Writing Like a Mother

August 16, 2017 § 34 Comments

Shanon Lee Headshot  1.jpgBy Shanon Lee

Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.

I had to learn the truth the hard way.

That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.

I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.

Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.

In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.

Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.

Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.

They knew there was a space for us.

Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.

I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.

In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.

This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.

My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.

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Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.

AWP 2012 – Writer Mother (Father) Writer

March 10, 2012 § 20 Comments

By Betsy Andrews Etchart

Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life

Panelists: Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Hope Edelman, Jill McCorkle, Kate Hopper, Katy Read

Chicago of course turned out to be not so scary after all. In spite of myself, I made some friends.

And I did many things as a writer that I couldn’t also do as a practicing mother with Bots in tow. I posted several reports for Brevity’s blog, which meant I stayed up Friday night writing ’til after midnight.

Saturday night I slept for eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eleven hours uninterrupted.

Sunday morning, I sat down to drink my coffee. Coffee, like wine, is best when taken while seated, but most necessary when there is no time to sit.

I ate whole meals while seated. I sat for more than thirty-two seconds without shooting out of my chair to get something. I sat and I ate and I wrote, all at once.

From the number of Weebots crawling and toddling at the carpeted margins of the book fair or hanging out in chest carriers at their parents’ readings, it was apparent that many writers at the conference balance parenthood with their literary vocations/avocations.

So it wasn’t a surprise that during a panel called “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life,” the Wiliford C room at the Hilton was filled near to capacity.

Two panelists were Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: a Memoir of Mothers, and Hope Edelman, both NYT best-selling authors; Jill McCorkle, a prolific novelist and short story author, Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and  Katy Read, journalist and author of  the Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom on salon.com, where she brings Jane Austen searingly up to date: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”

These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing temporarily during her sons’ youth, fiercely protect (or protected, in the case of empty-nester McCorkle), both their identity and productivity as writers, and the time they spend mothering their children.

As she was pushing to make a copyediting deadline on her recent book, Kate Hopper told her post meltdown eight year-old, “You know I love you more than anything in the world.”

“’Do you love us more than your book?’” asked her daughter.

“’If I had to choose, I would choose you girls,” replied Hopper. Before quickly adding, “But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.”

Most of us feel that way. And it seems the only thing we love more than writing and parenting is talking about how to mix the two without blowing something up.

Their strategies included combine and schedule. Edelman combined her professional obligations in Chicago with a long-desired museum visit. Employing similar tactics in daily life, Jill takes longer to food shop than strictly necessary. “No one ever argued with my saying, ‘I need to go to the grocery store…I have great ideas while I’m standing in produce.’”

Also make a dedicated space: Hopper has a dedicated writing space off her kitchen. It’s four feet square, but it is her space. Another panelist left out the front door when the babysitter arrived and then sneaked up the back stairs for two hours of solitude. Edelman has written three books by “binge-writing,” every third weekend in a motel room close enough to home in the event of emergency but far enough away to discourage visitors.

A man–one of at least thirty in an audience of over two hundred people, raised his hand. When called on during the brief question-and-answer period, seconds before the session’s end, he introduced himself as a writer and a full-time dad. “How,” he asked, “do you cope with the pure exhaustion?”

“Sleep when they sleep,” was the panelists’ answer.

The answer was like a basketball tossed from deep in the opponent’s free-throw zone as the bell goes off. It seemed as empty and inadequate here as it had out of the mouth of my mother-in-law three years ago when I was writing and teaching a college course in Mbot’s first months of life. Sleeping when he slept would have been completely impractical. Would the dish fairy appear to clean my kitchen while I slept? Or better, the book fairy come to polish the next chapter of my novel? Peter Dish-Pan Hands? Peter Pen? I raised my hand to join the conversation, but time was up.

I fought through the crowd to this man. He was no more than thirty-one or -two. I told him the only helpful thing I could think of: that I’d bought a Netbook, so I could work in the car, while I drove Mbot—and then both Mbot and Gbot—through the streets of Litchfield Park, willing him to sleep. I would pull over the minute his eyes closed. Sometimes, parked under an orange tree for shade, I could write for ninety minutes. If needed to email a manuscript, I pulled up in front of the Starbucks or the Burger King, pirating their wifi. Making use of the Bots’ daytime sleep in this way, I could allow myself to (kind of) sleep that night when they (kind of) slept.

Having generously dispensed my wisdom to the poor tired man, I saw that he was not impressed, although he allowed that a Netbook was a good idea. In fact, he had one.

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Five,” he replied. Ranging from eight to two.

“I don’t have any more suggestions,” I said.

But I think my answer, completely unqualified, should have been: “Wait.”

In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that she and her husband referred to their thirties, during which they raised their young family and worked and participated in their community, “the tired years.”

The Newbery-winning author penned the novels she is known for after her children were in school. This isn’t to say she didn’t write during the tired years. She just didn’t push to the deadlines of others. She was, of course, fortunate that her husband had a steady paycheck that kept her kids in Cap’n Crunch.

Hope Edelman, along with reciting a list of things she can do, now that she is a mother as well as a writer—including budget time, and experience “a whole range of emotions that have enhanced my writing”—also recited a long list of things she can’t do because she is a mother as well as a writer.

Here is an overview: “Spend three months at a writer’s colony….Stay at literary events past 9:15 on a weeknight…Shower every day….Be a foreign correspondent.”

On Sunday morning, I added one more thing to the list.

As I pulled up the hood of my down parka and turned my back to the wind on the platform of the L train to Midway Airport, I was joined by a mother and two little girls about five years old. I stuffed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and hunkered down.

The other mother was laughing and chatting with the girls, gripping one of their mittened hands in each of hers.

There’s another thing mothers can’t do, without thinking about it, without the world thinking about it, even if they aren’t also writers: No matter how cold it is, they can’t put their hands in their pockets.

You pays your money and you makes your choice. But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.

Betsy Andrews Etchart received her MFA in CNF from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyAndrewsEtc or at superherounderpants.com, where she blogs about motherhood and writing

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