The Anxiety of Influence,  Part I

A Mother’s View

By Linda Pastan on 9.08.09

My husband is a scientist/physician, and our eldest child has become a doctor. My middle child is a chef—half science, half art. But it was only when my youngest child became a writer that I started to worry about this genetic thing: were they programmed to follow our footsteps, or was it our example, our influence that determined which paths they chose? Why was I not disturbed by any of this until my daughter Rachel became a writer?

Maybe it’s because I know from years of experience what a large role luck plays in the success of any artist. Talent of course must be a given as well as hard work. But after that it seems to me that often pure chance decides which writers will succeed—to be published, be reviewed, win prizes. I had learned to harden myself to this and to the other various rejections that are a writer’s lot, but seeing her cope with these things would be harder.

And so part of me wished that this third child of mine had chosen medicine or law or any field where intelligence and hard work were usually enough for success. On the other hand, there is so much pleasure for me in reading her work, that I can’t really be sorry about her choice. And she is such a good critic of my work that I am always grateful for her ability, writer to writer, to help me. Are there other drawbacks though?

When my children were young I often wrote about them in my poems, and they only seemed to mind during their adolescence when they minded everything I did. Now must I analyze all the mothers in Rachel’s novels and worry that they are versions of me? And “do you feel competitive with your daughter?” people sometimes ask. I am always bemused by this question.

Nina in The Seagull notwithstanding, don’t all parents feel as though the achievements of their children are in some way their own achievements, whether or not they really are? In any case, genetics and influence aside, our children did have free will, they didn’t have to eat the apple. And anyway, I can happily call one son when I am sick, eat in the other’s restaurant when I am hungry, and open one of my daughter’s books any time and lose myself happily in its pages.

Editor’s Note: Click here for Part II of “The Anxiety of Influence” by Linda’s daughter, Rachel Pastan.

topics: Columnists