Last month’s Birthing the Mother Writer column asked readers to write about embracing the present moment in our current stage of mothering. The following essay by Beth Brown shows how we can fall into such an embrace.
By Beth Brown
For the last seven months, since I returned to work full-time after having my second child, I have greeted each day with the tenacity and fury of a tornado barreling into a cement wall. My head hurts. My eyes ache. I am at odds with my life.
And yet, I wake up and do it again.
The morning shower. The dressing of myself and of the two boys: one, a docile four-year-old who wants to discuss the meaning of life while I help him into his pants; the other, an octopus-like one-year old who delights in the clothing wrangle.
Somewhere in there my husband makes coffee and leaves for work.
There is the fixing of breakfast. The goading to eat breakfast, or more aptly, not to drop it onto the kitchen floor. The anxious arrival of the babysitter or grandparent. Good-byes to the children, which sometimes culminate in the tearful removal of a child from my leg and the promise — always — that I will be back soon.
Then. I sit in the car. I put the key in the ignition and I drive that mother ‘effin car to work like a goddamned jockey. Pedal to the floor, kicking in my feet. Weaving in and out of lanes. Faster, faster, faster.
I cannot be late again.
I am, though — late. And exhausted. And shameful. I slink out of my car and leave behind the telltale signs that I am just arriving: scarf, coat, and purse. I dart across the parking lot and sneak into a side door. I creep up the stairs, slide into my office and into my office seat.
At noon, I go back to my car and retrieve my things.
“Just coming back from lunch?” my co-workers ask. I can’t be sure if they’re being congenial or humoring me. I hope it’s not the latter. I’d like to think I scaled a wall in heels that morning for something more than bemusement.
The evening rush mimics that of the morning. Swap out cereal for broccoli, a onesie for footie pajamas. There are stories and cups of water. There is more goading, but it is of the more gentle variety.
(If you have to goad, it is a gift to get to do so without urgency.)
After they’re asleep — after the cat has been fed, toys have been set aside, and my husband has come home from work — I stand watching over my children’s perfect sleeping bodies, marveling at the beauty and exhaustion of parenthood.
I’m also sad with regret. My hunger for details is making my older son impatient.
“Why do you always ask me what I do all day? Why do you need to know so much?”
Because that’s the only way I get to be there with you.
In these moments, I realize it is the first time all day that I have stopped to breathe.
For the last seven months I have been telling myself that this is just the way things are when you have two children and two parents with careers. I have been listening to those who tell me, “It won’t be like this forever.” And of course I have become an expert at snorting at the age-old adage to “Stop and smell the roses.”
I am a tornado. I don’t smell roses. I desecrate them.
Until last week.
It was a typical morning. I was dashing down the hall to make a meeting. A report I’d prepared and whisked off the copier was tucked under my arm. As I brought my coffee cup to my lips, the report’s papers fluttered out and fell beneath me. I took a step and slid on the papers. My coffee cup hit my wrist. Coffee shot down my front. I landed on my back, surrounded by sheets of paper and shards of the cup.
A few things crossed my mind as I lay there, staring up at the bright florescent lights. I remembered how I fell down a flight of stairs in college and how someone I’d been hopelessly in love with appeared over me.
“Am I dead?” I’d asked him. He’d laughed, but he hadn’t found me funny enough to date.
I remembered how my husband and I had seen a fortune-teller on our first date and how she’d told me I’d have a career surrounded by paper.
“You’re a writer!” my husband had said.
“She could mean a janitor!” I’d shot back. “Anyone can be surrounded by paper.”
And there I lay.
I started laughing.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I thought, surveying the damage around me. “This is crazy.”
I was missing a shoe.
People started to gather around me. Someone offered an arm to help me up. Someone else offered to call security for an ice pack. I declined. I just wanted the silence to last. I had never experienced a more crystal clear moment. I wanted everyone to go away, to let me revel in this delicious clarity and yet, really, there was nothing more to acknowledge than this:
I can’t do this anymore.
I don’t want to go through the motions of my children’s lives. I don’t want to rush my children through their lives. I don’t want to wake up every day and barrel against life.
I can’t do this anymore.
I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel that way. Lying on my back, I realized that that someone was me.
Beth Brown is a writer, graphic designer, and avid hiker. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two sons, and obese cat. She blogs at http://frogsinmyformula.blogspot.com
Notes on the Sweet Spot of Creative Nonfiction from Cassie Premo Steele
Usually I comment about the editing and revision process that has gone on behind the scenes between the writer and me, but this time, since Beth Brown’s essay came to me pretty much exactly as it is here, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss the “sweet spot” in creative nonfiction exemplified by this piece.
Creative nonfiction borrows from many other genres — the personal essay, the short story, the poem, the play, and nonfiction research. But in order to be effective as creative nonfiction, I would like to suggest that writers, as Beth has done, try to reach a middle point between just two: fiction and poetry.
Some writers err on the side of the poetic: they have beautiful language, lush images, a lulling rhythm to their writing. But you read a piece like that, and then you ask yourself, “Huh? What actually happened?”
And some writers, usually because they have a huge and difficult event that they are addressing in the essay, veer completely away from the poetic so that the essay reads like a laundry list of unfortunate events, completely disconnected from feeling.
One can be confusing, and the other can be overwhelming and at the same time numbing for the reader.
To write right in the sweet spot of creative nonfiction, balance your writing between the poetic and the journalistic. (This is, by the way, also the formula for writing in a way that is most healing, according to James W. Pennebaker in his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions.)
Try this: Write about an event for five minutes. Say who, what, when, where — get the details and the action down. Then write about your feelings for five minutes — pour them out, let them spill, dive deep into them, knowing that in five minutes, you can come up to the surface again.
Then, later — a week, a month, a year — do not rush yourself — return to the writing you have done. This is your dough. After letting it rise, it is time to bake it into something edible.
Take what you have written and slow it down. Zoom in and show small scenes of the story. See how Beth does this in the third paragraph where she gives us the tiny details that make her family come alive for the reader.
Give an image that lingers with the reader and captures the essence of the piece. I love how Beth does this when she describes driving like this: “Pedal to the floor, kicking in my feet.”
Recreate dialogue. Write it as if it’s a scene in a short story. Beth does this exceptionally well in the final climactic scene where her co-workers are gathered around her, offering help. Note that the use of a dialogue here is not directly in the scene itself but allows the reader to be in the past and the present, in the external action and the internal dialogue, at the same time.
Try these techniques in your own writing to illustrate your points.
But remember that creative nonfiction does not really “make points” like an essay does; instead, it uses the techniques of fiction and poetry to bring the reader into the action and shape and space of the emotion.
So let your emotions fill out the scenes of what you are writing. Paint the emotional picture. Use colors. Use your senses. Use the metaphors of feeling to take your readers there with you.
This sweet spot, this balance between action and feeling — this is what Beth Brown has done. This is what creative nonfiction writers do.