Writing as a Mother Worker: A Socratic Inquiry

Things we know:

Lorrie Moore is a writer of humorous fiction, and many would call her prolific and successful.

Lorrie Moore is also mother to a son. I believe it irrelevant that her son is adopted.

Lorrie Moore is also a professor at a major university where she teaches writing. This is a fully tenured position, which we can assume includes committee work and other taxes on her time.

Lorrie Moore is divorced, perhaps even bitterly so.

Two of these four “facts” are aspects of her personal life.

Feminists in the 1960’s famously promoted the slogan, “The Personal Is Political.”

The “fact” that Ms. Moore is a writer is also part of her personal life, because although she “makes a living” using her words, the title Writer is one that many people use to label themselves, whether they are able to be financially self-sufficient with writing as a vocation or not.

Because of this, “being a writer,” can also be a hobby, or an envy of others, just as other artistic pursuits can be – musicians, for example.

Hobbies and other unpaid activities are generally not called Work, for good or bad.

If writing is thinking, and thoughts are highly variable and unreliable, it is unfair to assume a writer remains static and committed to their thoughts or words for their entire lives.

If the personal is political and our thinking and writing are also personal but unreliable, this means the political is also unreliable.

Output, or production of artistic means, in this case, writing, can have an assignation of value attached to it based on its unquantifiable ability to resonate with a reader, and/or the writer’s ability to consistently crank out product. Just ask Danielle Steel.

Being passionate about a hobby does not have any bearing on the quality of work produced. Quality of the work produced is subjective.

“Quality” is a term often attributed to one’s life, mainly the complicated algorithm of how one’s “private” and “professional” lives intertwine, also known as work/life balance. Quality of life can also imply one’s physical or mental health.

(educated) Women (with higher income) are more likely to read and buy books, which leads to many assumptions of the kind of writing they want to read.

Many times we read to escape the “quality” of our own life.

Many times we read to examine ourselves, an act of solipsistic scrutiny.

These two reasons we read are the foundations of the careers of writers like Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle.

A common theme in the memoirs of (white, upper middle-class) women is a sense of feeling overwhelmed, lost, or consumed by unrealized purpose, unfulfilled desire, or exploitation by their employer. We have multiple texts to support this – Eat, Pray, Love, The Lost Girls, and more recently, Meternity, among others.

These texts also share the (actualized) fantasy of quitting their job, creating an absence of Work.

It is this absence, it is assumed, that will allow for more meaning to enter, as if our spirits are a vessel which can be emptied, measured, or overflowed.

One of Lorrie Moore’s most popular writings is an ironic meta piece titled, “How To Become A Writer,” in which the narrator advises potential authors to become “critically disillusioned,” so as to have a place of pain from which to write, to become financially destitute, and “demoralized” to the point of depression.

It is a trope that writers are unstable, clinically depressed, addicts, or all of the above.

It is a trope that some mothers are so overwhelmed by their station that they don’t wash their hair, remain in activewear, and are unstable. Sometimes also clinically depressed.

Tropes are tropes because they have commonality, relatability. Stories we Know.

It is true that in American culture, it is common to receive upon meeting a new person two questions in this order: “What is your name?” and “So what do you Do?”

In this context, “Do” is meant to imply what you Do for money, because our professional lives are highly visible, and therefore not regulated by norms of decency. In this way, “I am a Lawyer,” or “I am a Doctor,” work as easy signifiers of education and economic status, and therefore imply What Matters to the interrogator, who uses these titles to assign assumptions of wealth, schooling, or systems of belief.

What We Do in the rest of our lives, becomes highly arbitrary as a result — optional, discretionary — though these interests may actually give more indication of our authentic identity, whatever that is. For example, being a Writer.

Writing can be a component of many different professional fields. Part of other Works.

For those who are in a position to leverage their power – whether it is the power of a free cocktail behind a bar or a job opening in a corporation – they may become sullen and avoidant under this scrutiny of What They Do, and look for someone else to talk to, so as to avoid the predatory habits of others who are feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned, or downright greedy and self-serving.

Others may be ashamed or insecure of their profession in comparison to others’ perceived success or what they thought their life Should Be.

Greed and selfishness and shame are direct results of fear.

Lorrie Moore gave a lecture at Tulane University in 2015 at which an undergraduate woman said she wanted to be both A Doctor and A Writer, and asked Professor Moore — Writer, Mother, and Author — for her advice. What should she Do?

With this question, the ambitious pre-med student with a knack for writing wanted to avoid Regret. She wanted to avoid the experience of the main character in a book like Meternity where the main character has to fake a pregnancy in order to get a little time off from a predatory and exploitative work environment (a glossy mag where she wrote articles on Mommy culture), ironically to have time to write. Meta.

Regret is a direct result of fear.

Meternity is a book of fiction. But the author is trying to suggest a change of culture, shifting away from, as she sees it, an unfairness established by the “choice” of having a family. “Having a child is really the only excuse a woman can use to work regular work hours or leave early. Single women don’t have the same luxury, and therefore must take on extra work … when the moms on staff have a hard stop. No baby – no excuse not to stay late.” (16) Nevermind much of the book contends with the pressure women of junior positions climbing the corporate ladder feel to procreate before their ovaries explode in the inevitability of menopause, or the horror of Old Age.

Many people fear choices because they might lead to Regret.

The main character in Meternity spends much of her time concerned about being judged for how she spends her time and money, both of which she claims to have little.

Ms. Moore answered that the young woman should pick two things. She could Do two things. She could be A Writer and A Doctor. But not three. And one of those two really couldn’t be having kids.

At this lecture at Tulane, the young woman sat down with a baffled look on her face, and Ms. Moore squirmed in her seat, appearing to be uncommitted to her answer. Writers get to edit on the page, after all. Even then, their thoughts can be attributed to a character with accountability to unreliable thoughts dodged.

Perhaps Ms. Moore regretted her answer.

Perhaps Ms. Moore regretted her choices.

Ms. Moore did not, however, appear to regret anything pertaining to her Work as a Writer.

When I was in my second trimester with my first child, I attended a panel at AWP titled, “How To Balance Writing and a Family,” and it was standing room only, full of pregnant bellies bumping up against each other. A woman I saw earlier, pumping in the restroom, squeezed in late. The room booked for the panel was too small for the number of attendees, perhaps a reflection of the conference organizers not understanding what might appeal to its audience.

The fact that the organizers of AWP did not anticipate the demand for a panel on this topic is evidence of a society that causes mothers to panic in pregnancy that they are on their own.

These soon-to-be mothers were afraid of the same thing that the young undergraduate was – Regret.

What Lorrie Moore answered was what many mothers fear – that becoming a parent means giving something up, while adding much more in. That we might choose to give up the wrong thing and therefore be crippled by Regret. In reality, we are forced to sacrifice small unknowns that can’t be anticipated because we are at the mercy of others – our jobs, systems and policies, hours in the day, or the kind of children we have, which is also related to the kind of parents we find ourselves being.

Our spirits, our energy levels, our ability to concentrate, our relationships, our jobs, are not vessels that can be emptied, measured, or overflowed.

The main character of Meternity works around the anger, the expectations put on women to “have it all,” and finds redemption by “taking charge of her own destiny, for once.” (59) This implies that the main character has been a victim in her own life, of her own creation, and is not sure what to attribute to the power of a discourse which creates Fear, or what role she has in it as a member of the media.

We cannot control what we don’t know, nor can we control others.

It is a common trope, a banal piece of advice given to beginning authors, to Write What They Know.

Meternity and The Lost Girls and Eat, Pray, Love are all written by white, Manhattanite women with upper middle-class backgrounds in media. The stories focus on other white, Manhattanite women in media who want to Find Themselves. This is what they Know.

All three of these books involve traveling Elsewhere as a necessary salve to the systemic disillusionment surrounding being a woman in the media workplace and tout that it is only by becoming an Other that they can truly understand themselves.

Yet, Meternity has been touted by the author and her advocates as a “beach read,” something silly to entertain. It is also published by MIRA Books, a subsidiary of Harlequin.

Romance novels sell fantasy. Fantasy is used to distract from the drudgery of reality. In theory.

Fantasy becomes null and void when it becomes attainable. By definition, if it is reachable, it is no longer fantasy.

One cannot claim to desire change in workplace culture after personal experience of it, and document it via a book targeting a female audience of a certain age, (childbearing), and then also call it a light piece of entertainment.

If What We Do in a workplace drives us to exhaustion, dishonesty, financial jeopardy, or depression as a result of it, there is nothing light or entertaining about it.

Often we fantasize about Things being different. And these fantasies are a result of comparing our lives to those of others and what it is we think they Do, the set of assumptions we have packaged.

We cannot find or define ourselves in others. This is unhealthy and the basis of modern psychotherapy, which we often pursue to treat depression and disillusionment.

Meternity was roundly criticized upon its release by mothers, who were also writers, offended by the implication that maternity leave was a “break” or “vacation.”

Many women have the experience, especially with their first child, of finding a new version of themselves that is now a mother. This can be staggering in its poignancy. It changes what we Know. It also adds another title, or option, when others ask What We Do.

Eat, Pray, Love is still accused of being a culturally tone-deaf writing, one that appropriates and reductively fetishizes the Other that the narrator doesn’t know but wants to experience, if not become.

If What We Know is something silly, if what we fear is Regret, and what we want to be is not ourselves, we can solve these existential struggles with the dominant discourse of societal pressures by Leaning In, as Sheryl Sandberg encourages us to do.

Leaning In implies both proximity and intention. It also implies that we are directly in control of our Work, and subsequently What We Do, as well as the fear and regret that may be associated with those choices.

Proximity to others is one of three ways sociologists believe people make lasting friendships. The other two include repeated, unplanned interactions, and a “setting that allows people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

It is fair to be curious about how we guard ourselves from ourselves, how we know ourselves well enough to confide and therefore cultivate that knowledge into Confidence.

If being close, in proximity, is key to Quality, friendship (with ourselves and others), and Confidence, then it follows that we must remain in proximity to:

Our craft – to the page itself where we do the writing and thinking.

The work and community of others so we may reflect and touch back.

To our goals and projects by retaining focus.

To our feelings, our fears, our pride, our courage, our joy.

To the surprises we cannot anticipate, the unplanned interactions, both with content and with each other.

To ourselves so we don’t feel the need for epic searches, or co-dependency on others (much less our children) to define who we are and What We Do. When we confide in ourselves, we build our confidence, our trust in who we are.

This is a movement from within, a slow shift that trusts others to meet you, one that will alter a culture together. But it requires honesty, both within, and with others. When we approach What We Do with an attitude of friendship, of care, the fear slips away, and leaves behind something we no longer need to escape.


jc-in-pragueJULIA CAREY‘s poems and short stories can be found in journals such as Mason’s Road, Psychopomp, Tiferet, and Dudley Review, among others. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she also won the Speitz Prize in Poetry in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition, and has had her work featured in the anthologies Louisiana In Words and New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost, 88 Stories from the Sacred City. In addition to being adjunct faculty at Loyola University New Orleans, she is a Visiting Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Bard Early College Program in New Orleans. Her extensive teaching background includes working with Opportunity Youth through several local programs to bring liberal arts education to nontraditional learners.