A Curious Thing: Motherhood, Confidence, and Getting the Work Done
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to write. While many of my school friends dreamed of futures as movie stars or sports heroes or rich housewives, I was dreaming of becoming a writer, of living in a small, well-worn apartment in some city-er city than my own. Before I ever had my own desk, I would pull a chair up to my white wicker dresser, spread out my pens and paper, and write: novels, poems, plays, whatever. But by twelve I stopped dreaming, stopped being proud of my intellect and creativity. I made a very conscious, yet very confusing, decision to hide my brain.
In high school, I rebelled in the form of sex, drugs and bad poetry. I regained my passion for reading and writing, yet my confidence had taken a permanent hit. I never again felt the same pride in my intelligence, nor had any enthusiasm for showing it off. I even dropped out of school for a while.
By the time I landed at college, I felt beyond all the promiscuous and boozy behavior that many undergraduates experience as a well-earned rite of passage. As a result, I just sat home most evenings and wrote or read books set in San Francisco or Paris or New York City, the city-er cities where I was sure real life began. Soon after, I began my real life, moved myself to New York City, and completed an MFA program by the time I was twenty-three. I met the man I would eventually marry. My teachers and peers liked me and my work. And I had some more good luck. I placed a few of my poems in well-respected journals.
With some talent but no focused ambition, a well-entrenched and paralyzing discomfort with myself despite the fledgling successes, not to mention enough debt to make an MBA graduate sweat, I took that talent and I went… nowhere.
I couldn’t finish a damn thing.
While I had enough drafts to fill several bursting folders, I had the confidence of a clam. I wrote all the time, but I couldn’t share these passions and projects with my friends. Nor could I send my work out into the world. I couldn’t even call myself a writer in that little box on the 1040 tax form that asks for your occupation, so instead (and to address that terrifying debt) I took a job at an ad agency which advertised for book publishers. I would spend most of my days researching venues to run ads for books that catered to the lowest common denominator: books about OJ, JonBenet Ramsey, and serial killers. Books on how to live longer, be thinner, apply makeup like a pro.
Working at something I didn’t care about with people I was often uncomfortable with took its toll. I found it much easier to erase myself. Days, weeks, months, then years went by; I was barely writing anymore. I’d get up, go to work, plaster the smile on my face, be efficient, sarcastic, friendly, find myself back home again, reading or watching television.
At the time, my husband and I went to a lot of parties and readings that seemed very cool and literary, the kind of life I had idealized when I was a teenager in Los Angeles. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel like a fraud. My friends and acquaintances from this time were all writing and publishing books, going on residencies and fellowships, giving readings and teaching at universities. I, on the other hand, was writing next to nothing and then nothing at all. And I wouldn’t know how to start again for years.
Yet, during that time, my friends and coworkers and acquaintances still knew me as a poet. I’d made no formal announcement that I no longer wrote, although I was deeply upset about it. At parties, people would ask me what I was “working on.” For nearly a decade, I would reply, “I’m revising. I write very slowly.”
That those in my circle still considered me a poet momentarily re-energized me, made me vow to spend my whole weekend writing. But then I wouldn’t end up writing. Because at the time the very thought of writing made me want to cry, whereas before writing was what held me together. This was how I spent my post-MFA twenties.
Then, at thirty-one, I got pregnant. And then the majority of people I knew stopped asking me about my writing. Instead, they asked me how I was feeling, whether or not I had registered, and if I would I go for a drug-free childbirth. I was to be a mother, and that was that.
My first daughter was born in September of 2005, and having a first baby was just the kind of disorienting, overwhelming, desperate, ecstatic, over-the-moon mindfuck that everyone tells you it’s going to be.
But a curious thing happened, something that none of the standard chatter about the bored, dissatisfied, self-neglecting, put-upon mom would have you believe. I began to write again. More than ever. Alone with my racing thoughts and a quiet newborn, and also spending more time with my husband than I had since we were in school together, my brain and my heart opened up and I felt more creative and confident than I had in years, maybe ever.
Maybe there’s something to the notion that the experience of pregnancy and, more radically, childbirth, gives a person a new perspective on what they are capable of, and of how much they matter. Not only had I proved myself capable of extraordinary things, but now I had a daughter who would inherit whatever lessons about the self that I had to teach. I knew my heart would break if my daughter were ever to give up on herself. I needed to become the person I would want her to be. Relentless responsibility began to crystallize into confidence.
I stopped apologizing for myself.
Years ago, long before I could imagine ever being a mother, my friend Miranda Field, a superb and accomplished poet and mother, spoke to me about what it was like to be both of those things. Her oldest was still a baby at the time and she said that, against popular wisdom of sleeping when one’s baby sleeps, she wrote during his naps, because it was a do-or-die situation. After years of non-productivity, she had to make a conscious decision to either write or not write, to be a writer or not be a writer. If she didn’t write during her baby’s sleeping hours, then she would never write, and she would not be a writer. It could not be put off until just the right inspiration or bit of poetic courage presented itself.
This is what happened to me. Grateful for the choice and decision to stay home with my two girls during the day, my hours are filled with the insistent joys and needs and sorrows of children. I have very little time for myself, but I fill it; I have the time because I make the time. I write during naptime and after my children go to bed in the evening, until my hunger and exhaustion catch up to me. I socialize less, and I write more.
This is not to say that I don’t have countless other things I have to attend to, like dishes or insurance paperwork or freelance writing projects that actually pay something or the seemingly endless to-do list from my older daughter’s school. Somehow I squeeze that all in, but not during the hours I have set aside for writing. When the clock strikes, I don’t waste time doubting myself, I just start writing (and I can doubt myself later if need be). I have had to be very un-sexy about my work process; I have fixed hours for myself and sneak in extra if and when I can. Sometimes my work sucks, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I rarely end a day without having worked on something, even if only for a small amount of time. The progress is admittedly slow, but after a pre-kids decade of writing next to nothing, I finally finished my poetry manuscript and have almost finished a novel.
My friend Ashley Sayeau, who writes extensively on women and culture, put it best when she wrote to me, “I don’t think I knew what real fear was until I nursed my firstborn through her first high temperature, or real patience until she learned, with such exquisite proficiency, those two little words: ‘But why? But why?’ For me, having children is a constant reminder of what it means to feel. Every time I put pen to paper, regardless of the subject matter, I’m grateful for that.”
Ashley has found, like I have found, that even when she is not writing about her children, her experiences with them infuse everything she creates.
While the physical act of writing is accomplished despite the time I invest in caring for my children, the confidence to continue writing is in large part because of them. When I lament all the wasted time, my husband reminds me that I could not have written what I write now, the way I write now, back all those wasted years ago when I was a different person. Even though I had the time (and oh there used to be so much time!), I wouldn’t have had the nerve or the conviction, caring, as I did, about what others might learn about me, think of me. His is a very forgiving way to look at it. Although I don’t write about my children, my experience with mothering them has made me a stronger writer.
In fact, the happiness I feel about being an active writer once again has pulled me through the many days when things didn’t work out as planned, mommy-wise, writing-wise or otherwise. When I am writing it is like I’m at my childhood dresser again, where the real world doesn’t exist and anything is possible.
I realize that my story, much like Miranda Field’s experience, may be the exception to the rule. I know that there are numerous writers who were productive and focused and duly successful in their pre-mom lives, and I imagine these women might find it very frustrating, as I definitely have, to put their work aside to on-demand feed an infant or to suddenly find their emotions tied to the success or failure of their toddler’s nap schedule or grade-schooler’s playground mishap. Or to have many prior successes ignored, even as they might work their tails off to keep writing and publishing. Or to have it assumed that just because they’re now mothers, all they have to write about is being a mother. In my experience, aside from one poem on pregnancy, I have not yet felt the urge to write about my children. Which should answer the question I get asked with an alarming frequency: No, I don’t write “mom poems.”
Now, at thirty-eight, married with two daughters, I write about what I’ve always written about: love, ghosts, sex, rape and California.
I admire anyone who can write about motherhood with grace and insight, but it’s too often assumed that once a female writer has a child, her creative scope, and even her ambition, shrinks to the size of her baby’s thumbprint.
Indeed, when my husband announced we were expecting a baby, no one assumed he would suddenly write poems only about his children or that he was putting away his pen altogether. No one asks him if he feels guilty for taking time away from his children in order to write (which he does, as do I). And yet, I have been at my own dining table when, following discussions on what creative projects my husband is working on, guests have turned to me, only to ask how the kids are doing.
And while I love to talk about my children, and even parenting in general, there are countless other topics I find just as fascinating. And so the people who gave up on my brain the moment I had a baby’s brain in my uterus have gradually faded from my life. They are the same people who will insist, like some misdirected, outdated, faux-feminist automaton, that being a mother is the ruin of creative thinking and a woman’s independence.
Being a mother certainly presents new challenges to both of these things, but it also creates new and brilliant channels for each. And yet, I had (at least) one friend who disparaged me for years because she assumed I’d given up my writing life to be a mom. That tired mother in a pastel twin-set sitting on Oprah’s couch and complaining that she puts herself last is so ingrained in the contemporary consciousness that more than a few (former) friends just assumed that I had stopped or would stop writing.
Why wouldn’t I? I was a mother now.
Fortunately, motherhood has taught me that I’m strong and capable of anything. It has taught me that I need to enforce and reinforce my daughters’ sense of pride in their intelligence, creativity and selves. . For my daughters to see me as a mom and a writer is a very wonderful thing to me; that they see that I am proud to be myself, above all else, seems crucial. My older daughter knows that when she gets into bed every night at seven o’clock, her mommy gets on the couch with a notebook and a computer. She is only six, yet she knows that being a mother and being a writer are two things that can happen in the same woman.