(For the month of November 2011, I am embarking on a 30-Day Challenge to finish a final rewrite of my young adult novel. To do so, I am taking a hiatus from posting my Tuesday morning flyingnotscreaming essays. Essays will resume the first week of December, 2011. In the meantime, I am posting a weekly Hiatus Report on my progress during my 30-Day Challenge. See the essay “My New 30-Day Challenge”for more information.)
The weekend before last, my youngest daughter caught the nasty stomach flu that is circulating among her classmates. It was clear, after an unsuccessful attempt at breakfast, that she would be unable to attend school. As I loaded sheets in the washing machine, my mind spun. How could I make up the lost day of writing and keep on track for my 30-Plus Day Challenge? How long before my oldest daughter comes down with this? How could I keep the momentum of my project going? Then I remembered that it was only a four-day week, since the girls had Friday off for Veteran’s Day. My spirits sank as my creative window closed even further.
While bleaching every doorknob and light switch in the house, I thought of the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” This wasn’t the first time I’d set aside my creative work for my family and it wouldn’t be the last, but still, I couldn’t help feeling a rush of resentment and disappointment. I didn’t make the choice to have children lightly–I knew that one of the requirements of motherhood was to give up personal time and space and to expect a new surprise around every corner–but some moments that reality is easier to accept than others.
It isn’t surprising that the majority of women who have been successful in art and literature have often foregone children. Such as my personal heroines Georgia O’Keefe and Willa Cather. Flannery O’Conner, Mary Cassatt, all of the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Joyce Carol Oates who has published over fifty novels to date. The list goes on and on. Elizabeth Gilbert stated in Committed, her most recent book, “While the vague idea of motherhood had always seemed natural to me, the reality–as it approached–only filled me with dread and sorrow. I wanted to work. Uninterrupted. Joyfully.” (Underline emphasis hers.)
Even though I also want to work uninterrupted and joyfully, even though I have so many ideas for essays and novels that I can hardly sleep from the excitement and desire to get them out onto the page (underline emphasis mine), the truth is that I wouldn’t trade being a mother for anything. I wouldn’t exchange a shelf full of bestsellers with my name on the spine for the moment last week around 2:00 a.m. when my youngest, head hung over a bowl, whispered, “Thanks for taking care of me, Mom. You’re the best ever.”
It may not sound like much, but those moments are the context from which my writing is built. Yes, I was too blurry-eyed to write anything of worth the next day, and I was less than joyful at missing more work time, but in a way, the interruptions force me to be more creative rather than less. I carry notebooks and pens with me everywhere and spend a significant amount of time writing in the car. Often in the parking lot of my kids’ school, I find myself scribbling frantically, racing the final bell. I have learned to write in my head, and hold it there for days, even weeks, until I can get the words onto the page. And mostly importantly, I have learned to find inspiration and significance in the beautiful everyday of our lives together.
I readily admit that sometimes I get tired trying to juggle motherhood and writing. (As ALL working mothers get tired of trying to juggle it all.) It is easier to do seven loads of laundry than it is to do seven loads of laundry AND get a chapter rewritten. But I am not staking out new territory here: this balancing act of parenting and creative work has been done before. Even though many women writers choose not to have children for the sake of their art, there are a number of women who have bravely done both. Madeline L’Engle, author of the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time and mother of three, wrote in her journals that her daughters often expressed resentment at having more chores than their friends, a necessity if she was to get her writing done. As it was, L’Engle often fell asleep draped over her typewriter. Shirley Jackson wrote about being a mother of four in her book Little Savages. It’s clear from her humorous descriptions of family life that tidiness and order were not a high priority in their household. Single mother Anne Lamott turned her son’s first year of life into a bestselling book. Ironically, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sister, writes young adult novels AND raises her two children.
I’m sure these women got tired too and were interrupted more than they wished to be, but they learned how to write around the edges of their days and creatively filled in the nooks and crannies of time with their words. They proved that their work did not have to suffer because they made the choice to embrace motherhood.
As I made tea with honey for my daughter who was resting on the couch, I mentally composed the introduction to this Hiatus Report. But when I attempted to sit down and write the rough draft, I was interrupted by the furnace repairman here to fix a leak, a phone call about overdue library books, and an unexpected visit by two very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses who hoped that I’d had time to read the material they dropped off.
In the middle of all this, Clara called from the other room. Her tummy was still hurting. Did I think she would be able to go back to school the next day? Probably not, I told her. With a sigh, I switched off my computer. I put my longing to write on hold for another day while I took her temperature and sat with her until her latest wave of nausea passed. In a day or two I would be able to get back to my work, I told myself. It would be a struggle to get my momentum going again, but I’ve done it before and will probably have to do it again. I stroked my daughter’s head, and mentally composed another paragraph about the interesting balance of writing and motherhood.