At drop-off at my son’s elementary school in the morning, I look at the other mothers quizzically. My son’s school is racially and socioeconomically mixed, and some of the mothers look like teenagers. Then there are the older moms, the ones who gratefully and graciously eeked out an only child after forty. Some moms hold heavy corporate jobs and arrive in pert dresses and knee-high boots; they look like they’ve been up since five, getting dressed and coiffed for a board meeting. Their goodbyes are loving but swift. One mom in my son’s Kindergarten class wore stilettos every day, heavy eye makeup, and what looked like a flamenco skirt.
I imagine all these moms going off to whatever comes after drop-off: coffee with a friend, working from home, flamenco practice, taking care of a loved one or a younger child, a high-powered job or an underpaid, dead-end one. I imagine their “afters” with awe and, if I can admit it, more than a little envy.
Because, me: I drop off in running tights and sneakers, go sweat out a couple miles’ power walk in the hills before I go home.
Some days, anyway. I teach at a local university, so my schedule is both forgiving and completely unforgiving. I can’t leave work early to attend a meeting at my son’s school if I’m in a class. I can’t take vacations outside of the existing school breaks. Two or three days a week I’m rushing off to class and my husband does drop-off. But I don’t have an office to be in from 9-6 every day—I don’t even have an office at school—so there are a few hours a week when I begin my work day by popping into the studio next door to our apartment, opening up my laptop, and beginning to write. Landing this career lifestyle was no accident; I cultivated it, and I’m lucky for it. My work life allows me to pursue three things: not just my job, not just my family, but also, my writing.
My work life is great in so many ways. But it gives me a burden, too: that I have to actually pursue that third thing, and, I hope, excel at it. And some days, faced with that reality, I become a complete ball of angst, tearing my hair out, agonizing over how much work I have to do, not knowing where to begin, and becoming irrationally jealous of every other mother in the world who does not have this “third thing” in her life.
I’m dead serious: I fantasize, all the time, about being a mom who isn’t, also, a writer. I wonder what it would be like to just have a job. To, at the end of the day, feel the normal amount of parental stress and work stress but not the added stress of page quotas and deadlines and query letters. What would it be like to be a corporate executive? Sure, it would suck—but it would also be The Main Thing, and maybe I’d actually be with my kid when I’m with my kid, instead of worrying about plot lines, character development, or whether my memoir will ever see the light of day. Maybe I wouldn’t worry when I’m cooking dinner for my family that I’m not building my platform, Tweeting something pithy and literary, or reading the latest short story or essay that, as a writer, I. Simply. Must. Be. Aware. Of. Because there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year, believe me.
While writing all of this—and mulling over whether or not I sound like an overprivileged white woman who’s incredibly lucky to have the kind of life she does—I stumbled upon the essay “On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins, which you must read. No, really, you must. There’s too little space to explain, here, all its many nuances, but suffice to say it tells the story of Watkins being dismissed as a woman writer by a man writer—called a mere “student” by someone who on paper looked like her equal, being hit on, and, when the overture was rebuked, somehow being asked again, as though “no” once was not enough. The incident felt so familiar to me: the (male) doctor who told me “don’t freak out” when I told him I had to make a phone call to my childcare provider; the (male) band leader who made me feel like the world’s biggest idiot when I messed up at a jazz open mic in my twenties; and the times I have felt lesser as a woman writer, and as a mom to boot, as though there is something inherently frivolous about that existence. As Watkins asks, why do so many of us write for men, seek approval from men, not think we’re good enough as women writers, as mom writers?
And it got me thinking.
Do I really wish to not be a writer? Or is it just that the pressure to be all things to all people—a great mom, a great teacher, AND a great writer (not to mention a great spouse, a good cook, a terrific singer, level-headed, perfect, tidy, and a sewer-of-inspired-Halloween-costumes, all, traditionally, the things we women do)—is just, sometimes, too much?
Or perhaps it’s that it feels like it’s not enough. I don’t know, but I do know that when I read this bit in Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” about trying to write after she had a new baby, I felt myself go Ohhhhhh:
“I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.
I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart”…is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.”
I can’t exactly say what I felt when I read this: grateful. Sad. Empowered. Angry. It was a good reminder that yes, writing—for everyone—is really fucking hard in the first place. Add to that a job, a kid, and a society that doesn’t always value you, and you’ve got a recipe for Not Always Feeling Like It.
I wonder if all moms have some “third thing,” if I kid myself that being a writer mom is different from being any other kind of mom. I don’t know. I know we all have days when we just want to cast off the many required duties and Christmas shop, or watch a movie, or meet a friend for coffee, or take our kid out of daycare, or blow off the math homework, or get a cocktail at three in the afternoon.
But, usually, we don’t.
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