Sarah Gilbert, author of essays in the Water~Stone Review, Oregon Humanities, Stealing Time Magazine and the upcoming anthology from Creative Nonfiction, “True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly.”
Sliding into Place: on writing and mothering
I wrote before I was a mother but I was not a writer. Becoming a mother slid the bar into place, clicked everything together, finished me.
I write this without wanting to say that I could not have been a writer without becoming a mother; I’m sure it would have still come together eventually. But for me it was the nudge — or, rather, the push off the pier into deep, cold water — that forced me too, finally, flail my arms and cough until I could swim.
What it was about mothering was that I was forced first, before I became a mother, to consider my relationships through a colder, harder light: this is not about me. This is about all the people who depend on me, or might someday. This is about what influence I am making or am not making. Then after I became a mother I was forced to work on myself. To think and rethink and rethink my assumptions and my views of the world and my defenses of my behaviors until I was not following any prescription; I was not subscribing to any philosophy.
Being a mother had me re-think what faith means, what love means, and how narrow are those loves I’d learned as a student (eros, philos, agape), how I felt about society and my place in it and success and my definition of it.
I became someone better as a mother in that I became someone who had to look at herself over, and over, and over again, and see if it was the self she wanted re-created in values and mannerisms and relationship style. I learned that I did not care about nose-picking and I did not care about back-talking and even swearing is not that big a deal, but I did care about sighing.
My mother sighs. I notice this when I ask her something hard, like if it’s ok if I go for a run, now, like if she can take care of my children for a few days. And I told my oldest, now almost eleven, to remind me not to sigh. I wonder how many sighs I’ve heard; I wonder how many I’ve given.
I have recently begun working through The Artist’s Way, and so often I come to the exercises or ideas for “dates” and realize how much of this I have already done. I pay attention, not just for my own writing, but to tell the stories to my children, to look and point up at the sky at the great blue heron, flapping slow and low right over our heads as we bike up the street and landing on a neighbor’s roof. We stop and point and look for other people stopping and pointing, too, but they are driving, they are getting gas, they are on their phones.
I consider one of my greatest achievements to be this: my boys, running to the window in the evening, saying, “LOOK! Look at the sunset! It’s BEAUTIFUL!”
In my morning pages I copy down quote from the latest mother/writer controversy, this one (as Rebecca Mead writes in the New Yorker blog) “bait-titled ‘The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother – Have Just One Kid.’” She goes on to write that, as both Jane Smiley and Zadie Smith point out, “the key – nothing so occult as a secret – to their ability to marry motherhood and writing has been adequate child care.” Is even that it? Maybe the secret is more like, “be the sort of person who can marry motherhood and writing.” In my life it is hard, but not terribly hard, and I have three boys, and a husband whose military service keeps him away from home for much of the last several years, and my three boys have behavioral challenges that stress me to the bending-but-not-quite-breaking point, and I have been more productive these past three years than any time in my life. Somehow it just works for me. Maybe I have patience or maybe (as I assume Jane, and Zadie, and Marilynne Robinson, and hundreds of other women with multiple children and admirable writing careers) I just want to badly enough, I want to have both children and writing, I, as the sentimental saying goes, always have love enough for one more.
I perseverate on Lauren Sandler’s money quote, from Alice Walker: “with one you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.” Pair this with Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana’s “mom’s rules”: “Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.” Both of these do not seem either motherly, or as Sandler describes it, “momish.” Both of these seem cold and even cruel.
What all this is, is not an argument so much for having a certain number of children – or, as Rebecca Mead, one child and three step-sons – but for working uninterrupted. Perhaps there is a style of work that I – like Katie Roiphe, with her “messy life” – claim. That of loving, and living, intensely and chaotically. Of coming upon my writing in the midst of a jumble of my children’s artwork and wrestling. Of exuberantly tumbling and giggling with my boys, falling asleep too late with them, waking late and in the quiet of our morning chaos see through my life like – something, a telescope or a microscope or even a prism – and find the bits I want to fictionalize and the others I want to commit to memoir. To commit to this essay.
Adequate childcare? Can I call it that? Certainly, I spend my hard-earned dollars writing about finance on five hours of babysitting a week (for writers’ group). I let my son watch his brothers while I go to the coffeeshop nearby to write morning pages or to have an editorial meeting. But my most productive times are at my computer in the dining room or in my bedroom, with children all over. With Monroe pulling on my arm – “mom, go run!” he says, wanting to play Minecraft on my laptop – with Everett hopping nearby shouting, “snacks snacks snacks snacks snacks!”
The thing is I write best in the middle of it.
The thing is, I produce as much because of my children as in spite of them. Is it that they clarify me? Is it that they inspire me? Is it that they (prosaically) give me material?
I write off their graphic novels and art supplies and coffee shop snacks as expenses. I write about the hardest things with them literally at my elbow. My essay about parenting them without my husband nearby won an award and major accolades. Another essay, about my abusive ex-boyfriend, will be published in a book this fall; I wrote it in bed, my oldest, who has anxiety, sleeping badly next to me. I write among my children and I write because of my children and – I know it’s not for everyone but – it works, like falling into place, for me.