Report from the Field: I Stood There Ironing…
I was twenty-three and living in a tiny, severely tilted, $150-a-month Greenwich Village studio when Tillie Olsen’s Silences was published. I borrowed a copy from the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library. I never bought books in those days, not unless I found them in the Strand’s bargain bin and I had already paid my rent and utilities for the month (I remember that, too: the way the purchase of a new book was an unimaginable luxury). It was 1978, I’d been out of college for two years, and I was already stretched pretty thin just trying to write a short story I could be proud of and might be able to publish someday while eking out a living as a freelance copyeditor and bottom-rung (like, for how-to books) ghost writer (and because I save everything, including decades-old tax returns, I can tell you exactly how much I earned that year: $6,400). I wrote during the day, and I did freelance work in the evening, and for entertainment I’d walk over to Pier 45 with a towel and a book from the library or the Strand to read in the sun for an hour or two or watch the Yankees on a small hand-me-down black-and-white TV I kept on a corner of my desk (I could turn it to face me sitting at the desk as I ate dinner—the desk doubled as my dining table—and then turn it around to face me when I went to bed).
* * *
A year later, I had finally written a story good enough to publish: the good news arrived in the mail on my twenty-fourth birthday. That year I pulled in $7,500 but I was beginning to hate copyediting. And I really hated freelance writing. It would take another ten years before I found a way to earn a living that I didn’t hate (that in fact I loved); it would only be two years after that that I published my first book.
And it would be two more years (now it’s 1992 and I am about to turn thirty-seven, if you’re counting) before it would hit me like a ton of bricks that I wanted—badly wanted—to be a mother. I was stunned. I was blindsided.
I shouldn’t have been. People who knew me (even people who didn’t know me very well) weren’t surprised. For all my efforts to live like Henry James, my behavior—my very personality—had been betraying me for years. I counseled—and fed, and worried over—my students, I made up stories and sang songs and whipped up let’s-pretend accouterments for neighborhood children, I tended to my friends and boyfriends so devotedly it frequently alarmed them. “A mother waiting to happen” was the way one acquaintance described me. It would seem that I had been in deep (very deep—so deep as to have been completely submerged) denial. I had been so sure that the life I wanted to live—the life I needed to live—was incompatible with motherhood that I had never once paused to consider whether it was true.
In the acknowledgements to a novel I loved, by another writer I devotedly admired, I read the explanation for the ten years it had taken her to finish the manuscript: Lore Segal explained that Her First American took so long to write because she had been “simultaneously engaged in bringing up the children and bringing home that bacon.” Meanwhile, Saul Bellow—to whose work I was likewise devoted—had had three children (the fourth wasn’t born until 1999) during a period that he also published seventeen books (more books came later, too, of course). Bellow had been a terrible father—I knew that—but I didn’t think about that, any more than I thought about what kind of mothers Segal and Olsen had been.
But suddenly I was thinking about it. I was thinking about all of it.
I began systematically to try to find out who among the writers I most admired had had children and also what kind of parents they’d been. How they’d managed it. Whether they’d managed it—or whether they’d entirely bungled it, as Bellow apparently had, as Andre Dubus apparently had. As Lore Segal, it would seem, had not. (Later I met Lore. Indeed, she had not.)
In those pre-internet days, this sort of research wasn’t easy. But I gathered enough anecdotal information to conclude that there were plenty of good writers who had been bad parents—of both sexes—and plenty of good writers who had been good parents. Just as there must have been plenty of doctors, welders, CPAs, and schoolteachers who were bad or good parents.
I was determined to have a child. At least as determined as I had been not to have a child. Would this mean giving up on writing? Maybe, I thought. At least for a certain number of years. At least if I wanted to be a good mother. There were only so many hours in the day, after all.
Strangely enough, that very spring, soon after my thirty-seventh birthday, I met Tillie Olsen. Over dinner, I told her what was on my mind—I had no choice. It was all that was on my mind.
“Don’t do it,” she said.
“Don’t do it?” I stared at her. She serenely kept on eating. “Seriously, Tillie? You have four daughters. Are you telling me you’re sorry you had children?”
But she didn’t answer my last question, only the one before it. “Seriously?” she said. “Yes. Absolutely.” Another bite, another sip. And then Tillie Olsen herself said, “If you must, then at least wait until after you’ve published a second book. Otherwise you’ll never write that book.”
I thanked her. And then I changed the subject. I wasn’t going to debate Tillie Olsen. She was an icon—she was one of my heroes! And she was close to eighty by then.
But I didn’t take her advice, either.
* * *
I didn’t listen to Tillie, whom I loved and admired, and I didn’t listen to my own former self. And a little over a year later, in the spring of 1993, when I was eight months pregnant with my daughter and near the end of a month-long stay at the MacDowell Colony that I was pretty sure would be the last month I’d have to devote myself to writing for many years to come, I inscribed both my name and my unborn daughter’s onto a blank “tombstone”—a MacDowell tradition—and set it back into its place on the wall, noticing (not for the first time) that Tillie Olsen herself had worked in this very studio years before: there was her tombstone, right above where I sat at my desk, thinking about the future.
I hoped she was wrong, but I was willing to take the chance that she wasn’t.
* * *
In the weeks that followed, when I returned to civilization, I was told (and also read—for I was preparing for motherhood, as I’ve often said, as if it were the final exam in an impossibly difficult subject: I read and reread, I underlined passages and dog-eared pages; I took notes) a lot of things about what it would be like after I had a baby. Lore Segal, who by this time was a good friend and mentor, told me that for the first months I’d be able to write “all day long”—“all babies do is sleep!” she assured me, so that it was only once the child began to walk and talk that I’d have to set aside my writing. My colleague David Citino, a poet, told me I would have to learn to write in snatches—“while waiting for the water in the teakettle to boil,” he said. (Fine for a poet, I thought but didn’t say. Perhaps one could make a line or two between setting the kettle on the burner and hearing it whistle a few minutes later. But how much of a novel could be written in this way?)
I was told by others that I would have to learn to manage the intrusions that a child provided, that if I expected to be able to write “ever again” I would have to let go of any idea of being “a fifties mother” (had I said I wanted to have a child in the fifties?): that I would have to learn to put myself first sometimes. But I didn’t have to learn that, I thought: I had put myself first for the first thirty-eight years of my life. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible not to think of what I wanted to do for at least the next eighteen. But I didn’t say that either.
I didn’t really believe that Tillie had been right. Not that I didn’t worry about it. Not that I didn’t worry about everything everyone said, everything I read. Not that I had even the vague idea—even the hope—that having what I thought might be a fuller life might make me a better writer. That never occurred to me. I just thought: writing has been so important to me for so long, I’ll find a way to make it work.
* * *
But that wasn’t what happened.
What happened, after a period of adjustment during which I seemed to be able to do nothing but gaze into the astonishing face of my infant daughter, was that I thrived on the new complicatedness of my life. I was brimming with new thoughts and feelings that made their way into my work, and though I had less time for it, the time I did spend at it was so much more productive I accomplished more. I wrote in snatches, some days—I wrote in the midst of noise, sometimes downright chaos, and I wrote in brief periods—half an hour, an hour—of stillness and silence that were interrupted by commotion and demands on me.
What happened was that having a fuller life, a richer life, a life in which life was happening, did make me a better writer. It also—even more unpredictably—made me a more successful one.
But it was only the other day, reading Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful A Hundred Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (which I had taken from my daughter’s bookshelf in Middletown, Connecticut and slipped into my purse instead of the box I was packing for her) as I flew home with two giant suitcases—one full of clean clothes I’d folded myself, the other full of dirty laundry—while my daughter and her father drove the six hundred miles in a car loaded with the rest of her possessions, that I encountered someone else articulating for me what I had begun to feel, quite early on in motherhood. What I felt—what I feel—still, twenty-two years later, after a weekend of ceremonies and celebrations, packing up and cleaning, talking to her friends and her friends’ parents. Ruhl says:
At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.
* * *
I wish Tillie were still around for me to tell her how it worked out for me. I published my second book when my daughter started kindergarten (and I wrote two others—one of which, the one I worked on that pregnant spring at MacDowell, justly remains unpublished; the other of which is slated to be published in the spring of 2016 at long last), working on its final revisions sitting at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table in Cochran, Georgia during a family reunion weekend as people wandered in and out of the room, sat with me for a while, then wandered away again.
I published my third book, nonfiction about motherhood (and daughterhood—and work and love and time and aging) when my daughter was almost twelve (the same year I also published my fourth book, a novel). I wrote most of both of those books on a laptop while sitting waiting for my child outside various lessons, classes, day camps, and birthday parties—or while I cooled my heels nearby, in libraries and coffee shops and parks—or in my own study as my daughter, and very often her friends, paraded in and out of it, asking me questions, telling me stories.
* * *
Lore Segal’s children both have children now. When her grandchildren were small, she babysat for them—she sounded amazed when she told me what a pleasure it was for her to spend time with them, to care for them while their parents were at work. She said it was the greatest pleasure of her life, confessing that she wishes she had understood the rewards of spending time with children when she was young, when her children were children. Her grandchildren are too old for babysitting now and she misses it. She’s eighty-seven. She published a new novel two years ago and is writing nonfiction these days. The novel before the last one was a Pulitzer finalist in 2008.
* * *
There are many reasons I became a better writer once I had become a mother. Some are more obvious than others, and some are very specific to me (it turns out that putting all my eggs in one basket was a terrible idea for me—that I am better at everything I do when I do many things at once). Writing has so much to do with life that having a life, rather than doing what I could to avoid life (as I did for so long) in order to make sure I had sufficient time for writing, meant that there would be more life in my work—that what I wrote would be bigger and deeper, more complicated in the ways that I wanted it to be. But there is also this: once time and concentration were at a premium—when I no longer had the luxury of a whole day, or even very many unbroken, uninterrupted hours, to write—I learned to focus quickly and accomplish much in short periods of time. (I understood what my friend David had meant about the teakettle.) I also learned to write while there was noise, and while my daughter and her friends, once they were old enough not to require constant supervision, wandered into my study, sometimes pausing to read over my shoulder and offer comments. I would never have believed that I could have adjusted to any of this—I who used to be so precious about writing: only in this particular spot, in this chair, at this time, in silence, after doing these several preparatory things, and only if I had a good three or four hours to spend at it (why even try, if I didn’t have a solid block of time?). It was not lost on me that the writing I did during the quietest, most writing-intensive, no-intrusion periods of my life—at Yaddo and MacDowell, before my daughter was born—was never published.
* * *
And yet I feel as if I shouldn’t close without offering some advice. Because it’s all well and good for me to say that motherhood did not require the sacrifice of my writing, that instead it enriched it, but just saying that seems as brutal and un-nuanced as Tillie’s telling me I shouldn’t have a child. So at the age of sixty, with a brand new college graduate sitting opposite me working on her own laptop as I write this (she’s touched down briefly before leaving us again, for a job in California for the summer…before taking off again for Poland for a stage directors’ workshop), as I wait for the galleys of my eighth book (a novel greatly revised from the manuscript I finished when Grace, my daughter, was three years old) to arrive, I have this to offer women who are trying to decide if they can write and do “the other thing” as well:
- If you want to have a child—if you really want to—then do. Bear children or adopt them. Know that nothing will be the same afterwards.
- If the thought of not getting much writing done for a year or two (for me it was nearly two years—for unlike Lore Segal’s babies, mine never slept. Not during the day, as she’d promised, and not at night either) alarms you, get as much writing as you can done during the period between conception and birth, or the beginning of the adoption process and the child’s appearance in your home. It will make you feel better (that’s why I recommend it). It will not necessarily be the best writing you’ve ever done (it may be some of the worst) but it will ease your anxiety, which is no small thing.
- Once a child is in the picture, stop worrying about your writing for a while. Enjoy the baby. Your writing isn’t going anywhere; it’ll be there waiting for you when you get back to it—and it’s not only your child who’s going to benefit from your complete attention during this early period. You will, too. I promise. This period of no writing or very little writing (for me, it was a period of very little reading, too—and when I did read, I was interested only in reading about mothers and children; this too lasted for nearly two years) isn’t a time of “no work” on your writing, anyway: you’ll be thinking even when you don’t know you’re thinking. When you get back to it, you will have a great deal to say. It’s been building up.
- And then, once you’ve started again, learn to work with the rhythms of your new life. Don’t listen to what anybody tells you to do. Forget about what your old self told you to do. Pay attention to the demands of the life you’re living now and figure out what you need to do to make it work. And you will make it work. Even if you have, as I had—and have—a very demanding job besides (P.S. I’ve become a better teacher, too.)
I wish someone had told me all of this—or even any of it. It’s possible that even if someone had, I wouldn’t have listened, I wouldn’t have been able to hear it—I don’t know. But now I find that I am looking forward to being a grandmother someday. At that point, I think, I will retire from teaching—I’ve been at it for close to thirty years already, and it would be wonderful, I think, to spend my old age writing and helping to raise my daughter’s children when she’s ready to have them. To live out the rest of my life in a way that lets be me entirely who I am—to be making art in the midst of life, and to be living it.
MICHELLE HERMAN is the author of three collections of personal essays—The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song—as well as the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, and a book for children, A Girl’s Guide to Life. A new novel, Devotion, is due out in 2016. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ohio State.