Challenging The Myth That Children Derail Women’s Ambition

Rachel Carson speaks before the Senate in 1963. Photo credit: United Press International

A recent New Yorker had a piece by Jill Lepore about a new volume of Rachel Carson’s writing.

Rachel Carson did not have children but she took care of several, including adopting her four-year-old grandnephew after the death of her niece. Some of her biographers have lamented the toll this caretaking exacted on her output. If only she hadn’t had that responsibility imagine what she could have produced, the line goes.

Let’s think about this critique for a moment. Carson published “A Silent Spring,” the book credited with kicking off the modern environmental movement. The book directly led to the passage of five major pieces of legislation, including The Clean Air Act and the The Clean Water Act and also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a lot of impact for one person to have.

Jill Lepore rightly pushed back on the biographers lament of her caregiver role, noting that ” caring for other people brings its own knowledge.” The “insight” that came with caring for both the young and elderly members of her family made her work what it was.

I like this point a lot because it does something that is rare in the media — it actually gives value to the caregiving role. The idea that caregiving confers skills, experiences and wisdom that is valuable beyond the work of care is something our society is remarkably reluctant to acknowledge.

I also think that this idea is that caretaking diminishes a woman’s output is just slanderous. Carson is one of the greatest writers of all time, if you measure greatness by impact on the world. It’s impossible to know if she would have produced more and even more impossible to know if it would have been as great, to Lepore’s point, had she not had obligations. The biggest reason her career was cut short was her untimely death from cancer.

I think this fiction — that only those undistracted by care can reach their full potential — does a disservice to men and women alike. It pushes men to suppress their desires to nurture and care and pushes women out of the public spheres. A life that has both elements — family and work, however you define either of those terms — is richer and, I would argue, more productive in the ways that matter most. Sure, single-minded focus on anything can be a strategy for success. But it is absolutely not the only strategy. And anyone that believes that probably achieves less than they could and lives a life that is less than it could be.