How Being A Mother Made Me A Better Writer

A year after my daughter was born, I was talking with my friend Anna about some new writing jobs.

“…but” I added, “they are all mom sites. They only like me for my uterus!”

It was a self indulgent whine to be sure. Look at all the places I’m writing! But they’re only for moms! Waaah! In my whine, was the fear that no one would ever take me seriously outside of writing about parenting.  I was afraid that this is all I would be, some words and a uterus.

“Maybe,” Anna said, “you are just getting better. Maybe being a mom is just making you better at writing…”

I hated her for saying that. Like expelling a human out of my vagina makes me somehow better at things?! Come on, Anna! But her words have hung over me these past three years. I know she is right. Motherhood has broken me. It’s rebuilt me. I cry more. I laugh more. I sleep less. I work harder. Sometimes, I tell people that just watching my children grow so rapidly, is a visual reminder of my own quick walk to the grave. It makes me waste less time.

But there is something else, too.

Before my daughter was born, I had been writing professionally for five years. In college, I set out to be a lawyer. But I started working for the newspaper as a columnist and I got addicted to writing. It’s not that there were all of these people pulling me aside saying, “You should write.” Actually, there were none.

Mostly people just screamed at me in the cafeteria or while I got coffee in the commons. Sometimes, I had things thrown at me. More than once, guys would come up to my table in the campus coffee shop and block my exit, telling me to tone down the way I talked about the Greek system or the campus Republicans or the Greens. It was a little scary and absolutely exhilarating.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a voice. People were listening to me. My words could make people laugh, make them yell and in at least one case that I knew of, make them cry. I come from a family of yellers. Thanksgiving dinner at my house is kind of like the real life version of the Huffington Post comments section. So, no, I wasn’t scared, I was amazed. Writing meant, I could be heard over the din. When you write and people read, there is silence. They have to focus. They have to think. And my words, they were thinking about them.

So, I decided to be a writer. Of course, god bless my liberal arts education,  I had no practical idea how to make that happen. And no one to ask. I knew no writers who weren’t also academics. And academia didn’t hold any sort of special appeal. Fortunately, Google was invented then, so I started there. Insert five years of freelancing, working as a proofreader, copyeditor, blogger, marketer, assistant editor for a taekwondo website and a social media manager for a love and sex website.  But in those five years, I never went anywhere much. I had gotten in, but I was floundering. I watched my husband grow in his job and gain responsibility and new challenges, but I felt stuck. I was writing and editing, but nothing beyond one or two sites. Every thing I pitched was getting rejected. All my essays were being turned down.

Then, my town was flooded, I lost my job, the recession happened and I couldn’t even get a job at a coffee shop so what the hell, I got an MFA. Nine months after that, I had a baby. And that’s when things started to change.

Maybe it was because I finally started learning how to pitch stories. Maybe it was because I had time working as an editor, so I knew a little bit more about what worked as an essay and what didn’t. Maybe it was that in my MFA program, I learned how to write a lot better. Or maybe it was the fact that after pushing something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon, not being able to sleep and crying almost every day for a year, something in me changed.

Here is not what I am saying: to be a good writer you must be a parent. That is ridiculous. I couldn’t sustain an argument like that. There are so many amazing writers who do not have children. Who seem to have learned all the things that being a parent has taught me through other ways. I envy those women. They probably saved a lot of money and don’t pee when they sneeze. My way is not prescriptive. But here is what I am saying: Something about being a parent has made me a better writer. I don’t know what it is.

A few months ago, on a school tour, I talked to another mother about my dilemma for my four year old: Did I put her in a school where I know she would thrive? Or hold off a year, and put her in the school that had better hours for my work.

“Sometimes,” the mother said, “we have to be parents first.”

me and JQ2

I don’t think she was trying to be rude. She was just speaking from the place where she was. But it is a false binary. Motherhood is all encompassing. It has shaped how I think, the size of my ass and even, weirdly, my earlobes. It complicated every boundary that I have always tried to keep between the personal and the professional. A few weeks ago, I had to interview a source, while I walked around the park. I tossed fruit snacks to my toddler so he’d leave me alone. My four year old wanted to change her shirt because she dribbled some water on it and started wailing and chasing me. I tried to remain calm as I jogged, making mental notes and holding up my index finger behind me. “One more minute,” I mouthed to my daughter. “One more minute.” I ended up tossing all the fruit snacks on the ground and hiding behind a tree. They ate the whole box, but I got my story.

Two years ago, I did a segment on HuffPost Live. It was in the evening, so Dave was home. But before I slipped into the office, I made sure the baby was fed and everyone was happy. The talk took longer than I anticipated and my son, who was only 8 weeks old at the time, started wailing.  The door to my office has windows, so I peeked over and saw Dave holding the baby, both staring miserably at me. I began to lactate. I slipped down in my chair as milk spots formed conspicuous circles on my shirt. I remained calm. Smiling and nodding.

“Oh yes, I agree, that’s a salient point…” I began when the moderator called on me to comment. All the while, the baby screamed and milk poured forth from my chest.

I have a million of those stories–forgetting to turn off the milk pump during a call in meeting. Hiding in the bathroom while my daughter screamed for more cookies and I calmly asked Sarah Vowell more questions about her writing.

Life and work. The boundaries are never clear to me. I sometimes envy my husband. He gets to go to work. He gets to come home. Rarely do his roles bleed into one another. But when we talk about it, he say he envies me all those little moments I tell him about our day–our son dancing in a diaper and a princess crown, our daughter teaching her brother to fight dragons, catching them sneaking treats from the fridge and just letting them, because they are working together. He envies those and all the moments I don’t tell him. The ones I don’t remember, because they are so common to my life–tears at the pool, sand in a shoe, a lost toy, a misplaced crayon.

Here it all mixes–my books for review reside among pop-up books about dinosaurs. My interview notes often bear stickers and careful pen marks that I am told are the words to a magical song, so magical my daughter cannot sing it because she is afraid I will die.

I send email at the park. I jot notes as we take walks in the stroller. One source laughed when I called her, because she recognized the “Super Why” theme song in the background.

Mother. Writer. I don’t believe in the binary any more. I believe in the dissonance of that place in the middle, where boundaries blur, where chocolate milk spills on my manuscript and my interview recordings have the shouts of “Dora the Explorer” in the background.

I sometimes dream of the time, when I will once again, just be able to be a Writer. When I can just Work. When I can finally have The Time. When Motherhood isn’t the constant narrative arc of my days. But then I think, why do I want that when my best work happens here, in the middle of all of this? In this scrum of phone calls and soggy bottoms. Feminist theory and goldfish crackers. I am neither mom first nor writer first. I just am.

And by the way, I picked the school that gave me more time. I am sure it won’t affect my daughter’s Harvard application.

Not everyone needs to be a parent to be a good writer. But some people, like me, have to learn a harder way. We have to take a longer route to settle in to that place where we can create. What being a mother has taught me about writing is that there is Art and there is Life and where those things are made is in the nebulous space between.

jq the artist

Fancy Dancer

me and ellis

I won’t do this ever again. I promise. But I originally wrote this for my Tiny Letter newsletter because apparently it’s all early aughts again. Anyway, it’s where I’m compiling links and updates to all my writing, interesting things on the internet, short thoughts and .gifs. I’ve titled it Eff, because it is themed with F words. ALL OF THEM. This one was titled “Fancy.” If that sounds fun, you can sign up here. You also view view the archives here.

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My daughter had her first recital on Sunday. She is four. She has been begging for dance lessons since she turned two. What happened was, I made the mistake of reading her Angelina Ballerina books and she looked at me with wide eyes, “You mean, I can take a dance class?”

I never set out to have a fancy daughter. We didn’t find out her sex before she was born. And all my in-laws told me that LENZES HAVE BOYS. So, I mostly expected a boy. And then, here she came–all plump, blue eyes, blonde hair–this happy little baby girl. I was immediately inundated with bows and tutus. I sent most of them back. I returned them and exchanged them for blues, purples, neutrals, ironic onesies, boys clothes, and whiskey (you can buy liquor at Target in Iowa, be jealous). I gave concessions to grandmas on holidays, but for the most part, I did my best to keep her unfancy. Hell, I even gave her a boy’s name. The male name Emily Bronte published under, when she couldn’t find acceptance as a woman writer.

I did this for so many reasons. I am one of five girls and like so many girls, I’ve never felt at home in the world of “girl.” I was that girl, at 16, telling all my friends that girls are terrible for their “drama.” Saying that I “like boys better.” And I’ve learned a lot since then about internalizing sexism and privileging what is stereotypically “male.” But, I was determined not to ruin her. So, we had no princess things in the house. No books. No movies. No TV shows. Nothing.

But one day, right after she turned two, my daughter came down the stairs draped in my scarves and declared herself, “Princess Ellis.” I still don’t know where she got that. But from that day on, my life has been a cavalcade of tutus and dance and tiaras and princesses and fancy.

I suppose, I’m the mom, I had a choice whether to “let” her do that or not. But if I’ve learned one thing about femininity and feminism and well, womanhood, in the past 32 years is that no one has the right to define your experience as a woman. If this is what what my daughter wants, I will always give her other options, but this is what she can have. I refuse to demean pink, or tutus, or ruffles, or all the ways she is fancy just because I don’t like them. It’s taken me years to define what it means to be a woman on my own terms. I want better for her. I want her to define herself on her own terms, even if that means a tiara.

So, when she was old enough, I signed her up for dance. There is so much about being a dance mom that I hate. The ruffles. The hair. The “Well, everyone else is getting a recital shirt, so you should get one for Ellis too!” Or the “We need deep pink lipstick, that is light pink!” That kind of garbage. But I love being Ellis’ mom. So, going to this recital, seeing her on stage, knowing that it was all her, well, I damn near cried. She wanted this. She was loving this. Her wide eyes when she came out for the final bow. Her huge smile as she tromped around on the stage. Her little happy tears when I gave her flowers. “For me? Fancy roses of my own?!” I am so proud of her and of the little woman that she is becoming. And she is doing it all on her own terms.

Babies begin their lives joined with their mothers. The sleep. The feeding. It’s hard to know where you begin and where your baby ends. It’s this big muddle of dependency that suffocates and enrages and buttresses. And we all have these ideas for who our kids should and ought to be. But watching her today, I realized that she is me and she isn’t. She’s so wholly mine and so entirely her own. And whatever she loves, I will love. Whatever she needs to be the person she needs to be–whether it be a sex change or a tutu or a lifetime of writing books about how awful I am–I’m there for her. Where a mother sees a wall a daughter sees a window. We may fight. We may argue. But I hope she always breaks my walls to show me the beauty beyond.

Where Violence Begins

This was originally printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette as part of my Pants-Free Parenting Column. I wasn’t going to put it on here, it seemed to be too local. But then, I read this article about the part women play in domestic violence and I thought, HELL NO. That is garbage. So, I’m putting it up here. I am also including some great commentary from another mother, writer and abuse survivor.


We were face-timing with a family member when my son pulled my daughter’s hair.

I could see him in the screen. Both children were in my lap and he was staring right at her hair, his little hand slowly reaching out as if compelled by a force far beyond his control. That force no doubt was a mixture of curiosity and the call of nature that compels all little brothers to torment their sisters.

I pulled him away, but it was too late. My daughter was screaming.

“Don’t pull hair, buddy,” I said gently. He did it again. This time, he was fast. My daughter screamed louder. “Brother, you are wrecking me!”

“Well,” my family member said over the iPad, “maybe you should move so he won’t pull your hair.”

I picked up my toddler son and put him on the ground, then turned to face the screen. “No, don’t blame the victim.”

“She should move, though.”

Suddenly, this wasn’t about brothers and sisters, fighting over lap real estate, curiosity or learning. This was about not blaming my daughter for her brother’s violence. And I knew my daughter was watching, so I stood my ground.

“No, she has a right not to be attacked,” I said. My family member sighed and changed the topic. I comforted both children, but I was angry.

A few days later, I related a story to a friend about my son hitting his sister with a pool noodle and my daughter just lying on the floor sobbing. “That’s just boys,” my friend said. She likes to tell me what boys are and what they aren’t, because she has two sons herself. She thinks I need to know. “But your daughter, she should have moved,” my friend added.

“No,” I said for the second time that week, “she has a right not to be attacked.”

The language we use when we talk about children reveals more about our society than we’d like to admit. I see parents laugh off their sons’ violence as “just boys” and harshly punish their daughters when they do the same. A parent who witnessed my daughter sitting still while her brother pummeled her with a pillow joked to me that my 4-year-old daughter has “battered wife syndrome.”

“Have you ever told her to just hit back?” he asked.

“How does that help?” I asked. “How does making his violence her responsibility help?”

These comments anger me because they hit close. Someone near to me has been in an abusive relationship for a long time. The responses she receives to her partner’s violence — emotional, verbal and physical — is to ask her why she doesn’t leave.

Currently in the county where I live, Linn County, there have been four domestic homicides. Each has involved men attacking and killing women. Husbands, boyfriends and exes, each man violently turning on a woman. Each time we ask, why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she get away?

The real question should be, why wasn’t he stopped?

This is ostensibly a parenting blog, to be sure. But parenting issues are human issues. The ways in which we allow violence in our communities begins when children are small. We permit boys to be boys. Yet, we teach girls to restrain themselves. We allow men to be aggressive, while simultaneously blaming women for not leaving, moving and running away. We teach women from an early age that a man’s actions are her responsibility.

Think I’m wrong? Go talk to women in abusive situations. I have. They each take on the blame for their partner’s violence. “I made him mad,” they’ll say. “I shouldn’t have done that,” they’ll say. Domestic violence programs, rape programs, they all focus on women — on women staying safe, protecting themselves. But where in all of that do we teach men not to be violent? Not to hit? Not to use their fists when they lash out?

We don’t. In fact, it’s common to hear parents privilege the violence of men. “I like how boys just fight it out,” one mother told me. “It’s better than the way girls fight.”

I don’t believe my toddler son is a violent offender. He is just a baby, learning limits and boundaries. But I do know that how I treat his violence now will set a tone for the rest of his life. And I know my daughter is watching. I am not trying to deny the differences in my children. Children are different. But the standards of behavior are the same.

Surely, there is room for lessons on self-defense. Those will come later, when we face violence that is out of our control. But right now, I choose to teach my children that everyone has a right not to be attacked and no one should live life on the defensive.

9 Questions for My Mother

6kids

My friend Claire Zulkey put an interview with her mom over on her blog. I thought it was sweet and interesting and I figured my mom might be up for it. So, I emailed her these questions. She emailed me back, but it turned out she was having my sister type for her (my mom’s nails frequently prevent her from typing because they are fancy), so the answers where like, “You were adopted! I NEVER LOVED YOU!” So, she made me call her. These are transcribed answers. Many of the answers were longer, but then she’d tell me I couldn’t put in like the last 20 sentences. (“Elizabeth, don’t you put in there that I said that about your sister!”) So, it got complicated.

It’s cliche, but having children has helped me understand my mother more. Having my own anxiety has helped me understand hers. Talking about my children with her has helped me see so much of what she saw and dealt with in us. Sometimes it feels like grace. Sometimes it feels like karma, but mostly I think it’s a form of redemption for everyone. She is a great woman my mother. The mother of eight. And whatever else I am, I am one of the reasons she went crazy. So, that’s on me.

1. What’s the one thing you would have done differently as a mom?

I wish I would had known how anxious I was and I wish I would have known about the drugs I could have taken. Anxiety made me crazy.

2. Why did you choose to be with my father?

He was funny, he made me laugh a lot and he had ambition.

3. In what ways do you think I’m like you? And not like you?

This one is hard, because you can see physical characteristics. Physically we are a lot alike. But your sense of humor and your intelligence, those like your dad. ( I am a smart woman, but you are smart in a different way.) And we are both creative, but in different ways. We both like to cook but you are better than me now, I would say. We both like to read. But you have a real logical mind. You could have made a really good lawyer.

Me: But who needs more of those, right?

Mom: Isn’t it like writing?

Me: Fair enough point.

4. Which one of us kids did you like the best?

That’s the worst question. I refuse to answer. There are things I like and don’t like about each of you. I mean, think about your brother Caleb. He is so funny, right? But isn’t in horrible how manipulative he is? I mean he can always get you girls to do anything for him. Elizabeth, don’t put that in there.

5. Is there anything you have always wanted to tell me but never have?

Yes.

6. Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a mother now than when you were raising our family?

Much harder. Economically it’s not as easy to be at home with your kids. There are a lot more pressures–emotional pressures. Pressures to produce. You can’t just be a mom, you have to be something else. Working with kids is harder now too. Kids have so many more problems. And maybe we had them then too but weren’t aware. But it is harder.

7. Is there anything you regret not having asked your parents?

I regret not asking my mom about her past, I suspect it was difficult. It’s something that I wish I would have asked about, but then, I know I couldn’t have asked. It was a different time.

8. What’s the best thing I can do for you right now?

Make me a coconut cake and bring me my grand kids. No. Although, I appreciate those things, I just appreciate being your mom. I like talking to you and being your mom and reading your stuff, even though it hurts sometimes. I just enjoy you and being with you. I wish we lived closer. I miss being near all my kids.

9. When did you realize you were no longer a child?

When your dad and I were in California and right before I had Jessica (my oldest sister). We had no support system and family was so far away and we were going to have a kid and I realized I had to do this on my own.

Advice for Princess Kate Upon Having Her Second Child

Like Princess Kate, I also have two kids. Unlike her, I have zero castles and no employees. But since we both saw fit to use our uteri to produce both male and female children, I’m sure she’s dying to have wisdom from me, a white lady living in Iowa, who has never met her and some days can’t even manage to brush her own hair.

A lady who looked like this coming home from the hospital after having her first child.

calm_down

And Kate looked like this. I mean, lol postpartum bodies am I right? Kate, my bestie? My soul mate.princess

And while our sons were born relatively close together, by the time she was having her first, I was having my second, so, despite the castles and the nannies, I know she really, really needs my advice.

So, here it goes: When your baby is up in the middle of the night and then baby Prince George wakes up and you are dying because you haven’t slept in days and now both children are sobbing and it’s two in the morning and your nipples are bleeding, and you don’t know what to do. That is when, my dear, you call the nanny. Or five of them. I DON’T KNOW YOU ARE A PRINCESS IN A CASTLE. YOU HAVE SERVANTS. WHY ARE YOUR NIPPLES BLEEDING ANYWAY? CAN’T SOMEONE SACRIFICE A GOAT TO THE GODS OF LACTATION FOR YOU AND CLEAR THAT UP?

I’m sure you are hands on and all. But “hands on” for a Royal simply means you have five nannies not 10 and you interact with them beyond a firm hand shake and and “Keep up the good word, lad.” Look, I’m not judging. If I could hire a million nannies, I would. I would do it in a heartbeat. I mean, hell. I’d hire a homeless guy to just let me have two minutes without someone saying mommomomomomomomomom in my ear over and over. But at this point even the homeless are more well-kept than I.

So my advice? My advice should you need some, is idk hire another nanny or better yet, ask someone with a PhD because let’s be honest, I don’t look much better now than I do in the photo above. And I’m having a good day.

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