Of the fifteen of us who began the MFA fiction program at Brooklyn College in 2003, only Karla was already a parent. I don’t think any of us fully understood what it meant for her to have chosen to be there and what it took for her to do it. Her older son was two when she started the program. By spring semester of our first year, she was pregnant with her second. It took her four years (maybe more. My recall isn’t what it could be) to complete the two-year program. At the time I said to Billy that I wondered why she was doing it at all, that she was missing out on the intensity of the MFA experience. I didn’t get it. She had plenty of intensity already. Whatever writing time she managed to steal came at a price and carried with it tremendous pressure to produce.
If her classmates didn’t understand what she was going through, the professors who had children didn’t offer much more. During a Q&A following a reading by one of our professors, a well-established author and mother of a then-teenage daughter, Karla asked if the professor had any advice for a mother who wanted to write. The professor’s response? “It’s absolutely possible to be a mother and a writer, but you can only have one child.” Karla, her second child in her lap, said, “Oh.” And the advice offered in conference by Karla’s thesis adviser, herself a mother of three kids—one grown and two teenagers at the time—was that “You can’t expect to write when the children are very young. It just isn’t possible. Put it away for now.”
This is what I carried with me when I went to a month-long residency at Ragdale in the fall after graduating from the MFA program. I was barely pregnant with Kiddo—four weeks along—and convinced that I was now locked in a terrible race against that growing fetus. I had to get as much work done as I could while he was still on the inside, because once he was born my writing life was well and truly fucked.
Except that didn’t turn out to be true. Not for me, anyway. It’s hard to get the work done once you have kids. It’s damn hard. But it’s not impossible. I struggle with it, though. I find my writing time when the kids are at school or asleep, so for me it too often comes down to choosing the work over getting enough sleep. (I also nearly always choose writing over housework, but I’m comfortable with that. Until someone sticks to the kitchen floor, that is.) I worry that I’m not making enough time for the work. And then I’m deep into a novel and I worry that I’m living too much in my head, and I have to fight to keep myself present when I’m with the family, to stuff the novel down and quiet it until I’m alone with it again. I no longer have the luxury of getting kind of nuts when I’m sunk deep into a project. No matter what my characters get up to on the page, when I surface I have to pull myself back to a stable, reliable center. Or as stable as I get, anyway. That’s been the hardest part for me, surprisingly…shifting between those two realities.
My second, and last, child is about to turn two. I’ve found a rhythm now, between the work and the family. When she was eighteen months old the little one started daycare two days a week, and Kiddo is in kindergarten. If I don’t have a freelance editorial job on my desk, that time is for writing. The same goes for nighttime, after Billy and the kids go to sleep. (How to balance writing the novels with editing other people’s books for money? That’s a different story.) Once in a while I’ll sneak away for four or five hours on a Sunday and write in a café while Billy hangs out with the kids. God, those writing Sundays are fantastic. I come back to them a little manic sometimes, though. That shift from writer to mother is hardest on the café writing days, because I push myself to not waste any of that time so by the end I’m sunk way in.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is to be a parent and a working writer. Wondering how other parents manage it, how they make time for the work while still being present for their kids. I’ve invited some of the writers I know to come here and talk about their experiences as writers with kids. We’ll hear from several New York Times bestselling authors as well as writers like me who are still working to get that first published book out into the world. We’ll hear from parents of newborns and parents of teenagers and grown children. Mothers and fathers.
I’m so excited to post this series. I’m hoping you’ll share your experiences as parents, whether you consider yourself a working artist or not. How do we hold on to ourselves, our sense of who we are and the things that are important to us, as we move into these roles of mother and father? I think it’s going to be a great conversation. And if you aren’t a parent, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy these glimpses into the lives of some amazing writers.