I learned to read and write when I was two. My mother didn’t really know any better when she taught me; she figured reading and writing were two things she enjoyed, so why shouldn’t I learn? I still have a yellowed page from when I was three, one of those schoolbook-lined things, the kind with two pale blue lines going across the oatmeal page, with a dashed line in the middle to show you where the lowercase letters should fit. I had written, “Thank you Mommy for my toys and the ice cream.” I remember that when I brought it to my mother, she pointed out that most of my letters weren’t sitting on the bottom line. Unfazed and eager to please my first editor, I returned to my thank-you note and drew each letter a tiny little chair. “Look, Mom — now they’re sitting!”
I wrote a journal when I was five, lots of fanciful stories, faithful recordings of my dreams, interesting tidbits about my dolls and my younger sisters. Every once in a while, amidst the drawings of people in ball gowns or ballet skirts, there would be a note from my mother: “I know you can write much more neatly. Can you remember to use your nice handwriting?” The journal habit continued as I grew older. I wrote compulsively, I wrote constantly, and I wrote secretively. No one was supposed to ever read what I had written down. I remember the sense of betrayal I felt when I discovered my mother had never stopped peeking.
Writing was a way for me to understand myself. As a young teenager I was already a serious musician, but making music was not the way into my own mind it came to be later. Writing was what I did when I felt conflicted or angry or sad; music was work, those emotions carefully channeled at only the appropriate times, and never at the expense of the composer’s intent. I wrote in my journals, I wrote epic 50-page letters to friends, I wrote the kinds of stories only 15-year-olds can write without irony, the futility of life, the importance of love. But I did not consider myself a writer.
When I came home after my first year of music school — a place where everyone else seemed entirely devoted to honing their craft, with no secret thoughts of one day being a writer — I threw away 13 years’ worth of journals in an attempt to erase the version of myself that had other aspirations. If we had owned a shredder, I would have shredded them, but we didn’t, so I stuffed them in a plastic trash bag, threw away the proof of who I used to be. I felt better for a few months. But I soon realized that throwing all that writing away did nothing to change the person who had written it. Now, as a mother myself, I would love to re-read those childhood diaries. I would love a written record of the age my daughter is beginning to experience.
As I studied music at the conservatory in Boston and then in San Francisco, I put my secret thoughts of writing — of one day being a writer — behind me. I still wrote in my journal, filling up notebook after notebook, and it was writing a journal that kept me grounded during those intense years of studying and performing classical music. But I had made a pact with myself upon entering the world of professional musical training: this was my time to study piano. Writing — if that indeed was something I was meant to do — would always be there for me to return to. My teachers, my fellow students, all of them knew me as a pianist, judged me as a musician. On the days when I felt the competition was too much for me, my secret burned comfortingly inside me: it’s okay, I could tell myself, I’m actually going to be a writer.
Still, I’d never admit that aloud. I might as well have confessed to wanting to be a movie star or a belly dancer or a ballerina the way I did when I was five. It seemed a self-indulgent, unrealistic idea. So, I kept it to myself.
After music school, I worked as an editor, writing invisibly behind the scenes, fixing up other people’s writing instead of working on my own. I wrote some things in secret — no pen and paper anymore, but typing them into my computer and password-protecting them so securely I’d often be unable to crack the code when I returned to them after some time off. I wanted to write, I knew I could write well, but what did I have to write about? What story did I have to tell? I didn’t allow myself to take it seriously. I relegated my writing to the same place I put my music once I was no longer in school: to the place of secret aspirations, things dismissed before they can even begin to take shape.
For a while, after beginning a story about a girl who plays the piano but really wants to be a writer and abandons her international career in mid-concert to run off with a rock star somewhere while she makes sense of her life — and feeling embarrassed about how obviously it was about me and my own search for purpose — I stopped writing entirely, not even in my journals. Even when I became pregnant, a time when I thought I’d surely fill up book upon book of empty pages (or file upon file on my computer) with ruminations about my unborn child, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wrote here, I wrote there, but I didn’t capital-W write.
After my daughter was born, though, and I found myself struggling in the new world of motherhood, I turned to writing again out of pure desperation. I needed to make sense of things; I needed to understand myself — especially since my initial experience of motherhood made me fear that my “self” was something that was gone forever. I wrote to help myself through the maze of those first few months, putting pen to paper again and writing my way out of dead ends, out of false passages, out onto a clearly marked path. I also turned to my other passion, one that had never flagged since my mother first introduced it to me as a toddler: reading.
I scoured the bookstores for books that might make sense of motherhood for me. I read magazines I never would have deigned to open before in the hopes that buried beneath the glossy photos and the reassuringly efficient lists — “five ways to stop a tantrum! Ten healthy snacks for your toddler!” — would be a message for me, some small piece of truth I could grab onto. I didn’t find much. The things I did find, though, I nearly memorized in my thankfulness, reading them over and over as if to assure myself they were really there — that someone else out there was bewildered and perplexed by motherhood, that there were other women whose questions could not be answered by diet tips or bullet points.
But I felt impatient. I felt like I was looking for things that were too often nowhere to be found. I discovered like-minded mothers online, but I wanted books — I wanted words, I wanted textbooks. I wanted it official, typed out in black and white, the mystery and the honesty of the kind of dark passage I was making as a mother. Finally, I realized: I had my material. I had my thing that begged to be written. I had something I couldn’t stop thinking about. I had my story.
I sat down in the basement at my in-laws’ house one weekend when my daughter was 13 months old and typed out an essay in a flash of determination. If you’ve read Mother Shock, you know it: “Fear of the Double Stroller,” the first thing I wrote that I actually submitted for publication. Instead of coming back to me with a note telling me my letters weren’t sitting on the lines, it was accepted. Bought. Published. Funny how becoming a mother made me fearless even as it opened me up to a world of fears. Funny how those daunting fears of rejection paled in comparison to the reality of giving birth epidural-free, the darkness of post-partum depression.
I wrote a few more essays after that, selling them to a now-defunct arm of Oxygen’s website, MomsOnline. I received a few e-mails from readers. Unbelievably, they were thanking me for what I had written. Still, I was restless. I started an online zine for Philadelphia mothers and began writing a regular column on the difficulties of motherhood, called “The Dark Side.” The anonymity of the Internet made it such that I would be surprised to get an e-mail now and then saying, “Thank god you wrote that essay, and I only had to read it. I felt everything that you were saying, but I’d feel too guilty to ever admit it in public!” Oh, yes, I’d remember. Other people are reading this. I am not alone.
By the time my daughter was two, I’d found my groove, writing about the dark side of motherhood, running a playgroup and facilitating discussions about more than just baby food and sleepless nights. I’d had my essays published online and included in a print anthology. I had an idea about the first year of motherhood as a cycle of adjustment, and I thought I might like to put together my own anthology of essays on the shock of new motherhood–to create the kind of collection of writing my mother-authors I had searched for but never found. I talked to my husband about it, excited to tell him about the idea and the only good title I’d ever come up with in my entire life: mother shock. He nodded his head. He seemed interested. But he said, “Why not just write it yourself?”
I couldn’t. I wanted to, but the book I was envisioning was a book by Writers. In fact, I imagined that’s why the book might appeal to a publisher: famous writers whose books had sold, all assembled in one tome. Look at Child of Mine. Look at Mothers Who Think. Mine would be like that, but organized by this mother shock idea, this concept that the first year of motherhood was like culture shock. “Maybe later,” I told him, sounding interested but secretly dismissing the idea of me writing a book by myself. “Maybe I’ll write my own thing after I put this together.”
The thing was, I didn’t know much about how to do that. I wondered, should I put out a call for submissions and then try and get the attention of a publisher? But how could I get big-name authors to agree to write something if I didn’t have a publisher yet? I needed an agent, but the thought of getting an agent was like the thought of living on Mars: theoretically possible, perhaps, but light-years away from my reality. And yet a friend of mine mentioned in passing that there was someone in her building who had kids a little older than ours, she seemed nice, her kids were adorable–oh, and she was also a literary agent. We met for coffee. The literary agent showed up with one of her girls’ Powerpuff Girls umbrellas and I thought, oh, that’s a good sign. I pitched her my idea, for an anthology called “Mother Shock,” and she loved it. She said the words I’d never even allowed myself to fantasize about hearing: “Get me a proposal!” I felt awkward, like I was my old geeky self on a high-school date. “Does this mean you’re my agent?” I asked. It did.
Over the summer, I worked on crafting a proposal, and by the fall my agent began submitting it to publishers. The editors all loved it; the PR departments didn’t. One by one, the rejections came back, each one extremely complimentary about my proposal itself, but each one citing poor anthology sales or other marketing issues as their reasons for declining to take on the book. In March of 2002, just as I was beginning to become discouraged, my agent called and said that Seal Press was interested–but not in “Mother Shock, the anthology.” Rather, they thought Mother Shock would make a great single-author book–by me. My agent asked, would I be interested in writing the whole book myself, shifting it from a distanced examination of “mother shock” the phenomenon to a more personal exploration of new motherhood? I immediately told her I’d do it.
One more go-around with a newly revised book proposal, and a few weeks later, I had a contract — and a deadline. The publishers decided on May 2003 as a release date, timed to coincide with Mother’s Day, which meant that the book needed to be written, edited, and proofed by October 1. That just also happened to be the deadline for another project I was working on: my second baby.
I wrote the book in eight weeks, not coincidentally the length of time my three-year-old daughter was in a morning summer-school program. Every day, I would drop her off, rush my pregnant self and borrowed laptop to a café a few blocks away, and frantically write for three hours before packing up and rushing back to pick her up from school. Writer’s block was a luxury I could not afford: when I’d find myself stuck or blocked or unable to keep writing, the baby inside me would start kicking, reminding me of my living deadline and the reality that I had to finish the book before my daughter’s summer session was up (after which we had a solid month ahead of us with no school or babysitter to break up the monotony of our days–or afford me any time to write) and before the baby arrived (after which lounging with a laptop in a café working on a book would be a scene from someone else’s life).
Eight weeks and 30 essays later, I had a book. The editing was done by mid-September, the copyediting by the end of September, and on October 2 my second baby was born, right on time.
By the time I was finished writing the book, I was tired of writing about myself, full of self-criticism and doubt, sure that my publisher would decide not to print the book after all, sure I would be unmasked as a writer wanna-be — in much the same way I had been so sure I was merely faking my way through motherhood. And yet, of course, that didn’t happen. The typeset manuscript arrived one day for me to proof, and I took it, along with Nate, the baby who had been my silent partner in the writing process, to the café where I wrote most of it. I was surprised to read it, to see it all laid out, like a real book. Still, the reality of it didn’t hit me until I got my first copy of Mother Shock in the mail, with a cover and back-of-the-book blurbs and everything: I wrote a book. I am a writer.
Of course, after that realization sunk in, it was only minutes until the horror descended that now other people would actually read what I’d written. In a flash, I was eight and my mom had picked the lock of my diary again. When I blurted that out to a friend, she asked, “What did you think was going to happen when you wrote a book?” I honestly wasn’t sure. I’d thought of myself as a writer of secret things for so long — journals, stories, letters I never sent — I hadn’t imagined a public result. Having my book out there — the stories I tell myself to make sense of my life, the kinds of things I used to write in journals for no one else to read — is a little like walking around naked. I feel like the parts of me I’d most like to hide are exposed. Or, a better analogy, maybe: having my book out there is like sending a child to her first day of school, knowing she is out in the world having experience after experience outside of your control, becoming herself without you, even though she is yours. Writing about motherhood is a risky thing — but then so is motherhood itself. Both involve a surrender, a level of trust, a deep inhale of breath before the next plunge into the inevitable.
Can I admit now to being a writer, without feeling like I did as a new mother, that I haven’t done enough to earn that title? Sometimes. I’m learning, too, that I was a writer before I had the spectacular luck of having my book published, just the same way that I was a mother before I could feel comfortable admitting it aloud. And now it seems almost fitting that motherhood, the very thing I thought had taken away my selfhood, would lead me to the self that had been struggling to emerge all along.