October 16, 2012
(Some) Mothers are Writers
On Harriet’s long-form birth certificate, it is written that her mother is a writer. And while I don’t remember much of those blurry days after she was born, when our world was exploded pieces held together with love and hanging on just barely, I remember filling out that form, hunched over my laptop on our coffee table. When we’d got to Mother’s Occupation, we’d paused for a moment. I was three weeks into maternity leave from a job I wouldn’t go back to, from the least meaningful job title in the universe, which was “research administrator.” We couldn’t write that, and besides, I was no longer one. “Why not say, ‘writer’?” my husband suggested, and so we did.
It is often noted as monumental, that moment when a writer learns to call herself as such, when she gathers the confidence, courage and faith necessary to embark upon a creative path. Which I don’t have a whole lot of truck with. I think we sentimentalize these things too much, that we spend too much time with our heads up our asses, and that a woman staring into the mirror practicing calling herself a writer is like Annie Dillard’s writer who “himself only likes the role, the thought of himself in a hat.” I would argue that more important that learning to call oneself a writer is to write and (even better) to write well and to get the work out there so that everyone will know you’re a writer, and what you think doesn’t really matter.*
So this isn’t about how I lied on official documentation and was professionally transformed, never to administrate research ever again. This isn’t about how I learned to call myself a writer, but instead about how everybody’s wrong about motherhood (and by “everybody”, I mean mainly The Atlantic and Newsweek).
Something funny started happening as soon as I got pregnant in 2008. Professionally speaking, research administration aside, it hadn’t been a great time for me. I was a year out of a graduate creative writing program that had failed to take me places, my classmates were publishing books and I was getting rejection after rejection from lit mags. That post-school thing is always brutal, and from creative writing programs in particular. I remember Anne Patchett writing in her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy how they finished the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had to “write to save their lives” (I paraphrase). It wasn’t working for me. And so when I got pregnant, it seemed like the writing thing was going to be put aside for awhile. At least I would have another focus.
Life, it seemed, would have other plans. Coinciding with my first trimester were some interesting writing opportunities, an invitation to speak on a panel about literary blogging with the Governor General, increased attention to my blog, and some wonderful new writerly connections. By the time Harriet was born, I’d started writing book reviews, had a couple of stories published, and cheques were arriving pretty regularly, even if they were pitifully small. So when I wrote, “Writer” on her birth certificate, I wasn’t entirely delusional. But it wasn’t entirely true yet either.
I suppose it’s still not wholly true, if we’re speaking in terms of finances, because if I didn’t have a husband who worked full time, we’d be in trouble around here. But I’ll tell you this much, because I’m proud of it, and not because it’s the most important thing, because it isn’t: every month, I make our rent. It’s something. Since I became a mother 3.5 years ago, I’ve managed to put together a hard-scrabbled, deeply fulfilling professional life involving writing, editing, teaching and reviewing. And while motherhood has not been integral to this, as though it unleashed some deep creative fount within me, neither has it been an impediment. In fact, it’s helped hugely with the process in practical terms. It gave me a reason to leave my boring 9-5 job. It’s been the inspiration for some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. I’ve made mother-friends who are inspiring writer-friends in their own right. And motherhood has given me the ability to focus, to sit down and get the words out. Harriet has been in playschool since September and I’ve had mornings for working, and I promise you that I’ve not wasted away a single one.
Now obviously, motherhood is not necessary for career success, for many it really does stand in the way, and plenty of writers have really done quite well without kids. Plenty of mothers are also happy enough to be focusing on motherhood alone. Many jobs don’t mix with motherhood quite so tidily. Quite obviously too, our rent is fairly cheap and I could stand to be way more successful. And furthermore, fortune has been good to me. I am enormously privileged. But–
I am thinking about all this now in connection with Jessa Crispin’s column “The Pram in the Hall“, about how fraught is the question of whether or not to have children for creative professionals in particular. She writes, “The reason why it’s so difficult to think through your decision is because people keep pretending like there is one way this motherhood thing could go, when in reality there are millions.” Which she sees as terrifying as it is rife with potential, but from where I stand now it’s mostly the latter. Like everything with parenthood, when people complain about kids being expensive, demands on parents’ time, how you have to give your kids your all, how you just have to have an exer-saucer just you wait, I throw up my arms and shriek, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” There is not only one way this motherhood thing can go. Because life happens. Also, free will doesn’t get taken out along with the placenta.
For mothers, as with women, and as with people (and I’ve made the connection between mothers and people before), there are reassuringly myriad ways to be. We have to broaden and complicate our understanding of what motherhood is and who mothers are if we ever want the conversation about motherhood to be one from which we actually learn something.
*Obviously, I was a child in the 1980s when our education system was robust, my teachers told me I could anything, and my parents underlined this point over and over. So I can afford to be so flippant.