Midsummer — I am wallowing in an oppressive heat and a morning sickness that lasts all day. Maia sits on the back step with her dad eating popsicles. Through the screen door, I hear Asaph say, “Maia, be careful how you eat that. You’ll get berry stains all over your shirt.”
Says Maia, “That’s okay, Papa. Mom will wash it.”
From the kitchen sink I call out, “Me? Why me?”
Says Maia, “Because you’re the mom, and mom’s do the laundry and stuff like that.”
The apprehension I often feel because I don’t have a career, because I could never decide what I wanted to be, becomes panic. I am an empty vessel appropriated by my family. I am a two-year-old’s personal laundress.
It is this moment, or the culmination of moments like this, swarming with feelings of isolation and unimportance, that moves me to pick up a pen. I have written before but never without an assignment as impetus, never independently. But now I do so on the verge of implosion, trying to keep some modicum of calm. I vent, let my stream of consciousness brim and spill onto the page in lines. Poetry? Not good poetry, but it’s something that I can read back to myself and sort out. When I get up from the table, I feel as though a window has been opened, and stale air has finally been let out.
I find that poems serve the babble in my head, suit a lifestyle that’s crammed with interruption. A poem can be short, can fit on a page that I can carry around or leave on the kitchen table to return to when I finish changing a diaper. I can’t lose my place in a one-page poem.
Eventually I place a poem with a local magazine. Any unbridled thrill or pride in myself is tempered by the awareness that the magazine is small potatoes; it is new and non-paying with a circulation of about fifty. But here is a place to start. I have published a poem, and added to the few science articles that I sold in school, I have a short list. A list equals justification.
I go to Asaph’s department barbecues and mix with his colleagues: the university professors, research scientists and PhD candidates. When one of them asks what I do, I brazenly — and naively — insist I am a writer. Now I’ve got an answer that, rather than bringing awkward silence or condescension, is followed with more questions. People want to know what I write about, or whether or not I’m published, and the conversation moves forward. People learn that there is more to me than my children, that I have interests and successes of my own.
There is terror in wanting to be a writer. I am one of a multitude desiring this vocation that requires more than education, more than a job application and a successful interview. Sometimes I look at something I’ve just written and say to myself, “That’s it; they may as well give me the Pulitzer Prize right now.” Then I put the piece aside for a period of time. After a week or month, I go back to that same piece of writing and want to dissolve: the writing is terrible, and even though I am the only one to have read it, I am mortified. Writing takes qualities I am not sure that I have; writing takes confidence and persistence, perspective and self-reliance.
Then again, so does mothering.
Maia goes to preschool, and I am meant to write. We pay a hefty childcare bill, so I can have this time. Maia’s baby brother, Jonah, is down for a nap. My notebook and pencil are set neatly before me on the kitchen table, and I dance around them, whipping up soybean dip and home-baked crackers.
Who in the world takes the time to make crackers? A procrastinator, that’s who. The choice to put everything aside in order to write feels self-indulgent and unjustified. I sit amid dirty dishes and the promise of meals to be cooked having, for the moment, shunted away my children. Instead of appreciating the opportunity, I waste time fretting. I need a paycheck, or recognition. Nobody tells me this — Asaph has never said anything of the sort. The expectation is mine, and it perches on my shoulder like a gargoyle opposing my muse. From the opposite side of the kitchen. I stare down a blank sheet of paper. What I write must be good, publishable, and something to show for myself.
I am in two places at once. In my mind, I am reciting a selection of poems for the evening. In my kitchen, I’m stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese, setting the kitchen table for dinner, and double-checking Jonah’s bottled breast-milk supply in the fridge. Maia wants to know why I’m going out and, after the laundry remark, you’d better believe I let her know. I write poems, and other people want to hear them! I explain that Maggie will be there, too, and so will Valerie, and after we’ve all read, there’ll be something called an open-mic so that people in the audience can share poetry, too.
A few hours later, I am downtown arranging chairs and making small talk. Asaph walks in pushing Jonah in a stroller and carrying Maia in the crook of his free arm. She wears a Snow White costume over blue jeans and canvas sneakers — dressed up for the occasion — and carries a large rectangle of yellow construction paper. She is barely four years old, and it is far past her bedtime.
Maia tells me she wrote a poem and is going to read it to everyone. While Maggie and Valerie read, Maia sits next to me at the front of the audience. I quake inside, envisioning all the myriad ways this evening can go wrong. When I approach the podium, her attention is fixed, listening or contemplating or both. I finish my reading, and Maia clambers toward me, asks me to lift her up into my arms and, before a room filled with unfamiliar adults, she recites her verse, written with the help of her dad a few hours before, in a loud clear voice.
By night’s end I have been approached by nearly everyone in attendance. What a beautiful daughter I have. How precocious. How brave. My first reaction is intense pride in the both of us — I can’t believe that a child of mine has such confidence. I indulge the possibility that admiration of her mom has inspired her to write and recite her words. But later I realize that not a word was mentioned about my own work. No compliments, no criticisms, as if, perhaps, it never was. I feel ashamed, found out as a fraud. I am but the notion of a writer. I am an ego-bruised, envious mother.
A magazine comes in the mail. The publication is a literary one with which I have a love/hate relationship. If I weren’t trying to write, if the magazine’s editors hadn’t repeatedly rejected my work, I would adore the poetry and stories inside. Instead I hold it gingerly, only cracking the cover once adequate courage and self-confidence have been mustered. Today I manage to flip to the back, to a regular section titled, “Sunbeams,” wise words espoused by famous people. I read a quote by Cary Grant, the iconic screen star, once a no-name, working-class Englishman. The quote goes something like this: I acted like the sort of man I wanted to be and, before long, I was him — or he was me. The remark catches my eye, gives me hope that I can be her, the intelligent, confident writer. It’s all about emulation. What does a writer do? She does the work.
I stop saying that I’m a writer. Instead the notebooks come along, always in a backpack or a purse, ready for those random moments when I get the chance to mark a page. And the more I do this, the more I scratch at my feelings with a paper and pencil, the more the situation clears: it’s not about being a writer so much as being a woman with a drive, with something to work toward and, when time permits, be preoccupied. It’s about being a person with something interesting — something I find interesting — to talk about. It’s about being someone I like, about my children seeing their mother as a woman who likes herself and who can talk about herself without blushing.
And so it’s the need for fulfillment, rather than any sort of career ambition, that draws the notebook from my backpack while my kids race around the playground. Pressure to succeed fades away. I realize this in much the same way I realized my children had started sleeping through the night — after significant time had passed, and I one day noticed that I felt rested. The writing process becomes another part of my day and a part of who I am, that last puzzle piece that’s gone missing for so long — dog-eared and discovered amongst crumbs and spare change between the sofa cushions, but crucial nonetheless.
On Wednesday afternoon, Jonah and I ride over to a favorite café. We have a standing order: one double cappuccino, one “babychino” and a vegetarian sandwich. We always take table 12, the one next to the kids’ corner — a small table piled high with toys. We sip our drinks, share the sandwich, and when Jonah excuses himself to play with the toys, I write until my hand cramps. That night I sit at my writing desk, working. Maia flashes through her bath, jumps into her pajamas and creeps into the room. “Mom,” she whispers, “can I be in here?”
“Of course, you can, Sweetie,” I reply and smile at her curling up on the bed with one of her books. When I turn back to my story, the space that surrounds me is rich with the sounds of pages snapping and pencil against paper. The muffled sound of Asaph singing “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” to Jonah. Otherwise the house is still, holding us together in our four separate pursuits. Life feels perfect.
My notebook fills. I begin another, amassing a stockpile of ideas for when there is time. Unexpected luxury reveals itself in the moments. Like pennies on the sidewalk, I find five minutes here, an hour there, pockets of time that are mine. Maia goes to school, Jonah takes a nap, and there is time. Asaph does the dishes, reads the bedtime stories, and there is time. I scribble down my thoughts, lines, bones that are my framework. I pause, pencil in mid-air, to take it in, and see that I am her, that person I wanted to be.