It’s not a Guinness record – no ten-foot fingernails or human cannonball. No smallest waist, or longest legs, or 15,000 Barbie dolls. Guinness wouldn’t blink at me. Still, in quiet ways, it’s something.
My kids are six and nine and, until last spring, I’d never left them for an overnight.
That’s a long, unbroken streak of goodnight hugs and kisses, last-minute drinks of water, and sudden stomach-aches that require coddling and whispers. It’s a lot of baths and stories, and pajamas worn and washed, socks discarded in the middle of the night, wadded up beneath the sheets.
Nine years of every night. Guinness may not blink, but I’ll admit I’m startled. There’s no simple explanation. Take a dose of fear, some exhaustion-born inertia, a certain lack of funds and opportunity, and you have a clearer picture. Fill the margins with a closet full of mama-yoga pants, cotton t-shirts and sports bras, and there you are, nine years done. They are a chapter. A breath. A kiss.
A few months ago, I booked a hotel, packed my bag, and took the train to Boston for a writer’s conference. At the station, my oldest daughter held back tears while her younger sister wailed a fissure in my heart. Daddy held her. I bit my lip and waved goodbye.
Flashback ten years, twenty, thirty, and you’d find me writing. My love of words began with stacks of Little Golden books gifted by my father. In grammar school I wrote dancing mice adventures. High school was an extended bout of poetry. College brought the discipline of polished essays, and grad school infused those essays with the practiced play of language. Writing formed the backbone of my days.
How surprising, then, when motherhood cut deeper. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, the early loss of twins. My second was high-risk and sliced with fear and the hardest faith I’ve ever wrung from stones. After that, it was difficult to let go, to pry fingers from the holding. Once my first child was born, writing shifted to the margins, tucked in corners like a patient cat. My priorities were set: get the parenting done right, pour myself inside it, nothing in reserve. I saw those days of childhood as precious, short and passing. My babies held my hand and curled beside me; no separation, no division. I understood this wouldn’t last. I wouldn’t always have the chance to bear them witness, eye-to-eye. On top of that, of course, was love; the joys of close proximity and sticky breakfast cheeks. Words would have to wait.
But four years into motherhood I was a threadbare, patchwork mess. I missed the thrill of telling tales, the complexities of language, something more than pacifiers, bedtime rituals and diapers. Desperate and depressed, I listened to the scritch-scratch of those waiting words, their twitching tails and claws ready for the pounce. With nothing much to lose, I started scribbling during baby naps, in twenty-minutes margins, leaking stories out like milk. I shaved minutes from each afternoon, juggling interruptions wrought by juice-box floods and Cheerio disasters.
All along, I faced the mother plague of Guilt. Was each hour at the keyboard just an hour stolen from my children? Sure, my kids seemed happy, and they were learning independence, but shouldn’t I be packing every moment with crafts and games and picture books? I don’t get paid to write. So, what was my excuse?
Just this: I learned the hard way that writing cannot wait. It will not sit in corners. Without the zing and play of words, my brain runs like a squirrel in a cage, racing laps of desperation. I am a mother and a writer, but the writing part is decades older, a wordsmith scribed into the bone. There is no way to let such pieces go.
Last year, I dipped my toes into the writing conference waters, but I wasn’t ready to leave my children overnight, too worried they might need me. I drove into the city every day, a long, exhausting back-and-forth. I gathered sparks in seminars on voice and character and purpose. The fire was lit, and then it grew. The scurried thoughts inside my head clicked, calmly, into place. This year, I decided to be fully present as my writer self, unhinged from home. Alone.
That first night on the eighth floor of the Copley Marriott, I fought against the quiet and the solitude, the yawning emptiness where goodnight snuggles should have been. Then, with the bravery of a book in hand, I let the silence fold me up and be. I settled into puffy pillows with a story, my very own bag of M&Ms, and extenuated faith.
After years of splicing brain cells between homeschooling, housework, extracurricular activities and – oh, yes – writing, I had three days of laser focus. I had endless streams of words. I had a pristine hotel room, no dirty dishes, vacuum, or wayward socks in sight. It was quiet, no clamor in my head.
In the company of 11,000 other writers, I savored five-star writer brain food. I met the editor who published my short story, “Blown,” in PANK. I had coffee with an agent I admire. I filled my arms with book-fair wealth. I stuffed the days with panels, skipping lunch to feast instead on words. I went to sessions suited to my current projects — modern fairytales, ghosts in literary fiction, writing children’s voices. I listened, grateful, as Lauren Groff and Alice Hoffman offered glimpses of their writing lives.
On the last day of the conference my husband brought the kids. We met for dinner, just before the final keynote. In the noisy restaurant, we hugged each other tight, ferocious, replete with built-up missing. There was love and gratitude with nothing clipped or siphoned. I was sure I’d found the perfect balance, mom-and-writer hinged, devoid of angst or guilt. The puzzle solved. Ta-da.
My illusion didn’t last long. It ended in my hotel room, where the kids had spent the afternoon. Had every object in our house followed me to Boston? Had the suitcases just exploded? There were piles of sopping towels, dolls and books, clothing tossed, and shoes and flip-flops, swim suits dripping from the shower rail. Snacks and discarded plastic flower rings invaded every corner.
My quiet hours vanished beneath incessant chatter, effervescent. I was back in Mom-ville: population crazy. It’s a noisy neighborhood. There is a lot of “why” and “but”. There is no volume knob, no mute switch. I’d just spent three days with a mob of writers packed in a convention center, and they had nothing on my kids.
And that was all before the tantrum. My youngest couldn’t bite an apple with her fifty-five loose teeth, and we didn’t have a knife to cut the apple into slices. I was useless, dumbfounded, mouth agape. An apple? Somehow, in three short days of only adult company, I’d forgotten how to handle childhood fury. Of course, it wasn’t just the apple – it was exhaustion, pent-up sorrow, newness. It was being six years old.
I’d been gone for just three days, but the mental leap had been enormous. I’d let go of guilt. I’d poured myself without reserve towards writing. Now, I was back to being split, with a tug and pull and twist of every brain cell in my head. The creative impulse bolted with a hiss of quick deflation.
In the aftermath of harsh re-entry, I had a mama-tantrum, with a heavy dose of panic. All at once, it seemed impossible to stretch the balance of my life. Staying and leaving were equally untenable. It was time for desperate measures. Extreme action. I’d have to jump a bridge. Run away. Quit writing. Get thee to a nunnery. Something, anything, but this.
Later that night, I told my best mama-writer friend: “I can’t do it”. We were standing in an enormous ballroom. Cheryl Strayed was on the stage, and I was nearly crying. “I can’t be a writer and a mother. I suck at this.” Eloquence be damned. I told her about the bridge. The quitting. Not the nunnery.
She didn’t even quirk her eyebrows. “You wrote a novel,” she said. “You’ve published essays and short fiction. You have a blog. You write all the time.”
This is true. She’s right. I have fed my children during writing marathons – and they eat with a stunning regularity that never fails to shock me. I’m a woman who can survive on graham crackers, milk, and peanut butter from the jar. My children clamor lunch while I’m in the middle of a sentence. I make the sandwiches, cook the mac and cheese, peel the carrots, pour the juice.
I have crafted plot lines with a toilet brush in hand, bolstered characters from behind a vacuum, and scribbled dialogue through loads of laundry. Like a mad street sweeper, in hurricanes of cleaning, I’ve kept my family from ending up on Hoarders. If I die tomorrow, they will have a feature episode – a man and two small girls lost inside a maze of take-out menus, colored pencils, stuffed animals, cupcake papers, doll clothes, hair ties, books and dog hair. And those dirty socks.
Still, for all the meals prepared and corners swept, I’ve never felt adept at motherhood. Years ago, in that delivery room, I put my true self away and tried to squirm inside a perfect mother skin. Although I understood, even then, that any story worth its salt demands layers of revision, I brought a bare-knuckled will to motherhood; a terror of mistakes. I tried to write my daughters’ lives in ink, ensure their happy endings. My own childhood bore too many shadows, too much grief and fear. I had no well to draw from, no source of inspiration. Being present as a mother meant staying at the heart of everything I did not know. And this scared me to the core. So, my friend was right: I was doing what I loved – motherhood and writing – but loaded with conflictions, fear and guilt.
As the conference ballroom emptied out, my perspective had to shift. Maybe motherhood and writing didn’t have to sit in opposition, a stone-cold either/or. Maybe they could feed each other, fuel each other instead. Maybe that complex collaboration was the only way to shed my terror of getting it all wrong.
When I look through a different lens, it’s clear: my kids make me a better writer. After all, at six and nine, they are still inventing who they are. They write their days in magic ink that shifts and squiggles on the page. From them, I learn to break myself in new formations. I take more risks in writing, pushing language harder, asking more from the edges of the tale.
When I flip the page, I see: writing makes me a better mother, too. In the airlessness of growing up, I always held to stories. I breathed them like salvation. Why should mothering be different? Stories offer solace and direction, breadcrumbs in the forest. They open possibilities, widening like light. Writing brings me closer to the mother that I want to be.
So, I am tossing out my either/or, with all its tight-laced limitations. Stories come from the conflicts that sustain them. Sparks gather at the meeting places. The alternative is all flat plains, no pajamas wedged in corners, no plastic flower rings. And there’s no me in that terrain. No stories, either. I’ll take the squeaky hinge, the convergence of motherhood and writing, with all the flaws intact, and space enough to roam.
Like my daughters, I will stay open to revision. I am mothering. I am writing. I am a hybrid, here and there, fueled by contradictions. Imagine that, I think. And then, I love you, the phrases intertwined. There aren’t any shortcuts. There is staying. There is leaving. All at once. And this is hard.
It’s unlikely that the guilt will vanish, erased completely from the page. There is no easy balance. Still, the marks are fading, penciled. Guinness might not notice, but I know what fills my days. Nine years, ten, wrapped up every night with a story and a kiss. A novel, two dozen publication credits, and a wealth of stories brewing. In quiet ways (and blaring tantrums) I’m making something no world record could contain: my unscripted life as a mother writer, open to the magic of conjunctions and faith in once upon a time.