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?

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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)

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)

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.

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