Mother-Writer

There is a thought that’s repeated in my head over the last year like a mantra: “I write because of and in spite of my daughter.”

At this time last year, her just-turned-two-year-old self was small enough to fit in the cradle of my legs folded indian-style, nursing while my hands typed. That was my method of buying time to write in the beginning. I know I felt touched-out and drained, and the recurring sentence fragment in my brain was, “To think a clear a thought.” But I can only see it now through a rose-haze, those little hands, the newness of language, the cure-all comfort of breastfeeding. In fact, at the start of this project, I had never spent an entire day away from my baby. Not until Day 32.

Shhhhh.

Do you hear that?

QUIET.

Not the temporary quiet of sleeping baby. Not the little old lady from Goodnight Moon whispering hush. I’m talking husband with toddler taking a day trip across state lines to visit grandparents quiet. Blue sky almost-spring sunshine fed cats asleep in windows quiet. Alone in the house for a good big stretch of day quiet.

Drink. That. In.

This has not happened since I’ve become a mother. A whole entire day alone. I couldn’t relinquish her to the world for the span of an entire day until today. I know how bonkers that sounds. But it’s the truth. It took so long for the miracle of her to arrive, my life’s sole mission became protectress. It was nothing I planned and everything I had to be.

I’m glad I trapped that moment on the page. That version of me, now gone. Are we like snakes molting minute-to-minute or Matryoshka dolls, former selves stacked within us to be cracked open again and again?

When I was pregnant, a friend told me, when a baby is born, a mother is born too. I heard “mother”–that part I understood–but I didn’t quite hear “born.” I couldn’t grasp the way an entirely new version of myself would be born. Or the mysterious way those former versions of me would show up. My daughter reignited my desire to write, to be true to myself. And at the same time, she made it so darn difficult for me to take up the task of writing. To think a clear thought. But for all the essays lamenting the incompatibility of motherhood and writing, I think they pair well, the push-pull, the toggle. Because of and in spite of. What better training is there for a creative pursuit than motherhood? Motherhood, that supremely creative act, that exhausting slog. What else could have taught me to dig so deep?

(Post 363 of 365)

 

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This is 3!

 

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This is 3! We hung the birthday sign and the paper chain and blew up balloons. I made blueberry pancakes and lit a candle and we sang, all before sun up. I was a full and present parent who didn’t try to juggle other tasks into the day. She chose the Peabody museum, so we went to New Haven and, as luck would have it, they were feeding the bearded dragons and frogs and Vietnamese walking sticks, so we got to hold and touch and marvel up close. In the afternoon it was warm enough to go to the beach and build sandcastles. I’m still off food from the stomach flu, so when my mom offered dinner and a birthday muffin, I said, oh yes please! (I’m getting a lot better now at saying, yes, thank you for your offer to help, I’ll take it!)

I would like to write another ode to age 2, but I’ve been catching up on my course, and must save it for the weekend.

Thank you, dear readers, for hanging in there and leaving so many kind comments during this stretch of thin posts and two bouts of illness. It was a beautiful day celebrating my sweet girl and I’m feeling so grateful.

(Post 358 of 365)

 

 

A Breath

A breath. A grey morning. A toddler and her father peacefully constructing a marble run in the other room. A cup of coffee still hot. A mother-writer typing these words at the table next to the Christmas tree.

Yesterday, the mother-writer attempted this very same thing. She sat for a few early morning minutes with her coffee, desperate to type fleeting thoughts, to tie a loose knot, to knit the past to the present, to patch the precarious scaffolding she’s been building for 343 days, to locate the place inside, self, to tap the wellspring, to mine a vein and perhaps discover a glint of newness. But the family could not conspire on behalf of the mother-writer, who was on edge after giving and giving and giving. She simply could not give in to more giving, and so she hollered loudly, ferocious for the scrap of time she was not allowed. And then she got in the shower and cried. And then the busy day began.

It’s easier to write about failure in the third person.

In the evening, we had friends over for dinner. Children entertaining themselves in the den. Adults in the living room sipping wine and relaxing by the fire. I stood in the kitchen with my friend from California as she sliced a pear and assembled the salad items she’d brought. Our conversation swirled around itself, mine streaming from that place of I’m trying to get her into preschool and get my freelancing off the ground and I feel like I’m failing at mothering and failing at working and I wish I could split myself in half, and hers streaming from a place of working long days with high-risk students in Oakland and pursuing career ambitions but feeling like she needs to go part-time because she’s not with her kids enough and wishing she could split herself in half. We were coming from different places, but our feelings were so much the same. After she scattered the last of the sunflower seeds over the lettuce, she turned to me and hugged me for a long time and said, “You’re doing a really good job. We’re doing a really good job.” We were both crying, and she said, “It’s hard. It’s just really hard.” I poured olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the salad, and we drifted back into the living room with everyone. There was lots of laughter and catching-up and the kids running through, laughing through, dancing through before disappearing again. We spread out on the couches and floor and ate pizza and salad on paper plates. We talked about work, kids, politics, activism, parenting. We enjoyed that very particular contentment and ease that comes from being with old friends.

(Post 343 of 365)

If the Season We Could Keep

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement during this wacky week of Intro to Potty Training. I swear I’m going to stop writing about it. Today is a better day for no particular reason other than it just is. These last few days I’ve wanted to hit fast-forward, but last month I wrote this essay about the moments I wish I could keep, and it’s on the Brain, Child blog today. A good reminder that there are so many little joys and that things are changing all the time.

(Post 324 of 365)

 

 

 

Homestretch

I’ve been feeling this feeling, an anxious what-next sort of feeling as this project nears the end. After I write this post, I only have 47 left to go. You’d think I’d feel relieved–and part of me does–but I’ve also gotten used to it. I’ve worn deep ruts in the road, and the tires roll right in. I think about the writer I was, the person I was, when this project began, and I can say unequivocally that I’ve changed. I am rooted in myself. When I’m seeking an answer, I know I have to search within. That’s something you can give lip service to, but it’s another thing to do the work, that internal search, to practice self-trust. I’ve spent so much of my life searching for answers outside myself when I had only to pick up a pen. And I did. I wrote. Again and again. But I abandoned it again and again. This time I dug in. Stubborn and unrelenting. On the days I wanted to quit, the days it felt too hard, I had to find ways to push through. Ultimately, I had to change my life in order to accommodate the writing. That was the part that never caught traction before. I dropped artistic pursuits because I couldn’t justify them and/or because they became difficult. The changing, the act of assessing my life and figuring out how to make room for my writing, is perhaps the most interesting part of the project for me. I stopped having a glass or two of wine in the evening. I reclaimed those evenings and I reclaimed scraps of morning and nap time and often said to hell with dinner and jumped in the car to head to the library the minute my husband got home. Adjusting my habits hasn’t been easy on my little family. Throughout the process I’ve been wracked with guilt for not giving my whole self over to them, for stealing so much time, and unpaid time to boot. I mean, who do I think I am? I’ve questioned whether it’s been the best thing for my daughter. It makes me a less-available mother. It also makes me a less-available spouse. Tonight there was a half-opened bottle of wine on the kitchen counter leftover from my best friend who visited on Wednesday night. I’d taken it out of the refrigerator to make room for water bottles and orange juice. My husband saw it and said, “Oh wow, you’re having wine tonight?” He sounded excited. I explained I was just making room in the fridge. He sighed. “Are you disappointed?” I asked him. “Eh, I just thought you were actually going to relax,” he said smiling. I guess I really haven’t been much fun. Maybe not since the last time I had a glass of wine, back in June at my birthday party. And before that, not since sometime in early March when I realized that even one glass of wine cut into my writing time. I’ve been operating like someone on a mission. Because I am. And it’s true, I don’t relax. I mean, today I did yoga, so that was something. And on Wednesday, when my friend visited after I got my daughter to sleep, and we chatted by the fire, that was a lovely time and a potent elixir for all my anxiety. I talk a good self-care game, but it’s often a struggle. And right now, it’s a Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. and I’m writing and my husband is upstairs snoring. He fell asleep putting our daughter to bed. There’s lullaby music playing. The last log on the fire just dropped into the embers. I should probably wake him. We should hang out. Relax. But I’m going to keep writing. Because the thing I wanted to say, the thing I’ve been thinking about as this project wraps, are the guideposts that led me to the project to begin with, among them the women I’ve come to think of as my literary godmothers. Cheryl Strayed, for one. I wrote about her in the beginning, and highlighted her in my first post, when I felt like I needed to be official about things and have a premise for the project, back when I still felt obligated to explain myself. Cheryl Strayed and her beautiful book WILD. Cheryl Strayed writing from her guts. Cheryl Strayed who hiked into the wilderness alone. Cheryl Strayed who stripped herself of her surname and claimed her own identity. Cheryl Strayed who bet on herself. Again and again and again and again. Cheryl Strayed’s melodic voice on Dear Sugar, her inhibition, her feminism, her Midwestern charm, and her advice: “to write like a motherfucker.”

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

And maybe I’m anxious about the project ending because I’m really just beginning to find my footing, my voice, my truth. I’m only now beginning to get free of the trap of what I thought this thing was supposed to be. I’m only just now digging up my courage to tell you all the things I want to say. Have I ever really explained the way my daughter cracked me open to my core and revealed my truest self, my feminism, my fearlessness? Have I yet written the words that I write because of and in spite of my daughter? I’ve had to trust that all the time I steal in order to write ultimately makes me a better person, better thinker, better writer, better mother. That this best version of myself, deeply flawed though it may be, is my greatest offering.

(Post 318 of 365)

Make Something, Anything

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First, put down your phone. Forget the torrent of bad news on Twitter, the cabinet of deplorables. Forget that the car died and the auto shop resurrected it and then it died again. Sit down on the floor with your child and build something. She will knock it over. Keep building. The cat will plop himself in the middle. Build around him. Realize you’re out of diapers, but have a bag of pull-ups. Coax the potty-resistant toddler to the potty. Make it fun! Get some books. Cajole, cheer. Be gentle. Set the timer to 15 minutes with a delightful ring called “Twinkle.” Think, positive associations. Think, be inventive! Remember that you have drinking straws in a drawer in the kitchen. Create a game, a magic trick. Can you make the water disappear by drinking from the straw? Cajole. Cheer! Per toddler’s request, slice half an apple. Renew your commitment to limited screen time. Declare a meaningless warning, only 15 more minutes of Caillou. Note the Twinkle timer. Use a joyful voice to announce, it’s time! Drag the limp-limbed toddler by her arms while she cries, then laughs, and eventually sits on the potty. Read more books. Make it fun! What animal likes apples? The horse, yes, the horse! Note the dust and hair collecting on the floor behind the sink. Get the bottle of diluted bleach, get down on your hands and knees, and scrub the floor. There, an accomplishment. Make a potty chart with stickers. Turn off Caillou and endure a 10-minute tantrum. Bring the felt board into the living room. Coax. Cajole. Try to sit at the table for a moment and write (ha!). Try the make-water-disappear-with-a-straw magic trick again. Coax. Cajole. Breathe. Sit in front of the felt board and pull out the tree-shaped piece of felt. Place a red circle near the tree and claim it’s an apple. Watch the toddler grab it and declare, No, it’s not an apple! It’s a red circle. Acquiesce with a sigh. You have no argument. Twinkle timer. Coax. Cajole. Find a new book to read. Please stop touching your bottom. Try to keep the edge from your voice. Be gentle. Admire your freshly bleached bathroom. Note the sun rising higher in the sky. It’s 9:00 a.m. You’ve been at this for 2 hours, eight 15-minute increments. Note this is how big things are accomplished, in tiny increments. Endurance is key. Your husband returns home from running errands and takes the toddler for a walk. You sit down to write this. You are interrupted by the friend delivering a cord of wood. By the toddler home from the walk, demanding TV. You swallow frustration. You accept that there will forever be forces running counter to your mission. You wonder why you bother. But deep down, you know it counts. You renew your commitment to remain Twitter-free, news-free for 24 hours. Mental health is key. You will stop consuming. Start creating. You will make something, anything.

(Post 304 of 365)

Some Thoughts After Weaning My Toddler

Yesterday morning, for the first time, my daughter didn’t ask for milk. It was a relief. It was a tiny heartache. An hour later, she handed me her half-eaten apple, complaining of a sore throat, and said, “Maybe milk can help me.” She poked my breast, checking for contents. I offered a hug and some vitamin C spray. (I still can’t say whether it’s really over, whether she is “officially” weaned.)

Thirty-three months is a long time to breastfeed. I would’ve nursed even longer if I hadn’t felt so physically drained. It took me a while to make the connection and to begin the weaning process. There seems to be very little in the way of literature or discussion around breastfeeding and its impact on energy levels and stamina.

Promoting breast-is-best requires a positive spin that doesn’t always include the complexities and demands of breastfeeding, truths that are more often revealed in conversations among nursing mothers. Still, no one out there said to me, you’ll feel so much better once she’s weaned, except for a best friend who nursed her child into toddlerhood. I witnessed her energy spike after her son weaned; she was more animated and even spoke more quickly. I realized we’d been occupying a sort of cocoon, a space where everything slows, and she’d broken out of it.

Breastfeeding necessitates a slow pace; it casts a biological spell allowing the mother to connect with her infant. For me, breastfeeding was at odds with returning to a “normal” pace. In the beginning, it was almost immobilizing. There were also other factors slowing me down, like recovering from a long and traumatically painful birth. (An essay I want to write: the postpartum mental health gap in our system.)

While I admire women like the artist Hein Koh, seen here nursing her newborn twins while working on her laptop, I have mixed feelings about these kinds of photos because they are misleading. They perpetuate the notion that women can and should do it all, that professional ambitions can never be temporarily tabled and that taking time off means sacrificing a career, that the postpartum period of recovery and mother-infant bonding only lasts a short time and is the same for every woman, and that breastfeeding and caring for children is not valid (and exhausting) work in itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to double high-five Koh, a mama who is breastfeeding twins and multi-tasking, a woman who is brave enough to show the world what is possible. But let’s not confuse what is possible with what is typical. I consider Koh exceptional; she inspires the same awe I feel watching an Olympic gymnast catapult her body into the air. It’s spectacular, but it’s the furthest thing from average.

At five-weeks postpartum, I was breastfeeding my infant as naturally as Koh appears to be in her photo. I, too, gave the appearance of physical ease with this task. Less visible was the mental drain and exhaustion. All of my energy was spent on the daunting work of caring for my infant daughter; I was hardly capable of composing a coherent email, let alone returning to work. For so many other women I know, breastfeeding wasn’t easy at all; it was challenging, difficult work. Every feed required singular focus and tremendous perseverance.

Singular focus is dismissed by our culture and multi-tasking is glorified. We must always be doing at least three things simultaneously. And we wonder why we’re perpetually overcome by anxiety. What happened to doing one thing very well and moving on to the next thing? (Says the woman currently negotiating a toddler tantrum while typing these words.)

This piece on ScaryMommy addresses the disservice of perpetuating these myths around “having it all” and calls for reform of U.S. Family Medical Leave Act. I couldn’t agree more.

(Post 276 of 365)

Early Morning Thoughts

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Coughing myself awake at 4:00 am means I can remember my dream (or parts of it anyway), and in it, I’m young, early twenties, and I can really feel it, the carefree wildness. It’s so strange the way everything was a lifetime ago and also two minutes ago and we keep all the pieces stored up in our bodies, our brains. There I was, here I am. And here’s the toddler who’s delighted I’m awake at this this dark and early hour. Cheerios for her, coffee for me. PBS cartoons, my crutch. I was going to type, “now let’s see how much I can write before 6:00 am,” but I’m already pouring more Cheerios and then getting the cats’ brushes because now is a good time for us to sit on the rug and brush out Buddha’s mats, or knots, or as my daughter says, “Does Buddha have snots? I’m trying to get his snots out.” That one makes me laugh so hard, I can’t bring myself to correct her. Her pronunciation has become so clear, I already miss the days she would say “fwuh-guh” for squirrel. I repotted a spider plant clipping my sister gave me ages ago, and now it sits on the table, my new writing companion. It’s amazing, the energy of one small plant. I opened an old Word doc this morning in my early-morning haziness, something I’d written back in May during the Spring workshop. I’d abandoned it back then. It seemed disjointed. I’d let the writing flow without worrying about where it would end up. I don’t remember much of the feedback, except the suggestion it was probably two different pieces. Reading it this morning, I was surprised at how much clarity I found within it. I can see where I was trying to go. A good reminder that you have to put things aside for a good while and return with fresh eyes. It takes time.

(Post 258 of 365)

To-Do List

Things that have grown out of this daily writing practice: increased self-awareness, goal setting, and habit tracking. I have long lists in my head of all the things I want to accomplish–from the mundane to the practical to the grandiose, from immediate to short-term to long-term. I’ve finally started making handwritten to-do lists again in a notebook dedicated solely to this purpose. This sounds ridiculously obvious, right? Stop jotting down random notes on the backside of electric bills and buy yourself an actual notebook. Nothing like clearing the hurdle of simply beginning.

Here is an example of the list swirling in my head before I get it down on paper:

  • Send birthday present to a best friend in New Mexico (whose 40th birthday was over a month ago)
  • Work on photo albums (a goal I’ve had since my daughter’s birth over 2.5 years ago)
  • Cultivate more paid freelance work; organize list of new opportunities and create pitch schedule
  • Send photos to Gramp
  • Pitch for Orange Dot
  • 1,500 word essay for Parks and Points fall contest / deadline: Oct 1
  • B,C essays / deadlines: Sept 15 and Sept 30
  • 2,500 essay for workshop on Sept 22 / deadline Sept 12
  • Upload iPhone photos to computer so I can actually take pics and vids again
  • Halloween costume
  • Flesh out children’s book idea
  • Review Oct writer’s conference schedule; choose workshops for Sept 14 registration
  • Christmas gifts for 12 kids in our extended family (I created a separate list for this and intend to tackle it over the next few months; checked two off the list yesterday)
  • Research and apply for MFA ?????
  • Kathy Fish flash fiction writing class 9/12-9/23 (any prep required??)
  • Bday gift for 5-year-old
  • Finalize wedding album edits
  • Wedding anniversary weekend Sept 17/18 – VT??
  • Potty training!!
  • Organize new story ideas
  • Submit new poem to at least 3 journals
  • Find dress for sister’s engagement party on Saturday
  • Update LinkedIn profile (partially accomplished yesterday)
  • Yoga
  • Reschedule toddler’s well visit

This sample list is real, but incomplete. You can see that some of these tasks need to be broken down into several smaller tasks. Some are long-term goals; some tasks have deadlines coming up so quickly I’m not sure how I’ll meet them. Being at home full-time with a 2-year-old who does not yet attend preschool means my free time is very limited; it comes in small chunks, little slivers. I also provide childcare for a neighbor a few times a week. I make weekly schedules, but they are always subject to change and require ongoing flexibility.

Recently I’ve become more and more interested in personal organizational systems. Not only is staying organized key to developing my freelance career, it’s also hugely helpful in maintaining balance in my personal life. I don’t want to be scrambling at the holidays and managing loose ends, which is how I’ve felt since becoming a mom. Time and energy evaporate.

I belong to three writing groups on Facebook, and when freelance writer/PhD candidate, Erin Stewart, posted a link to her article How I Do To Do Lists, I pounced on it. I especially love her method because it speaks to organizing writing time and freelance work. Plus, it’s flexible and straightforward.

Stewart’s article also links to an article on Bullet Journals, a huge craze that’s news to me. I read this and immediately got super excited. Not only does bullet journaling sound like an amazing organizational method, it seems like the ideal transition for me once I complete this daily writing project. As of today, I have 132 posts left until completion. While it will be a relief to finish this project, I’m afraid it will also leave me feeling slightly untethered. I’ll continue to blog (maybe weekly), but I also want to maintain some sort of daily practice for myself. A bullet journal seems like just the thing.

So, dear readers, do any of you keep a bullet journal? Any to-do list freaks out there? What are your organizational methods and systems? Tell me how you manage this busy, chaotic, beautiful life.

(Post 233 of 365)

 

Pre-nostalgia

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Pre-nostalgia. Some nights, like last night, when I am at the library, I get a text with a picture. And I am reminded that, no matter what challenges we’re feeling right now, we are also inside one of the sweetest moments in time. Pause. Look. Breathe.

(Post 226 of 365)