On Trying To Write A Book And Be A Mother At The Same Time

I want my daughter to learn how to follow such a thrill.

Last fall, at a conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, I sat in a dim hotel room with two dear friends from my graduate creative writing program and a professor of said program, who had joined us via Skype. Put a few cans of Pabst in the room, and the scene would have looked like a flashback—10 years ago, a bar called Larry’s in Columbus, Ohio, a group of young writers with Big Ideas and seemingly endless time to fail at them. I could practically smell my old apartment in Victorian Village: cedar wood candles and cat hair.

But there was no beer in the Flagstaff hotel room, and in fact, the three of us had gone out the night before only to imbibe one round (OK, I think they were 20 oz. drafts) in the higher elevation before calling it a night. Now, we sat together with a laptop recording a conversation at least one of us would never have imagined back at Larry’s bar. With plans to transcribe the conversation into a piece for a literary journal, the four of us were discussing what it’s like to write about…our kids.

In case it’s not obvious, I’m the one whose former self would be surprised by her presence in that room, that conversation. Ten years ago, when I was a 25-year-old graduate student, I planned to remain childfree, eschewing parenthood in favor of becoming the kind of writer the novelist Kim Brooks describes as the “self-destructive artistic genius, the undomesticated bohemian, the visionary who is also, incidentally, or perhaps inevitably, a jerk, fundamentally unsuited for family life.”

Ah, but things changed. Just as my mother warned me, one day shortly before my 30th birthday, the sight of someone’s small children running through a park appeared charming instead of burdensome. A month later, I begged my husband to get me pregnant.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson says of giving birth to her son Iggy, “It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair.” Certainly, not all parents feel this way, but since my daughter Benna was born two years ago, Nelson’s “love affair” lends credence to my feelings, the constant distraction of my love. I’m never happier than when I’m watching Benna as she paints and plays in our living room. I sit on the couch and stare, overtaken by her beauty, the swish of her hair across her shoulders, her small, sweet voice like song to me. When I’m not with her, I find it difficult to concentrate, my mind drifting back to the smell of her skin, the way her arms feel as they stretch around my neck, her hands clasped on either side of my face. No man has ever looked at me as my child does.

I work out of the home as a tenure-track college professor, so this concentration issue is, in fact, not a small side effect of becoming a parent; it’s a full-blown liability. In addition to keeping up with my teaching and university service, I’m expected to publish regularly in my field, and preferably, to publish a book before I apply for tenure.

Before Benna came along, I was hard at work on a memoir about my father’s death—my grief, yes, but also, the strange pockets of joy and the discovery of inner resources that make loss meaningful, surprising, and complex. I was pregnant during a good deal of my early drafting, racing against the clock to write as much as I could before motherhood temporarily derailed me. Other writers, including those two graduate school friends, had gone before me in having children, and they, along with others, offered candid perspective on trying to write with an infant around. I knew my book would mostly be on hold during my daughter’s first year. I was even OK with this, relieved to be told that I should expect to do little outside of mothering—after my father’s death, and then a difficult pregnancy, leaning in not to my professional life, but to the steep learning curve of parenting felt permissive. A year felt both luxuriously long, and not at all too much time to wait before I’d get back to writing.

What’s that old adage? The days are long, but the time is short. In her essay “Baby Weight,” author Cheryl Strayed recalls the months after her son was born, when she was both a new mother and a novelist who had, shortly before giving birth, sold her first book to a powerful publisher. She had set a date on which to submit final edits, a date that, at the time, had felt comfortably far into the future, but then appeared as suddenly as her all-consuming love for her child.

“The thing was, I didn’t care that much,” Strayed writes. “Or rather, I cared—an icy cold mix of anxiety and sorrow rose in me like a fog—but I didn’t care enough to do much about it. All of my life I’d believed that writing was my calling…And though I took it on faith that my writing remained somewhere lost inside of me, there was no question that now it was shadowed entirely by the towering existence of my son.”

This fall, I will begin my third year at my university, which means my tenure clock has counted down a bit more than halfway. I had expected by now to be further along in my memoir, to have come down enough from the high of my daughter’s birth to be working regularly on it. The truth is, I haven’t. I’m capable of sustaining short-term concentration to plan lessons, grade papers, do my committee work, and write essays that, admittedly, are largely about parenting. But the sustained focus it takes to work on my memoir still often eludes me, and like Strayed, I’m getting scared. My family is counting on me to earn tenure, and publishing my book would go a long way toward securing it.

But the quest for tenure and the dull, pulsing pressure that exacts on me daily is not the only reason to get my head back into my book. Writing in response to Brooks’ essay on the effects of parenthood on creative ambition, Elissa Strauss argues that parenthood can become the source of artistic boon. Strauss points out that guiding our children into the wider world is “not a benign experience,” but one of constant negotiation, constant noticing alongside our children. “All those whys and hows are exhausting,” Strauss writes, “but they also make the power of words and ideas so immediate, so important, that sometimes I feel like I can hold them in my hand.”

Part of why I’m dually intimidated and excited to get back to work on my book this summer is that I know the project has shifted because Benna’s presence casts itself backward into my pre-Benna past. When I read the words I’ve already written about my father’s death, I see my daughter’s life superimposed on the narrative. I see that she belongs in the book, that the book is not just about grief, but about change. It’s the ongoing love story of my family.

Still, it’s difficult to push myself. We make jokes about bad wives—frigid, nagging, distrustful—but bad mothers make no one laugh. I constantly have to justify leaving my child in order to write about my child, but thankfully, I have help. I have role models like Cheryl Strayed and Kim Brooks, who have gone on to write and publish their books in the years after they had children. I have a friend—a novelist—who has generously directed me toward the grants and fellowships that have given her more freedom to write and mother at the same time. And I have other, full time-working-mother friends who remind me that my parenting journey is still young, still understandably demanding, and also encourage me to leave my daughter all the same in favor of making something she may someday internalize as a message about women’s choices.

One friend, whose daughters are teenagers, told me that her girls—once somewhat slighted by their mother’s writing career—now seek out other adults who they “perceive as smart and out in the world and savvy and contributing outside of the household.”

As I read through the transcript of that conversation in the hotel room in Flagstaff, I’m struck anew by the insights of my graduate school friends and professor, who recognized long before me that having children can, as one of them put it, give us “a deeper place to write from.” I’m also startled by something I said about my own writing post-Benna:

Having Benna in my life has given me much more joy to contemplate. Even if it’s just small moments of absurdity or humor. Everything used to just be hard. Now I know what’s hard and what is absolutely not hard. My daughter has been very instructive on that level. When I read my work now, there’s levity there that wasn’t present before. She allows me to hit those major notes that were inaccessible to me before.

This echoes Elissa Strauss’ favorite part of Brooks’ essay, which is a quote from one of Brooks’ own graduate school classmates, Gallaudet Howard. Howard said that writing post-children taught her “not to fear pain so much, to understand, experientially, that pain and joy are inextricably linked. That all the priorities we get handed by our culture are basically bullshit. And that we are not in control. That’s one of the major things parenting is teaching me, the balance between letting go in writing and practicing craft, the balance between being ferocious with my imagination and rigorous in my practice. Shape and chaos. Learning to shape chaos.”

And so I go into my summer of writing, with perhaps more hope than trepidation. Shaping chaos is a behemoth idea, especially in a world where so many choices we make are other choices abandoned. I’m surely going to miss many hours at the playground, at the pond. But the prospect of emerging in August with something that etches the chaos of my life—and my loves—into something I can hold in my hand is thrilling. I want Benna to learn how to follow such a thrill.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Other Links: