When I was enormously pregnant with my first child, I moaned to my husband that my career as a writer was over. With pregnancy it seemed my brain had turned to mush, and writing, or any other intellectual or creative pursuit would certainly be out of the question. The only creativity I could muster was in the kitchen, preparing myself one of the endless meals I seemed to require in my whale-like state.
The pregnancy ended in the birth of a chubby little girl with spiky hair who only slept in three-hour spurts, as babies are wont to do. Again, I cried tales of woe to my patient husband that now not only was my brain the consistency of gummy, gray oatmeal, but I was also hallucinating due to extreme sleep deprivation.
He suggested that I write about it.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” I snarled. “I’m through writing. I haven’t got an original thought in my head. I’m living from diaper to bottle to bath time.”
“I’m sure other women feel the same way,” he said. “Why don’t you write some of it down on paper, and see how it turns out?” I hate it when he’s so right about things.
Somehow I managed, through a feat of superhuman strength, to plop myself down at the computer in my bathrobe with the spit-up stain on the shoulder, and I began to peck away. Amazingly, my daughter (angel that she was and still is) chose that day to sleep a solid three hours, and I managed to put a little something together. It was a humorous quiz for new moms which was later published in our community newspaper.
Now, looking back over a career enhanced (?) by the arrival of another baby a short sixteen months later, I can clearly see what I couldn’t see then. That the writer I have become today would not have arrived at this particular point without the chaos, without the yin and yang, the frustration and love that accompanied me along the way.
I used to think in my most private fantasies that if I didn’t have a family dragging me down, or if only I had a wife (as opposed to being one), I could churn out volumes of brilliant material. I didn’t realize that the material was what was happening to me as I went about the business of living.
It didn’t take me too long to catch on. Pretty soon, instead of fantasizing about escaping to a deserted cabin and changing my identity, I began to express what was going on around me right then and there.
I quickly sold a humorously poignant (at least that’s how I like to think of it) essay to a national magazine. It was called “Table For One,” about a woman’s fantasy day spent alone without her children. It practically wrote itself. Soon after, another essay was accepted. It was called “Remember When,” in which I muse nostalgically about days pre-children.
Was I onto something? I wrote more essays using the domestic life as backdrop, and sold essays and stories to several more magazines and newspapers. I got up my nerve and brought some of my material to the editor of our community newspaper, and soon I was writing a weekly “slice-of-life” column, which I wrote for five years.
Writing with children around has never been the easiest task. It seems that the flu, chicken pox, and dioramas with volcanoes that are due tomorrow always coincide with deadlines. And trying to pass yourself off as a professional during a phone interview is a little difficult when bloodcurdling screams suddenly issue forth two feet away from you due to a disagreement over who gets the last cookie. Once I had to calmly interview a woman for a story I was on deadline for while my daughter cheerfully sat in the next room making pencil drawings on the wall.
Writing mothers who write from home are probably their own worst enemies. Since we are home, that must mean we are “available.” Available when the PTA secretary calls and asks you to do the school directory (“You’re so good on the computer!”). Available when your child’s homeroom needs a holiday snack, or when the Girl Scout leader needs an extra driver. You could be baking cookies for every holiday and class party, and still be writing the preface to your novel.
Yes, I still harbor fantasies about escaping to a secluded mountain cabin to finish my novel, or applying to a writers’ colony for a month of immersion in my work. But then I look around me and embrace my life for what it is, and work from there instead. What my children have taken away from me in time lost, they have given back to me a thousand times over in the sheer force of their love. My writing has layers of emotion that it wouldn’t have, but for the fact of living with children twenty-four hours a day. Family life has taught me about unconditional love and acceptance, things I hope are reflected in my writing.
I also cannot discount the never-ending supply of great material. When my children were toddlers I wrote about the terrible twos, birthday parties, and the best parks to take kids to. As they grew, so did my stories. I wrote about answering unanswerable questions, about the youngest child walking out of my life and into kindergarten, and about the Santa Claus question. I wrote about the joy of family car vacations, and why I think eight year-olds are so much fun. When my children entered the teenage years I published essays about taking them to rock concerts and teaching them to drive. I even made myself cry as I wrote my essay “The Fond Freshman Farewell” about taking my daughter to college
When the demands of motherhood seemed too overwhelming, and I didn’t think I would ever have another minute to call my own, I took a deep cleansing breath and focused. Writers throughout the ages have had to overcome more serious obstacles to their writing than a recalcitrant two year-old or sullen adolescent can provide.
And if you can somehow manage to express on paper the depth of love you have for that very same two year-old or teenager; if you can cut through the daily-ness of family life and pull out the precious nuggets, then you will be well on your way to calling yourself “writer” as well as mother.