Parenthood is messy. It’s fun, but fraught. Moments of abject clarity often precede colossal confusion and while some days are stimulating, others are soundly monotonous. But any parent will tell you that raising a human being is a game-changer, one that not only shifts the way we see ourselves, but also the way we see the world.
Joan Didion, the 87-year-old journalist and author who died at her home in New York City from complications of Parkinson’s disease, knew that, too. A literary force, a sharp societal observer (and critic) and, arguably, one of the greatest essayists of all time, she was also a mother. Her life was rarefied. Her parenting—documented in her writing, marked by the insecurities and the joys that come with rearing a child—was familiar.
In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion spoke about how her drive to have a child turned up one day when she was in her twenties, and could not be ignored. After trying fruitlessly to conceive for several years with her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, the couple adopted a baby girl in 1966. They named her Quintana Roo. In a photograph of Didion and her infant taken around that time, the look on her face seems to say, “I can’t believe this child exists. What do we do with her now?” (As the mother of two sons, I can relate.)