At a very young age, I used to prowl hungrily about my parents’ house, searching for something to do, something to make, I had no idea what. But I definitely felt driven, like I was searching for something essential. Over time, I discovered what that fundamental activity was: I wanted to write. Eventually, I discovered I needed to write, that it was as necessary to my wellbeing as breathing. When I am writing, no matter what the circumstances of my life, I seem able to maintain my equilibrium, while if I go too long without writing, I lose my figurative balance. Not writing causes me suffering. As Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
When we become mothers, we are swept away at a cellular level by an all-encompassing love for our children—and swept away by the tidal wave of time it takes to care for them and keep them safe. Oftentimes, despite our best planning, we have to choose between our writing and our sons and daughters, because as Tillie Olsen wrote in her landmark book, Silences, “[M]otherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.” Olsen elaborates on this responsibility:
Children need one now…. The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one’s own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy.
For me, as with many moms, when push came to shove, my time always went to my children, and for a while that was fine with me. Eventually, the call to write grew louder—but I couldn’t find the time to answer it. I postponed writing again and again until, eventually, it became too late for me. Some critical mass was reached by my not writing for what amounted to basically six years: from the birth of my first son through the birth of my second, plus two years beyond.
A memory from this time, nearly thirty years ago, haunts me: my toddler-aged second son stood in front of me, looking straight into my eyes and holding up his arms, crying “Mommy! Mommy!” I did not—could not—pick him up and comfort him. I stood inert as concrete, unmoved and uncomprehending, incapable of giving my child what he wanted. Thank goodness my husband came in the room and scooped up our son up in the hug he so needed. This happened during the longest winter of my life, with many days when I couldn’t even get out of bed.
I now know that I was clinically depressed that winter. My 25-year-old younger brother had died from cancer a few months before my second pregnancy, setting the stage for my fall into darkness. The previous year, from my brother’s shocking diagnosis through to his death, had been an excruciating roller-coaster ride of hope, despair, exhaustion, stress and, eventually, grief that lurched me in the direction of depression. The depression made me numb. It put me in a state where I felt nothing: no joy, no love. I forgot how to laugh. I cried often. At other times, my emotions felt too frozen for me to cry. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t make decisions. Intellectually, I knew I had all the ingredients for happiness in my life—a wonderful and understanding husband who was the love of my life and two beautiful, healthy sons. I knew that in the past I had been and so should still feel happy. In the grip of my dark illness, however, I couldn’t think of why I should bother about anything or anyone—including my children.
Grief from my brother’s death, by itself, may not have been enough to plunge me into what writer William Styron called “darkness visible.” However, the addition of the fluctuating hormones of pregnancy, birth, and nursing, sleep deprivation, the unending busyness of life with two kids, and one more key factor, in my opinion, created in me the perfect storm of biochemical imbalances to trigger depression. That one additional factor I believe contributed to my depression was this: I was a writer who was not writing.
I believe a writer is someone who can’t not write. She may stop writing for a while, either voluntarily or involuntarily, but she will always have to return to it, in the same way she could hold her breath, but eventually would have to breathe. There is a reason writing and creativity are linked with the act of inspiration, which alternately means the drawing of breath. If you stop breathing, you die. So to not write, for those who must, is to feel like one is dying.
I have found this comparison of writing to breathing, to something one must do to survive, expressed over and over again by other writers. On her website, novelist and mom Lee Smith writes, “Narrative is as necessary to me as breathing, as air. I write for the reason I’ve always done so: simply to survive.” Similarly, author Beth Kephart, also a mom, once told an audience, “I do not think I could physically survive without writing.”
The need to create, to fulfill one’s artistic dream, is powerful and cannot be denied. If one can’t do one’s artistic work, if it remains stuffed inside over and over again, as can happen when one is raising children, it stands to reason there will be consequences.
Sometimes, those consequences can be dire. In 1885, following the birth of her first, and what would be her only child, a daughter, writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, then 25, came close to insanity when prevented from writing. We know this because she left us words describing the experience. Gilman suffered from what scholars now believe was a classic case of postpartum depression. She cried whenever she nursed her baby and shook uncontrollably when trying to dress her. A prominent doctor at that time, with no understanding of hormones and biochemicals, blamed Gilman’s illness on her aspirations to write. He told her that in order to get better she should “never touch [a] pen, brush or pencil” again, for the rest of her life.
Gilman refrained from writing for several months. Later, she wrote that this wrongheaded prescription brought her “perilously close to losing her mind”:
The mental agony grew so unbearable that I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side . . . I would crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that distress ….
The “cure” prescribed for Gilman was the exact opposite of what she needed. What she needed was time to write. Some years later, when Gilman finally got those hours, she wrote her now-famous short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, a fictionalized account of her mental breakdown.
In contrast—and coincidentally also around 1885—when writer Kate Chopin found herself widowed, in debt, and with six children under age 10, she suffered from depression, and her doctor prescribed writing as a means of “therapeutic healing.” Chopin took the advice and went on to write and publish two novels and nearly a hundred short stories in the ensuing years. She recovered from her depression and debt, and supported her family as a writer and single mom.
In the spring following my most terrible winter, my depression lifted. I began writing again. The next year, I had a third son. Lesson learned, I made sure to write as much as I could before and after his birth and in the subsequent decades, publishing a children’s book and numerous essays while raising my three boys. I never let any significant length of time go by without writing—until recently when I helped caretake for my mom during the last three years of her life. For many reasons, I stopped writing. Towards the end of this time I felt “the gray drizzle of horror” and “storm of murk” (Styron’s words again) creeping toward me.
When my mom died last June, I wrote her eulogy—a painful task, but using my words to pay tribute to her reminded me of what I had to do going forward. Within a week I returned to the book I had been writing before my mom got sick, and began this essay. I knew these acts would be necessary to my recovery. Though I mourn my mom and miss her terribly, I know my working on and shaping these and other words have stopped darkness from engulfing me again.
Depression will of course not happen to everyone who needs to write and cannot. But my conversations with other writer moms and my own experience lead me to believe that depression from not writing is a very real possibility. Unhappiness from not writing is pretty much a given. Philosopher and psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” I agree.
I see this link between not writing and negative consequences such as depression, not as something to fear, but rather as permission to write, to see writing as a generous rather than selfish act, a way for mother writers to stay healthy and happy so they can take good care of their families. By saying this, I am trying to take away the guilt a mother often feels—guilt I used to feel—when doing something “just” for herself. I want to give moms the mental freedom to make time for writing, to see it not as “taking” from family, but rather as giving to them.
In other words: in addition to raising our children, loving them and supporting them in all they can be, we must find a way to be all that we can be—to get our writing done along the way.
“We have come to think that duty should come first,” writes Brenda Ueland in her classic and beautiful book, If You Want to Write. “I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first—at least, for some part of every day of your life. . . . You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else.”
Including our children.