I couldn’t decide what to wear. It was the first time since the accident that I cared about what I put on. My cool flare jeans and new orange sandals? No, the sandals were too dressy. I decided on jeans and my old sandals, a black t-shirt and a red bandanna on my head. Still, by the time I dropped Simon off at preschool, I had a combination of apple juice and smeared Cheerios on my shirt. Oh, well. After starting the antidepressants, I could handle life’s little frustrations. I’d get to the meeting just in time.
The week before, I had noticed an ad for a local writers’ support group for mothers and had decided to call. It had been too long since I had written anything. Amy, the group leader, told me that she was bringing together a group of mothers who could critique each other’s writing. There would be a babysitter to watch our kids if we wanted, though I didn’t want. This was just for me. But I loved the idea of mothers carving out a space for themselves and their children who weren’t quite ready to separate.
Amy went on to explain that she had formed the group to explore the real issues of motherhood. I asked her what she meant by the “real issues.”
“Well,” she said, “the mainstream media portray motherhood like a Hallmark card. I’m interested in looking at how our lives have changed, how they are not always what we expected, how they are not always fun or perfect.”
I sat down in my chair. This sounded familiar. She went on: “Sometimes, whatever we do, we feel like bad mothers.” Wow. So I wasn’t the only one.
She continued: “After I decided to stay at home, I experienced a lot of judgment from my colleagues and in turn spent a lot of time judging myself. I’m interested in exploring the implications of those kinds of decisions with other mothers.”
So was I.
Amy e-mailed me the pieces to discuss for my first meeting, which would take place at a nearby playroom for toddlers. I printed them out and brought them to the park with Simon. As he played, I began to read. One woman wrote about losing her son at birth and tattooing his name on her chest to demonstrate the pain she felt inside. Someone else wrote a humorous essay comparing her life as an executive to her life at home with her children. I looked up from the bench at the other mothers. I hated the park. It made me feel lonely.
I looked closely at the other women. What were their stories? I had never wondered about that before. I looked back at the pieces of lives I had printed on computer paper and started writing comments in the margins. Over the next few days, those stories stayed with me, popping into my brain when my thoughts wandered.
The morning of the first meeting, I walked there alone, carrying only my notebook. I pulled open the door and spotted a group of women seated in a circle on a blue play mat. One long-haired woman was nursing an infant, another wiping her child’s round, crackery face with a diaper wipe. Two more were in a heated conversation about something, and I heard the words “sippy cup” and “literary criticism.” Was it possible I had, at long last, found my people?
I sat down and managed to introduce myself. I had planned to be silent for the rest of the meeting and see what unfolded. But as the conversation continued, I felt more at ease and joined in from time to time. One woman asked if she had been effective in portraying how different she used to feel as an executive, pre-baby. She read some lines aloud, describing how she’d stride, almost swagger, down the halls of her firm. How she would command a room.
I felt something in my chest, right beneath my solar plexus. Something unzipping. My face got hot. “That’s it. I used to have that feeling, like I could do anything. And then, after Simon was born, it just disappeared, got sucked out of me. That shouldn’t happen.” I looked around the room, suddenly afraid I had said too much. But people were nodding.
At home, in the days after, I started writing. I began by describing the accident. Soon, I was writing compulsively while Simon was in school. My insides shifted. It was more than simply the release of self-expression. The act of creativity changed me. My brain began to wake up. I began to read the newspaper, magazines, novels — I got curious. Not just about what was going on in the world but about my situation. There had to be other women out there like me.
One day, while Simon napped, I went down to the basement. I had studied feminism and women’s studies in college and graduate school, and I opened boxes filled with my old class notes from The Colorado College and CUNY Graduate Center. I couldn’t remember studying anything on the politics of motherhood. I couldn’t remember even considering motherhood as a topic worth investigating. I sat down and paged carefully through my notes, my essays, the occasional flyer for a “feminist collective” meeting tucked in between the pages. I sneezed from the dust and kept looking. On my whirlwind tour of feminist theory, I found nothing on motherhood.
I kept writing.
Some days, I’d consider posting something to the group for critique, always deciding against it. I worried that my growing confidence about my writing was only wishful thinking. What if my writing was bad? Or worse, what if it was ordinary? Or what if they saw through me? If they read about when I dropped Simon, would they think I was a bad mother? Would they see I was damaged and reject me?
I knew the group wasn’t interested in avoiding difficult topics. It’s writing the story that begins after the words on the Hallmark card. The truth was: we weren’t always happy, perfect, loving. The work of creation, the work of motherhood, was hard physical and emotional work. These women were producing writing that explored that imperfect, uncomfortable, and unlovely terrain.
But was I? Maybe my story was just about being a loser with no friends. Mommy . . . nobody wants to play with me.
One Wednesday before our regular Thursday meeting, I checked my e-mail, and there was a posting on our group list that was off topic. This was around the time when President Bush was threatening to invade Iraq. One well-meaning group member had posted an antiwar petition. It closed with, “If you believe in peace, you’ll sign.” My stomach felt weighted, like I had swallowed raw dough. As much as I loved politics, I was afraid our haven would be shattered if we all identified politically. I didn’t want to be outed as a Thomas Friedman Democrat in a sea of Ralph Nader Berkeleyites. And it was more than that. If these women were different from me, could they be my community?
At Thursday’s meeting, I brought up my feelings about the petition. I was surprised. Some folks were old-school Berkeley peace activists and against any military action in Iraq. Some were more like me, torn about what was best for the Middle East and the United States. My worries had been unfounded, stereotypes of my own inventing.
After that day, putting so much energy into not posting my work started to feel, well, silly. Why was I there if not to share my writing? At my desk, I looked at the file of all I had written. I called up a document and copied it into an email. I closed my eyes and pressed “send.”