This week on The Cut, Avery Trufelman grapples with one of life’s biggest questions: Does she want to have kids? She speaks to mothers-by-choice Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money and author of the new book Let’s Talk About Hard Things, and renowned artist Julie Mehretu about their experiences with parenthood. She also speaks to someone who opted not to be a mother, comedian Margaret Cho, about other ways to fulfill the desire for motherhood.
To hear more about how to decide if you should (or shouldn’t) have kids and what it’s like to continue being creative after having them, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Below, you can also find the full transcript.
AVERY: Man, this feels like therapy.
ANNA: I know. How do we start? But it’s more complicated than therapy, because it’s unclear who’s in charge. It’s unclear who’s the confessor and who’s the question-asker.
AVERY: Oh, I’m the question-asker to you. You know what it’s like to have kids. I don’t know what it’s like to have kids. You are on the other side of a threshold that I don’t know if I’ll ever get to. I cannot imagine you would have questions for me.
ANNA: Why don’t we just start, Avery? Today, when you think about the question about whether you want to become a parent, what comes up?
AVERY: That is the mighty Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money and author of the new book Let’s Talk About Hard Things. This week, on both Death, Sex & Money and The Cut, we’ve each made different versions of this story, about the lucky, privileged decision about whether or not to have kids. Because there are environmental, financial, and logistical reasons to not have kids. But I really wanted to talk with Anna about … ambition. Anna and I have similar jobs as podcast hosts. But she has two kids and manages to make creative work at the same time — while I am entirely on the fence. I have truly no idea if I want to have kids or not.
ANNA: Is there part of you, as someone who self-identifies really deeply as an artist, is there part of you that worries that you will be a less interesting artist if all of a sudden you’re an artist and a mom instead of just being an artist?
AVERY: Oh my God, get your foot off my neck. That’s it — you got it. That’s totally the fear. I don’t know if I have any right to identify as an artist, but yeah. When I think about my models for motherhood, I think of Yoko Ono and Vivienne Westwood. I don’t think they were the best moms because they were balancing a lot of other things. Yeah. I worry that it might mean a King Solomon–style splitting the baby and not being very good at either art or motherhood when you dilute the two. That’s why it’s so nice to talk to you about it. I really wonder what this has done to the quality of your work or the kind of work you do since becoming a parent.
ANNA: Yeah. I wonder about that, too. It’s like, What would it be like?
ANNA: Well, yeah, it’s changed. The way I work has changed. So the work has changed, and I still think I’m making stuff that I’m really excited and interested in and proud of, but it’s different. The thing that you say about Yoko Ono and Vivienne Westwood — I just want to name it. I think by and large, we don’t think moms are hip. We think there’s a certain flattening to it.
AVERY: Okay. You’ve just touched on one more very core insecurity that I have around motherhood. I can’t think of a more polite way to say it, so I’m just going to sound mean. I’m so sorry, but the sort of basic-ing that happens.
ANNA: Oh, yeah. Oh, I love that verb. Oh my God. That’s a really good verb.
AVERY: You know what I mean? You are someone who has worked so hard to develop an acumen for what is new and what is interesting and what is missing from the conversation and needs to be said. And I know so many other brilliant, rigorous journalists who have become not only mothers but just parents who really held up an eye for a story and then suddenly they’re sharing, you know …
ANNA: No, say it. I want to hear your most mean self. Just say it — get it out. I want to hear it. Judgment-free zone. I’m not taking it personally. Just say it.
AVERY: They’re showing me pictures of their kids, and I don’t care. They send me a picture of their kid, like, covered in food. That’s actually kind of gross. I don’t actually care. Your vision of what is interesting gets so warped. Uh, I sound awful.
ANNA: Keep it coming. I love it. I want to hear it like a fire hose.
AVERY: Do you know what I mean? I’ve spent so long curating and fine-tuning What is interesting? What is interesting to other people? What is a good story? And then it just seems to go right out the window.
ANNA: I think an important thing to know is, like, Do you? When you’re around kids, are you magnetized toward them or not?
AVERY: That’s an interesting thing. I loved kids. I was a babysitter growing up, but I was a kid along with them. We would make sundaes. I remember these two kids I babysat, we would cover the entire road with sidewalk chalk and do these big, ambitious art projects and make it an adventure and just have insane amounts of fun — like, way too much fun. So I do love kids a lot, and I also think sometimes I live my life for the adventure. I like having stories to tell of wild late nights and weird encounters and stories heard secondhand at a bar. I think I just treated kids like one of those adventures.
AVERY: I sometimes wish I could be, like, a man in the 1950s. Just have some kids, understand the richness and the beauty of having a family, but mostly moving on with my life. I think that’s one end of the spectrum. And the other end of the spectrum is being an excellent mother who has to do everything. I can feel myself pulled toward both of those poles, just wanting to slack off entirely or just [be] like the best, most incredible nurturer and learn all these new sides of myself. It irks me that I do not know this about myself. It irks me to not know what I want in a big decision.
Honestly, I feel a little embarrassed calling myself an artist because it’s so easy in this economy to be like, “I’m a creative.” But whatever. I do. I do see myself as an artist. I wanted to ask how an artist-artist, like a visual artist, a painter, feels about parenthood. So I turned to my friend Julie Mehretu. Julie is an abstract painter with a major retrospective right now at the Whitney Museum, which you should check out if you’re in New York, and she has two sons, now ages 10 and 16.
AVERY: I’m going to start by telling you how absolutely mortified and embarrassed I am to be asking you about motherhood, because it’s such a cliché thing to do to women.
JULIE: Well, I don’t think so. Why do you feel embarrassed to ask them?
AVERY: You know, you don’t ask a man, “Oh, what — how does fatherhood play into your work?”
JULIE: We should, though.
AVERY: When Julie’s partner at the time got pregnant, Julie didn’t have all of my fears about losing her edge or whatever. She was way less worried about being a good artist and more worried about becoming a good parent.
JULIE: I wasn’t a birth mother. So that’s a very different reality, being a birth mother, but I was with these children from their conception, and my fear was, Will I remember to feed them? How will I take care of this child? Can I even do this? Like, it’s such an enormous responsibility. I was more anxious about that than I was about being able to work. I never worried about my work. I will always find a way to do that.
AVERY: And when their first son, Cade, was born, Julie found ways to work with him. Literally alongside her — right there in the studio.
JULIE: Cade was next to me when I was painting. He was in the BabyBjörn with me while I was painting. He was on the floor. There was a constant fluidity.
AVERY: Okay, well part of that fluidity is because Julie was living in Berlin at the time, and getting to live outside the U.S. was kind of key. Julie is originally from Ethiopia, and she was very aware that the sort of individualistic, less communal way of raising kids is super-American. And that the world had other alternatives.
JULIE: We went to Berlin, and almost everybody had children, and all these artists had children and families. Kids would hang out together in the spielplatz, and you could drink wine and eat oysters next door. So there’s this real fluidity to being a parent and being able to really live your life in a very different way and let the kids kind of live their life in this place of risk, in a sense, which was really different than having children here. But those early years really changed how we could be parents and be adults at the same time.
AVERY: You make it all sound kind of beautiful and wholesomely integrated with your life and your work and your practice. What did you have to give up as a parent?
JULIE: Well, smoking. I don’t know. Like, bad behavior in front of them.
AVERY: I feel like so much of the mythos of the artist is smoking and behaving badly. And, I don’t know, being kind of interesting in that way. [Laughs.] Sorry.
JULIE: Well, I don’t know. You have a lot of friends who are uninteresting now that they’re mothers?
AVERY: I mean …
JULIE: I feel like most interesting adults I know — not all, because there’s a lot that have chosen not to parent, but most — have had children. It’s what happens to most people. I would have to say that having kids, and [my kids] have been my biggest teachers — the exuberance from which they make and create.
I was watching Cade one time, when he was 18 months old, just painting. It was so instructive for me. I was like, Man, you’re so uptight. Look at just the freedom with which he approaches this. When he was 4, I took him to the Mural, the painting that I have downtown, and I had finished it in the studio in Berlin and I was going to continue working on it back here. Before we left, I took him to make some secret marks into the painting — wherever he wanted. He approached it so freely. Then I came back into the painting, actually trying to make after his marks, because he had this just exuberant freedom that kids make from, and they experience life from that place. So, for me, there’s this constant way of kind of interacting and learning from them.
But I can tell you that the way that my children think about gender, think about the world, think about politics, think about race, the way they think about the economy, capitalism … it’s unbelievable. They are so radical and kind of rigorous as different ways of being. I felt like I was trying to raise them as free and as openly as I can. But then these kids come up, they totally call us out for the constraints on our imagination of what is “free.”
I feel like something about the way that people can have kids and find liberation as well is important. For me, there’s something about talking to people about it, because no one ever talked to me about it in that way.
Are you thinking about having kids, or not thinking about having kids?
AVERY: Well, time is, as you said …
JULIE: The clock is tickin’.
AVERY: I’ve got to make a decision. And if I do, or if I don’t, it’s going to affect my life tremendously. Either choice is a choice.
JULIE: Whether you have them or you don’t, kids are about this nurturing of something else, right? Your primary place shifts. Your primary relationship to yourself shifts. That happens, in a way, in meditation, too, or when you’re in a really deep creative flow, right? You’re lost in this other way of engaging. Parenting is very much like that. I realize that I’m speaking from an immense privilege, to be able to really consider parenting.
You’re nervous. You want children, Avery.
AVERY: Oh, but I’ve —
JULIE: But you really don’t.
AVERY: I do, and I don’t. But if a brilliant and talented artist like Julie Mehretu can find creativity and inspiration, even liberation, in parenthood, then what should I be so afraid of? But then again, a lot of Julie’s models for parenthood were formed outside the U.S., and I don’t know if I live in a country where parents can also be autonomous adults.
Although, Anna Sale has made it work for her. But when is it not worth it? After the break, Anna and I speak with someone who has proudly decided not to have children.
ANNA: What’s so strange is that I always thought of myself as a person for whom work and my work identity and work achievement and ambition was very integral. And it still is.
AVERY: Again, Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money.
ANNA: I also always knew that I wanted to be a mom, to have a kid.
AVERY: How did you always know?
ANNA: I can remember having this conversation with some other journalists, who did not know whether they wanted to become parents, and that was the question, like, “How do you know? What’s the feeling? What’s the knowing?” And, to me, I just put my arms in a little cradle and was like, “I don’t know. But I just know,” and I cradled my arms back and forth. This is something that I want to do. Like, I want to hold my child.
AVERY: I wish I had the certainty of that desire. It leads to this more existential question of Is it more painful to know exactly what you want, or is it more painful to not know anything and just be adrift?
AVERY: This is going to make me sound like an absolute maniac, but I guess this shows you where my priorities are now. Like, do you remember the first time that being a parent really ate into your ambition? Where you were like, I would like to do this meaty story or interview, but I can’t right now because I have a baby to raise.
ANNA: Yes. For me, it was like, “Travel is not something I want to do, or if I do have to do it, I need to be really strategic about how many nights I’m away, what it’s for, and be really clear what I’m going to get out of the time away — because it has a cost.”
ANNA: I have a job that I’ve been able to make flexible so that I haven’t felt like I’ve had to give up my identity as a professional person and as a working person or as a creative person. I still feel like I have that part of me. I feel like becoming a mom, it’s as if a whole other side of my body has been … I picture it blowing up with muscles that I didn’t know I could have. Which is how to soothe, how to teach, how to comfort, how to to argue with a kid and get really emotional and then come back around so you both apologize when you get frustrated. Like, there’s just parts of me that I feel are so much more full.
AVERY: It is so abundantly clear that having kids would make you grow and develop in new ways. But do those new sides of you grow over other sides of you? What’s the exchange here? Anna and I wanted to talk to the comedian Margaret Cho because Margaret is so candid about her life and her experience, from her strict Korean parents to her queerness and her sex life to the fact that, at age 52, she does not have kids. She’s honestly gone back and forth about wanting to be a mother.
MARGARET: Every time I’ve been pregnant, which is three times. I’ve definitely thought, I’ve got to get out of this. I can’t do this.
AVERY: But didn’t that change at some point? At one point, weren’t you trying to have a kid?
MARGARET: At some point. I was trying later on, but maybe it was almost the last cry of the hormones. The final hormonal scream. It was like a primal scream. It was the last call for … not alcohol. Basically.
AVERY: It was hard for Margaret not to consider giving parenthood a try. As a kid, she was always told that “When you grow up, you will have kids, and that’s the way it works.”
MARGARET: The future is inevitable that “you’re going to have a kid … or do PCP.” This is the ’70s. There was this expectation that it was going to happen.
AVERY: How did that affect your career as you were growing up? How did your mentality change or not change?
MARGARET: Well, a lot of female comedians have children, and it’s not a big deal. And a lot of female musicians I know have children, and it’s not a big deal. Courtney Love set a pretty good example. A lot of rock stars. I would see it at music festivals: babies with headphones on to protect their hearing. I was like, It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Your kid can just be part of your journey. In New York City, parties that I would go to in the early 2000s, the ultimate accessory was a 12-year-old girl in a jean jacket who acted like a little adult.
AVERY: By that mind-set, were you like, I gotta get me one of those? How did that make you feel?
MARGARET: Kind of. Well, yeah. Of course. In the early 2000s, you wanted to be arguing with your rock-star ex-husband about custody while you’re leaving Pilates in your Juicy Couture cashmere tracksuit and UGGs. That was sort of the dream.
AVERY: The dream is so intricate and planned down to the last detail. Why didn’t it happen?
MARGARET: I think because I always avoided Pilates. I always avoided motherhood. I was married for 12 years, but …
AVERY: Why did you avoid motherhood?
MARGARET: I didn’t want to love anybody more than I loved anything or loved my career. I was just so afraid of the expansion of my heart. To me, that seemed unbearable. Even though it brings a lot of joy and an escalation of celebration of life, to me, it was too much responsibility and too much of the unknown. I would rather control the capacity of my loving, which now it’s in a safe place; now it’s in a contained place. Now I can really kind of examine it and enjoy it. I think that is what parenting is for me.
Of course, I have a lot of animals. And that’s fine. This is Lucia Katerina.
ANNA: Margaret, have you ever identified as a parent? Has there been a phase in your life when you thought of yourself as a parent?
MARGARET: I guess, in a sense. I have drag daughters. I have the House of Cho, so I have a lot of comedian children and a lot of gay children and a lot of gay Asian children. Whenever I see younger Asian American comedians, I’m like, Oh, those are my children. I’m a parent to that. So I have a whole dynasty of Asian American–comedian gay children and then also all of my animals. So yes, but that’s not the same. It’s very different, but it is very much a parent in that way.
ANNA: I mean, there’s some ways it’s the same. There’s a quote. Years ago, I talked to the actor Ellen Burstyn, and she adopted her son. She talked about how the act of mothering made her a mother — that “the verb makes you the noun.” And I think about that a lot.
MARGARET: Yeah, I think that’s right. In my 20s, the idea of being alone in my 50s was the most terrifying prospect, but now I’m 52 and alone and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I realized that was social conditioning in my 20s — being worried about being a middle-aged, too-old woman and on my own. I realized that I am so much better off than I’ve ever been. I’m good. It’s like putting your hand over your glass of life. Like, I’m good.
ANNA: So, Avery, have you decided?
AVERY: No! Are you kidding me? Of course not.
AVERY: But this was really fun.
Anna Sale’s new book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, is a raw, honest, deeply practical guide through confronting the elements of our life we’re most frightened to look at, way beyond even death, sex, and money. If you want some help puzzling through how to talk to someone who is mourning, or how to go about talking about a breakup, or how to talk about finances with a friend who has a different amount of money than you … seriously, buy it. It’s a book for the ages.