely, intuits the flickering nature of infant personhood. (“Infant” itself derives from the Latin for “speechless”—a reminder that scenic dialogue is off the table.)Which comes first: writerly ambivalence about parenting, or the books that dramatize it?
Finally, beyond even the challenge of saying anything new about something so nearly universal (if we’ve not all been parents, we’ve nearly all been parented), lies another unspoken limitation: the fact that most new parents—writers or otherwise—actively yearn for an experience that’s as reassuringly familiar, typical, “normal” as possible. Much as we complain about the boredom of parenting, the alternatives are much more fraught.
And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) our ambivalence, parenting seems an increasingly common subject in American fiction. Parental absences—of mothers (The Underground Railroad, Salvage the Bones) or fathers (A Visit from The Goon Squad, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)—shape and shadow young lives; while the loss of children (Lincoln in the Bardo, Everything I Never Told You, Colum McCann in both Let the Great World Spin and Apeirogon) blight adult ones. I’m drawing my examples more or less at random from recent books I’ve taught; feel free to insert your own. The parental-child theme is nearly ubiquitous.
Perhaps appropriately there’s a chicken-and-egg question here. Which comes first: writerly ambivalence about parenting, or the books that dramatize it?
It’s possible some of this is national obsession. American cultural history is littered with fathers (pilgrim, founding, heavenly), as is our political present. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk references “some occult, irresistible father-son dynamic” in the lead-up to the Iraq War that includes Billy and his father, but also the Bushes, father and son. Presidential parenting—its pathos and bathos—from Lincoln to Kennedy to Trump to Biden is a recurrent theme. We’re a little less interested in prime ministerial offspring in Britain, where I’m from, but we have the royal family for that, as any fan of The Crown needs no reminding.
It’s also fair to say that writers of all nations have been telling stories about parents and children down the ages—from Abraham to Oedipus to Lear, Frankenstein and Beloved. Still, I’m inclined to attribute some of the contemporary fictional focus on parenting to more recent developments.
In my new novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, a husband reflects on his wife’s abortion. The decision—based on catastrophic prenatal tests—is one they take mutually, but still he ponders his role in it: “Agree or disagree, it’s her choice. Though wasn’t she his choice? And he hers?” In doing so he’s conflating two literary choices, between that traditional narrative staple known as the Marriage Plot and a more recent narrative development; call it the Parent Plot. If the former (going back to Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”) concerns the choice of a partner, the latter focuses on the choice to have a child.
Of course, as that Austen quote might remind us, the “choice” hasn’t always been much of a choice. While the action of Pride and Prejudice might grant Elizabeth Bennett agency—she both chooses and is chosen; the very definition of a happy ending—the circumstances of many women in Regency England made marriage more an economic necessity than a choice, something less true of Elizabeth’s modern counterparts in Austen-inspired novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary. Contemporary versions of the Marriage Plot—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, say—don’t even need to end in marriage, or be heteronormative, suggesting the flexibility (and longevity) of the trope.
The Parent Plot, too, is subject to the times. The choice to become a parent was assumed, or subsumed, in the traditional marriage plot (most starkly in the many royal marriages of the Wolf Hall trilogy or The Crown, a basic “duty” of which is procreation). Parenthood has in some sense only become a choice since the middle of the 20th century thanks to developments like the birth control pill, safe and legal abortion, and fertility treatments. In 19th-century novels, by contrast, unwed motherhood lead to tragedy—Hardy’s Tess—or the orphanage (and what might be better described as the Parentage Plot, whereby foundlings discover their true identity), tropes that Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise recently reimagined. The Parent Plot might indeed be understood as just the latest evolution of the Marriage Plot.
The coming-of-age moment, the dawn of adulthood, is no longer necessarily marriage (which, the Divorce Plot, yet another iteration of the marriage plot, has demonstrated is no longer forever), nor even coupledom, but parenthood.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is perhaps the recent epitome of this new narrative, its narrator working through the uncertainties and ambivalences of possible parenthood, including rehearsals of fatherhood with various surrogates, but it’s felt in less obvious places too. Esch, the pregnant teenage protagonist of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, has many fewer choices than Lerner’s narrator, and yet the book plays out metaphors of abortion and miscarriage through the fates of a litter of pitbull puppies. And yes, my own earlier work has depicted unwed mothers (The Welsh Girl), adoption (from China in The Fortunes), and the intergenerational choices between caring for children and caring for aging parents (Equal Love, a collection themed around parental-child dynamics).
But just as in the contemporary Marriage Plot—where the choice might be made not to marry/stay together—today’s Parent Plot often includes the decision not to be a parent, which in many cases serves as an equally decisive coming-of-age. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood might be the signal example, but similar choices are enacted in novels like Brit Bennett’s The Mothers or Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Several of these books engage gender expectations, but the Parent Plot, in its most recent form, is also deeply informed by environmental anxiety, the question of whether to bring new life into this imperiled world. It’s a question posed in Sigrid Nunez’s recent What Are You Going Through (“One thing we should start asking ourselves was whether or not we should go on having children”) but one also central to Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom where the environmental threat is bluntly diagnosed: “The final cause is too many damn people on the planet.” (Nunez and Franzen have both spoken thoughtfully about their personal decisions not to have children in relation to their writing.)
Parenthood, it turns out is not only a recurring topic of contemporary fiction, but our very ambivalence about parenting—like so many other writerly anxieties—has become the subject of our books.
Ironically, it’s perhaps only in post-apocalyptic narratives that this ambivalence begins to fade—the lives of children in The Road, or Gold Fame Citrus, or Station Eleven are by no means bright, but they are welcomed. Lerner’s book isn’t post-apocalyptic, but bookended by two once-in-a-century storms; it shares the prevalent environmental anxiety—something that makes the novel’s eventual embrace of parenthood all the more moving. Similarly, it’s only in wake of Katrina—a regional apocalypse—that Ward’s Esch claims her motherhood.
On one side of apocalypse it seems that having a child is a moral quandary; on the other, it’s a sign of hope. (The larger question might be whether we’re pre- or mid-apocalypse…)
Peter Ho Davies’s A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is out now from Houghton Mifflin.