Smith, who has two children, pours scorn on suggestion that a small family is the secret to success as a writer

The prize-winning authors Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley – both of whom have more than one child – have hit back at a suggestion from the journalist and author Lauren Sandler that women should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers.

Writing in the Atlantic, journalist and author Lauren Sandler pointed out "how many of the writers I revere" were the mothers of one child: Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood and Ellen Willis.

"The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?" she said, in a piece called "The secret to being both a successful writer and a mother: have just one kid".

Sandler – an only child and the mother of one – pointed to a remark from Alice Walker, another mother of one, that female artists "should have children – assuming this is of interest to them – but only one … Because with one you can move. With more than one you're a sitting duck."

Smith was one of many writers to take exception to Sandler's claim, writing in a comment below the piece that "the idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd".

"I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?" said Smith. "Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?"

Smith added that the real threat "to all women's freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse".

"We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family," she wrote. "As for the issue of singles v multiples v none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise."

The Pulitzer-winning novelist Jane Smiley – mother of three children of her own and two stepchildren – also joined in the debate, agreeing that "the key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids".

And the author Aimee Phan – mother of two – called Sandler's article "particularly upsetting", saying that "it seems to insinuate that a writer needs only one child to experience all that motherhood has to offer, and anything more risks becoming more mother than writer".

"The number of children does not matter," wrote Phan. "The support network the woman has in order to have both family and writing is what is most important."

Ayelet Waldman herself joined in the debate on Twitter, writing : "Yeah, because I'm SOOOOO unproductive with all my children", and adding that "the obvious answer" is to have "an equal life partner".

"Childcare and a spouse who understands when you leave for a month to work. It's worked for me, Jane, Vendela Vida, Heidi Jul[avits]," Waldman told Sandler.

In response, Sandler said that the row had ignited after the Atlantic "stuck a bogus headline on a heartfelt essay about how I found inspiration in four female writers", suggesting that "the secret is better policy". It's "crucial to have an equal partner but it gets us only part way there," she told Waldman. "Mine is, and it's still hard with one."

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[Zadie Smith via flickr user david_shankbone]