A mother of three young children on a five-hour flight without those children becomes the best possible version of herself. She becomes, even, capable of being a good mother. The world seems filled with activity and sweetness, filled with adorable and easily surmounted frustrations. Filled with people who know how to live, playing Candy Crush – or whatever that is – for hours. They eat, they drink, they watch films, they do not wonder whether the diaper will hold, they are not forced to pace the aisle or to bounce a crying child.
Settling in to my aisle seat, I began to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family and soon found myself reflected. Like him, I often find myself in a quagmire of frustration in which “I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible.”
Knausgaard observes other families with their happiness, their tidy homes and clean children – “although once in a while they might raise their voices they never stand there like idiots bawling at them” – and he wonders if it is being a writer that for some reason makes being a parent so difficult. Perhaps because a writer is so intense and sensitive and preoccupied that every task is difficult for her; perhaps also because the children of writers inherit these traits while also absorbing this brooding unhappiness as a model for behaviour: “Why should the fact that I am a writer mean I turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration?”
I wrote OMG in the margins.
But Knausgaard is a father. I have heard people say that women would not get away with revelations such as this, or that they certainly wouldn’t be hailed as geniuses for writing the sort of domestic detail he fearlessly glories in.
Are things different for mother-writers?
As I am a mother and a writer, the question for me is largely moot. I live the answer to it. It does not, however, appear to be a moot question for the (literary) culture at large. A few months ago, I attended a panel for poet-mothers at a writers’ conference. Quoting someone, a panellist reminded us of the familiar claim: “motherhood is the enemy of art.”
“How so?” I asked.
The poet answered that every child costs you a book and a half. This answer was not satisfying. It requires believing that a quantity of published output is the same thing as a life of art. And of course there is no way to know if you would have actually produced more books if you’d had fewer children: the counterfactuals are totally inaccessible. Children aren’t the only press on time, the only thing to interfere with the artist’s mental space. Contrary to this tradition, I have become a better writer in the years since I became a mother and I can only conclude that either I would have anyway or that motherhood, rather than making me sacrifice my ambition, pushed me closer to it. Writing and mothering have both made my life richer with others, with other minds and other lives. Writing while mothering makes me less likely to take writing time for granted. It makes me use it when I get it.
Something happens to the self when you become a parent, and for those of us who enjoy indulging in long exercises of introspection and flights of the imagination, it can be painfully grounding. But an experience such as this twists you in a fruitful way. Falling in love can also distract us from our work, but I’d choose to fall in love every time. Parenting is intense, but also, it is interesting. Nothing, not even this, is unusable by the artist.
Eight years ago, when I had a toddler and an infant and lived in a cramped overheated apartment and felt that my husband, Adam, and I had few prospects (unpublished writer living with graduate student), I wrote a story of domestic horror. We were broke and we probably had no future, but I could find a few hours in the morning to run to a coffee shop or library and write. The story was based on an incident during a postpartum period when I felt I was going mad. A man in a parking lot saw me with my screaming toddler and whimpering baby and suggested there was nothing wrong with my two-year-old that “a good licking” wouldn’t fix. I responded by shouting at him and he screamed sexually aggressive comments at me until I was in my car with the kids, shaking and crying. I presented the story to a free workshop with writers I didn’t know well. One of the workshoppers was keen to read phallic symbols into it. Another thought I should try publishing it in a women’s magazine. “Women might like this,” someone said dubiously.
I refuse to believe that these are only women’s stories, as though things that happen to women are inherently less interesting. Are we not fascinated by the incredible physical and emotional costs of motherhood to ordinary people all around us, which are no less catastrophic than the effects of romantic love? There are the physical costs, since motherhood often involves our bodies to a larger and far more intense degree, if we have been pregnant, if we are breastfeeding. It often involves our hormones in ways that can feel, more or less, like a disaster. For me, hormones resulted in sorrow and anxiety. The pressure I felt to give my babies all my attention, to hold them close in a sling, to sleep with them and to nurse them until they were ready to wean meant that from the first hours of my first pregnancy until I finally weaned my third child over seven years later I had little bodily autonomy. Those were hard years, now a haze, of sleep-deprivation.
But none of this stopped me from writing. I wrote while my baby slept on me and I read while she napped elsewhere. I didn’t do the laundry. I got up early and I wrote, or I left the house every Saturday to write. I nursed with a book in my hand. I slipped away from family gatherings to type. When I was 25 and a miserably fledgling academic, I gambled that I could, in the time it would take to complete a PhD, become a writer. I also decided to become a parent during the same years. We didn’t know how to fit children in – there seemed no way – so we just, very rashly, as we made all of our decisions, did. I dropped out of school and got pregnant: unable to imagine what readiness would mean, I jumped.
I refuse to believe that these are only women’s stories, as though things that happen to women are inherently less interesting.
The stories piled up; the words accumulated. Three babies came during those years Adam was in school. I worked part-time, I left my job, I cried, we moved, we moved again, and I found time to write one unpublishable novel and to find a publisher for another. I went back to school for creative writing the year Adam was on a job search. Sure, I developed the odd stress rash. Sure, I forgot to look in a mirror for about five years.
It helped that we’d gotten married young and had never not been broke. It helped that we had no idea how to live and few nice belongings. Maybe we would not have made these decisions so lightly if we’d lived in the United States without access to health care or maternity leaves or child-care bonuses. If I’d had to work full-time. If our families hadn’t been able to help. If housing had been more expensive. A lack of support for new mothers has drastic effects on a culture, and thus the dilemma – will becoming a mother mean I can no longer be a writer? – is not an individual’s dilemma but a culture’s. Our culture still sentimentalizes mothers and romanticizes writers. It still believes in perfect mothers and in damaged writers.
Shirley Jackson had four children and an egomaniacally unsupportive husband in the middle of the 20th century, during which time she also wrote several masterpieces. A fan wrote to her about her lighthearted stories of family life: “I wanted to see how in [H]ades you fit in two hours a day for writing.” “Please don’t disillusion me,” another says. Yet another: “I used to write after 9 or 10, when the children were in bed, but I ended up in a TB sanatorium for a year after some of those 2 a.m. bedtimes, and when I recovered and started out again on the housework, entertaining, playing and writing, I developed malignant high blood pressure. Shirley, how do you do it?”
Jackson wrote by, she says, “always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything [she saw], always noticing.” And as for me, I claimed small bits of time and used them, and those bits of time got longer as the kids got older. I thought it was good for my daughters to see me do something for myself that I cared about, since I wanted that for them, too. I trained myself to be able to write while the children ran around the house. I tune out the pots and pans now crashing in the kitchen. I come up with ideas while I lay in the dark of my child’s room, waiting for her to surrender to sleep. I pour my terror into words.
Things have changed a lot since Jackson was writing, though some of that pressure on mothers has only shifted laterally. There was a time when I would have loved a stint at the TB sanatorium. The need to write was urgent, even if there was sometimes a cost to my well-being. Motherhood will cost you something, will cost you a lot, but it doesn’t need to cost you your imagination or your ambition. I can affirm Sarah Manguso’s suspicion: “I came to see how many serious women writers were mothers, and that my fear – that being a mother would prevent me from being a writer – might be irrational. Perhaps having a child might make me a better writer, I thought.”
Of course I sometimes wish I had a different kind of life, with privacy, with long stretches of time, with hobbies and money for travel and a tidier home. It took me two and a half years to paint six chairs, from buying the paint until the final coat of glaze. I’m scattered and preoccupied. People sometimes find that I am someone they have to put up with. Still, if you enjoy flouting expectations and a life brimming with stimulation, you might find parenting while writing to be the best sort of struggle.
I do not envy anyone who is trying to make up their mind about this, wanting both things. Many of those years felt impossible. But now that my children are 10, 8, and 5, I am resigned. I can’t seem to be a different sort of person than the one I am. I can’t seem to modify my children’s behaviour or solve any of their problems. I’m a writer, and I’m a monster, and I’m a mother, and I love them, and I get angry sometimes, and I’m a lot of fun, and we laugh, and we cry, and I spend my time and attention on things other than them for many hours of the week, and this is the lot they’ve drawn, this is their lives, these are our children, we are their parents: oh well.
Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs.