May 7, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Anri Wheeler
I cringe at the term “mom writer.” I am a writer who is also a mother.
“Two more minutes!” yelled frequently, doesn’t break my flow. Sometimes it lubricates it.
When I can, I write at a library. I work for a university, thus have access to an embarrassment of library options. I have one for cranking when I’ve procrastinated, one for early stage ideating when I want to stare out a window, and one for when I don’t want to see anyone I know.
I reject “show, don’t tell.” So much of my culture has been passed down through telling. I’ve been socialized—as a woman, an Asian American, a mother—to put others first. I am the keeper of stories ripe for the telling. I must open my mouth wide and unload all the things I’ve been holding.
I am not a sit on the floor and play mom. I tried it. I stayed home, joined a mommy group, went to the baby music class. Each time the teacher called me “mom,” it felt jarring. I’d disappeared into a blanket identity. Then I registered for a writing class at a continuing ed school and was reminded of what 8-year-old me already knew: I want to be a writer when I grow up.
I find an amazing writing school four subway stops from home. I join a supportive community that knows me as writer first, mother only when I choose. On the creaky fifth floor above a piano dealer, I carve out space for my creative process. No more “I’ll do it once she’s…” For there will always be another milestone to finish that sentence.
I pay other women to watch my children so I can write about the ways birthing rips you open; how some parts can’t be so easily stitched back together. I don’t have time to consider the irony of this, I am on the clock and need to make the most of my freedom.
“Mommy, can you read to me?” is the hardest question to say no to.
My girls find the gummy bears I hide in my desk. It was a rookie mistake, keeping them next to the postage stamps. I laugh and tell them they’ve aced a crucial part of the creative process: motivational snacks.
The pandemic hits, libraries close. I sit at my desk, trying to keep the door shut to the rest of the house. But I can still hear them. Just like in those early days when the slightest cry from the crib would have me on my feet, I am attuned to their jostling. I cannot block out the fighting and crying. I cover my ears, but then I can’t type. I type, but I can’t focus on my words, I sense them moving around below me.
My fifth grader’s English class participates in NaNoWriMo. She writes 6000 words about a cheerleader who lives in Malibu. The cheerleader is blonde, like my daughter, and biracial with a Japanese mother, like me. That November, she writes more than me. I am in a dry spell, the rejections relentless. My daughter’s story is carefree exposition, I am jealous of its ease.
I bake a grapefruit cake. It is a snow day and the girls help weigh the flour and whip the glaze. I hope they feel my love baked between the slivers of zest dotting the cake, as my Zoom meetings last through dinner and dessert. By the time I cut myself a piece, the girls are asleep. It tastes bitter and sweet. I eat alone in the dark kitchen, reminded that grapefruits are my mother’s favorite fruit.
“Can you floss me?” “Are you on a call?” “It’s been over two minutes!” constantly pull me out of the worlds I am building.
I wonder whether landing an agent, selling my book, grasping its hardbound spine that represents the culmination of hundreds of missed dinners and bedtimes and afternoons helping with homework or laughing over hot chocolate, will be worth it. I know this is not a fair equation. I ponder it anyway, as I try to get just one more paragraph written before rushing to kiss them goodnight.
My pandemic escape fantasies grow ever more elaborate. I pause mid-sentence to text a girlfriend, “Is it Friday yet?” or “Hawaii. I’m packing now. See you there.” And yet the most exquisite fantasy is still the corner desk on the ground floor of the library. The one with enforced silence. I will savor the pastries I smuggle in, as food, too, is forbidden. Every once in a while I will look up to see the orange cat who lurks around campus has found his way into the library again.
One of the best moments of my 40th birthday was when my 10-year-old daughter said, “I’m so proud of you, Mommy. I can’t wait to read your book.”
The words I write are precious because they are part of a conscious choice to put me first. They are scraped out of my brain, at capacity with all of the monotonous details of parenthood. The urgency I feel is also that of wanting to show them I can do this thing called writing while holding down my day job and mothering them too. That even if they are the only ones to read it, all of this was not in vain.
Sometimes a list essay is all I have time for, composed in the fragments of time between all the other things. I still need to consider its arc, but less so as compared to other pieces. Or, maybe more so.
To my three strong daughters, I am a mother who is also a writer, and that’s okay too. Their stories, their narrative.
I’ve given up on my door ever staying closed.
Anri Wheeler is a biracial writer, diversity, equity, and inclusion educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and mother to three strong daughters. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program and VONA. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, Cognosenti, Hippocampus, Pangyrus, and others. More at anriwheeler.com.
September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cameron Steele
At first, I thought I might be able to get away with romanticizing all the not writing I was doing during covid. After all, I reasoned with myself, almost no one wrote about our last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918 and 1919 that killed more people across the world than did all four years of the first world war combined. Unlike the explosion of narratives that have explored illness, human suffering, and pain in the centuries since, scholars agree those early 20th century writers didn’t have either the model or the impulse to make sense of pain the way writers have in the decades since the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the United States. “How to bring the  pandemic and the narrative form together?” Ann Jurecic writes in the introduction to her book Illness As Narrative, “It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century.” See? I thought to myself when I began Jurecic’s book in the late spring, it makes sense I can’t write right now. Those other writers couldn’t either. Ignoring the “flood of texts” since “those other writers” that have offered a path forward since then—offered ways to make meaning of, from, through, and against illness—I clung fast to the not writing. My body hurt, I did not sleep, my new baby was sick.
For a long time, my very small, very new baby was sick.
For a long time, I did not write.
Until I did, and here is how I started.
During the coronavirus pandemic, I, a woman living with mental illness, a mother with a new baby who appeared, by the accounts of his pediatrician and a battery of specialists, to be unfortunately, worryingly ill, have not been able to write.
Though I ostensibly have made my living from writing nonfiction about violence, illness, and pain, first as an investigative crime reporter in the deep south, and now as a graduate student teacher whose work examines those years against the backdrop of my own struggle fight diagnosis bulimia, (here the language always fails me, I don’t know what to call this thing I have been doing with food and puke and my body all these years or why the mind suggests it, even after all the books, all the rehab, all the medication, all the meditation, all the therapy, all the drugs), I haven’t managed to write a thing about covid since I locked down myself, my husband, and my new baby six months ago. The words fail me. The desire to read what other people are writing right now fails me.
What I read, I read out of obligation to my college best friend in Detroit.
She DMs me links to articles over Instagram and mails me essays clipped from her favorite magazines: Roxane Gay cooks through the pandemic, David Sedaris walks the footprint of New York daily, Toni Locy, our legal reporting professor from Washington and Lee University, rails against our alma mater’s mythologizing of Robert E. Lee in The Nation.
“I’m fascinated by how writers have been keeping themselves busy during this time,” she texts me. “And what they’ll have written at the end of it. I think it will be really important.”
“I totally agree,” I text back and feel anxiety and shame flame up against the mastitis in my left breast.
The baby shifts in his crib on the monitor. He’s finally started sleeping through the night, but his GI specialist in Omaha, during our last telehealth visit, was talking about feeding tubes, weighing the pros and cons of one down the nose (pro—it’s temporary, it doesn’t require surgery, con—it could actually make his reflux and feeding aversion issues worse) or one surgically inserted through the stomach (pro—less reflux and more sustained results, con—an invasive procedure requiring anesthesia and a hole in my baby’s stomach). I worry about karma, about his Virgo moon, about passing my own chronic mental health and digestive issues onto his new, perfect, tiny little body. I can’t write any more about this. It doesn’t feel good or enlightening or, to borrow a line from Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts when she refuses to discuss her baby’s early illness, “precious or rich to me.” But because my baby’s feeding struggle fight issue is truly the center of my life, the inflamed sun around which my days revolve, with no opportunity to meet up with friends, or escape to my office on campus, or even see my therapist face-to-face, this is all I can think about.
Also I think about a Twitter fight I observed with more than a little casual interest in my seventh month of pregnancy. Novelist Lucy Ellmann gave an interview in The Guardian where she laments the force of motherhood on new mothers, how the needs of the child winnow the mom’s attention down to only them, whittles away the capacity for focusing on much else. (“People don’t talk about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive, and thankless parenthood is,” she said. And: “illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents”). So many women writers on my timeline were outraged—oh, the indignity of another woman saying that, what a retrograde opinion, I published three books while I raised my three kids under the age of five and got a divorce—that kind of stuff. I was frustrated then, reading the response to what seemed like an honest interview from a woman who’s done both her fair share of publishing and of having children. And now, during the pandemic, not writing anything, trying to raise a baby who’s been ill for the first four and half months of his life, trying to keep myself from relapsing into my own illness in isolation, I find myself living out Ellmann’s words, my attention narrowed down to a red breast, a baby scale, a hypoallergenic formula, a hospital bill, a tarot card and a few sentences scrawled out each morning to keep me sane, to keep me from feeling completely silent.
“Compassion can only flounder,” Susan Sontag wrote In Regarding The Pain of Others, when confronted with mass suffering like a pandemic, like a war, like state-sanctioned police violence. And yet, Jurecic argues (and models) in her book published six years after Sontag’s death, compassion can radically attend to the complexities and needs of intimate, everyday life. I want to say it was reading this, it was reading Jurecic that got me on the page again. But in truth, I had begun to write—more and more, every morning, for myself, in my journal—weeks before I encountered her book, and how it felt right and real to me. “Like any good book,” Lauren Slater writes when she encounters the work of philosopher Williams James in her own illness memoir Lying, “it did not teach me something new, but draw out the wisdom that was already there, inside me.”
The baby began to get better. The doctors disagreed over what went wrong. They still disagree about how to feed him, when to start solid food, what kind of weight he should gain to be healthy.
“I guess you can say this is where medical treatment is more of an art than a science,” our pediatrician told me. I guess so, I think I said, needing something more than that.
I hung up the phone. The baby cried, hungry and finally willing to eat, and I, finally willing to draw the wisdom out, rocked him, thinking : gotta start writing all this down later.
Cameron Steele is a writer and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in SFWP Quarterly, Poets.org, Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her poems won first place in the Gaffney Award for the Academy of American Poets in 2019.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
December 20, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Jan McGuire
I have two teenage daughters who tell me I hover over them. If I peek my head into their bedroom door and ask if they are hungry, finished their homework or have clean underwear, I’m hovering. So, I am back in school getting my master’s degree in English. Why not. Life slows down as you get older, and, as an educator, I have summers off. I have lots of time to get through graduate school.
I decide on my topic for my Monday night CNF class and start writing on Tuesday. I remember, in the nick of time, to run my youngest teenager to year-round soccer practice. I forget my class book and writer’s notebook as I ran out the door, but I did grab my daughter’s cleats. Good thing I’ve stopped hovering over them. I walk around the soccer complex so the muscles in my legs don’t deteriorate and turn to goo while I sit in front of the computer, writing. After a two-hour practice, my superstar complains that she is starving. Just this once has turned into more times than I can count, and I drive through a fast food joint because I haven’t been grocery shopping. Good thing I don’t hover over their eating habits.
Around 9 p.m. I begin writing. The keys feel so natural and the tapping comforts my fears about being too busy to be getting my master’s. I am satisfied with my rough draft as a once white screen is now filled with words. At 11:00 p.m. exhaustion hits. The alarm will go off much too soon.
On Wednesday my butt seems to have already molded to my writing chair, so I do butt crunches and munch on almonds and cran-raisins. I don’t want to snack on the carrot cake my aging neighbor gave me for shoveling her walk all winter. My neighbor would love me to hover since her husband died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving.
The next few days I scramble to find time to write. I run my oldest teenager home from school after volleyball, but need to have her back to school for Driver’s Education in a few hours, then pick her up again at 8:30. I tell her to move closer to the middle of the road, as my rear-view mirror nearly slaps a parked car on the way home. She thinks I learned to drive on a horse and buggy and rolls her eyes at me hovering from the passenger seat.
At 9 p.m. I’m tired and wonder if it’s Friday yet. I get absorbed, then obsessed with writing, but make myself stop at midnight. The girls are making their own lunch now. I keep money on their school lunch accounts, but I don’t hover over their selections.
I momentarily took a break from coaching. After coaching several different sports and few undefeated seasons my daughters don’t like me to offer tips on their chosen sport. I rarely miss a soccer or softball game, show choir performance or volleyball match. I’m cheering them on from the bleachers, but I’m not hovering.
I decided the weekend will allow me to write, but one daughter wants to go to the mall to find a prom dress and the other wants me to walk with her to sell crap for a school fundraiser. If she sells the most crap she gets a limo ride with the other winners. Saturday night rolls around and I write and write until after midnight.
Sunday, I cut my right index finger opening a soup can and threaten my children with consequences if they don’t vacuum and do dishes. The slice on my finger increases the typos and interrupts my flow of creativity. I finish my assignment, but know I could have done better. I offer to help the girls with their homework, but they would rather fail than allow me, a teacher, to hover.
The girls shout from outside, they have found a black Labrador puppy and want to know if they can keep it. We walk the neighborhood looking for the owner. I’m not hovering.
Monday in class I realize I didn’t print off part of my assignment. I close my eyes in silent disgust as the rest of the class turns in their organized papers.
I try as best I can to raise my daughters to be independent, but the teenage years are difficult for all of us. I watch them sideways. I’m not hovering, I’m writing.
After a career in law enforcement, Jan McGuire now teaches English at an alternative high school in the Omaha area. She is working toward her Master’s in English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She was a finalist for the John J. McKenna Graduate Fellowship Award in Creative Nonfiction and has been published in Lesbian Connection. She made time for writing again when her teenage daughters felt she needed a hobby.