Dena Rash Guzman, author of Life Cycle—Poems
Age of kid: 14 year old son
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
I don’t remember anymore. I think the thing with BC (Before Children) was, I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it, including writing poems, and then one day, I had a baby. It’s so blurry, this time before, but the minute he was born, I stopped writing, and didn’t write again for eight years.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
If I’m sunk deep, I don’t remain present. I tell everyone to leave me alone. “Do not speak to me unless you are bleeding.” However, I only sink deep for a whole day at most. Generally, I work late, late at night. Like right now, it is 1:59 AM. No one knows who I am paying attention to, or not, at 1:59 AM.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
Having a baby grounded me. That’s not an original thing to say, and in fact, might be considered controversial, but I am not interested in starting any mommy wars or child-free vs. mommy wars. I am not sure where that term came from, and it’s so horribly offensive, anyway. If there are indeed mommy wars, I’m the Annie Oakley of the mommy wars, and I will say what I want to say, sharp and on stage.
I had to make the choice to let having a baby to have ground me. I could have let it ruin me. It would have been easier. For the first seven or eight years of his life it would have been far easier to let go and let it take me down, but that’s not me. I chose to let having my son teach me that.
I remember being pregnant and imagining him being docile, quiet in his Moses basket while I wrote, or read, or watched a movie. That was not how it would be at all.
He had colic. For the first four months of his life, he cried loud and ragged from sunup to sundown. He went to sleep promptly at six p.m. and slept for a few hours at a time until sunrise, when he’d start crying again. He cried so hard and so long I used to imagine he was communicating the pain of the entire world to me. I imagined he could feel this pain and I was failing because I could not make him stop. It was maddening. The support of his father, his grandparents and my sister saw me through. I can only say it was them who saw me through. It was challenging.
He suffered profound developmental delays. I breastfed him for three years. I slept with him, and when he was three and Dr. Sears gave us a preliminary diagnosis in regard to what might be causing those delays, I worked hard to create therapies for him, because we couldn’t afford the right specialists. I had no faith that anyone was a better specialist than his own parents, anyway.
He hit me, he kicked me, he bit me, and things like leaving the park or ending a game of hide and seek were what set him off. No game or outing could ever end. No transition could occur or there was hell. Naturally, there was plenty of hell. Everything has to end. Everything.
I did all the regular parenting things. I took him to the doctor and he cried and screamed. Same with the park, play groups, the store, and the baby gym. He basically got us kicked out of more than one mommy and me playgroup by screaming, hitting and throwing things at the other babies. There wasn’t much community in my life. The community rejected us. I found community on the internet, but in my neighborhood, I found only exclusion. My baby was punk. I was kind of punk, too, when I wasn’t trying to make people understand, and when I wasn’t stupidly apologizing.
I picked peas and carrots out of his nostrils when he was two. He shoved more up the next day and I did it again, pinning his elbows to the ground with my knees so I didn’t poke his brain out with my pinkie finger as he screamed and struggled. God, he struggled. I called Dr. Sears who said I should just remove the peas and carrots myself, as I’d have better luck than they would. So I did, and after the third time, gave him no more peas and carrots.
Having a baby-child is sometimes like having a seriously disturbed mental patient living in your house. It is sometimes like being held hostage, only you are being held by your own biology and your own choices, and you have to remember that child did not ask to be born. You owe the child temperance, love, patience and discipline. It’s not easy.
I would tell myself, this reign of terror will end. He will reach the age of reason. Then, he did. In between the peas and carrots and the magical age of reason, I spent untold numbers of hours fighting school districts on his behalf, and then untold numbers of dollars and more hours hiring and working with attorneys on his behalf. After I prevailed against the school district, I was hired by a nonprofit law clinic to advocate for other children. This time, those children were severely disabled wards of the state whose educational rights were being violated by their schools. This job grounded me, already dead set on being grounded by motherhood, even more.
Because my child had me on his team, I was able to force his school to observe federal law and provide him with an obligatory free and appropriate public education. This freed me, in the way remanding a child to the village always frees the mother, to return to the world and work outside my home.
These children, the children who were our clients, often had no mother or father. They had no one to do this for them. That was my job. I fell into it hard and during those years the legal documents I wrote at work became poetry. I realized I was writing again, and requests for due process were my muse.
I wrote at night in bed after my son went to sleep. I did not write about my work, or my family. I wrote love poems and persona poems about women in history. I found people to show these to, and was encouraged to keep doing it.
One day I realized the school was no longer doing what it was legally required to do for my child, and instead of fighting for him along with all the other children, I just took him out of school and quit my job. That was in Las Vegas. Three years ago, we moved to a farm here in Oregon, outside Portland. That grounded me again. I didn’t know what to do with nature. I had to read books to figure it out.
We know now, but all of these things made me write better than I did before I was a mother. Not everyone finds this to be the case, but after I had my son, my very flesh became a great poem.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
The best advice I have is to treat your children and yourself with respect. Shaming, unkindness and punishment in response to failure are not effective. I use, in both parenting and writing, a method of discipline combined with desperation and love. Always love. The writing doesn’t have to reflect that love, but we can’t hate or loathe ourselves and produce anything worthwhile, be they children, or be it writing. Love might not be all you need, but you need it. So do your children, and so do your blank pages.