–email from a professor to me regarding a drop in letter grade due to poor attendance after I tried to cite motherhood as the reason for my absences.
These days it’s hard to be solitary; I’m hardly ever alone. The new baby is usually on my boob, on the boppy, on my lap. The three-year-old is always in my sight. Yet because I have the support at home, and I’m learning to adapt my work habits, I am able to eke out time to have my nose in a book and get my hands on a keyboard. As with any project I’ve ever undertaken, I like to read up, research, look and listen to those who came before. I’m new to this ‘hood of mothers who write, these writers who mother.
And, like always, serendipitous connections happen to help me make sense of my new role as mother who is honing her craft at the graduate level. Last year I heard Zadie Smith speak at Trinity University. She talked about having children, and the work involved in raising them, while writing and teaching for a living. She said people always ask her that new age-old question: how do you juggle, some say balance, it all? What’s the secret to keeping the boat afloat with kids onboard, plus housework and teaching and major projects? Keeping up house and keeping up yourself? How on earth do you find the time to write?
And what of inspiration? The muse? The moment? How do you catch those fleeting moments of magic when you go somewhere else mentally through reading and writing and thinking about words? When every day is comprised of moments, loosely strict schedules: feedings and changings and bathings…The art of motherhood with all its playing and loving two teeny baby people.
I remind myself: this is the path I chose. Graduate school seemed a good way to keep up my studies and produce work, and yes I had a seven month old daughter, but that would only make it better, more worth it, the natural next step in our line of mothers and daughters. Attending part time for the past three years, I even had the audacity to get pregnant again on purpose. Although I won’t go into my reasoning (here), I’ll just tell you that I am so, so, so happy I did. Two little baby girls who will someday be women on earth. For now, they are mine. I will always be theirs.
This is not to say it doesn’t help to hear how other mothers do it, which is exactly why that question keeps popping up. Another side-effect of motherhood, the fact that I have to take notes nowadays, or risk forgetting forever, so here I will paraphrase from my scribble-scrabbley handwriting inside cover of Smiths’s latest book of essays, Changing My Mind:
“I don’t have time to wait for the muse to arrive, nor the perfect moment to write. What I do is pay someone to watch my children for four hours. Then I go the library and write.”
I have drawn stars all around this information. So sensible, right? Like most people, Smith works, for money, during scheduled windows of time. In this way, writing has to happen, there is no time to wait nor waste when kids are saying: Mommy, look at me (and I quote my three year old here!). clack, clack I rush to type out her next words to me: “ I can’t see you looking at me.”
Most mothers who can afford a babysitter still have a shitload of work to do after the babysitter leaves, and it’s back to the business of children with all their humdrum and humongous needs.
Smith also mentioned an app she uses which blocks out internet connectivity for those four hours away from home when she has no time to waste online. It’s called Self-Control for good reason, as I will testify that during the composition of this very post, I have gone online at least a dozen times to do a variety of research, watch several music videos, peruse and participate in various social media forums for both long jaunts and short spurts, tweak my Spotify playlists, and send out a couple of emails, both imperative and not.
Mostly it is honest research, but still. You’d be surprised what Googling the terms motherhood and writing will bring up. The first hit that piques my interest is a June 7, 2013 article from The Atlantic called “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.”
Bingo! It seems someone has an answer. Lauren Sandler (author of the hilariously titled One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One) gives a list of famous female writers who had one child apiece: Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis.
I’m not going to lie and say that I did not ever-so-slightly racial profile this list of all-white, affluent lady writers, but then Sandler immediately quotes Alice Walker. When asked about writers who are considering procreation, she states:
“They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one. Because with one you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”
Yikes, that sounds scary. I myself am sitting at my kitchen table, the baby still sleeping on my lap, and the toddler is down the hall in her crib. Of course, I immediately go further down my research hole, google Alice Walker and daughter. I scan and words pop out at me: estrangement, neglect, clash. Says Rebecca, Alice Walker’s only child: “As a little girl it was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery.”
That is certainly one way of arguing the benefits of having one child: if you’re going to be enslaved by a baby, better to only have one master. I’m shaken by this, and I immediately search for Alice Walker’s response. It’s a humdinger, let me tell you. She addresses not only her daughter’s version of their relationship, but she comments on the very idea that you really know the truth of anything online. To varying degrees, information is second-hand, can be hazed by time and skewed by memory. Writes Walker:
“I was not a perfect mother, whatever that means, but I was good enough. The pain of being unfairly and publicly accused of willful harm, by someone I gave birth to, and raised, to the limits of my ability, someone I’ve deeply loved, has been at times almost unbearable.”
It makes me think that in the end, the writing won’t talk back, but the child always has the last say.
Soon thereafter, Sandler mentions Sylvia Plath, because of course she mentions her, how can you not? Retell her pristine rise through the world of words, all those cobwebs she cleaned only to leave her children in the most final of final acts.
But, I don’t choose to google Sylvia. Surprisingly, I find that now that I’m a mother, I am more interested in knowing how her daughter Frieda turned out. She was two when her mom died, and as an adult lost her younger-by-one-year brother to suicide. Wouldn’t it be cool if Frieda made it through the muck?
She only recently did her first interview for the BBC, and I can’t tell you how good it is to read:
“One of the things that I feel very strongly, and that my mother’s suicide and my brother’s suicide make me feel deeply was to live well,“ she says. "To do the best I can with what I am. So that in a way I do them justice - somebody has to make it worthwhile, somebody has to try. Otherwise what’s it for?"
What’s it for? That question often keeps me up at night when I should be sleeping. When I look at the familiar yet surprising faces of my own children, and I think about the world I’ve invited them into, it becomes almost too much. What can we do other than try to do justice to those who have come and gone? It helps to hear that Frieda grew up and thinks so too.
I’ve always thought that ideally our daughters are meant to be new and improved, latest and greatest upgraded versions of ourselves. As I have always had a soft-spot for Plath, it is soothing to know that her daughter has learned from the beauty and pain called life. And that, for now anyway, she is okay.
I look at the time. As usual, it’s late, so I lay the baby down and put the Plath away. All I know right now is that when you’re mother to two small babies, morning is always just around the corner.
There’s another rather damning quote in the article in regards to Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana who recounts how her mother
“once nailed a list of ‘Mom’s Sayings’ to the garage door that read: "Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.”
For me right now, it’s more like hush they’re sleeping. At this point it is 3 PM and my toddler (pre-schooler?) is still napping, the baby is propped on my boppy, and we are sitting in front of an open window, at the green Formica dinette set my mother gave me when I moved out of her apartment for the first time. I try to push the laptop as far as I can and still read the screen. Radiation, just one of a million worries that gnaw at me in varying degrees at all times.
I press shuffle on my Itunes and another mother croons in her croaky poet way: Patti Smith is also a mother of two, but who’s counting, a prolific musician, poet, memoirist, artist. I remember reading how people accused Smith of being a “domestic cow” for leaving New York in the eighties, putting her career on hold in order to raise babies, and be a housewife in Detroit. As usual, Smith’s response shines through like a smooth slab of rose quartz:
“I was still a worker…to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don’t think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80’s developing my craft as a writer. I had to learn, really, how to rein in my energies and discipline myself…I’m always working.”
Always working. Here is another example of someone who stayed home, focused on her children, but still got her own work done. Like Plath, she rose early to write in those wee hours before the babies awoke. Days add up to years, and the kids grew up because they always do. It’s cool to note that Smith performs multigenerational music with both of her grown children. Says her daughter Jessie:
“There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.”
Motherhood and the writing life is a path that is well tread. In my city of San Antonio alone, I know several amazing writers who also happen to be mothers to amazing children. I even requested that they give me a blip of advice for this essay. While Dr. Carmen Tafolla and Laurie Ann Guerrero, who both ascended to the role of City and State Poet Laureate, responded with a resounding yes, I’ve yet to hear back. I don’t take it personally; I know how precarious one’s time management can be with kids clambering on your lap, while clacking away on a keyboard, or jotting notes in the cover of coloring books. You do your damnedest to do it all, while cooking most meals mostly every day, and stealing some minutes to read, or tweeze your eyebrows, or sweep the bathroom, or hammer out your masterpiece. I know that one moment, when I really need it, their words will come.
In a happy twist of luck, it turns out that Zadie Smith also read Sandler’s article, and, joy of joys, she actually commented on it for all to read:
I am Zadie Smith, another writer. I have two children. Dickens had ten - I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavitz, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (i could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers? Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon - or just for his wife the writer Ayelet Waldman? The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd. What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family. As for the issue of singles versus multiples verses none at all, each to their own! But as the parent of multiples I can assure Ms. Sandler that two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.
My children are very new, but luckily I am not. I’m at the age where I know that motherhood gives me less time to waste than I used to have. All my minutes are accounted for which makes the time I carve out to read or write or do any of the countless tough and pleasant and fun and necessary things I have to do that much more urgent. My two girls come first because at the end of the line, I want what most mothers want: to sleep easy knowing I gave 100% pure love to my children. And that love will continue to bounce around in the good works they weave. And on and on and on.
In yet another twist of ridiculously good fate, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my all time favorite writers-with-children, la Ana Castillo, whose latest memoir Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me is set to drop May 10, 2016. I had the awesome opportunity to ask her all kinds of questions about living and writing in the mother ‘hood. Stay tuned to Front Porch Journal’s upcoming issue.
Clocks and calendars mark the time, but it is all the Sylvias and Alices, Joans and Pattis, all the Zadies, Carmens, Anas, and Laurie Anns who remind me: life is work, mi’ja. Just ask your mama.
(Originally published April 16, 2016
Front Porch Journal)
LINKS TO PERUSE WHILE THE BABIES ARE SLEEPING:
School Photos of My Mothers/Teachers
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