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When Motherhood Matters More

Motherhood and writing: a topic buried beneath mounds of advice columns, cries of frustration, and hurtful moral judgments on all sides.  Most of what I hear are concerns a child will stall/delay/derail a career, coupled with ways to work around the child.

But this is a different sort of article.  This is about the other side of motherhood and writing, the decision that opens the door for all those advice-guides and judgments, and the truth some writers fear to some degree or another.

It’s about accepting—choosing—slower career growth in exchange for raising children and caring for family.

It’s about putting motherhood first.

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More mothers do this than talk about it.  You won’t hear much about choosing to gaze into a baby’s eyes as she breastfeeds, but you’ll hear lots about one-handed typing to create a first draft while the baby eats.  You won’t read many tales about how much more satisfying it is to help your child master riding a bike than it is to complete a solid first draft.  And rarely will you see a writer claim that putting avid pursuit of a writing career on hold was the best damned decision of her life.  You’ll most often hear the frustrations instead.

Why?

The perspective is out-of-step with the mainstream notion that “strong work ethic” is synonymous with, “works at the expense family.” It’s far more acceptable to say your progress faltered because certain plot points were challenging than to say your wordcount was low because you took your child to the park.  Few would call a writer dealing with depression unprofessional if a book’s release date was delayed for mental wellness reasons.  Many would call it unprofessional if the delay came from tutoring your child through a difficult school year.  So mothers are more likely to publicly vent about their lack of progress than tell you how cool it is to instead what a tiny human grow and develop.

I can tell you all sorts of things I did to keep writing while adhering to the parental commitment I’d chosen, and I can expound at length on the number and diversity of complaints I made about never having enough time and brainpower.  But that’s only the most-expected part of the story, the part that’s professionally acceptable and expected.  There’s much more to it.

**

I offer this as a discussion of my own choices, not my moral judgment of the choices other mothers make, and as a perspective for new writers/new mothers to consider.

A little history so you know where I’m coming from…

My son was a surprise, showing up more than a year earlier than my husband and I had planned.  For familial and financial reasons, we soon left the west coast and landed in small-town Indiana.  I also left an unfinished university education, the lure of a teaching career, and a growing presence in regional theater.  Some warned I was sacrificing my youth, ambition, talents, and success for mere motherhood.  That by the time I returned to professional life, it would be too late to “catch up.”  But rather than play the crazy-making game of trying to be everything at once, I chose to do a couple things in succession.  Why not have everything I wanted in a sequence instead?  And why was contributing to the next generation seen as a lesser calling?

TyPuppy 001

When my son started school, I was jazzed to have more writing time (and the privilege of living in a situation that permitted me that time).  Then, for a slew of academic reasons, I started homeschooling him halfway through third grade and my time went away again.  In the almost-decade since, I’ve experienced poverty, the loss of my husband, and the low expectations of people who know me as “just a mom” living in Indiana.  Our financial life might have been easier had I stopped homeschooling (provided I landed a job in the middle of the horrible recession), but it wouldn’t have been best for my son.  Not by a long shot.

So… we kept up homeschooling, and gave up other things.  That’s when I fully embraced parenting as my primary, no-hesitation vocation.

But something gave me comfort in the years of stress and loss, brought me joy in the midst of darkness, and motivated me to pick vegetables from 5am to noon, scrub toilets, and deliver the same basic academic lesson for the umpteenth time while wondering in the back of my mind how I was going to afford enough heating oil to make it through the winter.

It was not writing.

It was my son.

**

Even though my son was a surprise, my parenting decisions were deliberate.  I believed my child would grow more willing to explore the world if he knew a parent was always available to back him up—not to keep him from falling, but to pick him up if he did.  I believed he’d continue to share his thoughts and fears if I remained available, open, and accepting when he spoke them.  I believed that, as he navigated adolescence—especially while grieving his father’s death—he’d need me to do fewer things for him and with him, but would need me to just be there more.

Growing up didn’t wait while I finished writing the next scene or revising the next book.  The writing waited on my son instead.  Whatever I lost by putting motherhood first was so much smaller than what I and my son gained.

And I knew he wouldn’t be a child forever.

I’ve reached the end of the child-raising part.  My son turned eighteen in December, and though we’re still wrapping up high school studies, he’s transitioned into a person who shares the house rather than someone who is only cared for within it.  He holds down a job and takes care of his own finances, helps with meals and chores, and talks with me every day.  He knows he doesn’t need to ask permission anymore, but discusses plans anyway.  At least a couple times a week, he asks to “run something by me.”  Every now and then, he’ll knock on my bedroom door in the wee morning hours, unable to sleep because of worries or memories or something that just can’t wait until morning.

And all those times over all those years I lost sleep, lost brain cells, and set aside my writing at a second’s notice—because he needed to talk, or couldn’t wait to show me something funny the dogs were doing, or hit maximum frustration with his reading, or just wanted to hug or cry or vent about life’s unfairness—all those stalled-out writing projects and unpublished stories have paid off.  He’s a good young man.

When I sit with a group of parents complaining about the rudeness, self-centeredness, rebellion, and distance of their teenagers, I have very little to contribute.  In fact, I usually walk away, tired of hearing parents say horrible things about their own children.  Their experience is not mine.

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**

Do I have regrets?  Oh, bright hells, of course I do!  Most of them are small, more like random musings, the kind of regret that comes from having too many good options rather than a bunch of bad ones.  Would I have found as much satisfaction teaching college-level courses as I have found teaching classes of my own making?  Would I have settled in London for half the year?  Would I have landed a few choice roles?  How many books would I have finished?  What would I have done had I not invested so much in motherhood?

The most painful regrets have nothing to do with lost writing time and professional opportunities delayed or gone.  They are instead about times I lost my temper, or the day I cancelled a camping trip, or my inability to provide financial opportunities even in the midst of the recession.

What about those people who told me I’d regret sidestepping career choices in favor of motherhood?  The corporate executives, college professors, and theater professionals?  For their professions, at that time, they were right that I’d never recover from taking a eighteen-ish year time-out.  Their success had depended upon a defined course, or the opportunities afforded younger women, or their ability to prove their careers came first.  Most every mother today grew up hearing that women who don’t put a career above family must not be serious about anything but family—and women serious about family can’t be considered for much of anything else.

But writing isn’t like all those other professions, and indie writing is even less like them.  No reader gives a flip how old or young we writers are, what our CV looks like, how many genre conventions we attend, or whether we’ve checked off the proper boxes of education and experience.  The reader cares if we tell good stories and present them professionally.

When we reach the age when we’re told we shouldn’t even bother trying to recover a career in other occupations, writing provides us the potential of decades ahead.  And the availability of indie publishing means the writer needn’t anticipate waiting years to receive form letters and more years to see her work available to readers.  In fact, age and experience and maturity become incredible assets.

We don’t need to worry about breaking out before aging out. 

And let’s be real: Were we discussing taking time out from a new or established writing career in order to earn a series of academic degrees, no one would be bombarding us with advice on how to churn out novels with a thesis on our hip.

**

So if you’re a new writer, and someone tells you you’ll lose writing years if you have a child, understand the perspective the claim is coming from.  Women have been trained to refer to the years spent with their children as lost years, as time away from the world that matters, as a professional sacrifice, as something given away that can never be regained.

That’s bullshit.

If I’d resented every moment taken from my writing, I’d have finished my motherhood years bitter and depressed.  I’d have tainted my ability to write in the future, and broken my relationship with my son.  (After all, children who constantly hear their parents complain about what they could be doing instead of parenting don’t gain much in the way of self-worth.)  Instead, I chose to make parenting my highest priority, learned to be patient with myself as well as with my child, and discovered “missing out” was, for me, the best thing that ever happened.

Don’t let expectation determine your experience.

Sure, I swallowed my frustration plenty of times.  Sure, I sometimes wonder what else I’d have accomplished if I’d had thousands and thousands of additional hours over almost two decades.  Sure, I took the occasional trip to immerse in the writing life that was elsewise a mere figment of supposition.

But when I’m ready to look back from the end of my life, I will not think to myself, “Gosh, I wish I’d spent less time raising my son.”  Because the absolute truth is this: I wanted to know my son better than I knew any business or craft because my son—and people, and family—are by far more important than the best damned story I could ever make up.

Devin-GenCon-2014

#SFWApro


Comments

( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
haikujaguar
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:18 pm (UTC)
I really liked this post, and am sad that I can't really share it without causing at least half the people who read it to become angry. :P
itsamellama
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:32 pm (UTC)
O_O I thought of you, too (and your delightful posts about your daughter!) and ... it is really sad that things are that way re: people getting angry over something beautiful like this. :( *offers a hug*
blairmacg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC)
I tried really, really hard! Removed a bunch of stuff, even!

But I couldn't remove everything, or constantly disclaimer everything, that might trigger an argument without fundamentally changing the whole thrust of the post. And it wouldn't be the first time folks didn't like me. ;-)

So... yeah, I know what you mean... which kinda underscores my point.

And I'm really, really glad you found it of value.



Edited at 2015-02-02 04:37 pm (UTC)
haikujaguar
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:42 pm (UTC)
I did, and I'm glad you wrote it and shared it! But it has given me much fodder for musing about the many problems our society is currently fostering. :,
(Deleted comment)
itsamellama
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:31 pm (UTC)
This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your story. ♥
blairmacg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
queenoftheskies
Feb. 2nd, 2015 04:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing. The decisions we make shape not only the current life, but the future as well, and you and Dev both seem to have bright and shining futures. :)
blairmacg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:10 pm (UTC)
These are choices you, of all moms, do indeed understand. :)
ann1962
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:31 pm (UTC)
When I sit with a group of parents complaining about the rudeness, self-centeredness, rebellion, and distance of their teenagers, I have very little to contribute. In fact, I usually walk away, tired of hearing parents say horrible things about their own children. Their experience is not mine.

This, this and this.

This is a beautiful post about a life well lived. I'm happy for you all.
blairmacg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 06:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

It isn't that my son has never (or will never!) been rude or distant, but it's a passing thing rather than a permanent personality trait. And I can't imagine talking about my child as if I'm trying to find the most hurtful insults ever.
(Deleted comment)
blairmacg
Feb. 3rd, 2015 02:36 am (UTC)
Yes. Even when my kid does wrong, I'm on his side (which in my case means, "help him understand the consequences, accept his part in them, and learn to do differently").
ann1962
Feb. 2nd, 2015 09:07 pm (UTC)
::nods::

I see this with the women in my book group. They actively insult their children. And then they wonder why the child is distant.

It was nice to read such kindness.
blairmacg
Feb. 3rd, 2015 02:38 am (UTC)
I see this from parents at the dojo sometimes, too. Most have learned that if they try it while *in* my dojo, I will diplomatically intervene.
danceswithwaves
Feb. 2nd, 2015 05:45 pm (UTC)

This is a wonderful post. Thank you for this perspective.

blairmacg
Feb. 2nd, 2015 06:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you, and you're welcome. :)
thanate
Feb. 2nd, 2015 08:53 pm (UTC)
I feel like a bunch of the big names (Le Guin, Bujold...) started getting published around when their kids hit high school, which tallied well with the point at which I feel like I grew into the ability not so much to write novels, but to think critically about them. Everyone's curve is different, of course, but I feel like even those of us who have always written need a level of brain maturity to grow into ourselves, and parenting (plus the amount of reading kid lit you can put into it...) isn't a bad way to work on that.

Of course, I timed things just wrong, as I was just getting the momentum to do more than just write & then let things languish on my computer when I went and had a kid instead. But so it goes... I complain because it's the irritating and unanticipated things about one's choices that one complains about, not because I want to trade. :)
blairmacg
Feb. 3rd, 2015 02:45 am (UTC)
but I feel like even those of us who have always written need a level of brain maturity to grow into ourselves, and parenting (plus the amount of reading kid lit you can put into it...) isn't a bad way to work on that.

Absolutely. Not the only way, to be a certain, but a good one.

And when the timing is right for you, I suspect you'll hit the ground running--combining everything you gained pre- sweet baby with your experience and education. You already have a rich voice. It'll only get better. :)
sartorias
Feb. 3rd, 2015 02:42 am (UTC)
Terrific post! Thank you for sharing!
blairmacg
Feb. 3rd, 2015 02:50 am (UTC)
You're so welcome!
markthemedic
Feb. 3rd, 2015 05:31 pm (UTC)
Sorry to arrive so late to the thread!

I keep re-reading your post and finding new insights in it. And I've enjoyed being able to repost widely without fear of reprisal! (One of the advantages of having an itsy-bitsy web presence and no economic overlap.) Best of all, it's been a chance to reflect on some too-rarely-expressed Truths about parenting. Thank you for posting!
blairmacg
Feb. 3rd, 2015 06:20 pm (UTC)
Glad to have you!

As I mentioned on Twitter, there's a huge difference between, "This spoke to me, too, even though we're different." and "This isn't written about me, too, so it fails!" :)

I suspect there are many fathers who share some of the same feelings. (And perhaps more fathers these days, because of shifts in the economy, differences in job prospects, and other cultural/demographic influences.) I'd love to hear more about their experiences, in similar "life sequencing" situations.

And I'm glad it's been a good read for you. :)
asakiyume
Feb. 7th, 2015 06:46 pm (UTC)
I only just read this now, and I agree with you one hundred percent. I too get depressed when I hear people ragging on their kids. I adore my kids, and I *loved* spending time with them. I think they're wonderful people--people who sometimes rub me the wrong way or do things I think are inadvisable, but that's true of all people (and as often as not, the inadvisable thing anyone does ends up being the right thing).

I think in the writing community people vie to be the champion of I-love-writing-the-most or I-would-do-anything-to-write. That's not a competition I could ever enter, let alone win. I love writing... but not more than other things. For a long time I was perfectly happy to let stories unfold and then die in my head, without committing them to paper.
blairmacg
Feb. 11th, 2015 06:42 pm (UTC)
Yep, there are times it is *wonderful* to get away from the kids because we all need breaks! And the kids like the breaks, too! :)

When I was thirteen, I was such a mouthy brat. My folks sent me to stay with a family friend for a weeks--a sort of short-term fostering I firmly believe in. And you know what? I can point to those weeks as the experience that made me want to be a writer.

Agreed on the sense of competition. Now, I admit I've a terribly competitive edge at times. But I no longer want to compete in the "how much I gave up to write this book" tournament. I always go back to an article I read years ago exploring a survey that found Olympic athletes would choose a shorter life span in order to win a gold medal. I did not find that a measure of admirable dedication. I found it... disturbing.

aanna_t
Feb. 11th, 2015 02:11 pm (UTC)
I'm late to the party, but I wanted to thank you for this, Blair. While I don't regret the time devoted to raising and homeschooling my 9 and 10 year old, I've been getting down on myself for "not writing enough." The "shoulds" have piled up to such a height that telling myself stories has gone from an escape to a guilt-induced drudge.

Thank you for reminding me that, right now, raising happy, polite, intellectually-curious children is my vocation. How valuable to see that this time can actually nourish my writing brain rather than seeing it as an impediment.

It's fascinating how everything can look different if you shift your perspective a little.
blairmacg
Feb. 11th, 2015 06:50 pm (UTC)
My dear, you could never be late for the party. We'll just keep partying until you can join us. :)

Thank you for reminding me that, right now, raising happy, polite, intellectually-curious children is my vocation. How valuable to see that this time can actually nourish my writing brain rather than seeing it as an impediment.

You are so, so welcome. I've been in that place of wishing for more writing time, and being frustrated by measuring my output and progress against that of other folks. But really, it's a matter of accepting--and rejoicing in!--the fact we've made the right choice for us.

I know folks who have made different parenting choices, and they are just as happy (and their kids seem just as happy) operating under a different set of priorities, so it isn't a matter of judging one thing as better than another. It's acknowledging we can be happy with sequencing, or writing slowly, or enjoying different life experiences.

You aren't a lazy pseudo-writers who talk always about what they'll do someday. You're a parent who is stocking up on life experience that will eventually end up in fantastic stories only you can tell. :)
markthemedic
Feb. 11th, 2015 10:57 pm (UTC)
Re-reading
I've re-read your essay a number of times, and the same line keeps grabbing me:
"If I’d resented every moment taken from my writing, I’d have finished my motherhood years bitter and depressed. I’d have tainted my ability to write in the future, and broken my relationship with my son."
I *really* wish this insight had somehow percolated into my brain about twenty years ago. I'm very fortunate that "my" two extraordinary kids are resilient and adaptable well beyond their (fifteen and seventeen) years...
The thing is, I think your observation about the power of resentment has (very appropriately) broad applications. "If I'd resented every moment taken from my writing..." resonates very closely with "If I'd resented every moment taken from my [insert name of some *other* socially-praised behavior]..."
blairmacg
Feb. 12th, 2015 04:49 am (UTC)
Re: Re-reading
I *really* wish this insight had somehow percolated into my brain about twenty years ago.

Don't we all? :) Until my son's father died, I don't think I completely embraced my own choices. It was a point of decision that forced me to examine what I otherwise might have chosen by default.

And I agree with the idea of refusing resentment can apply to just about any situation. I mean, Dev knows he was a surprise baby, and that his father and I changed our life-plan for his sake. But he also knows we were HAPPIER to have him than any other career accomplishment.

( 29 comments — Leave a comment )

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