When I first started NaNo way back in November of 2013, my family entered what we might call “a state of emergency.” All the hours of extraneous labor I invested into my domestic life after my full-time job was spent at the end of the day, I began to redirect toward writing. And it showed. Laundry piled up, dishes were abandoned, stacked in the sink with crusts of spaghetti sauce and three-day old eggs my daughter refused to eat festering in a cesspool of neglect. The television was on a constant rotation of Team Umi Zumi and Curious George, and my husband often came home, trying, like the supportive hellofaguy he is, to mask the disappointment in his face when he had to reheat his dinner in the microwave. But it was all about THE BOOK. Mommy is on a mission, guys, so cut her a little slack, okay?
Well, seven months, two polar vortexes, and one bear of a tax season later, mommy is still on a mission. We’ve culled the television watching, but the dishes and laundry are still in a constant state of crisis. I made the first “fresh” dinner last night in ages, and reveled in the taste of something that didn’t come out of a crockpot or a freezer. But the whole time I was prepping, I thought, “I could be editing this scene. Now I’m going to have more dishes to do after the kids go to bed, and that’s going to cut into my productivity.” Now, some (and by “some” I mean, people who don’t write, or people who make a lot of money writing spiritualist self-help books), would say to me, “It’s all about balance, Colleen. Learn to bring full attention to all aspects of your life as you do them. And breathe.” But let me tell you about what happens when you become a writer.
My main male character, Finn, has woken me up every morning at 5:30 am this week, telling me all about his conflicted feelings toward the organization he belongs to and how he’s starting to lose faith in his leader. As sure as one of my kids crying and puking up all over the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, I can’t just roll over and ignore it. Even if I try, he’s there, sitting on the edge of my bed, getting all emo on me, begging me to work out these conflicts, create some rising action, explore the tension that torturing him, and seek out some kind of resolution. I plead with him, “Look, I have to be up for an hour, man! Can’t your issues wait until I put the kids to sleep tonight?” But no, they can’t, so I lie there in bed, imagining how I’m going to compose this next scene, how I’m going to take Finn from one place and put him in quite another emotionally, do all the writer things I need to do that will appease this big baby of a man. Then my alarm goes off or one of the kids come in, and the day begins.
A long time ago, Dr. Short once told me a story about a creative writing class he took where the professor came in and said, “If you are not here because you have to write, meaning you will die, literally die, if you don’t write, then leave right now.” I remember two things from that moment 1) Thinking, “what a pompous jerk” and 2) Shrinking in my seat because even though I sort of fancied myself a poet, liked to dabble here and there in some short fiction, I didn’t feel that way about writing. Honestly, I didn’t feel that way about anything…well, maybe drinking and chasing boys, but I wouldn’t die if I didn’t get to have a good time on Saturday night. What he was describing was a phenomenon I had seen in my father, who came home from work every night, ate dinner, and worked on composing music. Later, I would hear the same thing from my advisor, who also came home every night and worked on scholarship until very late, doing it over and over every day. What is wrong with these people? I would wonder. The only time I stayed up late doing anything was because I had to, not because I chose to.
Well, here I am, staying up every night writing, and I finally get it. I’m not going to die if I don’t ever get to write another word again, but Elizabeth and Finn will. Grainne, Eamonn, Máirtín, Seamus, Regina will die. And even douchebag Amergin will die before I get the chance to kill him! And I just can’t have that. But if I walk away, this whole world will crumble into a big pile of electronic dust in the ether of my laptop before the story is ever told. When I first started writing, I thought it would be a fun way to make extra cash. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad I would say, “I’m doing this for my family.” Bullshit. We do these things because sometimes the worlds we create are larger than ourselves and the obsessions that drive us, that keep us going, are the only things that sustain us.
Which brings me back to my conflicted feelings toward motherhood, especially on Mother’s Day. I gave birth to my first child at the height of the “mommy wars,” the attachment parenting boom that felt so exhilarating at first, but ultimately left me disillusioned and, well, exhausted. Like so many new mothers, my child became my obsession, reading about her, researching about her, consuming books and instructional manuals that would all, hopefully, make me into the “perfect mother,” create that ideal mother/child relationship that we see in Hallmark commercials and sitcoms. Yet, the other day my husband and I were at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve “Spring Fling,” and I watched my four year old running through the grass with the other children, shouting, playing, making up games, and I realized how little her childhood has to do with me. That she is her own person, and always was, and my role in shaping the woman she will ultimately become has so little to do with me, but everything to do with her. While before I would be that “helicopter” parent, watching her like a hawk, making sure she was adjusting well to the other kids, “playing nice,” not getting into scrapes, I felt liberated to walk away, to give her the right to manifest the story of her childhood in her own way, rather than as a reflection of my attempts, good, bad, or misguided.
What strikes me, though, is that my husband has always had this privilege. If the tables were turned, (and sometimes they indeed are!) that for my job I had to work 80 hours a week without seeing my kids, I would be labeled all manner of things: “neglectful,” “cold,” “unbalanced,” “selfish,” even “un-motherly.” No one, not one person, would ever deny my wonderful husband his fatherly status (nor should they, he’s an amazing Dad) based on the demands of his career, but if my job demanded these things of me, I would become the “un-mother,” the “anti-mother,” the “how can you even call yourself a mother?” mother. And the more I write, the harder I work at this book, the more my focus shifts from domestic concerns to writerly ones, I wonder how we, women, got to this place, how “motherhood” became the site of so much anxiety and so much obsession. How it became a priori to our other identities.
Because, honestly, I don’t feel guilty that my house is a mess, and I don’t feel guilty that I would rather slit my wrists and do crafts with the kids with glue sticks and glitter paint. Yet, as a writer, I cannot help a little slighted by the domestic labor gap. Charles Dickens had ten children, but I don’t think I can name one famous woman writer with the same amount. Dickens’ contemporary, Elizabeth Gaskell had four children, and she woke up at four am every morning to write. I always dreamed Aaron and I would have three children, but I know one more baby would mean two years of my life…*poof*… gone. A year of the slog of pregnancy and a year of all-night nursing sessions. It’s hard to hear the muse when you’re walking the hallway with a fussy baby and in the war between a fictional character and a young nursling? Well, you can imagine who is going to win that battle.
In the end, I guess this is just another post about how women can’t have it all, and I can deal with that. If my husband had mammary glands, I have no doubt that he would share the breastfeeding. But beyond that, the demands of a clean house, a cooked dinner, clean, well-groomed children hang upon me in a way that they don’t press upon (not quite) my male professional counterparts. If their houses are dirty and their kids are a little untidy, it’s charming. Oh, dads… But sometimes I feel like the vagina police are going to take my mom badge away if I don’t learn to bake a decent cupcake or ensure that my child has the perfect mouse costume for the school play. Betty Friedan once discussed the idea of “the problem with no name” in regards to bourgeois house wives in the 1950s and 60s, but I’m starting to wonder if my bourgeois sisters with our cool feminist husbands and our awesome careers aren’t experiencing something quite similar. If we do have it all, why are we so exhausted all the time?