A Mother, A Writer, Enough

I wasn’t going to write about my oldest child starting kindergarten. I’ve never been the type to lament my children growing older and bigger, gaining independence. In fact, most of the time, with some shame, I’ve swung the opposite direction, gritting my teeth through many phases and wishing they would pass more quickly. As this summer waned, and kindergarten loomed ahead for my son and our family, I had apprehensions, sure, about him spending such a long day away from home. He’s a sensitive kid, a bit slow to warm up, and I worried about him coping with nervousness and anxiety. But this big milestone that makes so many parents feel like time has suddenly lurched ahead without warning, this cultural symbol of seasons in our lives changing irrevocably . . . I have looked forward to it since the early days of my motherhood.

 My son on his first day of kindergarten

My son on his first day of kindergarten

I became a mother in an in-between time – post-MFA, pre-Phd, a program that I ultimately would never start, even though we moved out of state for it. In a new place, without a job to return to after the birth, I was not in motion, so to speak, and it was easy to stay that way. When I decided not to start my PhD, the natural choice was to stay home with my baby, to become a stay-at-home mother. This wasn’t a choice made with real intention – I’d never planned to be a stay-at-home parent – but what felt at the time like the path of least resistance. I wouldn’t have to look for a job on top of the stress of having a colicky, high need baby who breastfed nearly constantly, slept rarely, and cried for hours upon hours of the day.

When I was a graduate creative writing student, I would go to a café and sit and write for four or six hours straight several times a week. I wrote twenty-page short stories in a day or two, start to finish, to get it all down before my brain could switch over to analyzing and second-guessing. Writing came before eating, showering, sleeping, socializing. I taught as part of my graduate assistant duties, which I also enjoyed, but the writing was always my first priority. Without many other major responsibilities – I had a pretty mellow dog and a fellow MFA student husband – I didn’t have to learn to balance my writing life with much else. In fact, we were encouraged to make the most of those short three years, our professors warning that after we graduated, we likely would get full-time jobs and start families and lose touch with our supportive writing community. I feared becoming one of those people who got an MFA and then never wrote again. 

 My son, lying on top of me and clinging to my shirt to keep me from slipping away from him

My son, lying on top of me and clinging to my shirt to keep me from slipping away from him

So, when my son was born, my relationship with my writing was all-in. I’d never had to fit it around many other constraints. I believed that, to be successful as a writer, I had to show up and write every day, whether I was gripped with feverish inspiration or the words refused to come. It was work, after all. And I was a hard worker. Simple. This hyper-dedicated work ethic, I realized pretty quickly, was not possible with my son. Maybe if he’d slept in his crib rather than needing contact with me, or if he’d taken bottles instead of exclusively nursing, or allowed me to put him down instead of crying until I gathered him back up, then I might have been the writer-mother I imagined being, spending nap times at a desk with a monitor buzzing unobtrusively at my elbow, shutting a door and coming back to myself, separate from my baby.

Instead, I parented to survive, and what that looked like for me was never separating from my baby. I breastfed on demand, co-slept for his naps and nights, and wore him in a carrier on my chest most of the day. Whether because he was a difficult baby, or because of hormones, or because my expectations of motherhood simply didn’t mesh wish the reality, I struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety, which manifested as insomnia, a hair-trigger fight or flight response to his cry; a constant, suffocating feeling of dread; and a desperate reach for order and control. Nearly every choice I made in those days was about containing my child, keeping him from crying, holding off the next crisis. I used my body to soothe him, breastfeeding at every whimper or cry, even when my nipples cracked and blistered. I carried him, even when my back ached and spasmed. I gave him the physical contact he seemed to need constantly, putting off eating, peeing, staying hydrated. Every resource I had went to him. Everything about how I used my body, how I inhabited space, how I ate, slept, bathed, used the bathroom were determined by his needs instead of mine.

 Constant physical contact

Constant physical contact

If my life as a full-time creative writing student was marked with tunnel vision, my mothering life took that all-in tendency to a new extreme – a compulsive obsession. I didn’t shower without someone else home to hold the baby until he was fourteen months old. Once I learned how to soothe him, I couldn’t bear to let him fuss in his father’s arms, even when I needed a break, and I would snatch him away, desperate to quiet him back down – and resentful because even with a capable and willing husband, I felt solely responsible. Soon, even looking at anything that was not my baby felt like a betrayal. When other mothers joked about leaving the room for five minutes and returning to find their babies gnawing on the coffee table or pulling books from a low shelf, I genuinely couldn’t relate: I didn’t ever stop watching him. If I had to make lunch or answer the door, I carried him with me, so at least I gave him physical contact in lieu of my close attention.

This was my crash landing into motherhood. From there, a nasty feedback loop took over: the postpartum anxiety and depression told me I wasn’t a good mother, and the perfectionist in me told me I had to be the best mother.

 You can take the girl out of grad school, but... Instead of sleeping when my baby slept, I kept a stack of library books nearby to study motherhood and PPD.

You can take the girl out of grad school, but... Instead of sleeping when my baby slept, I kept a stack of library books nearby to study motherhood and PPD.

Looking back, I see so clearly how unhealthy this was, that it arose during a time of acute desperation. Loved ones who noticed the pressure I placed on myself tried to lessen my burden, suggesting I stop breastfeeding or go out on a date without the baby, but I was mothering from a place of deep insecurity and couldn’t bring myself to do these things. In my mind, to lessen my load was to do less, to be less, when I already felt like not enough. Once I fell into this way of mothering, once I committed to these choices, I didn’t question whether what I was doing was right; I just wanted to be a good mother, and although I felt generally ill-suited to motherhood, unprepared for and resistant to the self-sacrifice I believed it required, I thought I was becoming better by trying. Maybe I wasn’t a naturally good mother, but I could probably fight my way to an A for effort.

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 To revise the long-form essay that became my chapbook, Birds as Leaves, I gated off the playroom and laid out my cut-up manuscript for easier rearranging

To revise the long-form essay that became my chapbook, Birds as Leaves, I gated off the playroom and laid out my cut-up manuscript for easier rearranging

Somehow, even during those early tumultuous days, even when we added surprise twins to the mix a few years later, I kept writing. For the past six years, I’ve written in the dark, on my phone, with children sleeping on me or nursing. I’ve written in early and late hours, in secret planes of existence where I could temporarily turn off being a mother because my children didn’t actively need me. I’ve written when what I needed desperately was sleep, or conversation with an adult, or a good cry. I kept writing because it’s who I am and how I make sense of the world – and my world, since becoming a mom, has definitely been disordered and puzzling.

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When my son was about a year old, I was already calculating how many years until he would start kindergarten and I could “go back to work,” whatever that meant. Teaching again, or writing in some formal capacity with set hours outside my home – something with boundaries, with legitimacy. Twins changed the timeline, but I still had, in my mind, that benchmark. Just get to kindergarten, and this huge change would come. At least one of the three kids would be occupied for most of the day, and my responsibilities as a mother would lighten a bit. Two more years after that, the twins would reach the same milestone, and I’d have almost a full working day while they were all in school to finally pursue “my career” again full-tilt. Knowing this was not so many years off made it easier to get through the hardest days. It allowed me to contain the quiet embers of my ambition and creativity without extinguishing them. I never really questioned whether this waiting was right. I believed my role as my kids’ primary caretaker was valuable and worthy of whatever other personal costs came with it. It seemed more acceptable to want to be a great mother than to want to be a great writer.

Plus, I could see how the live wire intensity of the newborn phase waned a bit into later infancy, how toddlerhood turned my children and me outward rather than so stiflingly in with their budding curiosity about the world, how at three and four and five, they could play without my constant attention, dress themselves, take themselves to the bathroom. Every forward step came with extra moments where I could daydream and follow a complex thought to its conclusion. Where I could write. If I could get through their early childhood, their most dependent time, there would be relief on the other side of it – slow, perhaps, but a progressive shifting of the beautiful, overwhelming burden on my shoulders. Even though there have always been aspects of motherhood that I adore alongside the more challenging aspects, I was paying my dues. I came to think of these years as a worthwhile exchange: I would give everything to my kids now, and then, when they are more independent, I will have earned the right to pursue my own needs, to be the full version of myself.

And now, we’re here: my oldest has started kindergarten. This is what I have been holding out for, at least a little taste of it. But instead of feeling relieved to have made it, instead of seeing how much better it will be in two more years when my twins reach this milestone, too, I’ve been struggling with that same old idea from my earliest motherhood, that as the burden lifts—the less I do – the less I am. The less I am with my children, caring for them, and the more I do things for myself, the less valuable and legitimate and worthy I feel. If I’m a stay-at-home mother, but my kids aren’t even at home, then what am I actually doing? What is my value? I thought this kind of identity crisis wouldn’t come until they left for college. And anyway, I was pretty sure I’d have a solid career between kindergarten and college to inoculate me against the shock of finding my life empty without them. I wasn’t going to be a cliché. Except, now, I already feel like I am one.

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 Me, writing at Starbucks

Me, writing at Starbucks

My twins attend a half-day Mother’s Day Out program three days a week. I get a few four-hour stretches within which no one needs me, no one interrupts me, my body and mind are mine. I write during these hours, and it’s wonderful, but I’m also aware that there is a literal cost to this time. We pay people to care for them so that I can do non-mothering work. And even though this work, writing, is my gift and certainly one of my greatest purposes in life, it often feels that any amount of time I spend doing it is time that I must “pay back.” Just like I subconsciously held out for my son to start kindergarten, thinking I’d earn the right to be a bit more self-focused and independent once I’d raised him to school age, I still see any time not spent in direct service to my children as time that I’m stealing from them.

At the same time, these hours hold so much weight. I try to fit everything into them, an entire life, it seems, into twelve hours a week. I thought the time would satiate me, make me able to be more fully present with my kids, more able to keep giving with less resentment, but it hasn’t been a magic balm. The more time I get, the more time I want. Sometimes, I race out the door to pick up my kids at the last minute, and switching back to mothering feels like I’m screaming underwater.

 Wearing my twins and reading to my son at the library

Wearing my twins and reading to my son at the library

Subconsciously, I guess I have believed I have to be a “good” mother to deserve time and space for myself, and my standards have been based on perfection. I resisted hiring a mother’s helper when our twins were infants and later resisted part-time daycare for our son, then the twins, because I saw caring for them as my job – if someone else was doing my job, then I must be failing at it. It didn’t matter that I’d taken on three times the workload. All I could see was that I always had too few arms to hold them all, too little patience, too little energy. I could literally look at only one child at a time – forget watching each of them every minute of the day as I had with my son.

And since my writing doesn’t directly serve or benefit my family (This is arguable, but it’s what I have believed), because it primarily serves only me, it feels radically selfish to claim the time and space to do it. Since my standard for good mothering all this time has been all-consuming, obsessive, and self-eclipsing, bringing my self back into the equation not only feels foreign, but it also comes with a further cost – one I’m finally willing to bear, but a cost nonetheless – of my resources. Instead of giving everything away, I’m taking some of it back. And this feels different than simply keeping what’s mine because, for years now, I have stopped seeing them as mine to begin with.

As I shift from all-in mothering to a balance that allows significant space for my writing, I wonder, what are my contributions? If my writing made more money, its value might be easier to quantify. Do mothers who teach or run a business or work in IT or engineering or sales hold their jobs up against their motherhood and expect them to be more worthwhile than their presence with their kids, or do they recognize that these parts of their lives are separate things, that they don’t have to compete, that they can enjoy their jobs for many reasons, some of which need not be about what they contribute to anyone but themselves? Or does the paycheck stand in for many of these considerations? Because my writing is mostly unpaid, I have to find other ways to value it. Against mothering, it rarely feels more important.

*

 Babywearing and showing off my published chapbook, which is about my first year of motherhood. My writing and my mothering have always been intertwined.

Babywearing and showing off my published chapbook, which is about my first year of motherhood. My writing and my mothering have always been intertwined.

When I attended my son’s Meet the Teacher night, the young kindergarten teacher asked me, “What do you do?” and I hesitated but was deliberate in answering, “I’m a writer.” What did I write, she wanted to know, and I fumbled through a vague answer about fiction and personal essays, then threw in the word “freelancing,” even though I don’t really do this kind of work. Why did I feel like I was trying to get away with something? At least when I’ve told people I stay home with my kids, I never felt like I was about to be exposed as a total imposter. And the thing is, I’m not an imposter at all. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. People have published and paid me for my work. And aside from external signs of my legitimacy, like publication credits and earnings, I have never stopped writing; in terms of steadily doing the work, I am most definitely a writer.

But I sense that when people ask, “What do you do?” what they really want to know is, “What do you do for money?” And I’m aware that a creative vocation that doesn’t earn a steady or significant income is viewed by many people, not as a career or job, but as a hobby. Because my writing is largely unpaid – maybe at some point I’ll sell my novel, but that’s not a guarantee – my work might as well be invisible. (I’ve felt the same way about my work as a mother, though at least people claim to view this as a noble purpose, whereas I’ve yet to be told with the same conviction that writing my novel will be one of my greatest contributions or accomplishments.) It’s not a far leap from, “I don’t make money,” to “I have no value,” even though admitting that I sometimes feel this way feels ridiculous.

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Only a few days before the Meet the Teacher night, I posted a question on Facebook: “What should I be doing with my life?” I’d meant it as a sort of glib joke about the existential angst that had been brewing over my shifting roles, my realization that once my kids were all in school, I’d probably have to find a new job. Many of my friends offered suggestions – teaching, writing for a company, tutoring, editing, even volunteering in support of maternal mental health. Another stay-at-home mom pointed out that I’m already doing something important – raising my kids – and I stopped myself from responding, “Yes, but I want to finally be doing something more, outside of my children.” I stopped myself because the suggestion within those words was that mothering wasn’t enough, that she wasn’t enough, which I didn’t believe for a second. It took me almost telling another mother that this thing I’ve committed every piece of myself to for years now wasn’t enough in order for me to understand what I was actually asking for with that Facebook post: I didn’t need suggestions of what else to do with my life; I needed to feel that what I was already doing was valuable. That as a mother and a writer, I am enough.

Maybe this should go without saying, but for me, it warrants an explicit statement: even when my kids are in school full-time, I will remain their mother – a good mother. This work will always be a part of my identity and require of me time, space, and energy. I won’t be less worthy as a mother when I’m apart from them. If I use my time alone to write, and I never make much money doing it, I will still have worth as a writer by virtue of doing the writing. I will have worth, frankly, just because I’m human. Maybe financial concerns or other circumstances will steer me to take on paid work at some point, and maybe that work will require a new balance of where I spend my resources, too, but that doesn’t mean this other work is less valuable. (Also, I have to note here that, despite how hard it’s been to raise a family of five on one income that, until this fall, my husband has cobbled together from low-paying adjunct teaching and a heroic freelance hustle, the fact that I can opt out of paid work is a privilege. It’s true, too, that had I tried to work similarly as an adjunct during these years, my pay likely would have been swallowed up by childcare, but as I look ahead to having an empty house in a couple years, I’m unquestionably lucky I even get to consider spending that time doing low-paying work that truly fulfills me.)

It’s been a revelation to me that the first step toward feeling valued for what I do is valuing it myself. I thought I did value it. Lots of creative people struggle with this in a culture that likes art but doesn’t want to pay a lot for it, that expects writers and musicians to share their work for exposure rather than money. My current writing project is a novel, which may or may not ever make a cent. “Don’t quit your day job,” people say, so artists either struggle with little money or fit their most fulfilling work into the “extra” parts of their lives as I’ve done behind and beneath and between my mothering. This idea, that my creative work is extra, is the reason I’ve believed all this time that I had to earn the right to do it, that it’s frivolous. It honestly blows my mind that I didn’t, in fact, have to sacrifice my needs for six years in order to warrant space and time for myself. It didn’t have to be an exchange. If it works for our family for me to spend school hours writing instead of working at a paying job in two more years, I don’t have to feel guilty for doing something that is more for me than for them, that doesn’t directly contribute to them. Even when my writing isn’t going well, and I close my laptop with little progress to show for it, that time spent isn’t a waste. As shame researcher Brené Brown says, “Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame.” My writing may not keep anyone else fed or alive, but it keeps me fed and alive. That is enough.

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I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking and writing in circles, trying to puzzle out what I believe about work and identity and value. It’s the reason I was deliberate in my answer, “I’m a writer,” when the kindergarten teacher asked what I do. It was, for me, a radical act to claim that identity, even if I hesitated and then fumbled over her follow-up question.

I relayed this incident to my husband, trying to explain why I felt like a fraud. He understood, though he assured me I wasn’t. I explained that, while I’m not ashamed to be a stay-at-home mother, people don’t ever ask questions about this work. They have a general idea of what parenting looks like, so they are not curious about what it’s like for me. If they ask questions at all, they wonder specifically about my kids. I suppose I’d hoped, in saying I was a writer, that I could re-center myself as a main character in the story of my own life. And instead, when she asked what I write, I panicked, thinking she would see me as a mom with an adorable hobby that I was elevating to something it wasn’t.

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My husband listened, aware that this has been a Big Thing I’ve been trying to reconcile. After a while, though, he stated, with no fanfare, like it was most obvious thing in the world, “When people ask me what you do, I always tell them, ‘She’s a writer.’”