I write in the shower.
For me, writing is less a physical act with pen and paper, and more about stolen moments of mental space. Those moments are few and far between, but this much is guaranteed: as soon as I set foot in the shower the wispy ideas and snatched threads of dialogue rain down as fast and free as the water.
“Writers write,” or so the cliché goes. And yet, before the first of my two boys was born, I was a writerless writer. I had the urge, the time, the inclination, but not the words. I wanted to wear the moniker — writer — but I hadn’t earned it. I loved the noun but lacked the verb.
Then came my muse, ten days early and not a moment too soon, weighing 7lbs 9oz. He was calm and contemplative, my first-born. My memories of his baby days are peaceful. “I love him so much,” I whispered wide-eyed to my husband when our boy’s existence was still measured in the hours since his birth. I was overwhelmed. It hurt to love like this, and suddenly I had the words. They bubbled up and burst forth in every waking minute, clamouring to be heard above his hungry lungs. Even as I slept, the urge to wrap words around the tiny life-altering details of his presence gripped me.
I found myself adrift in a strange new world in which getting dressed constituted a major achievement and sleep was for the weak. Lost without the comfort or the rituals of my working life, I began to commit the details of our days to the virtual page. Writing helped me to make sense of the emotions that tumbled forth; my blog became a kind of map, a daily laying-down of the coordinates of the faltering steps I was making into motherhood. I was like Gretel, throwing out words instead of bread or pebbles, hoping to leave a marker in the murky woods of Motherhood for other lost souls who might venture out behind us.
I found friends out there in cyberspace, other virtual voices who to this day I’ve mostly never met but whom I still think of as my spirit-guides in the blogosphere. They coaxed me down from the window-ledge on the darker days of Mamadom and cheered on my every tiny victory like a rousing Chorus. Before we allowed modernity to erode community, these sister-souls might have been my neighbors or extended family. Now, in the 21st century, we share our isolation with faceless friends who go by online pseudonyms. They were my companions in the early days in which Motherhood consumed me, and I found my way through it with my words.
I realize now that I wasted so many of his early baby days. The all-consuming role of Mama took me by such wild surprise, and I mistook every slumbering minute of his babydom as an opportunity to reclaim myself. He would scarcely be asleep, cherubic lips parted in that all-familiar milk-drunk way, eyes lolling in a blissful stupor, and I’d be strapping him in his baby chair and booting up the laptop. So desperate was my need for self-expression, that elusive me-time, I felt as though I existed only in the moments when he slept. I would creep away, stealing furtive minutes, feeding my addiction to myself, feeling like a thief. They told me to appreciate those days when he was tiny and so helpless, still so far away from shrieking NO and drawing in red felt-tip on the walls. I smiled and nodded and paid no real attention. I thought the advice misguided, dished out by wearers of rose-tinted glasses, the forgetful nostalgia of mothers whose children had long since grown and flown.
Three years on and another babe has already begun morphing into a boy. But already I look back on their baby days with such raw affection. I excuse myself from admitting that the reality was harder than I care to remember. Nostalgia leaves little room for messy detail. I have become one of the well-meaning mothers whose eyes cloud over wistfully upon sight of a newborn. I eye new Mothers wordlessly, wishing I could impart to them the things I learned the hard way. I say nothing, because I know only lessons learned first-hand can hold currency for a mother new to her ‘hood. Lately the moments in between their need of me are stretching just a little further every day. They disappear into the playroom, shrieking, and I stand in the kitchen, mid-sentence, momentarily bereft. Pieces of me are returning. I thought them gone forever, and though they are forever altered, they’re somehow stronger than they ever were.
The book of Proverbs says that hope deferred makes the heart sick, while a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Most of the time I carry a kind of heart-sickness with me; a longing for a time when I will be able to write uninterrupted, without the chaos of these ever-present tiny budding souls whose seemingly endless needs tear me from myself and from my words.
But for now, juggling my need to write with the needs of my children is like constantly deferring hope. Even as I write this I know naptime will be coming to an end any minute. I try not to resent the abrupt conclusion of this stolen moment. But as I wrench myself from here and ascend the stairs to greet the urgent cries of Mama! I am torn in pieces. As I move from mining words back to being Mama, dizzy at the shift in gear, I feel as guilty as an adulteress slipping back beneath the sheets. I know my loyalties are divided, and it feels as if I must always sacrifice a part of me to let the other flourish.
So I long for the daily shower space. But I couple that longing with the knowledge that all too soon I will miss these days of small things, which seem so purposeless and yet are infused with teaching small boys how to be — surely a task as purposeful as they come. I know that I’ll berate myself for all the ways I wished this time away. I’ll long for just one more chance to drink in the delicious undiluted joy of mothering two small fuzzy-headed boys.
It replenishes me, this watery moment to myself. Sometimes it happens while small fists bang devilishly on the shower door. Sometimes my wet-writing reverie is brought to an all-too abrupt end by the need to issue time-out sanctions and resolve small boys’ disputes. Sometimes, thanks to Dada’s grace and good-humour, I am afforded uninterrupted shower time, while the stuff of real life goes on downstairs without me.
I use their sleepy haze to my advantage; I tempt them into silence with the TV while Mama finishes her words. They accept the pay-off graciously. Somehow they understand that this is sacred space. They don’t fuss or whine when I’m writing, as they would if I were flicking through the paper or talking on the phone. They squeeze in wordlessly beside me, all legs and elbows, struggling to navigate the way Mama sometimes slips from song-singing, laughing playmate to distracted hunch cowed over a faded keyboard. I fight the urge to pull away from them, to clutch frenziedly at the words before they float away, consigned to a place of darkness where forgotten-ideas taunt me while I sleep. Instead I nestle in between my little loves, a Mama-sandwich, and bash out these words to the ever-present strains of Dora the Explorer.
I’ve come to the guilty realization that I’m rarely happier than when left alone to write. I feel satisfied when I write. Calmed and quieted, just like they are when I make the time to read aloud to them, or Be A Friendly Dragon, or play rescue helicopters for the hundredth time. But when the pieces of my heart collide; the writing with the mothering, when I’m feeding them TV junk, so I can feed my soul, then it all seems too high a price to pay, and I wonder if it’s time to lay the words aside.
I tend to believe that my small boys require my undivided attention, and that anything which competes for it as much as writing does must pose some sort of threat to them; as if my love affair with words might somehow depose them. I picture myself Miss Havisham-esque with books where babies should have been. In fact, when I write, stretching as I must beyond the point of comfort to juggle it with mothering, my capacity expands, it doesn’t shrink. If I break through the guilt that whispers ‘other mothers feel this way about their children, not the words they spew into the darkness,‘ if I silence that for long enough, I start to hear a different voice. It’s really just a whisper, but it sounds just like the growing of a tree. Writing all too often gets shuffled to the bottom of an insurmountable pile of priorities, settling like sediment, waiting to be stirred back into life. But this is how I write. Guiltily, desperately, sometimes with a heartsick longing. Yet when I give myself to this, to this wrangling of desires, I find that elusive fulfilment; my own tree of life. And my daily shower moment makes that happen. It is water to my writer’s soul, and when that part of me is watered, I am a better Mama and a better me.