It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both.
This was the succinct, brutal description of motherhood written by Rufi Thorpe in her recent essay for Vela Mag, titled Writer, Mother, Monster, Maid (and my god, even if you’re a mother who’s never written anything more than a grocery list in your lifetime, go read it.)
I devoured the piece in minutes, stunned that a woman I’d never met could so accurately sum up my experience of both writing and motherhood. She took the aimless, itchy, angry frustration I so often feel and put it into words so finely chosen that I found myself wanting to cry or cheer, or both.
I was floored by the starkness of her words, the unapologetic fact of them. It wasn’t that this feeling was foreign to me – it’s not. I know this contradictory tug of war all too well, as I suspect many mothers do. This feeling, however – being wholly delighted and besotted by Olive while also often suffocated and frustrated by the relentless force of her need – often remains unspoken to all but my closest friends when I’ve hit my breaking point and begun binge eating sour candy.
It feels churlish somehow to complain. After all, I chose this life at home with Olive and I’m fighting like hell to figure out the nuts and bolts of how to continue making it work, even as I struggle against its implications for my identity – the not-mother part of me. The writer part.
Thorpe quotes another mother – a photographer – who says, ‘I’m not doing it, I just can’t. I can’t get the space. Even when I have a few hours, it doesn’t work. They’re always with me, even when they’re not.
This sentence sits with me for days. I think about the last year and a half since Olive’s dad and I separated. I think about the tight, strangled feeling I had when we first moved out. The panic of trying to figure out how to do this. The tightly budgeted balancing act of time and money; writing before she woke up and after she went to sleep at night and hoping like hell that it’d be enough to keep me in the black for another month. And yes, the way that I find myself angrily struggling sometimes, even when she’s not here, to reclaim the unpredictable frame of mind that produces writing which is inspired instead of rote. Writing that flows out instead of having to be pushed.
During the time that she’s at preschool or at her dad’s, I sit here with a handful of childless hours loudly ticking by and I chase that inspired feeling like a dog chasing its tail. I’m ravenous for the sensation of a sentence that lands just right; perfectly weighted and properly paced.
It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible…. she says The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing…The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.
I am sometimes deeply, irrationally jealous of my childless past, a past I wouldn’t trade for my current life for anything. But it was the life of a woman who existed only for herself.
I worry that I write less often now and with less skill. I read my old work and find myself filled with a cold, angry sense of loss for the writer I was, the time I don’t have, the thoughtful silences I’ve given up. When I have a good idea and I feel those solid sentences edging down my spine and into my fingertips and I can’t get them out because I’m at the playground or midway through tantrum negotiations about underpants, it feels like watching something precious and intangible slipping right through my fingers.
It does not matter how brilliant a writer you are, Thorpe says, Your children cannot put you first…Children are a hinge that only bends one way.
Children don’t wait and neither do good ideas, but children scream louder so they usually win. She usually wins. And she deserves to, but I often come back to my laptop late at night, after making dinner and cleaning up, after bathing Olive and brushing her teeth and wrestling her into bed and I’ll sit here and search in vain for that fleeting ghost of inspiration. When I finally realize that it’s gone I feel like crying or screaming or both. I also feel ridiculous for being so precious about my writing. I’ve never been someone to ramble on about my craft or my art, and I feel foolish somehow for letting the strength of this loss hit me so intensely. There are people out there with real problems for god’s sake.
But fuck, you know? While I’m ashamed to admit how much each of these little losses affects me I also think they bear acknowledging because pretending motherhood comes without loss to your self (whether that self is an overly dramatic writer, a powerhouse career maven or just a woman who existed in her own right rather than in relation to another human being) does no one any favours. To avoid doing so denies the importance of this work, and there’s far too much of that already. Motherhood becomes so all-encompassing that little can compete, and a mother’s creative output is too often treated like an indulgence, a cute hobby to keep her busy on the side.
In the eyes of my ex, it went without saying that my writing wasn’t work. Work was something measured in fat paychecks and dollar signs and in the early days when my words weren’t worth much it always felt like the effort put into their writing was dismissed. Later, when I got a book deal and spent the precious few hours that newborn Olive slept painstakingly piecing together those 60,000 words one by one, it wasn’t referred to as working. Our two vocations never stood on equal ground, something underlined by his conspicuous silence on the day of my book release when even distant acquaintances sent cards and congratulations; his stark absence at my first book signing; the way my radio interviews and promotional efforts had to be slotted in around his schedule or not at all. It felt strangely soul-crushing to watch as one much-loved part of my life so determinedly and deliberately devalued the other.
Since we separated I’ve begun trying to make a living by writing and it still hasn’t ever been referred to as “working”. It’s still something else. Something less.
And although one could argue that this dismissive opinion is just that, one opinion, it seems shared by many wherever art has the audacity to attempt to coexist with motherhood. In order to be taken seriously, it seems, regardless of the amount of effort it requires, work can’t be something that gets squeezed around the edges of mothering (in the morning before a child wakes or in the few hours while she’s at school) but something that must wholly replace it in order to be deemed real.
When people ask me what I do, I don’t know what to say. Am I a writer? Am I a mother? I am both, of course. But by trying to balance these two identities, each one seems to be lessened somehow. The demands of one necessarily rob those of the other.
… there are only so many hours in the day. If you are with your children, you are not writing. If you are writing, you are not with your children.
It’s wildly inaccurate to say that motherhood is somehow fundamentally incompatible with writing – or at least writing well – but I’ll readily admit that it sure as hell feels like it sometimes. The truth is it’s a balancing act like any other. By fighting to maintain balance I face a constant choice: writer or mother. Selfish or selfless. Create or be consumed.
The demands of my child constantly face off against those of my writing. One fills me, one drains me; they are both as essential to me as breathing.
After reading Thorpe’s essay, I shared it with a friend of mine. And as we discussed it, he suggested that perhaps it gets better as your children get older.
I hope so, I replied. Maybe then you get to come back.
Come back? he said, Come back from where?
Motherhood I answered. Maybe you gradually get to come back to yourself.
I feel hints of it already, as Olive becomes more independent. As full-time school edges closer and closer. As she begins to understand how to wait and play quietly and ask before interrupting.
But until then, Rufi Thorpe is absolutely right.
It is lovely; it is intolerable; It is both.