One of the interesting threads that emerged from last week’s post about race and gender was women writers discussing the impact of motherhood on their writing so I invited three fantastic writers, Teresa Houle, Ethel Rohan and Angi Becker Stevens, to write a little something about motherhood, womanhood, and writing.
Ethel Rohan On Motherhood, Writing, and Wrestling Bears
Just like any other working mother, absolutely I struggle with juggling my profession and motherhood. Both roles as mother and writer can be all-consuming, and I work hard to strike a balance. Essentially, I have three children: two daughters aged ten and seven and my writing. I strive to do my best by all three.
There are nights I go to bed secure in the belief that I’ve done a good job on both counts, but mostly I experience anxiety and pangs of guilt, fretting that writing takes too much of me away from my daughters. I try to be disciplined, to limit my writing to whenever the girls aren’t home or are asleep in bed, but I’ve an addictive personality and am not always successful.
I do check-in with both girls regularly, asking them how I’m doing, telling them to grade me. This usually elicits giggles from both which is encouraging. I can truthfully say that they invariably give me an A+, with the worst grade yet being a B-. That just yesterday from my ten-year-old. She wants a cell phone “because everyone else has one.” She doesn’t need one and I don’t want her to succumb to peer pressure. We’re at stalemate.
That aside, I have a pact with the girls. Whenever they feel that they’re not getting enough of me they use a code word (which they’d prefer I not reveal here). As soon as one or both say the code word I drop everything and give them my undivided attention. I only ask that they don’t abuse it (as in every five minutes), and so far so good. The other afternoon, when my seven-year-old used the code, I stopped writing and we went out on our deck and gave each other pedicures, painting our nails electric blue.
Identifying as a writing mother is such a thorny thing. Not only do I experience that see-saw struggle of the working mother, but I also have to defend that very identity. There seems to be a pervasive consensus that unless one can claim celebrity status as a writer and is earning big bucks and film rights, one can’t possibly claim to be working at writing. I make pittance from my writing and have yet to publish a novel or short story collection. Thus many don’t perceive me as a working writer. My daughters, for two, would beg to differ.
Another far more problematic dilemma for me as a working mother is the inner censor that balks at my often dark, explicit, and provocative writings, reminding me that one day my children will be old enough to read it all, and that right now anyone from their school or social communities can access my stories and feel appalled, turned-off of me and, worse, my daughters. There’s also all my family and community back in Ireland. They’d react. I agonize over all that, and it’s almost silenced me by times.
Yet where would this world be if parents quelled their passions and ceased their work because of the possible backlash (real or imagined) that it might hold for their children? Obama would never have become President. Mandela along with how many others would never have ended apartheid. Revolutionaries would never have risen-up. Journalists would never go to the front lines. Core works from the canons of literature would never have been written.
I’m just a speck next to all that, but the dilemma looms huge in my little world. Nonetheless, right or wrong, my stories are relentless and demand to come through me. We can only do our best. We can only choose to stand or flee. I’m choosing the former, trusting that my family and I will withstand any fallout. I’ve endured childhood traumas and known their crippling fallout. If I can survive that –. I’m still learning how to own it all. So few people know. I haven’t been forthcoming. I guess that’s just changed.
My husband and I are raising our daughters in a loving, safe, happy, often untidy, and always imperfect home. We’re teaching them to be strong, to not allow others cow them into submission, to frighten the “I” out of them. I’m leading by example. For all too long I’ve felt voiceless and invisible. It’s important for me to recover my power, my sense of self, and tell what I need to tell. That isn’t to say that my stories are autobiographical, in fact they’re rarely based on any actual events or people, but suffice to say that much of my work could not exist were it not for certain events and people.
Ultimately, both writing and motherhood are tough gigs. Put them together and I imagine it’s comparable to wrestling with a bear. But both ventures are filled with joy and reward, and I’m hopelessly hooked. Each night I can’t wait for morning to come just so I can be with my three children again.
About the author: Ethel Rohan is a writer and mother. She is determined not to screw-up the latter and to never give-up in either role. She is a member of WMW (Warrior Mother Writers), an as yet fictional organization. She blogs at straightfromtheheartinmyhip.blogspot.com
I’ve been invited, by PANK, to discuss the fun that is being a writer and a mother at the same time. Â Needless to say, it’s currently naptime.
I’ve always loved the written word and long before having my daughter I planned on becoming a writer. Â I read writer’s reference books, how-to books, took courses online and wrote horrible stories that any eighth grader would scoff at. Â I was becoming.
I was gaining some confidence and skills right around the same time that I started dating my husband. Â I told him that I wanted to have a child and that I wanted to be a writer. Â I told him this immediately, no sense beating around the bush once you’re in your thirties. Â He was supportive on both demands and 9 months after we started dating we conceived our daughter (you thought I was going to say we had a baby, right?).
Things were intense for the first few months as we adjusted to this screaming, soggy yet adorable little person. Â I don’t think I wrote more than a grocery list for my husband for the first 6 months.
Once we found a rhythm and settled into family life I decided that I had to be back in front of the keyboard. Â My husband remained supportive, and his abilities as a hands-on daddy have made this so much more possible than if I were married to a couch potato. Â I know that so many women are not as fortunate as I in the husband department.
So ya, I wrote. Â I found the writer’s weekly.com 24 hr contests to be pivotal in my journey. Â It was only one contest per season but it gave me something solid to work on and once the results were in and I lost, I could revise and play with the piece until it seemed readable.
Then I found Urbis. Â I was looking for an online writer’s workshop that I could get some feedback on my work in. Â I found a community. Â It took me a while to feel comfortable in there, but I received helpful advice on my writing and made some lasting connections. Â It was a launching pad for me to start submitting my work and after many rejections I started to see my name in cyber-print.
Now, while all that was going on I had a growing daughter to tend. Â She required more attention than the garden I’ve always said I’ll have one day. Â We play, I read to her, she needs fresh air (craziness, I know) and just when I had some momentum going with my writing she became big enough to really get in my way.
She has shut down the computer several times while I’m typing, either by kicking the big green power button or by hitting the appropriate series of keys on the keyboard (I didn’t even know you could shut down a computer using a keyboard!), she grabs my hand while I’m in mid-super-awesome-thought and wants to play “sleep”, a game where we lay in my bed together and pretend to, you guessed it, sleep. Â Then I’m making meals, cleaning the mess she just proudly produced around the table, fetching milk, going to the park, remembering to brush my own teeth and hair, helping her get dressed or undressed, doing bathtime, reading her the same story 500 times, giving hugs, drinking pretend (and real) tea and of course let’s not forget, wiping dirty bums.
Sometimes I’ll have the same Word doc. open on my screen all day. Â Once she learned how to feed herself with a spoon my world changed. Â I get a 10-minute interval of writing time per bowl of yogurt. Â I offer this girl more yogurt per day than most moms do in a week. Â I buy it in bulk.
Of course, I don’t want to miss out on all her growing and changing. Â Being a mother to this beauty is my number one love, but if I stop writing and lose my momentum, who knows when I’ll get it back. Â I have to do both. Â It’s a balance.
Now, like I said earlier, it’s naptime. Â I have to have a shower before it’s too late!
Teresa Houle cleans yogurt off the couch in Victoria BC. Â Her dairy-free work can be found at http://treatsastastytaters.blogspot.com/. Email her a cup of tea.
Angi Becker Stevens
I think one reason writing is incredibly difficult with a small child is a simple matter of time and space. You can tell a significant other “hey, leave me alone for a while, I need to work.” But you can’t tell a baby or a toddler that. They want and need your attention, and even if someone else is with the toddler and you go lock yourself in a room, if the toddler starts crying for you for some reason, you’re always going to drop what you’re doing. So I think a lot of us do what I do, which is stay up impossibly late to write at a time when we know we won’t be interrupted. But then you start to feel terrible about always being half-asleep with your child during the day. There just aren’t enough hours.
Another, and I think far more pervasive, problem is that women still face a certain set of expectations of what they should be as mothers. To dedicate massive portions of time to something we love that is unlikely to ever even bring any real contribution to the family income can feel incredibly self-indulgent in a world where motherhood is ideally supposed to be this incredibly selfless act. There’s still a guilt for working mothers, I think, no matter how far we’ve come. My husband and I talk about how he has never had to experience any guilt over being out of the house at least 40 hours a week, it’s just a given that it would be that way. But I feel guilty about the comparatively small time I spend away from home in class, or home but mentally elsewhere. And again, I think when you’re a writer or other kind of artist, that’s magnified by the fact that you aren’t even spending that time doing anything that has a tangible (ie. monetary) value. I think even if you have the most supportive, pro-woman partner in the world, there is still this serious lack of balance of expectations when it comes to parenthood. Ideals of motherhood are so hegemonic, they are incredibly, incredibly difficult to release yourself from. I can deal with, say, not measuring up to anyone’s notion of the ideal woman. But when the insinuation is that you’re letting your child down in some way, that’s a whole other kind of pressure to come up against.
Finally, I think the whole thing can be rather complicated emotionally. When my daughter was a baby and I was barely getting any sleep and breastfeeding around the clock, I was really emotionally drained. It’s fulfilling but very overwhelming to have this little person become your entire world. It’s really hard to find the leftover energy to pour into writing. And I think it can also be really hard to allow yourself to tap into the parts of your psyche that writing can sometimes require. I don’t think of myself at all as this angsty, dark kind of writer, but writing can and probably should be a very intense act, and it can take me into some difficult parts of my own brain, and I think I can be a somewhat unpleasant person to be around when I’m really more focused on the world in my head than on what’s actually in front of me. All of this stuff is really hard to reconcile with motherhood, or at least it has been for me. My daughter is six years old now and I feel like I am just now starting to strike the balance I want between my life as a writer and my life as her mama. I’ve had to give myself permission to drastically alter the images I had of the kind of mother I would be. I went from being a stay-at-home mom to a full-time, year round student for the sake of more seriously pursuing writing, and I know my family has made sacrifices to accommodate that. It’s a pretty constant effort to convince myself that that’s okay. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is that I was just plain miserable in a lot of ways when I wasn’t writing, and I think and hope I’m a better parent when I’m actually personally fulfilled. But the balance is still damn tricky.
Angi Becker Stevens’ stories can be found in recent or future issues of many print and online journals including Barrelhouse, Pank, SmokeLong Quarterly, Storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, Monkeybicycle online, Annalemma, The Emprise Review, and more. She lives with her family in Michigan.