March 10 2017
Comedian Sarah Silverman doesn’t have children, and she wants the whole world to know why. “As a comic always working & on the road,” she recently tweeted, “I have had to decide between motherhood & living my fullest life & I chose the latter.”
As a comic always working & on the road I have had to decide between motherhood & living my fullest life & I chose the latter.— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) February 28, 2017
In a follow-up tweet, the 46-year-old Silverman lamented that this challenge—having to pick either family or fulfillment—is unique to women. “Men don’t have to do that,” she wrote. “I’d so love to be a fun dad, coming home from the road & being my best fun dad self.”
It was unclear who, precisely, Silverman felt she was addressing or responding to, but in a third tweet she declared: “So this is just a lil f*** all y’all bc u can’t be a woman w/out sacrifice & that’s the fact jack.”
Plenty of moms might take offense at the suggestion that they’re not “living their fullest life.” Yet I found myself feeling sorry for Silverman, who clearly does not understand either motherhood or parental sacrifice.
When you become a parent—as I did in 2011—you cross a psychological and emotional Rubicon, and your definition of “the fullest life” immediately changes. Regardless of how fixated you were on professional success during the B.C. (Before Children) era, having kids transforms your perspective. Suddenly, it becomes impossible to imagine living your fullest life without children. Your whole sense of happiness and purpose becomes inextricably tied to the health, growth, and development of another human being.
If Silverman had chosen to get married and raise kids of her own, she would have discovered that. Would her career have suffered as a result? It’s certainly possible, though women such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Samantha Bee have shown that motherhood and comedic stardom are not mutually exclusive. Either way, I’m confident that the rewards of motherhood would have more than compensated for Silverman’s professional sacrifices.
After all, by her own admission, Silverman has an instinctive affection for kids. In a 2015 E! News interview, for example, she gushed about how much she enjoys seeing “babies and toddlers and even, like, children and young teens” out in public. “They fortify me. I love them,” Silverman said, before lamenting that her life simply was not “conducive” to being a mom.
That was her choice, and it may have been motivated by factors beyond her job. (In 2005, Silverman told the Los Angeles Times that she was worried about passing along a genetic predisposition to depression.) Whatever the exact breakdown of her motivations, Silverman ultimately decided that maximizing her career potential was more important to her than starting a family. She is correct that all women are forced to make some type of sacrifice vis-à-vis work and parenthood. But she is wrong to say that men are exempt from this sacrifice.
Just ask journalist Michael Winerip of the New York Times. Four years ago, Winerip published a widely discussed essay titled “He Hasn’t Had It All Either,” in which he noted that, just as women feel social pressures to put family first, “those very same social pressures weigh on men to be the primary bread winners, a burden of similar scope. Having been both—the primary bread winner and the secondary earner anchoring the household—I’m here to tell you the latter (more home and less work) is often more fun.”
Indeed, there are countless fathers out there—my husband is one of them—who wish they could spend more time volunteering in their children’s classrooms, taking them to the park, supervising play dates, assisting with science projects, and so forth. These fathers have made sacrifices of their own. I’m sure many of them would argue that it’s easier to sacrifice work time than it is to sacrifice family time.
As Winerip pointed out, the sacrifices that allow parents to be more involved in their children’s lives often don’t feel like sacrifices at all. “I wanted to coach my kids’ teams and help with their homework,” he explained. “I wanted to be in the principal’s office by their sides, as they faced a five-day suspension (not a hypothetical, unfortunately).”
Winerip’s reference to the principal’s office reminds us that parenthood is not always fun or joyful. In fact, it’s downright exhausting, both mentally and physically. It forces moms and dads to struggle and suffer. But suffering, as the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus famously wrote, is the source of wisdom—and the suffering that parents experience is rooted in the indescribable love they have for their kids. In that sense, even the most challenging aspects of parenting surely contribute to “living your fullest life.”
On this question of children and fulfillment, we should also remember an observation that Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant made nearly a decade ago. After directing perhaps the world’s most detailed long-term study of human fulfillment—the Grant Study—Vaillant reached a simple but powerful conclusion: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” And there are no relationships quite like those with your kids and your spouse.
That’s something all women should consider before deciding whether to sacrifice motherhood for the sake of their career.