I took to the art of writing instinctively. The art of mothering has come harder to me. And for many years, these two activities — one introverted, the other extroverted; one a solo act, the other, at minimum, a duet — seemed to arise from different psychic impulses and belonged to parallel universes. I naturally separated them. The surprise has been in how they have come together.
First, I became a writer. I was a nerdy, dreamy kid, a walking train wreck of ophthalmologic anomalies and introverted tendencies that can create a bookworm. I had strabismus, astigmatism, myopia — conditions and words I didn’t understand, but which rolled around provocatively in the fertile landscape of my imagination. My lazy eye gave me an inward expression and I lived out its silent directive, learning to look inward at meaning, symbol, metaphor, and word, long before I knew the vocabulary of introspection. I was clumsy at sports, bored silly with volleyball, tetherball, basketball — not a team player. Early on, I realized that I was an outsider and that language was my natural habitat.
When I was six, a small but transformative thing happened to me. A local journalist read a short paragraph I’d written for the school literary magazine, liked it, and arranged to have it reprinted in the local newspaper. On the day that my words appeared in print, I became hooked. No doubt my addiction arose partly from the intoxication of seeing my first byline; but, I believe it is more complex than that. It was seeing proof that the idea — the necessity, even — of formulating and articulating one’s viewpoint and projecting it to a larger world was possible. On that day, I was like Ben Franklin standing in the rain and lightning with his kite and his key.
What’s so mesmerizing about spending the whole day in a room alone, with just the company of words? It’s the limitless, unpredictable meander of the imagination, the infinity of possibilities, the surprises delivered from various regions of the brain: memory, hunch, and inspiration. Take a fork in the path, wander into a cul-de-sac, or fall down the rabbit hole. Set off in one direction, take a detour, and end up someplace strange and new. Ever inward. Our frantic culture meanwhile exhorts us to get up, out. Carpe diem! But I have always secretly belonged to the Emily Dickinson School of Thought. For the writer’s life IS the life of the omnivore. As someone — Augusten Burroughs perhaps — said recently, “Leaving your room is highly overrated.”
I was much entrenched in my writing lifestyle — as a confirmed soloist who worked at home, with a hard-working, hardly-ever-home man to have dinner and sleep with every night — when the first of our four, much-wanted, much-adored children came along. Yet, if I came to writing like a merganser to a pond, mothering was much harder for me, a fish on a bicycle kind of thing. I did not enjoy pregnancy and found my one experience of natural childbirth horrific.
Such was my introduction to motherhood, an enterprise that for me swung between holy and holy hell.
The learning curve toward competent motherhood was steep. Overnight, I became a mother, and overnight, reverie, free-spiritedness, independence, and peace and quiet disappeared. Eventually, my self-absorption dwindled and I discovered in myself the capacity to enjoy raising children whose ages could be expressed in double digits. But, all that happened slowly and over time. As a thirty-year-old new mother, I worried constantly that the artist in me would disappear under a pile of dirty bibs and crib sheets. Suddenly, I was getting up several times in the middle of the night, boiling pacifiers, cranking up the Swing-o-Matic, and retrieving Cheerios from under the sofa. Instead of reading The Golden Bough, I was reading Goodnight, Moon.
And I was unprepared for the wise tyranny of biology, when just five days postpartum, I made a lunch date with a colleague. I had barely touched my quiche Lorraine when my milk let down, my concentration faltered, and my body commanded: Go home!
Yet, somehow I persevered through my long, on-the-job training, learning to juggle a child (later, children) and freelance assignments, cutting back on work, taking more on, as the demands of life ebbed and flowed. Eventually, I settled into a terrific gig, as a monthly columnist for SKIRT! Magazine for its first five years. My support system was exceptional: regular sitters, a helpful, hands-on husband, a mother and a sister who lived five blocks and eight blocks away, respectively. Nonetheless, well into my older children’s teen years, I still thought of myself as having two personae: one, that slightly bohemian person, the artist, the loner who stood slightly outside the culture; the other, the mother whose job was just the opposite: to carry the culture forward, both through the birth process and later via actual trips in her minivan.
From time to time I fantasized what my life would be like if I did not have the responsibilities and encumbrances of a family. What if I did not have to cook meals for six on a daily basis, settle sibling disputes, sit through long games in the gymnasium, call out vocabulary on flash cards, or find someone else’s missing shoe or lost jacket at 6:30 a.m.? What if each day were a luxurious tabula rasa on which to paint words, eat a carton of yogurt for dinner, sleep whenever, read for hours at a stretch, talk to fellow artists, daydream, or entice the muse? What would it be like to be able to call one’s time wholly one’s own?
When the kids were in middle and high school, I had my chance to find out. Rounding up my best writing samples, I applied for a competitive fellowship to attend an artists’ colony for two blissful weeks. My application was bolstered by the recommendation of a novelist friend, much established, who had insight both into my work and my hectic life as a mother of four. I never read his letter of recommendation, but, he once told me the gist of it: “if any writer could benefit from two weeks at a writers’ colony, it’s this woman.” (Translation: please take this beleaguered mother in and give her asylum!)
The utopia I arrived at some months later — suitcase and laptop in hand, expectant as any first grader on the first day of school — consisted of a complex of buildings clustered on an expanse of pastoral land. Beyond its boundaries, sweeping out to the far horizon in every direction, were hundreds of acres of rolling blue-green farmland. About 20 writers, visual artists, and composers were in residence at any given time. I was shown — as each Fellow was — to a private, Spartan bedroom with cinder block walls, a single bed, and reading lamp; a few hundred feet away, a second room awaited me: a private studio for uninterrupted work. Nirvana! There were no schedules to follow or chores to do and I can recall no rules other than the sacred dictum never to interrupt another Fellow at work. One could simply disappear into one’s art, if so desired, but most of the Fellows did come together for communal breakfast and dinner in the dining room. After dinner, we’d write down what kind of sandwich we wanted for tomorrow’s lunch and turn in our orders to the kitchen. The sandwich would appear, in a metal lunchbox, as if by magic outside one’s studio door at the noon hour the next day.
Full of talent, ego, ambition and invention, the hilltop colony vibrated, thrummed, practically levitated with around-the-clock creativity. It has sheltered and nurtured over 3,000 artists in its time; among them are winners of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the MacArthur genius award. The writer in the studio next to mine was putting the finishing touches on a novel that would become a play on Broadway (Wicked). There was a cross-dresser among us, and one artist who painted in his own blood, puncturing his veins daily and collecting fluid in a vial. I wondered if my scarlet letter, “M” for Mother, showed and felt sure I was the only one in that heady Camelot who could be counted on for cupcakes and carpools at home.
During those two weeks, I concentrated by day on a collection of poetry I had assembled over the years; evenings, I spent in the colony’s darkroom, working on a series of black-and-white photographs that were published in book form three years later. But mostly, I worked on myself. Or the place worked on me, in ways I could not have anticipated.
It’s funny when you at last get what you think you want. My two weeks in that greener grass were cool, productive, and revelatory. I reworked poems, printed photographs, took walks, naps, talked, thought, and read, read, read. I played poker a couple of nights with the other artists, attended occasional readings, visited open studios, and made a few friends.
But I also crept down to the basement several times and used the pay phone to call home and reconnect. Once again, the emotionally wise tyranny of biology had kicked in. To my surprise, I found that I missed — ached for — the messy complications of life, the interruptions, and the human encumbrances. In a word, I missed my family. I’d underestimated the ballast that they were in my life; I’d not understood how they enhanced, rather than subtracted from my work; I’d not realized that through being part of a family, I had fundamentally changed. The girl with the lazy eye, the competent parent, the bookworm, the artist, the community member, the carpool driver — I knew I was, without contradiction, all these people. Identity, as I finally came to understand at the writer’s colony, is not a case of either/or but rather of both/and. On that hilltop, I realized I’d grown up, and my personae had fused. I had, at last, become motherwriter.