An essay I wrote is going up today on HerStory, a blog of women’s writing. It’s kind of a journal entry from almost a year ago. I wrote the meat of it back in March 2016 about how miserable I was at the end of my pregnancy, and returned to in October. That was when I cleaned it up and made sense of it to present to an audience. I hope it helps explain some of my time away from the blog. Here’s a permanent link. Enjoy!
I spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville. I arrived at the downtown library at 9, unloaded the stroller and wheeled the baby to the auditorium for the early book talk. I didn’t know that it was sponsored by the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, an organization I’m glad to have learned about. There were little muffins and coffee cakes on the way in. I parked the stroller in the hall and found a seat in the back, on the aisle, near a door, with the baby on my lap. Curtis Sittenfeld, Adam Haslett, Danielle Dutton, and Yaa Gyasi sat in a row in comfy chairs on the stage, interviewed by a local host. Each read an excerpt from their books. Questions concentrated on their writing processes, which I actually don’t find all that interesting. It’s kind of a repetitive question that comes up at every author talk I ever go to. But it was interesting and heartening to learn that Dutton’s book took her 10 years to write, and Gyasi’s took her 7. I had heard of Dutton, but not of Haslett; now both of their books are added to my long list of books to read. Luckily I’ve become comfortable nursing in public. I fed the baby during the talk, but when he was finished, he thrashed around and hit his head on the arm of my chair, making him cry. I got up and ran out the door quickly–my strategic seating decision minimized disruption. I calmed him and went back inside. He slept through the second half.
When the talk was over, I hustled the stroller up the hill to the Legislative Pavillion where the rest of the festival was. I found the ramp and the big tent from Parnassus Books with all the books from all the authors. I picked three, limited by budget, and knowing I couldn’t count on having time to get more than that many books signed. I got Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and the new books from Lauren Oliver and Beth Revis. Then I had to figure out how to get up to the signing colonnade with the stroller. I had to go into the building on the ground floor, through a hall to an elevator, then up. I met Sittenfeld, and told her I’m from Cincinnati, where her book is set. Then I rushed back inside and down the elevator to the room where Lauren Oliver’s talk would be. It was a very full room. Oliver was presenting with Kendare Blake, a small, funny woman whose YA books seem dark and gory, in a good way. Oliver’s disciplined, prolific writing schedule awes me. She writes as many as 3 books at a time, at least 500 words a day on each. No wonder she has so many novels. I also found out that her first book, Before I Fall, will be a movie in the spring. After I went back to the elevator, up to the colonnade, and got in line with the baby, I saw that Oliver actually had one of the longest signing lines I saw all day. (J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, had perhaps the longest.) The baby smiled at people in line. Oliver actually remembered me from two years ago, or at least she said she did.
I had a break then; Beth Revis’s talk didn’t start for almost 2 hours. I went back down the elevator and outside. I walked to the food trucks and got chicken tacos. That area was really crowded and hard to navigate with the stroller. I realized I couldn’t carry the plate of tacos while wheeling the stroller, so I sat down there on a curb and ate. Then the baby was fussy so I fed him too. He liked playing with my empty water bottle. Then I took my time going back to the door to get to the elevator, glancing at booths, picking up a couple brochures and wishing I could spend lots of money on cute book accessories. When I got back inside, it was still early; another talk was going on in the room, so I went to the bathroom. There was no changing table for the baby, so I changed him in the stroller. I sat in a chair and nursed him again, and he fell right asleep. Someone helped me wheel the stroller to park it in the anteroom. The room was mostly empty and there were 10 minutes to kill. I spotted two girls I’d met before at another book event and talked to them a while, exchanging contact info. Revis’s talk was mostly a prepared speech about the ‘origin story’ for her new book, A World Without You. I think she presented it that way so that she didn’t get too emotional. She said that it was inspired by the life of her brother, who passed away from complications of mental illness and addiction. That’s the kind of connection I like to learn about at a book talk. She also said that her son was born the day after she turned the book in to her publisher (and he’s now a year and a half old). Another elevator to the colonnade, then back down and out, down the hill to the library, and $11 to the parking garage (!).
All that is to say:
1) Book festivals rock. The people I meet there are so friendly and cool and alive with a spark that makes them unique. They are passionately interested in their quirky little niche, proudly letting their freak flag fly, and that is a beautiful thing.
2) Navigating crowds and multi-floor events with a stroller is exhausting. I truly feel for disabled people who have to deal with that every day and don’t ever have the option to leave the baby at home.
3) Tennessee’s state government building is not set up to be very easily accessible for the disabled or for women with children. But they made as many accommodations as they could and were very friendly about opening doors and pushing elevator buttons.
4) People like seeing babies, so even though I felt like I was taking up too much space and potentially disrupting things, I felt very welcome. That was a huge relief, because I was afraid parenthood would stop me from enjoying events like this.
5) I am super lucky to have such a chill baby who is so friendly in crowds and doesn’t throw tantrums when I need him to be quiet.
6) I got introduced to some authors I’m now interested in learning more about, including Haslett and Blake.
7) I have 3 more signed books to read!
As in past years, I’m excited to go to the Southern Festival of Books this weekend! I’ll have a baby in tow this time, so I’m not sure how many events we’ll make it to, but these are the authors I’m hoping to see:
Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, to be reviewed here soon
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Eligible, which have been on my “books to read” list for a long time
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.
Half of the reason to have a second child is to correct the mistakes you made with your first one. I’ve been thinking a lot about what will be different about this birth, this baby, and what I bring to the experience now that I didn’t have before. Of course, the biggest difference is that I’ll have to do all the same things I did for Cogan, except that now I’ll have to do them while also caring for a toddler at the same time. God help me. But there are a few lessons I learned through my mistakes and my few victories.
The timing of my first child’s birth was almost ideal. He was born on the first day of summer vacation, and I didn’t have to miss a day of school for the entire pregnancy. My maternity leave was the first 9 weeks of the next school year, and that was very convenient for everybody. I thought I couldn’t hope to repeat this dream scenario, but somehow I seem to have gotten even luckier. This birth, as long as it’s full term, will be timed about as perfectly as possible, especially for our finances. My due date falls during spring break, so I hope to just skip the last quarter of the school year and enjoy an extended maternity leave during the summer. When I go back to work in August, the baby will be 4 months old. My first maternity leave was partially unpaid since it was at the beginning of the school year, and I planned this pregnancy’s timing to avoid that situation again. This one will be paid for as long as 6 years of accumulated sick and vacation days last, then with short term disability, then with deferred summer paychecks I was entitled to anyway. (Of course, the fact that I’m forced to do these calculations is ridiculous. We all need paid maternity and paternity leave.)
I’m not as physically fit as I was going into my first pregnancy, and I won’t be able to work out as often or as hard this time. I’m also three years older and one kid busier. For this reason, I expect to gain more weight and to bounce back a bit slower than I did the first time. I hope I can be patient and kind with myself about this and not let body image issues get me down.
During those last miserably uncomfortable weeks of pregnancy, I want to get massages and to see a chiropractor who specializes in pregnant women. Anything to alleviate that awful back and hip pain. I don’t know why I didn’t try this three years ago, but this time I want to give it a shot.
I want to keep things as normal as possible for as long as possible. That was my philosophy the first time, and I think it worked well. For example, when I woke up on my baby’s birthday showing signs of early labor, David wanted to stay home from work, but I sent him off. I wanted to continue my comfortable routine as long as I possibly could, down to the hour. I also hope this intention will also make the transition as easy on Cogan as possible.
I want to hire a doula because I had a volunteer doula for my first birth and she was great. I guess I could use the volunteer doula program again, but as far as I know there’s only one doula on call, so there’s a chance I might not get her. I think it’s a service worth paying for, and I wouldn’t want to deprive a needy first-time mom of the volunteer doula if she wants her.
When I came to the hospital to give birth the first time, I didn’t expect not to be given a room immediately. Instead I was in triage for two hours waiting for a room to empty, and that was something that didn’t even occur to me when I was writing my birth plan. Now I know it’s a possibility and how to deal with it.
As soon as I see a midwife and it’s determined that I’m actually in labor, I want my nitrous oxide. If it slows down my labor, I don’t care, as long as I spend all of the extra time sucking down that laughing gas. Last time, this nurse told me to walk the halls while I was in triage, and I did, hating every minute. I was a hospital gown in the most intense stages of labor, making horrible groans while people in waiting areas looked on. I felt exposed and wanted privacy. No way will I listen to anyone telling me to parade myself around when I feel so vulnerable. Give me a closed door and a gas mask, stat.
Nursing will probably suck (ha!) again. I’m convinced that until babies are about 3 months old, their mouths are just too little to suckle without hurting their moms (although my experience might have something to do with the size/shape of my nipples or something too, so maybe it’s different for other women). Hopefully my skin will still have some residual toughness from almost two years ago. But I think knowing that at the 3 month mark it gets better will help in itself: the first time around I thought I was looking at a solid year of that torture. I’ll also know a little better how to deal with that initial engorgement and what a proper latch looks and feels like. I also want to try what I’ve heard is called “natural breastfeeding,” which seems to mostly be about a different idea of proper position.
I won’t bother trying side-lying nursing until the baby is able to roll over. But once he can, that’s probably all I’ll do.
This baby’s baptism will be in Nashville. Family can come to us this time; we come to them often enough. (Hopefully the new house will be ready to be seen by then…)
Nursing at night was my very least favorite part of having a baby, because the sleep deprivation made me a little crazy for a while. As soon as the doctor says it’s ok, I want to night wean. I’ll keep asking about this as often as possible. Maybe I’ll even make weekly calls and ask for weigh-ins between appointments to make sure we don’t delay night weaning a single night longer than necessary.
When I go back to work, I won’t freak out when my supply dips and we have to supplement. This was a real struggle for me with Cogan. I felt like a horrible failure for not being able to pump as much milk as he guzzled down ever day, and in a panic, asked our babysitter to feed him less, which resulted in more night nursing and less sleep. For this reason, November 2013 was a bit of a low point for me. I really don’t want to repeat this drama, so I hope I can keep my emotional reaction in control when I inevitably run into the same problem again. I hope I can remember this whole experience, and how it turned out fine in the end, and chill.
My favorite stage of nursing was when we were down to only 2 or 3 feedings a day. That amount of nursing was so easy, it felt like a total joy and not a bit of a burden. I want to get to that stage of nursing as fast as possible, and maintain it as long as possible.
I want to try to listen to my husband more when he encourages “cry it out,” if that’s necessary. I am glad we waited as long as we did, but once Cogan started sleeping all the way through the night (I define this as ‘from when I put him down at night until after I wake up in the morning at a normal hour.’ None of this ‘4 straight hours’ BS.) life started to feel much easier.
One thing I think I did well with Cogan is his language development. He’s a big talker for his age, and while some of that is surely his personality, some of it might be the way I talked to him constantly. Even before he could respond much, I tried to make sure he was hearing words. (I talked to myself a lot.) We developed a kind of call-and-response way of communicating, where I’d repeat what he said (or what I thought he was trying to say), and after a while he followed suit and tried to repeat my words. It gives him lots of practice speaking with a model to try to copy. And we read a lot, of course.
I announced to my family via phone last night: I’m having another baby! He or she is due in late March. I’m 16 weeks along and we’re both healthy. Cogan doesn’t really understand what’s happening, but if I ask him, “What’s in my belly?” he says, “A baby!” And he looks really cute in a “Most Awesome Big Brother” shirt.
I know it’s going to be a challenge to work full time while parenting two kids. I hope to continue to post good reviews and write about my life in other ways and other places as well. I’ll do my best; that’s all I can ever do.
Tomorrow I’ll write in a little more detail about the changes I expect in the next year, and how I think it will be different from being a first-time mom.
The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber
This book had some decent ideas, but I don’t think it was for me. I had a hard time relating to it because its main audience seemed to be very wealthy parents. Lieber tries to be as inclusive as possible, but spends less attention on poor parents trying to avoid passing down a scarcity complex than on rich parents embarrassed by their good fortune. He explains how to have hard conversations with kids, how to say no to expensive things you can afford but that don’t fit your values. I thought Lieber’s ideas were good for his audience, especially encouraging them to integrate their children in mixed-income communities rather than isolating them in wealthy enclaves, and emphasizing giving to the less fortunate. But many of the anecdotes were so far removed from my experience–and my family has an above-average income–that I found them often out-of-touch.
Lieber’s main concrete advice is to allow children to have money and make money decisions and money mistakes. I can see the wisdom in kids gaining experience working with money and budgeting like that. He assumes, though, that parents can afford to give children the kind of allowance that would allow for meaningful money decisions, and that their own income is regular enough to make this commitment to their children. There is also a philosophical debate about whether the allowance should be tied to chores, or if chores should simply be expected from children as members of the household. The book didn’t necessarily sell me entirely on either side of the debate.
One theme of the book that I did buy into is for parents to make money less taboo, to be less afraid of discussing it with children, and to be open with children about their financial decisions and the values behind them, especially since they’re supposed to be teaching their children values anyway. Lieber suggested a great universal first response to tough or potentially embarrassing questions that kids ask: “Why do you ask?” I totally agree that for any topic, from money to sex, countering with that question can start the discussion right, or at least prevent parents from making incorrect assumptions.