When I was a senior in college, I took a class called "The Literature of Social Reflection." The teaching fellow leading my discussion section of the course introduced herself by saying, "I'm a writer... and a mother."
At 21, I thought this was the most hilarious phrase I had ever heard. And so did all my friends, once I repeated it to them. This was the mid-'90s, and there was something so 1979-earnest about identifying mothering as one of your careers, like calling yourself a "women's libber" instead of a "feminist."
Well, like my father likes to say, God is an ironist. Because, fast-forward seventeen years and I'm a writer... and a mother. And that teaching fellow seems less earnest to me and more optimistic, because while being a writer is great and challenging and being a mother is great and challenging, trying to be both simultaneously can sometimes feel like a recipe for disaster.
On the surface, it's all ideal. You get to work at home, ideally when your perfect child is napping. But what that translates to is lots of cuddling with a little angel/demon reading Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? (I swear, its cadences are starting to influence my own writing) while thinking "Go to sleep so I can work on my novel, go to sleep so I can work on my novel."
I do have a babysitter in the afternoons, but when I'm paying someone to care for the angel (which is how it goes when she's being watched by someone else, she's smart enough to save her dark side for me), I feel like I need to be doing paying work -- that is to say, writing articles for magazines which are giving me a fee to do so, not working on fiction which ends up bringing in some obscure fraction of a fraction of a cent when considered in a pay-per-word or pay-per-hour way.
I know these are first world problems, as I'm so grateful to have this amazing child and to be able to do work I enjoy. But they're also, in many ways, problems that seem rockier for the females in the world of writing and parenting than the males.
When I was getting my MFA, Richard Ford came to speak to the writing students. Someone asked him if he had any advice for aspiring writers and he said, "Marry young and marry rich."
I started my MFA at 30, so marrying young was out of the question for me, although I was lucky enough to end up with a husband who has health insurance that covers me and our baby so I could stop purchasing my own, which I suspect is the kind of thing Ford had in mind. But if I were to speak to a group of students and be asked the same question, I'd say, "line up some really great child care."
I'd probably be speaking mainly to the women in the room. Because while you can be a writer and a mother -- tons of us do it -- being a Serious Author and a Mother seems virtually impossible.
In November of last year, I was lucky enough to participate in the Miami Book Fair International, the largest book fair in the country. I'm a Miami resident, which is how I slipped onto the roster, but there were other, celebrated authors who had been flown in from far and wide and were milling around the writer's lounge with their handlers in tow. In lieu of handlers I had Amalia, then about 15 months old, and, since my husband was out of town, my mother, who had agreed to watch the baby. Unlike the various and sundry PR people, agents and publishers, Amalia was intent on grinding cookies into the carpeting and dragging the sack of swag we were all given across the room. Thinking this was not how a Serious Author's entourage behaved, I shooed my daughter -- and her grandma -- out to Children's Alley to see if they could bother the Cat in the Hat or Curios George instead.
But as soon as they were gone, I started to miss them. I began to wonder: If I were a male author, what would people think if I brought my toddler and mother with me to a book fair? In my, perhaps twisted, imagination, it would be something like, "What a great dad! I wonder if he's divorced?" Whereas I got the feeling that when people were looking at me, they saw not a hot mama but a hot mess, someone who couldn't get it together to secure real child care or even get a proper manicure before speaking to a crowd of people.
And then I spotted her... my fellow panelist Rachel Joyce, whose debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is inspiring, beautifully written and also wildly successful. Next, I noticed her date: her sweet, handsome, pre-teen son who had traveled with her from England for the event.
I know there's a difference between a polite (read: British) middle schooler and an ebullient (read: Greekaraguan) cookie-obsessed toddler. But seeing Joyce and her son together made me think, if Rachel Joyce can be a Serious Author and a Mother at the same time, I can at least be an Author and Mother.
At the risk of sounding more women's libber than feminist, it was so empowering to see a writer I admired who was balancing writing and motherhood, and rather gracefully at that. So I ducked out to Children's Alley and brought back the banished family members, then gave Amalia total control of the swag bag to distract her from the cookies.
On bad days when I'm with Amalia, I feel like I should be writing, and when I'm writing, I feel like I should be reading "Mr. Brown Can Moo!, Can You?" yet again. But on good days, when Amalia takes her nap, and my computer is cooperating, a writer and a mother feels like a delicate balance, but also a perfect union, like chocolate and peanut butter or champagne and strawberries. On those days, I think of my former teaching fellow, and I'm no longer laughing with her but at her. Because while it may be impossible to be a serious author and a seriously good mother at the same time, it's fun, if exhausting, trying. And I'm not sure I would have the strength to do so if it weren't for the examples of women who aren't afraid to say that they're both, despite the laughter of callow co-eds.
Or, in the words of another one of my favorite authors:
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, Mr. Brown is a wonder.
Boom, Boom, Boom, Mr. Brown makes thunder.
He makes lightning SPLATT, SPLATT, SPLATT, and it's very, very hard to make a noise like that!
Mr. Brown can whisper, whisper... very soft, very high... like the soft, soft whisper of a butterfly.
Maybe YOU can, too. I think you ought to try.