Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth: A Novel
Age of kids: 4 and 6
What was your writing schedule like before kids, and how has that changed?
I had a lot of free time before my first child was born, and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t take advantage of it. In some ways, it felt like too much time. Almost as if my knowing there was always more time made it easier for me to procrastinate. I spent a big chunk of my late twenties/early thirties not writing with any discipline or schedule and punishing myself for not finishing a novel. It was kind of awful because I was so hard on myself. I called myself a “failure” constantly. Granted, I was busy teaching many writing workshops through The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which I founded in 2002, but all those classes took place in my home around my dining room table, and so I didn’t have much reason to leave my home, which made writing, already a solitary art, feel even more isolating. Sounds pretty depressing, right? It was, unfortunately.
Becoming a parent, which involves huge sacrifices of your time, focus, and energy, made me value the little time I had to write. When my second child was two years old, I gave myself the chance to return to writing full-time. I also gave myself permission, because allowing myself to leave my two young children to write for hours and hours, working on a book that I wasn’t sure would ever be published, felt very selfish at the time. I doubled my babysitter’s hours (I’d finally found a person I trusted), rejoined the communal Writer’s Space, and wrote Cutting Teeth in less than nine months. Having less time to write (while not easy, of course, I am perpetually exhausted and overcaffeinated) turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the urgency added momentum to my motivation and forced me to become more disciplined in my process. For my first novel, written while I was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, six years before I’d have my first child, I went into the book knowing very little of what I needed to write. In the two years before I began working in earnest on Cutting Teeth, because I was so busy teaching, raising both my children and running Sackett Street Writers, I did a lot of pre-writing. I kept a document open for each character and added snippets of dialogue, thoughts, details, habits, fears, dreams, desires, all as they came to me, whether I was nursing my daughter, taking a shower, or, as often happens, just as I was falling asleep. By the time I was ready to commit to Cutting Teeth, I knew each character intimately, as if they were old friend, and this knowledge is what helped me write that first draft so quickly.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
It surprises me, maybe even shocks me, when I hear writers who are also parents, claiming that parenthood hasn’t altered their writing. I’ve heard several women writers—and I think this is a defense specific to women writers who, like me, want their work to be taken “seriously”—in interviews, or on panels about writing, say that becoming a mother hasn’t changed their work or their perspective as a writer, especially if they don’t write about parenting-related topics. I understand and sympathize with their defensiveness. I imagine they are worried, as I sometime am, that they’ll be seen as less “serious” or less “literary” if they are linked with all the soft sentimentality often associated with motherhood. Although, I must add, most of the moms I know—no matter the generation, location or class—are pretty badass. They’re the doers, makers, protectors, survivors. Nothing mushy about that. But the stereotype that motherhood invites is often not one a literary woman writer, especially one that wants to be taken as seriously as our male peers (a complex discussion in itself, for sure) is comfortable accepting.
But how can a writer who has become a parent, and specifically a mother, not admit to their perspective shifting? Even if they aren’t writing about parenting, they are writing about life, about humanity, about death, and many different definitions of “birth.” Our writing changes, or it should, organically as we move through life. If our style and perspective remained the same, how dull and stale our stories would be. I think it is impossible for a person’s perspective not to shift, and that shift be reflected and filtered through their characters’ perspectives, no matter the subject matter of their work.
For me, personally, motherhood has changed my writing in so many ways. The relationships I write about are complex in a new way, since my relationships with my husband, my parents, my friends, have also changed. My husband and I are both writers who work full-time and parent. That’s complicated stuff, and great material for an investigation into the nuances of relationships and all the sacrifices and negotiations that make up the balancing act of marriage. Cutting Teeth is very much a novel about parenting, specifically the new definition of motherhood in our post-feminist revolution (Lean In, Opt Out, Have it All) generation of women. These are decisions I struggle to make sense of in my own life as a woman and a mother. But I’m also not as much of a “natural mom” as I’d thought I’d be. I love working, and my husband and I share equal responsibility for household and childcare tasks. I wrote Cutting Teeth because the early years of parenthood were what I’d just emerged from and needed to make sense of at the time. Will I write about parenting again? I don’t know. My next book is about suburban teen girls. Has my own experience as a mother influenced my work, and will it continue to do so, no matter the subject? Absolutely.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
It is difficult. Very. But not impossible. Now that I’ve found a great balance, which is mostly due to the fact that both of my kids are in a great public school (hallelujah!), it is incredible what I can accomplish in one day. I have realistic expectations of myself, and how much of my energy I can share with my work and with my family. I often say that, sometimes, my work comes before my family, because I am trying to make a point. That it is okay for parents, particularly mothers, to devote themselves to their craft. But the truth is that when I am “putting my work before my family,” I’ve made sure that my babysitter is there, my husband on call. I am responsible for making sure the children are in good hands when not in my own.
My husband is an incredibly generous parenting partner, however. I would never have been able to accomplish so much with my work and writing, if he hadn’t been an equal partner in our family life. He is devoted to the children. I often call him their “second mom.” We share parenting and household tasks. I often feel guilty about this, as if this equality implies failure on my part, as if I’m not living up to the stereotype of the “good mom.” I know that may sound silly, but I do feel that guilt. I grew up in a home where my father was responsible for a lot of the domestic work, because he enjoyed it. He was this amazing accidental feminist. So that model, I know now, was responsible for the development of my partnership with my husband. That said, my uncles, my father’s brothers, think it is terrible that my husband does so much of the childcare work. They’ve even told me so! And that hurts, to feel so criticized and judged and misunderstood.
My advice to women writers who are mothers is this: Sometimes, you have take (it will often feel like stealing) the time you need to write. The guilt you may feel is worth the work.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
Finances. Money. Babysitting dollars. Preschool tuition. It is shocking how few grants and awards there are for writers who are parents. I just applied for a grant and was rejected and now I’m thinking, how am I going to be able to afford enough childcare to commit to all the hours it takes to finish my next book. Sure, there are residencies, but what parent can take off three weeks to three months and leave their children. The babysitting costs would be outrageous if they did.
It is so difficult to afford to write, especially when you live, as I do, in an expensive city and far from family support. When I returned to writing after my children were 4 and 2, it was because I had worked for 6 years to develop my business, Sackett Street Writers, and it was financially successful enough that I could afford more babysitting hours. I love running Sackett Street Writers. It is an incredible community and I am so fortunate to be able to work at what I love—the teaching of writing—but it is Sackett Street that allows me to afford to pay for childcare so I can write. I work to write, and, often, the work doesn’t allow me enough time to write. So I stay up very very late writing. Good thing I’m a night owl.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Life changes after you have children, but it doesn’t end. Trust your instinct. Be kind to yourself, and patient. I didn’t write for four years because I was busy raising two babies, teaching, and running Sackett Street. I wish I could go back and tell that young mother to be patient, and stop beating herself up for not doing it all at the same time—writing, working, parenting, socializing, exercising. She had to take that time off from writing to grow, to learn, and to experience those brief, relentless, and oh-so-sweet years of early parenting. They do go by quickly, just as all my aunts and great-aunts told me they would at my baby shower.
One of the best things about writing is that you will always return to the craft as a better writer. You become wiser with age and experience, regardless of whether you have time to read and/or write. You will return to your work and your perspective will include a spectrum of emotional hues that will make your work more beautiful, more meaningful, and more complex than ever.