It’s almost the end of National Poetry Month and I haven’t even posted one poem. This time of year is a killer: taxes, mid-terms, spring soccer, and a rash of birthday parties. Why were so many children born between February and April? And why do they all adore my son and want him to come for cake, ice cream, and super-fun activities that I’m sure I will never be able to measure up to come July, when L turns seven? (Though the climbing gym was pretty great.)
I’ve been remembering the post I wrote a year ago about Not Wasting My Life. I’m still fighting that good fight, but I’m also facing a lot of questions about what an unwasted life is supposed to look like. Should I be making lots of time to lie in the hammock, enjoy L, take long walks, and meditate—can you even imagine?!—or should I be working every spare minute on my writing, when I’m not being the best mother, teacher, and wife I can be?
I was sucked into this recent article in The Cut by Kim Brooks called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom: Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?”, in which Brooks describes her slow-dawning realization that it’s impossible to be a great mother, a domestic Goddess, and a dedicated writer. As she says, “Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized…I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.”
And if that sounds like a crazy thing to think, well, welcome to my head.
Brooks goes on to detail many things, including the number of terrific contemporary novels that take up this theme; and, most poignantly for me, her decision to cut out what she calls “the white noise of parenthood,” e.g., playdates, birthday parties, dance lessons, soccer, PTA, and swim class, in order to create more space for her creative work.
I read this as I was sitting at L’s Friday afternoon soccer practice, as it happens, an experience that, while mildly pleasant because it’s been sunny, and there’s another mom I like to talk to, and I’m happy for L that he’s got a great coach and seems to be learning a lot of good skills, is also a bummer—a bummer because we used to have leisurely Friday afternoons together at home, L doing his thing and me doing mine, until soccer practice became Another Thing We Have to Do.
I was already feeling a bit like the weird parent on the sidelines because I was distracted, watching L run drills just occasionally, immersed in my three-inch thick novel, a notebook and pen furtively stashed in my bag, when I turned to Twitter to see what was up. When I found the link to this article, I absolutely sank in—I basically swallowed my phone. I’m sure I was nodding my head emphatically and groaning like a crazy person. Because to say I can relate to the dilemma Brooks describes is an understatement. I live it. I nearly shouted out loud when I got the part in the essay where she quotes her writer friend Zoe Zolbrod:
“The truth,” [Zolbrod] says, “is that I think I’m a better mom when I’m not writing. I’m not writing right now and I’m enjoying the kids more. I’m better at home when I’m writing less.” When she’s engrossed in her work, it’s different. “My eyes glaze over or something when I’m going off into that other place, and my daughter notices it and doesn’t like it. Like we’re sitting on the floor coloring together. And I’m getting in my zoned-out space and she’s always watching to see when I do that. ‘Don’t make your face like that,’ she says. She just watches me really closely, and she’s less satisfied with what I can’t give her. She senses that I’m keeping something to myself. It never feels like it’s enough.”
I have written before about this dilemma, about this constant feeling of distraction and how I would love, at the end of the day, to actually feel done. To not be off in another place—writing a scene in my novel, or absorbed in my anxiety about getting published—when, actually, I’m with my husband and kid. But I don’t think, crazy as this may sound, that I realized that in order to lessen this sensation I could just say no—to a birthday party, or soccer practice, or piano lessons, or any number of other (arguably optional) parental obligations, in favor of myself, in favor of the selfishness a writing career demands.
As the late Philip Seymour Hoffman says in The Big Lebowski: “That had not occurred to me, dude.”
Had it really not? I mean, of course it had, in that abstract, not-possible way we think of so many possible changes we could make in our lives. I’m not totally crazy; I haven’t volunteered for a PTA board position or anything. But nonetheless, I have always been a little too ambitious, in small and perhaps, let’s face it, probably gender-prescribed ways. When I was in grad school, living alone, I did not subsist on ramen noodles; I cooked myself intricate meals every night, because it brought me pleasure, of course, and because it quelled my anxiety to eat well. And now, with a kid, a husband, and a full-time teaching gig, I still cook those kinds of meals, almost every night. I make my own granola too, and bone broth a few times a month, and while we have a house cleaner, she only comes once every month or six weeks. And somehow I became the room partner in my kid’s class when the other parent decided to switch schools, and I not-so-mysteriously ended up on the aftercare committee, too.
Perhaps, because this force lives in me, this force that tells me to be all things to all people, I have transferred this force to L, too, insisting that he not only brush his teeth every morning and have a healthy packed lunch, but that he also do his homework and practice piano and make it to soccer every Friday afternoon and again on Saturday mornings. And who is the person who reminds him to do all these things, who prods and nags and enables? That would be me. I am much like Brooks was before she woke up, which is to say—I have, for all these years, thought that I could Do It All; and in many ways, I have.
But at whose expense? Does L like this life? Do I? Would we both feel happier if we just ate frozen pizza a couple times a week, if I’d graciously let another parent be room partner, if Friday afternoons were still ours? Even if I didn’t spend that time writing, mightn’t I spend it doing the other kind of things—paying bills, tidying, email—that free up my writing time during the week? Or, God forbid, sitting in my hammock just thinking, exaggeratedly not wasting my life?
That evening after soccer practice, I talked to B about the article. “I need to carve out more time to write,” I told him. “I want to spend every weekend with you and L, because I miss you during the week, but I’ve realized that I can’t. I need to start taking some time on the weekends to write, or maybe even a weekday evening, because with teaching and all the other obligations, I’m just not spending as much time writing during the week as I need to.”
Guilt, that old monster, rose up. B, with his nine-to-sixer, has less time during the week than I do, and despite everything I’ve said above, that must make it sound like I bustle about like a charwoman, taking care of all the housework for my man, he’s (almost) as engaged in the domestic sphere as I am: he does most of the laundry, cooks breakfast most days, bakes all our bread, maintains our garden, and is as involved with bedtimes and bath times and all the rest as I am. A tiny voice in my head whispered: selfish.
“So can you take L to soccer on Saturday morning?” I asked, even though I had plans on Saturday afternoon, too.
And, of course, because he is a decent human being, he said yes, and I spent the time in my studio, writing.
At the end of Kim Brooks’s article, she seems to come to a place of acceptance that all of us moms who write must, obviously, come to. She maintains her resolve to cut out the “white noise,” and, brilliantly, if a little unrealistically, she swears she’ll do a yearly artist’s residency—a week away, every year, just to write. But she also accepts that doing both things well is doing both things poorly: you rob Peter to pay Paul. You neglect your parenting, or you neglect your writing. It’s this elusive idea of balance, and you just have to make it work.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the possibility of an artist’s residency every year, and of saying no more. This life beckons to me like low-hanging fruit, just barely in reach. I’m not quite there, yet, though. I will, undoubtedly, continue to take on too much for my child at the expense of my own work: I’ll still cook these great meals, and feel guilty when I don’t return phone calls, and volunteer for too many activities at L’s school.
But I’ll also, I’ve decided, hold a little more space for myself. I’ll say “no” more. And I’ll think, as a friend reminded me to, to realize what I am giving up when I say “yes.”
This weekend, B was away, up in Portland partying it up with his college friends. So I had to do soccer; in fact, I had volunteered to bring snack (old habits, old habits!). But on Sunday, I called some other parent friends and asked whether they could take L for the morning so I could work.
And because they are decent human beings, of course they said yes.
And there I sat, writing, enormously relieved to have put this down.
Further (Great) Reading:
Curtis Sittenfeld on The Pool, in which she asks why it is only women novelists who are asked how they “balance” writing and parenthood: “The Secret to Work-Life Balance? There Isn’t One”
Aya deLeon on her blog, in which she posits that writer moms of color have never assumed that there will be “balance”: “Portrait of the Writer Mom as a Member of the Working Class”