At a friend’s baby shower I run into my former graduate school advisor. We chat amiably about my son, a seventeen-month-old who I stay home with, not necessarily by design but because that’s how finances and other real-world logistics made it all shake out. She asks about my writing, and I give her the standard line (delivered in almost apologetic tones) that I give when other writers ask me: how I’m trying to eke out writing time once in a while, how it’s tough to find the time. And because I assume she thinks I’m still at work on the material I started back in grad school, I offer this: that I no longer have any interest in the project – a collection of personal essays – that so consumed me prior to Eli’s birth; that the themes, topics, and intentions of the pieces now fill me with a strange combination of dread and boredom; that I’m essentially starting from scratch, developing (if slowly) an entire new body of work based on my current experience as a mother.
My former advisor is herself a mother, with two college-aged daughters. She’s also published novels for both adults and young adults, plus essays, articles and short stories in the most prestigious of publications. She is, in short, a professional success, someone who I’d always imagined never having let the emotional or practical demands of motherhood stand in the way of her career and her creative growth. In school, we worked together in an infrequent and strictly professional capacity, never developing the kind of closeness that would extend our conversational reach into the realms of the personal: relationships, identity, greater life goals or questions. And yet nonetheless I now expect her to be disappointed in my response, to tell me how promising the old work was, how much she hoped I’d consider revisiting it some day. But she says none of this. Instead, she laughs and tells me how what I’m experiencing happens to a lot of people, rattles off the names of some writers we both know who had been hard at work on manuscripts that got post-natally shelved as their focuses shifted towards the joys, challenges, and unanswerable questions of motherhood.
The shower hostesses’ house is still lovely and reasonably organized, and only if you knew to look for it would you notice that the books on the lowest shelves have been replaced with canvas baskets full of toys. Her own daughter is just a year old and not yet walking, so their house is still orderly and decorated from about a foot and a half off of the floor. Soon, this line will rise, as it has in my own house over the past year, from crawling height to cruising height to full-fledged walking and climbing height, like high-water marks from increasingly rainy seasons. I mentally inventory things she’ll have to move in short order: the family photographs in their polished silver frames, set out just so on a small corner table near the couch, or the low-hanging coats on the elaborate but not terribly sturdy wooden coat rack by the front door, the whole affair just one good yank away from toppling over.
The hostess herself glides by en-route to the kitchen, clad in a kind of lacy ivory-colored top that I can’t imagine wearing these days, even if my baby were off driving around with my husband in search of a nap, as hers is. It seems as though any thought or mention of Eli would cause food or mucous or other unidentifiable grubbiness to spontaneously materialize along its once pristine folds.
We’ve both turned to watch her walk by, as though grateful for the break in the conversation, each of us just a touch too introverted to be wholly at ease in the party setting. My former advisor continues and asks if I’m teaching at all, something that many of my former classmates do at the colleges or nonprofits around town. While I’ve taught a few short classes or workshops in the past year and a half, mostly I’m just staying home with Eli. I tell her as much with a sigh that is half-genuine, and half something I’ve started to affect because I feel like that’s what a good feminist mother does – lamenting the way that the burden of parenthood has fallen disproportionately on her shoulders, while her husband happily soldiers forward with his career, counting the days and months until she can get back to the work that she set aside when her child was born. The problem is, I’m not sure how much I believe this, and in some ways I think I say it only to defuse the concerned probing of certain friends or family members. In truth, my life these days makes me feel pretty content, a state that’s not always come so easily to me.
It would be disingenuous, however, to pretend that I’m completely at peace with my situation. There are definitely moments – when I hear of a former classmate having secured a book deal, a tenure-track teaching position, or other standard measure of professional literary success – when I doubt myself, and I wonder if that could’ve been me, had I done ‘x’ or ‘y’ differently. I can come up with a million reasons to be jealous, resentful, or self-pitying, and I feel that sock-in-the-gut envy that I don’t have what he or she does. I don’t know a lot of things for sure, but one thing I’m quite certain of is this: that when I find myself chasing after the quantifiable successes of another person, I’m turning my gaze away from all the gifts and triumphs of my own life, first and foremost the little creature who, as I stand around drinking tea with other beskirted shower guests, is home with my husband. I imagine them racing cars on the living room floor, stopping mid-lap at Eli’s insistence to switch vehicles, swapping blue Hot Wheels for wooden tractor, firetruck for yellow-wheeled dinosaur whose tinny voice is forever on the wane, eking out every last bit of juice from its original yard-sale batteries.
I look down at my plate of baby shower food – sandwiches and sweets writ miniscule, as if to match the scale of the tiny presents that are about to be opened – and I brace myself, anticipating a gentle reprimand from my advisor for having allowed my writing to slide into second place these days. And while I have always found her somewhat hard to read, particularly in non-writing-related matters, I believe that what she gave off in that moment was a vibe of approval. I don’t remember if she used the word “regret” (an unproductive emotion that I wouldn’t wish on another mother, knowing how easily that heavy, shaming mantle can slip onto our shoulders for the slightest of perceived transgressions), but she communicates something to that effect, that she wishes she’d been more present when her daughters were very young; that this time does, indeed, fly by, just as every seasoned mother and parenting book and treacle needlepointed throw pillow says it does. And while I’ve already heard or read this idea a hundred times over, there was something about hearing it from her – a woman and mother for whose writing career I have so much respect and admiration – that makes it finally really take.
In an hour more, after hugging each guest goodbye with an additional thank you (a week later a hand-written thank you note will appear in all twenty-three of our mailboxes), the mother-to-be will leave with her carful of gifts. She will go home and hold each item up for careful inspection. She will bury her face in the impossibly soft hand-knitted baby blanket, leaf through the picture books before carefully tucking them in the nursery bookshelf. She will carefully cut the tags off of onesies and sleepers and put them in a pile of things to be washed with the new ultra-gentle scent- and chemical-free detergent that she recently picked up, spending more on that one tiny bottle than she’d ever spent on detergent before in her life. She will show all of these gifts to her husband, demanding his attention when, after the fifth item, it starts to wander.
I got a gift that day, too, and not just the lovely and painstakingly decorated sugar cookie party favor that awaited me at the door on the way out. The real gift came in that conversation with my former advisor, a conversation that was, at times, awkward, as neither of us is particularly good at social events, and while we’ve always respected one another professionally, we’ve never exactly been close friends. She gave me the gift of her insight and experience, encouraged me to do exactly what I’m doing: to treasure my time with my son during these early years, not to be overly focused on my writing to the detriment of my attention to him. In saying what she did, she (perhaps unwittingly) gave me permission to recalibrate my focus for right now, and not only to eschew any feelings of guilt around that recalibration, but to be open to the idea that maybe I’m still doing my writerly work, even as I collect errant Legos from all corners of the house, or reread Make Way for Ducklings for the tenth time that day, with my son carefully and emphatically pointing to each “dutt” on each page. If writing is the way that we writers process and translate our life’s experiences, then it logically follows (or precedes) that it’s equally important to be having experiences worth writing about. And right now, I’m doing just that.