Kate Hopper’s first book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, has just been released from Viva Editions. Kate teaches online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her family. She blogs at www.motherhoodandwords.com.
One morning a few months ago, my older daughter woke up on the wrong side of the bed. She’s not really a morning person and she’s eight, so morning time often involves high drama at our house. But this was a particularly challenging morning—Stella’s pants were too tight; or we didn’t have any eggs left; or Zoë, her younger sister, who is always naked, sat too close to her on the couch. I can’t remember exactly what precipitated Stella’s flinging of her body onto the dining room floor with whining laments, but I was clearly not responding the way she wanted—I could not restart the day for her on a brighter note. Finally, she looked up at me and wailed, “Mom, you don’t even love me!”
I knelt down, took her shoulders in my hands, and said in my most reassuring mother’s voice, “Honey, you know that’s not true. I love you and Zoë more than anything in the whole world.”
Stella narrowed her eyes. “Do you love us,” she said, “more than your book?”
I must admit that at the time I was neck deep in copyedits for my book, and I’d been spending a lot of time either at the coffee shop or in my tiny office with red pen in hand. I was waking up at 5 to try to get an hour of editing in before my girls got up, before the lunch-making ritual, before wrangling Zoe into some clothes, and getting myself showered and off to my day job. Put plainly: I’d been working a lot.
That morning, I hugged Stella and said, “Of course I love you more than my book—If I had to choose, of course I’d choose you girls.” I squeezed her tight, and then I added, “But I’m glad I don’t have to choose.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and I was able to coax her off the floor.
When I thought about this after the fact, I realized that when I said I was glad I didn’t have to choose between my daughters and my writing, I meant in a life or death kind of way. Like a bad joke—my writing is in one boat, my girls in the other and I can only save one boat from going down. My daughters would clearly win that contest.
But I also realized that I regularly—weekly, daily—make a choice between my family and my writing. Some Sunday mornings, I decide to skip the coffee shop and take the girls to the park. But more often, I pack up my lap top, leave the girls at home with my husband, Donny, and head out the door even though I know they’d rather have me stay home with them.
This is a choice I’ve made since they were little. When Stella was 16 months old, we enrolled her in a Montessori preschool 8:30-3:30 three days a week. At the time, I was finishing my MFA and I needed to write and teach. When I finished my MFA program, however, she stayed in preschool three days a week.
Over the next few years, I spent those mornings writing. Later, I added teaching and some freelance work and some stints at part-time jobs into the mix, but writing was always my priority during my work time. The challenge always being to make enough money through my odd jobs to cover childcare (and a portion of household bills) so I could continue to write.
When Zoë turned 16 months old, she joined Stella at the preschool. Stella is, as I said, now 8, and Zoë is four, and both girls have only known me as is a working writer. The truth is I can’t imagine motherhood without writing or writing without motherhood. Perhaps this is because I believe I really became a writer when I became a mother.
Before Stella was born, I didn’t actually write much. Well, I wrote enough to get into an MFA program—and I did my assignments for my classes. But I spent a great deal of time procrastinating, waiting for inspiration and generally wasting time.
But motherhood—and the need I felt to reflect on the larger issues that came up in my life as a result of me becoming a mother (faith, marriage, writing itself)—made me into the writer I am today. And now, if I have two hours, I write for two hours. I no longer have time to wait for the muse to shine her light on me (she’s incredibly unreliable anyway).
Sometimes it’s a tricky balance. What I always tell my students is that if you want to write, you need to make it a priority in your life. It doesn’t need to be number one on your list, but it needs to be on your list. I’m not someone who believes you need to write every day to be a writer. That’s just not realistic for many of us. But you need to figure out what is realistic. Maybe it’s an hour or two on a Friday morning. Maybe it’s Sunday afternoon at your local wine bar. (Yes!) You need to figure out what works for you, and then communicate with your family and partner about how important it is for you to write.
But it does take some sacrifice. You have to make choices, as I now realize I have done. But even though I sometimes choose my writing over my children (in that non-life-threatening way only, of course), I hope that my daughters understand how important writing is in my life—and grow to someday respect my work as a writer.
I love what novelist Julie Schumacher said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. She said, “I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.”
She couldn’t have said it better.
(Adapted from a presentation I gave on the panel “Barefoot, Pregnant and at the Writers Desk” at the 2012 AWP conference.)