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.”
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.