Does parenting–specifically, mothering–make writing impossible? Are writing and mothering inherently opposed activities that a single person cannot do in the same day, year, lifetime? A lot of people have a lot of opinions about these questions, as they are sure to do with anything that relates to mothers, and some of them even have relevant experiences.
While I was pregnant with my second child, I read an essay on the topic that I found most discouraging. It was called, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” It’s full of examples of successful writer-moms who had a single child, and how that child fit nicely within their careers. I can see why it would be easier to have just one kid. My three-year-old requires so much less attention than when he was a baby. If he were my only kid and I could look forward to increasing independence and decreasing demands on my time and attention, it would indeed make it easier to write. But damn, that’s depressing.
Kim Brooks, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” theorizes that because art is about disturbing easy, complacent sensibilities, while parenting is about offering comfort, mothers find it hard to switch gears and their creative pursuits often suffer. I was interested in her view and found it kind of interesting and persuasive, but this is far from my personal experience. The problem Brooks describes is not my problem. The writing I do must not be literary enough, or avant garde enough, or whatever, for this to be an issue for me. Writing doesn’t unsettle me or make me a disturbing presence in the lives of my children. The habit of soothing my children might make my writing bland and boring–but hey, that might have been the case even if I’d been childless, and boring writing is better than no writing at all, which has been more my problem.
By far my favorite response to this question was “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. This is one of those things I read and related to so hard that I wished I’d been the one to write it. I love that Thorpe finds hope in the idea that a lot of male writers who had children but neglected them were assholes, and they may have been still better writers had they been psychologically healthy adults, attentive parents renewed by their children. Thorpe locates the problem in the necessarily self-centered nature of an artist vs. a mother’s other-focused generosity. She makes her desire to be a mother who writes into something subversive and revolutionary:
“If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening.”
One of the most exciting and reassuring things I’ve read recently is this excerpt from a biography of Shirley Jackson. Jackson, author of many creepy stories like “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, seems to exemplify Thorpe’s assertion that motherhood can be fuel for profoundly unsettling literature. No one can deny that Jackson was a writer whose work is subversive and disturbing, and her biographer asserts that it was absolutely rooted in her role as a mother. Jackson viewed children honestly, unromantically, refusing to idealize them, and that’s what made her work so fascinating. What’s even more remarkable (and infuriating) is that she wrote her books in the 50’s and 60’s, with zero childcare support from her husband, whose expectations of her were typical of that period. Like Julianna Baggott, another prolific writer who has four children, Jackson would constantly think of her stories while doing the routine work of housekeeping. That’s a trick I need to learn.
When my first child was only a little older than my second is now, I wrote something about how I didn’t have any time to write, and how I resented the implication that my lack of time meant I wasn’t dedicated. It all still rings true. Another issue for me is still confidence–and whenever I step away from writing for a while, no matter the reason, my confidence takes another hit, and it’s that much harder to get back to it.
This is what keeps me from writing lately. It’s small practical things like the fact that the baby wants to nap on me, (he wakes up if I put him down), so I only have one hand free, if that, which is enough to scroll through facebook, but not enough to type anything longer than a tweet. It’s the way the easily bored baby fusses if I sit down while holding him; he wants me to either focus on him, talking and singing, or walk around and around the house, or put him in front of a screen. It’s the constant interruptions from the toddler, a terrible conversationalist who whines, “I want mommy talk to me.” It’s the tiredness that hits me so heavily and suddenly as soon as both boys are asleep, and I know I’ll have to wake up twice to nurse and make an early start to get myself ready for school in the morning. It’s the way the grocery list and the litany of chores left undone too long crowd my essay ideas out of my brain before they even make it to a Post-it note. It’s the free time that only comes in fifteen-minute chunks, while I keep an ear listening for a baby to wake and start crying.
As hard as it is to find the time and energy to write while pregnant or caring for a baby, I need to recommit myself to it once again because I know it’s important. I think something would be lost if mothers stopped writing while they’re in the thick of it, because memory changes things and softens the hard edges of these extraordinary years. Taking care of babies and toddlers is an intense experience, and it makes for a full, busy, tiring, wonderful life, but if that life doesn’t get recorded while it’s happening, then there can be no complete and truthful record of it.