A Universe of Context: How Research Helped Me Understand My Story

April 15, 2021 § 10 Comments

by Jennifer Berney

Seven years ago, when I began to draft my memoir The Other Mothers, I thought I understood my own story. It went like this: I wanted to build a family with my wife. I spent over a year and thousands of dollars trying to conceive using a method I thought would be quick and easy. We chose an anonymous donor from a sperm bank and paid a fertility clinic to perform the inseminations. The care I received was at best insensitive and at worst incompetent.  At our initial consultation, an embryologist mistook my partner for my mother. I wound up quitting the fertility industry with the hope that some other option might magically come through for me. It did. A friend-of-a-friend volunteered to be a donor, and my partner and I ultimately conceived via at-home DIY inseminations.

I believed that my story had value in that it illustrated how community can come through when institutions fail. I knew intuitively that the lack of care I received from my providers was not specific to me but symptomatic of the industry’s inability to adjust its model to the needs of lesbians, and a paternalistic attitude that discounted women’s experiences of their bodies.

I wrote this story down. I made these points directly. But early readers focused on other things. “What’s this book about?” a workshop leader asked a small group of readers who had read what I hoped was a near-final draft. The room was quiet for a minute. Someone finally answered, “It’s about all the things we go through to become parents.”

It was a good answer. My book is about that. But I was bewildered that no one could name the specific thing I was trying to say. Clearly, my work wasn’t done. “You might think about weaving in a little more context,” the workshop leader suggested.

She wasn’t the first to suggest that my book might gain something if I could expand beyond my own experience. Up until that point the idea had made sense, but I’d had no vision for how to implement it. But now that my own story had taken shape in chapters and scenes, I suddenly had the mental space to be curious.

I wonder if there’s a record of the first-ever assisted insemination. The thought came to me one afternoon soon after that workshop. I Googled my question and found the answer easily. The first assisted insemination took place in 1884. The procedure was kept a secret from both the recipient and her husband. The doctor told her he was going to examine her, and while she was unconscious he inseminated her with the semen of one of his assistants. In other words, the first documented assisted insemination was performed without the recipient’s consent.

I asked more questions and found more answers. Over the next months, I learned about the myriad ways that fertility medicine had been designed to preserve patriarchal interests, the ways it had invested not just in heteronormativity but also white supremacy. I learned also that queer people and allies had formed underground networks to match community donors with recipients, and that feminist collectives had facilitated home inseminations.

As it turned out, there was so much more to my story than my personal experience. There was a universe of context. When I began my research, I had hoped that I might be able to place my story on a map. By the time I had finished, the picture was vaster than what I ever could have anticipated, like one of those t-shirts that features our galaxy with an arrow that points to Earth with the caption, “You are here.” My research proved to me that my own experience with the fertility industry was more than series of subtle yet infuriating microagressions. My story was emblematic of a system that excluded me by design, not by oversight.

The process of researching my first book has, I hope, forever changed me as a writer. I’m now fascinated by the ways that our stories exist in relationship to other stories and histories, and writing nonfiction offers an opportunity to uncover these connections, to draw clear lines between the personal and the universal.  

Jennifer Berney is the author of the memoir The Other Mothers. Her essays have appeared in The Offing, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The New York Times, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington with her wife and two children.

Humor and Trauma, Bathtub Bacon, and Writing While Parenting

March 8, 2021 § 2 Comments

Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.

Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:

In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.

Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:

Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.

Keema Waterfield

Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?

Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.

Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?

Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.

You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?

Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.

I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?

Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.

Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.

Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.

You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?

Heather Frese

Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!

Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime. 

I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?

Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.

Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.

Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.

Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.

Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.

One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?

Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.

Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.

Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles ReviewFront Porch, the Barely South ReviewSwitchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.

On Hamilton, Certain Blessings, and Finding the Time to Write

October 31, 2018 § 7 Comments

neo in backpackBy Lainy Carslaw

In the Broadway hit, Hamilton, Alexander is asked repeatedly: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

I realize this is meant to be a rhetorical question, but I’d like to offer an answer: because he had kids—and a job (a pretty time consuming one if I remember correctly). And yet, he made time for love letters, and essays, and newspaper articles. I imagine he spent precious moments by flickering candle light, dipping his quill into black ink as he desperately worked to get his thoughts calligraphied onto yellowing parchment. I imagine he struggled to concentrate while Phillip banged away at the piano or his wife tried to convince him to, “go upstate.” I imagine him writing with the same urgency that I do when I’m trying to finish a chapter before my baby wakes up from his afternoon nap.

Compared to Alexander Hamilton, it should feel like I have more than enough time to embrace my passion for writing. After all, I have a computer, and a lamp—and live in relatively peaceful times (for now at least). But I am a mom of three, and I, too, have a job, and although it may not be helping to re-build post-revolutionary America, it is the livelihood that helps keep the roof over our heads.

It is almost impossible for me to not feel overwhelmed by the amount of time I am not writing, the amount of time I am not devoting to my projects that sit on my computer like abandoned children, the amount of time I am not giving myself to finish what I started so, so, so long ago.

In order to not become hopeless or despondent, this is what I have had to tell myself:

Everything I do matters.


I have to tell myself that every second I spend away from my stories is a second doing something that will contribute to my writing in some meaningful way. That every experience I live through will either literally or figuratively end up on the page. Every book I read has the ability to inspire, or teach, or to change my thinking in some fundamental way. Every dollar I earn at work provides me with the funds I need to afford this computer, this paper, these workshops.

Even during the times I am doing something seemingly insignificant, like cleaning the kitchen or driving to hockey practice—these times still matter. These mindless chores are the moments I breathe, I let my mind and my imagination wander, I obsess over that one line or that one perfect metaphor.

By this logic, I must believe that mopping, dusting, reading to my baby, rocking my baby, going for a walk (with or without my baby)—they are all means to an end. They are all necessary.

One piece of writerly advice you will hear over and over is to set a schedule, to sit down to write at the same time every day. I am not saying this is bad advice. In fact, if you can make it work—it is very, very good advice. A disciplined, consistent approach to any task will only help you succeed, just ask any elite athlete or musician. But my life is not consistent or disciplined. It is scattered like the post-it notes, calendars, and to-do lists hanging all over my house and just when I think I have one day figured out, another completely different, but equally chaotic day, begins.

Sometimes I have to volunteer at the school, sometimes my baby doesn’t sleep and I have to sleep in, sometimes I write after work and sometimes instead of picking up a pen, I pick up the Margarita mix—or the Netflix remote. And because sticking to a regimented schedule is unrealistic to me, I know if I try to follow one, I am doing something dangerous with my fragile, perfectionist self—I am setting up for an inevitable failure. I am filling myself with shame, instead of hope, love—ideas.

About three months ago, when I was feeling particularly held back from my work like a desperate infant reaching for its mother, without knowing my situation, my sister-in-law sent me an Instagram by Glennon Doyle. Sometimes the universe (or your sister-in-law) send you just what you need at just the right moment. It was a post so profound that I not only teared up, I went and joined Instagram just so I could pass it on to my fellow writers.

Ms. Doyle was telling me that I couldn’t miss my boat. That my boat would stay docked for me until I was ready. And she reminded me that I am “blessed to be needed by ideas, and children, and animals.” And she is right. I know she is.

How important to be reminded of it.

I turn 40 in January. It has always been my goal to publish a book by 40. It’s hard not to feel antsy. I know I still have time, but sometimes I can’t help but feel my dreams have been traded in for everyday realities. And that everything is conspiring against me—the cat, the baby, the broken dishwasher—tax season—they are all involved in some elaborate scheme to keep me from sitting at my desk. Sometimes I can’t help but feel my ship is sailing away without its captain and I will be stuck on this shore forever. But this is just the over-sentimental me that gets criticized during workshop. And when she takes over, I need to revise. To breathe. To delete the melodrama and (again) remind myself that everything I do matters.

The life I have away from my writing is what makes up the me that is able to write. And when I blow out the candles on my fortieth birthday cake, my computer will not disappear, my stories will not be deleted, my work will still be waiting for me, and so will my boat.

Lainy Carslaw is an essayist, fiction writer, and gymnastics coach who lives in the North Hills of Pittsburgh with her husband and three sons. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and a poetry degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work can be found in The Nasty Woman, Bad Hombre Anthology, several editions of The Madwomen in the Attic Anthology, Technique Magazine, Pink Pangea’s travel writing website, and her local newspaper, The Hampton News. Currently, she is working on a novel and a collection of essays about working in a Family Business.






Writing Like a Mother

August 16, 2017 § 39 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.


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 § 21 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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