Writing is not my hobby. When I am not writing, my brain writhes.
In the fall of 2008, I enrolled in a course at the University of Akron titled “Southern Women Writers.” After first reading Florence King’s Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, a humorously accurate guide to the characters, both real and literary, of the American South, we studied a different writer each week. The first was Civil War diarist, Mary Chestnut, and from there we journeyed through the decades and read some authors I’d long admired, such as Flannery O’Connor and others I was shocked to have not previously read, such as Katherine Anne Porter, who in my opinion deserves greater attention in the canon of American literature. Well before the course ended, I had become resolutely jealous of the language resources any Southerner, from the Atlantic Coast to Texas, can rely upon without sounding hokey. A Yankee cannot plausibly employ colorful phrases like He doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox. But a southerner can.
Beyond language, there was a more personally significant take away from the class. Several weeks and authors into the semester, I noticed a commonality among all the women we had read: None were mothers. In fact, by semester’s end only a handful of the writers assigned were also mothers and those women lived and wrote exclusively after 1950. I asked the professor why this was, as if I didn’t already know, and he explained the difficulty women have had in either choosing to have a career or choosing to have children.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of Her Own, an extended essay about women both as writers as well as characters in fiction. In it, Woolf writes: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I find her essay, which also expounds the importance of formal education for women, to be as relevant today as it was 84 years ago. After years of sharing my writing space with others—be it as a shared office, a dressing room, and finally a baby’s nursery—I finally have a room of my own in which I write. I hope to one day save enough money to have the wall behind my desk built out with floor to ceiling bookshelves. But for now, I focus on my computer monitor and try my best to just keep writing, ignoring the towers of boxes stacked where the bookshelves will one day be. My mantra, given to me by my MFA thesis advisor, is Ass+Chair. Though crude, it is an effective reminder that being a writer means you have to write.
Enter five children
Well, so they came one at a time, but their effect was immediate. When I write, I need a quiet house and prefer no interruptions. The best way to achieve this condition is to get everyone out of the house. Alone in a room of my own is what I need. Babies rarely sleep when you need to write or when the writing juices are flowing. Luckily, I have a partner who sends our two pre-schoolers to daycare three days a week. However, Lyra only stays for three to four hours because she refuses to take a bottle and by noon she comes home and nurses mightily. Some afternoons, she falls asleep and lets me write a little bit longer but, like I said, these gifts of time are rare and certainly not predictible.
During Winter Break, not only were the big boys home, our daycare provider reminded us how much we need her by taking off for a week and a day. Writing was catch as catch can. A regular stream of offspring sluiced up to my desk and asked me questions that could either wait or be sorted out without my input. Towards the end of break, when one of the Great Interrupters wanted to know if he could scramble eggs for everyone, I yelled at him, “Is the house on fire? Are you bleeding? Is someone else in the house knocked unconscious? Then don’t come in this room!” It might seem ironic because I was writing about random acts of kindness that day, but I do not confuse kindness with martyrdom. When I finally posted that last week of Winter Break, I felt tremendous relief to have finished but I was also late in picking up Lyra. In my rush, I hit the post button before filling in the title block. It was sent to everyone and posted on Facebook sans title.
Re-entry to normalcy, or at least scheduled time for the kids to be away and me to plunk my rear end in my desk chair, has been like working with an untamed animal. Just when I think I can grab it, it bolts away. On Tuesday, instead of writing, I drove Claude back to school. On Wednesday, nothing went as expected and Lyra was only at daycare for an hour. I treat writing like a job and let things like laundry and dishes go during my scheduled writing time. But the first week after break I also used some of that time and applied for other jobs, the kind with paychecks.
Money and a Room
I have the room and, limited though it is, structured time to write. But the money is another problem to solve. Flannery O’Connor was supported by her family. Katherine Anne Porter often depended upon the largesse of friends to house and feed her. Virgina Woolf herself came from a wealthy family and her husband, Leonard, supported her writing career.
I tell my children that how rich or poor you feel is all a matter of choice. I also tell them that if there is something they want to do, we just need to think of a creative solution, don’t let the funding be an obstacle. Hard work helps too and all three of the big boys work for the money they need to fulfill their own desires. Claude and Hugo are employed in the typical sense—Claude works as a monitor in an art studio at his university while Hugo washes dogs at a dog salon. Because he is only 12 and cannot yet be hired, Jules has a trickier time making money. Last fall, I suggested he put together a business proposal and present it to Max and me. Jules now cares for the household pets, providing what goes into, and cleaning up what comes out of, the two dogs and four cats. He is also responsible for one dinner a week, generally on Fridays. Rapidly becoming an excellent cook, Jules is working his way through The Best Recipe cookbook. This past Friday, he made hoisin chicken kebobs with broccoli and shitake mushrooms. There were no leftovers. On Sundays, Jules presents us with his invoice for the week past.
But it’s not as easy as I tell the boys. I graduated with my MFA in the middle of the worst economy of my lifetime. While I was in graduate school, I made ends meet by substitute teaching and taking out significant student loans, loans I have not even begun to pay back. The year after I graduated, I continued to substitute teach at the Waldorf school and also worked in the school’s office up until Lyra was born. We all thought that long before Lyra was born, I would find fulltime employment—I’m well educated, experienced and have applied to more jobs than I care to innumerate. Listening to stories on NPR of how despondent job seekers have become in this economy hits home. Time and again I have applied for positions for which I am ideally qualified and yet I do not even make the first cut. I have applied repeatedly for work I have done in the past, jobs that at the time I thought of as just stepping stones in a longer career. Friends who are employed tell me their employers receive so many responses when hiring that one résumé blurs into another and another and another.
My big boys and I are lucky because Max will not let us starve. But neither can he, nor should he, fund my children’s every needs. That is up to me alone and, frankly, it is important that my children see me—a woman—capably managing adult life, including supporting their ambitions when it makes sense. To purchase the computer Claude was required to have at school this past fall, I obtained a credit card with zero percent interest for 15 months even though I hate credit card debt. I lacked that kind of support in my own upbringing and while I still managed to put myself through college, I floundered on my own. I see Claude, a freshman in college, as not only a better student than I was, he is asking better questions of himself. He regularly talks with Max and me about what he wants to do in life and how he should get there.
Back to Art
Throughout history (and presumably before) the majority of artistic work by women has been consumable items—food that is eaten, rugs that are walked on, clothes that are worn, blankets that are slept under, and so on. On the other hand, the artistic work of men resides in museums and libraries. Think things have gotten any better? Each year, who gets published and who wins the important writing awards reminds us that this gender imbalance in the writing professions is hardly a thing of the past. For an article on recent statistics, click here: The Count.
Many men manage to have both families and jobs with paychecks and successful artistic careers. And, perhaps most consistently, those men who manage it all have something few women do: A Wife. The inaugural edition of Ms. magazine included the essay, “I Want a Wife,” by Judy Brady:
Many considered this essay, in which the lives of wives are shown to be little different than indentured servitude, to be a manifesto for Second-wave feminism. As women entered the workforce in the 1970s and beyond, this depiction of wife=servant (or slave) was considered a thing of the past, but this essay reads like the script for the marriage I left in 2007. I think that, not unlike racism, which has become perniciously subtler in the post-civil rights era, so too have women of my generation struggled with implied expectations. The published male authors I know who are also dads may have wives who work, but overwhelmingly their wives are the ones getting the kids to to everything from playdates to the dentist. In all professional families, women are still putting in 40 hours a week to family care while men put in 21. Last October, Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in Newsweek: “See who in any houshold schedules the kids’ dental appointments. My own husband, lovely though he is, seems not to be aware that our children even have teeth.”
I was six years old when the first issue of Ms. was published and by all means should feel I am the direct beneficiary of Second-wave feminism. But I didn’t make the leap so well. I long assumed it was because I was not encouraged to think about a career in which I could support myself and perhaps my children. My parents never discussed educational or career plans with me. I now see how the choices I made as I launched into early adulthood fit into a larger context, which has been described in the past decade by a few writers including Judith Warner in her book Perfect Madness. Women of my generation, Gen X, were caught at the pivotal point of social change in women’s roles. As such, we were told we could be more than is humanly possible, i.e., we could have it all: better careers than our fathers while also being better mothers than our own by raising children attachment-style. And all the while we would stay thin and young looking and able to converse on any au courant topic. We would be Super-Professionals and Super-Moms looking Super-Sexy and, to round it out, live in Super-Stylish Homes. And it wasn’t just that we could have it all, to have less was a certain sign of failure as a modern woman.
Who Defines Success?
So here I am today with five kids who are turning out just fine and a résumé that barely grazes upon my actual skills because it’s so hither and thither. For a time, a friend and I had a job search support group of two. She also began looking for work when the economy went south and we would share information on job listings we thought might be good for each other. Eventually my friend was hired as an administrative assistant at a local university, but she continues to let me know of any appropriate positions she hears about. She’s been working now for over a year and listening to her I am reminded that jobs come with politics and personalities as well as paychecks.
A few months back she asked me what my ideal job would be. Easy. To get paid to write. “Yeah, well, all right, dearie. But seriously, what kind of job do you want?” Because we were on the phone she could not see me blush at her chiding me for wanting to make money as a writer. I had been honest when she had asked of my “ideal” rather than “likely” employment.
I know mothers who manage to publish and work jobs that provide paychecks. However, either their children are older or they have significant help from their families—as in retired parents who, when needed, act as de facto nannies. I also have a friend whose book should be published and, in my opinion, optioned for film. But she has two children under the age of five and works two jobs to help support her family. That doesn’t leave much time or energy for the business end of publishing and I cannot help but wonder if her situation would be different were she a man.
True Confession: I live a comfortable life. But as a woman, I feel required to justify my need to write and my desire to publish.
I must write. I must raise my children. And I must earn money. The first two dovetail for as much as they interfere with my time at my desk, my children provide for me both a life and material that are endlessly rich. Virigina Woolf didn’t have to earn her money nor raise children, yet her assessment of what women need to write resonates into this century because our society does not yet value equally women’s writing with that of men. Successfully writing is an even trickier task as a mother, and though certainly not impossible, the emotional, if not financial, support of family is essential, at least for me.
Postscript of Sorts
This particular post has taken me more than a week to write due to the aforementioned actors and activities. Along the way something changed: two days ago I was officially hired for a job I can do at home that is related to writing—proofreading. While it will not provide the security and benefits of a full-time position, it does give me the flexibility to continue writing and take Lyra to her appointments.
Next act: balancing while juggling!
2 thoughts on “Motherwriter”
Holly, you have so aptly painted the catch 22 of women of our generation. What a blessing, though, that you are able to readily identify the one passion and vocation that you know your soul needs…. so many of us struggle for such clarity.
Congratulations on the job!