Last month’s “Birthing the Mother Writer” column asked readers to submit a creative nonfiction piece that illustrates the resistance to and need for rest as a mother writer.
The following essay by Beth Koruna shows the particular problems encountered by women who care for their parents and their children at the same time—and the need to break free of the “sandwich” in order to begin to take care of their own creative minds and healthy bodies again.
Hold the Mayo: My Own Sandwich Generation
by Beth Koruna
I hate mayonnaise. Always have. There’s something about the oily eggy texture that triggers my gag reflex. Nothing is grosser to me than a flattened greasy deli meat sandwich with mayonnaise oozing out.
And that’s how I felt for the better part of the last decade and a half.
The idea of a sandwich generation is nothing new—women have always been caregivers of the generations before and after them, whether the people involved are related or not. I imagine Abel’s wife with a baby on one hip spooning broth into Eve’s mouth, while Adam called out for help getting off the john. It’s just what we do. So years passed as my mother’s multiple myeloma ebbed and flowed as cancer will. In those years, the closest I got to a warm weather vacation were the nights I spent on my parents’ Lazy Boy in the torrid temperatures (my dad’s heart disease gives him an ambient body temperature of something like 33 degrees), peeling myself off the leather when my mom needed help going to the bathroom.
“I hate doing this to you,” she would say into the quiet deep of those nights, as she lay on the couch across from me because climbing the stairs to her room had proven too daunting.
“Mom, it’s okay,” I said from the chair. “I want to be here.” I did, really, because part of being between those slices of bread was the desire to be for her what she had been for me: stalwart, supportive, and most importantly, there. That part was an honor. I wanted to be there.
And there and there, too, of course. Mornings I rushed home to send kids to school and myself to work.
By work I mean teaching writing to others, rather than writing myself. As an adjunct instructor, I could preach process to my community college students and remind them about writing fundamentals over and over again on draft after draft. I would often tell myself that their writing had to take precedence over my own because at least I was getting paid, however nominally, for their writing, and honestly, helping them with their writing was something I felt like I was pretty good at. So adjunct teaching served another sandwich purpose: as a convenient vehicle for putting together related, even nutrient-rich, items: money, outside-of-my-family human contact, complete freedom to work around my kids’ schedules, a measure of professional success.
“Oh, Rita,” I remember saying to a student older than myself who was returning to school for a nursing degree. She had both confidence from life experience and insecurity from her distance to the classroom relative to many of the other students. “You got it this time! You so got it!” I told her. I had just finished reading her most recent draft of the much-dreaded literary analysis that she had labored over for weeks, so far outside her comfort zone and so smart in its final consideration.
“I just kind of just kept at it,” she responded, bemused at this particular accomplishment. “I wrote it and re-wrote it a thousand times, I think.”
I, on the other hand, simply didn’t write often, didn’t heed the butt-in-chair advice of Anne Lamott and others, and started to believe that I had nothing to say. I had plenty of ideas but nothing to say. Into our already cluttered 1960s ranch, we brought three kids, a girl and then twin boys, three kids born in just two years and four months, proof of a cosmic sense of humor what with our infertility-riddled past. My husband suffered 20 months of unemployment, bringing what was barely manageable debt to flat out we-may-declare-bankruptcy debt. My parents’ health faltered and faltered some more. My own health got sucked into a morass of chronic back pain. I allowed and even encouraged the glomming-on of toxic people. I parented, I worked, I wifed (certainly in that order), I slept, often with the aid of prescribed medication, but I didn’t rest, and I surely didn’t write much. I didn’t resist rest or writing. I just couldn’t find them.
Instead I felt myself careening from one moment to the next, like being on the old metal tilt-a-whirl at the fair—some up and down, but mostly around and around and around, smashed up against the side of the car unable to fight gravity. People have written through worse and harder and busier, whispered my singularly unhelpful inner harridan. But I didn’t.
My mother died in 2009, two weeks after breaking her hip and succumbing to SICU psychosis and encroaching cancer.
The sandwich metaphor works in other ways, too. As in smashed down. Leaking out the sides of my life. And, of course, as food—wonderful comforting carbs, when my insides felt as empty as a cave. Everything around me felt so full up, packed, crammed, bursting, but I was ravenous for what I didn’t know. I gained a hundred pounds. I say that now like Oh, I tripped on a piece of uneven sidewalk. Surely one gains such weight steadily over a long time in a series of choices, but that’s not how it feels in memory.
Here’s where a better person would have the epiphany, the point on which the whole story turns, but I don’t. I don’t know what changed in the last year, and that scares me, because if I’ve stumbled into some respite only accidentally, then can’t I lose my way again just as easily?
I went with a friend to Weight Watchers and stood on a scale, something I hadn’t done in over five years (you know, the doctor’s office can’t make a grown woman stand on the scale. And I was a big girl. No one fucked with me on that). I saw a number that simultaneously shamed me and unburdened me. There it was. A quantity that had haunted me for the last several years. And I didn’t feel any worse than before I knew it. I couldn’t feel worse. I didn’t feel exactly that I could change anything—but I didn’t feel exactly powerless either.
Nine months later I’ve lost 80 pounds. There’s a story in that, sure, but the story for me is what happens on Wednesdays. I have my meetings, and I cling to those times like any addict. I sleep later those days, and my husband drives my daughter across town to her charter school. My twin boys get themselves together those mornings because I make sure the night before that we have no missing socks, belts, or hoodies, and that their lunch food is easy and available for packing. I walk with some friends, either at a local park or in cold weather, around the mall. Then I weigh in, listen to other women’s weeks and sometimes share from my own. Then my best friend and I have lunch at Chipotle, which I love like the mother ship, and frankly, I don’t eat much breakfast on weigh-in days, so I’m always starving and it always tastes like heaven.
Here’s the little I have learned: I realized that rest can be found in engagement, that unhurried movement in a better direction actually feels like stillness. Wednesdays are sacrosanct now. And maybe, maybe one thing can lead to another. Maybe I can make sandwiches on my own terms a little bit more, choosing my own condiments. Spicy mustard, for example, is extremely tasty.
Beth Koruna is a mother and teacher, and yes, a writer, from Columbus, Ohio. She attended Ohio State for a B.S. in English Education and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in several local publications, as well as in Ohio Magazine. She is beginning again to work on a novel and is giving herself the freedom to write imperfect first drafts of other pieces, recognizing that seeds of worth can be found in even the most imperfect things. Beth resides in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, three teenage children, and two perfect felines, and she is an adjunct writing instructor at Columbus State Community College.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
In my notes to readers’ responses, I like to give behind-the-scenes insight into the writing, submission, editing, revision and publication process. This time, what struck me was the transformation that happens during this process.
When Beth first submitted her essay to me, her bio was filled with doubt. It included words like “defunct” and “dreadful” and gave voice to her insecurities as a writer who gave more time to her mothering and teaching than to her writing or herself.
But what happens in the process of writing is that you write for the person you are becoming.
Let me explain.
I often tell my writing coaching clients not to edit too close to the writing. What I mean is that keeping that journal, filled with your honest emotion, or drafting that short story, in which you are grasping for the unified meaning—all this changes you.
If you edit too soon, you do not allow yourself the time to become the writer who has written from that raw and truthful place.
Later, after this transformation happens, the revision process is easier because you are the one who has written and you can see the changes that need to happen more clearly.
Let’s take another example.
The submission process is tough. Many people never try, or give up, or refuse to work with editors to make the work what the world needs it to be. But if you refuse to give in to your fear, then you become a published writer.
And this transformation then changes the attitude you have toward your writing, toward the submission process—and toward yourself as a writer.
So in the same way that I am advising you to hold off editing until you have allowed your writing to “cool” and your own self to develop, I want you to refrain from self-doubt and criticism until after the publication happens.
The theme of this month’s column is rest—lying fallow—in order to let your work deepen. What I am suggesting is that small rests are necessary all along the way.
Write, then wait. Revise later, after you have become the writer who understands the larger scope of the work.
Submit, then wait. The publication will change your relationship to your work and yourself.
And as your writing progresses, each poem, each story, each essay, each book—these will change you in ways you cannot predict. You will become easier on yourself. You will learn how much writing you can do. You will feel the arc of a work more easily. You will not doubt yourself so much.
The next time you are faced with a writing project that fills you with dread, rest.
If you’ve just written it, let it go. Return to it in a month or a year. See the clarity that time brings.
If it’s ready, let it go. Allow the world to accept it for what it is—not you, not your baby, not your deepest dream—just writing. Just art. Something outside of you that you have produced and loved and can let go into the world as its own being.
You know how to do that, Mama.