There are lots of ways to think about the natural segue between being a mother and being a writer.
It would be all too tempting to compose an essay, for example, about the joy of birthing one’s written work after long hours of laboring in solitude–no matter how many people are there to support us.
Or drawing parallels between the long, tedious and arduous process, filled with emotional complications, that adoptive mothers go through and the hours spent each day forcing oneself to write and then rewrite and rewrite again until the joyful minute when the child arrives or the essay is complete.
For me, however, the lessons I’ve learned as a writer from the experience of mothering come from the more negative end of the parenting spectrum, the one a lot of us still won’t talk about for fear of never getting the Mother of the Year Award.
We worry that if we put our angst out there on the table, we may end up having our kids put in foster care (or worse, living with their fathers).
It’s still so hard to admit how much confidence, and patience, we lack–as mothers and as writers – how really difficult it is to be good at our job, how little we have been trained to the task. I’ve decided, however, in the interest of catharsis, and composition, to tell it straight.
So here are 10 lessons I’ve learned about being a good writer from (what I will always fear was) being a bad mother, in the hope that other writers may learn from my mistakes and that my children will find it in their sweet hearts to forgive me:
- Once on that road, we can’t turn back: There is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant. But the reality is, writing, like mothering, is very hard work, and it never seems to end.
- Writing is all-consuming. There is nothing in the world like writing, or mothering a child, to help you understand what it is to suffer from an obsession. Sometimes your work in progress is absolutely all you can think about or worry over. As in: It’s been two months; where is my manuscript? It’s two a.m., where are my kids? There isn’t anything you care so much about as your baby, and you will die if it isn’t appreciated, or at the very least, safely returned. Children, and editors, find this hard to deal with.
- No one will love your work like you do. No one will defend it at all costs. No one will understand it as well as you can. When your kid smashes the neighbor’s window with a baseball, when your adolescent daughter has a first semester crisis, when your writing group says your character wouldn’t have poured ketchup on her eggs, NO ONE will stand up to the experts, the authorities, and an irate next door neighbor like you will, because only you know why it happened that way and how to move beyond the crisis in the protagonist’s best interest.
- There is never enough time to finish what you started. When my kids were little, I would have given anything to shave both legs at once. Now my works-in-progress compete for my time as though they were toddlers. A mother’s and a writer’s work is never done. Half the time it’s not even begun. But that’s another shaggy leg story.
- People always think you should do it differently. Nothing infuriated me more when my children were little than my friends who said things like, “You mean you don’t puree your own carrots?” and my landlady who said, “My children never once had a pacifier in their mouths!”
- Having too many projects in the fire may not be a good idea. My Catholic friends who follow the church’s teachings on birth control told me that, after the third kid, the rest didn’t matter; you’d reached critical mass and your life would forever be out of control. That’s why I only had two children. (How did I know my husband would never be able to find his wallet or put his socks in the hamper?) And that’s why I only work on a couple of major projects at a time. At least that way I always know exactly what is overwhelming me.
- Staying organized is vital. Some people don’t mind Cheerios and peanut butter on the floor. I am not one of them. I need order over chaos; I never mix up the black socks with the blue, or the Rejects file with the Accepted or Pending ones. Being organized helps me feel that any day now the kids will be truly independent and an agent or publisher will call with good news, and I wouldn’t want to wonder where the phone is when she does.
- Staying calm is useful. When the school nurse calls to say that only a few stitches are required, or an editor phones to say “Sorry, we killed that piece,” it pays to be calm. There is nothing to be gained by getting hysterical, or responding with an outraged diatribe. You want the nurse to think well of you and dismiss any rumors she might have heard that you are more interested in your writing than your children and the editor to ignore any doubts that you might be more interested in your children than your writing.
- There’s a good chance your work will survive. Children do make it to adulthood, usually and miraculously as responsible and charming people. Creative works, whether published or not, are there for all the world, or maybe just your kids, to cherish. That is no small reward.
- There is nothing quite like the joy your work brings you. Just think about that baby or that by-line. You’ll never doubt again why you did it. You did it because you had to, and no other compulsion has ever been so worthwhile, or quite so rewarding. The payoff is always there in the progeny, and if you’re really lucky, in the printed word.
Elayne Clift, a writer in Saxtons River, Vt., teaches women’s studies and communication at Vermont College and the University of Vermont.