Last month’s column focused on how publication can change us as writers and mothers and asked readers to submit essays reflecting on these changes. In this essay, writer Em Climaco reveals that both writing and mothering can bring us into greater alignment with our sense of who we truly are.
by Em Climaco
Matriculate: I had to look it up in the dictionary to see whether I was using it right. Turns out, I was not. “Matriculate” doesn’t mean “to graduate,” as I’d thought. Rather, it means “to register,” as in registering for college. Scanning the page, I noticed its context—if dictionary entries can be considered meaningful context—nestled snugly among “matriarch,” “matrimony,” and “matrilineal.” The connection between matriculation and these mother words intrigued me.
Before having our daughter I taught English, although I never really thought of myself as a teacher. As an adjunct instructor, I thought of myself as a grad student—with an eye trained on eventual tenure and tweed—who taught classes for the paycheck, much like an actor who spends her days waiting tables but declines to think of herself as a waitress. In my teaching jobs, I’d always felt like an actor imitating teacherly lingo and mannerisms gleaned from years of observation. And although the role fit more comfortably over time, it was always a role to be played rather than an identity that mirrored my essence. The job matched my talents, but for me, teaching, at its core, was artifice.
Motherhood was different. In the quiet hours of the night, I no longer played a role. Seen only by the captor-audience of a helpless baby, I experienced genuine sincerity. Not that I was great at it, but the mama identity fit.
Looking into the relationship between “matriculate” and other mother words, I learned that the connection is apparently coincidental. “Matriculate” comes from the Latin matriculatus, derived from matrix, whose meanings include “list, roll” and “sources, womb.” According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, the connection between these dissimilar meanings comes from a Greek-to-Latin translation error whereby both metra (“register, lot”) and metra (“womb”) were translated as matrix. Some errors are fortuitous, I realized, as I experienced the connection between matriculation—and growing to anticipate what’s next—and mothering.
The first time I saw my daughter, I was shivering down to my very soul. The nurse gently explained that it wasn’t unusual to go into a bit of shock after a c-section, but this didn’t mitigate my very real fear of dying right then and there. With teeth chattering I stared at the tiny stranger they had swaddled and placed beside me, fresh from the matrix, and felt blank. The encounter was more awkward than magical, like finally meeting a pen pal and finding that you both are much better on paper.
The first four months were the hardest; the first four years were disorienting. Yet over the four years, mothering gradually shifted from an endless series of tasks (diaper, bottle, laundry, change of clothes) to a profoundly meaningful relationship.
Meanwhile, I scribbled in private, haphazardly pinning words to paper when they could no longer be safely remembered, naming computer files “pent-up thoughts July” or “scraps and ideas December.” Sloppily hoarding writing ideas for someday, I wrote without the benefit of sustained thought. Like a mother.
When my daughter turned four, an inchoate desire took hold. “Pomp and Circumstance” played in my head. My little girl had grown increasingly independent of me, and I was ready not to graduate from parenting but to begin something new. Although she needs me—desperately, dramatically, and often—it’s need of a different degree. I was ready to matriculate to—what?
At Christmas, my daughter picked out a gift for me at Santa’s Workshop, a temporary store at her pre-school: a large-print word-find puzzle book. I’m not much of a word-find puzzle fan, but I cherish this newsprint book filled with enormous letters and hidden words. Little did she know—little did I know—she’d been helping me find the words all along.
After four years, it was time to make time for writing. On January 1 of this year I took an apprehensive step toward writing for an audience and started a blog where I post 1,200 words a week. This humble blog, truly insignificant in terms of hits and followers, has demonstrated writing-mothering to me in an organic and poignant way. Mothering—and the concurrent self-denial and bonding and passion that came with it—was a training ground for writing, a veritable boot camp in the humanities.
I want to form a relationship with the reader—however tenuous or temporary—that echoes my fundamental mother-wish. This wish is simply to cultivate a rich relationship with my daughter. To explain the etymology of matriculate, Harper offers this detail: “Evidently, Latin matrix was used to translate both [“register” and “womb”], though it originally shared meaning with only one.” This I understand, originally sharing meaning with one, then between two. For eight years I was a partner to my husband, then a parent to my daughter; as relationships multiplied, life’s meaning increased exponentially, good things exceeded expectations. I was translated.
Writing and mothering are entwined and symbiotic. Having the opportunity to parent, I’ve gained a greater understanding of others and a stronger desire to understand. When my daughter was born I joined a mommy-group, and we shared a deep understanding as mothers of small children, despite our differences. At the same time, I’m more willing to be misunderstood. I’ve always been timid, but I’m now more willing to take risks in writing. I click “Publish,” release my latest post and hope for the best. My words may seem crazy to one reader, but I’m counting on building a bridge to someone else. Publishing and parenting require me to release my illusions of control.
I didn’t realize that mothering would mean matriculation from tasks to relationship. Nor did I expect to matriculate from full-time parenting to part-time writing and whatever else may come. Until now, I didn’t appreciate that all this time I was going about the cultivation of our child’s development, motherhood was cultivating my development as a writer. Translation error aside, I now see how mothering inhabits “matriculate.”
Em Climaco is a stay-at-home mom and writer in Fairview Heights, Illinois. She holds a doctorate in English from Saint Louis University and writes twice a week about literature, language, and life at www.commonplacesoil.com.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
I really appreciated how this essay gives readers a rare look into the development of our mothering and our writing during those early years, and I wanted to ask Em some more questions.
Many times new moms feel isolated – and writers often struggle with a sense of isolation – so imagine this discussion as a moment with a mother writer friend who is not afraid to tell the truth about her life. May it give you courage to tell your own truth.
Cassie Premo Steele: What is your sense of being a stay-at-home mom? Do you ever feel guilt at having a Ph.D. and not using it?
Em Climaco: Having the choice to work outside the home or as a stay-at-home mom can feel like a momentous decision. For me, choosing to stay at home was more a matter of perfect timing: I finished drafting the last chapter of my dissertation and went into labor the next day. My husband and I had been through the wringer of fertility treatments, we were finally having a baby, and I felt zero desire to jump into the academic job hunt.
At first, the stay-at-home mom life was a rude awakening, as my sense of accomplishment was significantly recalibrated. At times, getting to take a shower in the course of a day was a supreme triumph. When my daughter was two, a local university hired me to teach one evening literature course. When the course didn’t get enough students to continue, it was a huge relief. This unexpected “Phew!” was a sign that I’ll have plenty of time later on to work in “the real world.”
CPS: I felt the same way. I remember thinking that nothing I did in the “real world” was as important as what I was doing with my daughter when she was little. But this is not a very feminist thing to say, so I only said it in my writing. Of course, the writing lasts much longer than a conversation! Are you nervous about writing about your family?
EC: Writing about my family makes me a bit nervous. My husband and I are fairly private people, but I value transparency, especially if relating my experience might help someone else. For instance, fertility treatments are so common these days; going to the reproductive endocrinologist is almost as ordinary as a trip to the dermatologist (or maybe my perspective is skewed). Although this is common, I’m careful when writing about this aspect of my daughter’s life. In fact, I excised that very detail from my essay after a couple rounds of revision. As a recovering people-pleaser, I’m torn between wanting to appear perfect and being real.
CPS: There’s a lot of pressure for mothers to be “perfect.” But as you write in your essay, both mothering and writing necessitate giving up our illusions of control. If you expect a piece of writing to be perfect in the first draft, you’ll be too frustrated to continue. Would you say writing is easier or harder after you become a mother?
EC: Writing, for me, is still hard work. I’d much rather watch Project Runway than sit down and apply thoughts to paper. But I have to say that it’s easier now that I’m a mom in that I’ve had the opportunity to experience this unique yet universal mother-child relationship. Mothering has given me so much more to say. The shift from academic to more personal writing has been weird. I still feel guilty for liberally using first-person pronouns and expressing an opinion about literary quality, yet it’s liberating to write in a way that feels more candid, less posed.
CPS: I have observed how women often grow with their children, learning to be themselves and be more open and honest about what that means when they realize that their children are watching and modeling themselves after them. But this is so much easier when you have support. Do you know other mother writers? Is there a sense of isolation in being a stay-at-home mom and a writer?
EC: I have two very close writer friends—one of whom is a mom of small children and the other is a grandmother of small children. We talk about what we’re working on, but there’s a degree of isolation inherent in getting it done. It’s comforting to know that we’re all simultaneously trying to find elusive pockets of silence in which to write. I’m a poetry-lover—especially intricate closed forms in which the formal constraints make the poem all the more magical. Maybe the constraints of stay-at-home parenting are a literary blessing in disguise?
CPS: I agree! There’s an alternate sense of space and time when your day is not 9-5, and I think this allows us to develop an internal creative space that can nourish ourselves and our writing. What advice would you give to other moms who want to start writing?
EC: While I feel pretty unqualified to give advice, I’m happy to share what has worked for me. First, writing is a matter of undivided attention. I love J. M. Barrie’s description of fairies in Peter Pan: they’re so small they have room for only one feeling at a time. That’s me! I’m a terrible multi-tasker. I can’t write with Curious George on in the background, so I have to carve out shavings of undistracted time and recognize that no shaving is too small. Even five minutes can yield a decent paragraph if one is desperate enough. I thank God for pre-school, which gives me ten solid hours per week and the opportunity to be mentally present when I’m with my daughter.
Second, I had to set specific goals to discipline myself to write on a deadline. My deadlines are self-imposed, but I treat them with the same respect as a deadline handed down from an editor. For 2013, this means two blog posts per week, 600 words per post, which will result in 100 posts and a total of 60,000 words. This is the average length of a novel in English. These numbers are arbitrary, but I needed to prove to myself that I can do this.
Lastly, I thumb my nose at perfectionism. Well, I try anyway. This will probably be a lifelong project, but I try not to drive myself crazy worrying about doing things perfectly. Some of my blog posts are great while others are duds, and I cannot predict with any certainty which posts will elicit a response from readers, and that’s fine. Control freak tendencies, in my experience, are not conducive to creativity; once I click “Publish” I try to forget about it and move on to the next task.
I suppose my main writing imperative is trite and simple and, yes, plagiarized from Nike: just do it.
CPS: Thanks so much for your writing and your candor, Em. This has been a delight.
EC: You’re welcome. My pleasure.