Writer, with Kids: Elizabeth Heineman

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Elizabeth Heineman, author of Ghostbelly: A Memoir (Feminist Press, 2014)

Age of kids: And . . . here’s where it starts to get hard. 22 and 3? Or 22, 3, and the one who’d be going on 6 if he hadn’t died an hour before he was born?

What happens when you can’t even get past the background info?

You try to explain, ever so gently: Not everyone who’s had a child has a child.

You say: It’s my dead child who made me a writer.

I wrote books before my stillbirth. But I wasn’t a writer. I was a scholar whose means of dissemination was the written word. I loved being in the archives, doing research. The writing part was like pulling teeth. But more to the point, it wasn’t art. Not because it was bad; just because it wasn’t supposed to be art.

Thor’s birth and death changed all that. In the months following the stillbirth, a flood of words came out. A different kind of words.

I don’t know where that creativity came from. Writing helped me to fill the time. Do you worry that you don’t have time to write, now that you have kids? I had all the time in the world. I was supposed to be taking care of a baby. Writing gave me something more meaningful to do than grading papers or picking up groceries. It enabled me to give Thor a presence in the world.

But those were convenient side effects of writing. I couldn’t have willed myself to write in order to have a meaningful pastime or to give Thor a presence in the world any more than I could have willed myself to sculpt or to write an opera.

Still, when I hear people say, “My book is my baby,” I laugh a little to myself. They don’t know the half of it.

I wrote for a year and a half. Then I made a book.

I was lucky. I’m a professor of history and gender studies. My job is crazily demanding but flexible enough that I could declare Ghostbelly to be my major project for a while. My older son, a high school senior, was empathetic but basically living his own life, thinking about his friends, his art, his plans for after graduation. (How do you remain present for your family even when you’re deep in a project? Try having adolescents. Their hopes for your presence are pretty minimal anyway.) Iowa City was – well, Iowa City, with an incredible array of outlets for anyone who feels like picking up a pen.

My guilty burden is that Thor’s death allowed me to discover a talent I never knew I had. It’s possible that Thor’s death created that talent. The pleasure I take in writing – my son paid for it with his life. This is not OK. But I can’t escape it.

Two years after Thor’s death, my partner and I adopted. James is almost four. I now do my writing around James’s schedule and my job. Both are time-consuming. But I’m insanely privileged. I have good daycare for James, the kind that makes him bubble with stories at the end of the day. I have tenure at my job.

Still, some weeks I barely write a word. Other weeks I squeeze in a few pages. I can’t write the essay I’m supposed to write for this blog – how I manage writing as a parent – because I manage it so badly.

But it’s hard for me to get too worked up about it. Writing with a three-year-old is slow going. That next book – it’ll come when it comes.

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Writer, With Kids