An Unsettled Mother in an Unsettled World
“Did you work before you had children?”
A woman asked me that question in 1985, at a party in Connecticut. I was operating on minimal sleep and chasing after my three children, all under five, at this upscale gathering. I mumbled something about my three years of paid employment as a nutritionist with the Chicago Board of Health. Later on I thought of more cogent and witty responses, all on the order of “not as hard as I work now.” I couldn’t turn back time, but I saved up the moment and inserted it 25 years later in my novel, Wrong Highway.
I gave my protagonist, Erica, the job I knew best—that of a stay-at-home mother of four. Erica is not me. She is an alternate me, with a different mix of the genetic jackpot, a slight shift in circumstance, and choices that I did not make but nonetheless viscerally understand. “Childbirth is the best rush ever,” Erica tells a friend. She loves being a mother, but that is insufficient to resolve her inner demons. Erica is curious, fierce, uncompromising, and impulsive. She teeters on the edge. While her mother role informs her restlessness, even inextricably intertwines with it, it does not define her. In the process of writing, then marketing, the book, I realized that my literary representation of stay-at-home motherhood differed from most others I’d seen in contemporary literature. Mothers in those books were either ecstatic or depressed. Motherhood represented the fulfillment of all deep desire or the erasure of one’s identity. Rarely was motherhood just…life.
I married at the age of 21. After three years in the work world, a miscarriage, and a year of graduate school, I gave birth to my first child at 25. The experience was even more life-altering than I anticipated. Giving birth, I felt inducted into the sorority of women, sending forth into the world a life force that had been there since the beginning of time. My daughter was part of me, yet not me. She looked up at me with her innocent eyes. I had never known anything so pure. For the first time since I was a little child I felt a profound contentment. I wasn’t waiting for school to be over, or work to be over, or for my life to begin. I didn’t need to justify myself. I could simply be.
At the time of my daughter’s birth I was in the midst of a graduate program in nutrition at the University of Chicago, and considering applying to medical school. A product of feminist seventies expectations, I assumed that at some point in the relatively near future I would return to “work” as society defined it. When my daughter turned four months I went back to class, leaving her most of the day with a family day care provider.
A few months after our daughter’s birth, dissatisfied with his employment prospects in Chicago, my husband accepted a promising job in New York. I stayed behind to complete my classwork and got a crash course in what being a working mom/single parent was like. I nursed my daughter to the Today Show. At precisely 7:22 a.m. I left our apartment to walk my daughter to the babysitter’s and catch a train to my intensive physics class, followed by work at a diabetes clinic. I picked my daughter up in the late afternoon, stopping by the grocery store to pick up gyros or pizza, some of which I pureed for her dinner. While she crawled around our bedroom I struggled with physics problems and read medical texts. When she fell asleep I put her in her crib and—with night feedings in between—started all over again the next morning. All that summer I never listened to any music or saw any movies. I read exactly one book. The only fresh air I got was walking to and from the babysitter’s. I felt like a mediocre student and a mediocre mother.
I joined my husband in New York, had another baby, and, with considerable difficulty, finished my master’s thesis. But I’d lost whatever fire in the belly I had for a gung ho career, and we didn’t need the money. By the time I turned 30, I was the mother of three children under five. My protagonist, Erica, at the age of 31, is the mother of four under the age of 10.
As a mother I felt anchored in a more vivid, productive reality. What I did with my days mattered. In my prior work as a nutritionist for the WIC program I felt like I was slapping back ineffectively against an overwhelming tide of income inequality and racism; as a graduate student working in a hospital I felt similarly impotent against the vagaries of disease. But in the little world of my home I could nourish, educate, and love my children the way I believed best. In their unique ways, they all ripped open my preconceptions and kept me flexible. Looking at the world through these three new pairs of eyes expanded my perspective. It made me a bigger person.
Home with children, I felt the cold of winter and the humid heat of summer in a way I couldn’t at school or at a nine-to-five job. We spent long hours at the beach, driving home hot and sweaty and sandy. I watched the sunlight glitter in my children’s hair as they played on our swingset. We spent long, rainy afternoons building with blocks and drawing with crayons. We baked cookies, the kids clambering over each other for the right to crack the egg. When I worked nine to five, weekdays blended into a featureless mass, punctuated by weekends. At home, the vivid days of my childhood returned to me, each bringing its own moods and surprises.
I enjoyed the company of my children. They were unjaded, enthusiastic, open and curious. Despite the inevitable whining, they basically wanted to be, and usually were, happy. They loved with their full hearts. “Look Mommy, the leaves are dancing!” my three-year-old daughter told me one fall afternoon. My adult friends and relatives never noticed the leaves dancing, and I preferred to spend my days with people who still did.
My friends and neighbors perceived me as an earth mother. I made my own granola, salad dressing, soup stock. I mowed my own grass and ordered ladybugs for pest control. I hosted at home birthday parties with home-baked cakes and home-made party favors. I sewed my son’s Batman Halloween costume. From the point of view of my nerve-wracked compatriots, busy juggling calls on their two phones and picking up their take-out dinners, I must have seemed like a contented cow. The reality was more complex.
My days were frantically busy, but also slow. Time stretched out as I pushed my baby in the swing for hours, or rode around the neighborhood with him on the back seat of my bicycle, or shoveled wet sand into a pail at the beach. It was mindless in some ways, but devoid of the false clutter that accumulates as one rushes from meeting to meeting and appointment to appointment. Some of the beat poets purposely took menial jobs, and I understand why. If your body stays busy, your mind remains free. My mind often wandered into obscure corners. I pondered theories of time and space. I became fascinated with the presidential candidacy of Gary Hart, wrote my own campaign literature, and, with children in tow, handed it out at local shopping centers. My fantasies about Hart, ironically, had little to do with sex: Gary and I would be dining together and his eyes would lock onto mine, intent and serious, as he asked me my opinion on world problems. I wrote op-eds for magazines and collected the rejections. I stashed impressions and overheard comments away for future reference and wrote the beginnings of what became short stories and screenplays.
Yet some days I’d wheel the stroller around our pleasant suburban neighborhood and sense walls closing in on me, the walls of a comfortable and seductive prison. This psychic restlessness did not arise from my status as a mother or from my day-to-day tasks, whether the gentle, enjoyable ones like tossing a Nerf ball or doing craft projects with my children, or even the repetitive chores of diapers or laundry. It arose partially from the suburban community in which we lived, a culture so alien to my sensibilities that I sometimes imagined myself as a foreign exchange student. And it arose from within me, part of my being for as long as I could remember.
Erica, as I’ve noted, is not me, but we share a deep satisfaction with the job of raising children. Here she is at a difficult moment:
Down the two flights of stairs and over the screech of Van Halen she heard Sophia’s voice. In her high burble, she named objects in her room: ‘Birdie! Duckie! Bear! Blankie!’ and then, her voice rising, a sense of urgency intruding, ‘Mama, Mama!’ She rattled the rails of her baby gate. This was the saving grace of Erica’s life, the incessant demands of her children. They never allowed her more than a few minutes to brood. Marked and dirty she might be, but never purposeless.
As my children grew up, my life expanded beyond the home in a natural progression, as they matured into their own lives and required less of my time. I still worked from home, maintaining the flexible days I’d enjoyed as a stay-at-home mom, and continued with my domestic projects, like knitting and canning. But with more time to play with, I worked as a freelance journalist and took creative writing classes. I wrote a screenplay that was accepted by a prestigious writing workshop. When my youngest was fourteen I discovered I was pregnant with my fourth child.
Once again, I was thrust into the responsibilities and joys of raising a young child. It was a gift to get to know this new human being, to enjoy a deep intimacy and simple pleasures I’d assumed were forever behind me. The screenplay never went anywhere, but I kept writing, albeit in stolen snippets of time. My son and I enjoyed the same things and he gave me the excuse to push the swings and build Lego brick castles, but also to wander around art galleries, watch foreign films, and listen to indie rock.
Daily life intervened, sometimes in unexpected and unwanted ways, and changed the stories I had to tell. There were areas of my life that I could not control: a life-threatening illness, a seriously troubled teenage daughter, crises in our extended family. There were memories and regrets that would not go away. I often felt I was operating on two levels. One was the daylight level, stable and steady, where I made zucchini pickles and did the laundry. The other was a darker, subterranean level, where I typed unsettling stories late into the night. Both light and darkness occupied legitimate sections of my brain. I liked the daily routine: the stew bubbling on the stove, the lavender scent of the dryer, the multi-colored rows of canned jams in the pantry. I appreciated the dependable company of my family. And every day I faced an unrelenting cascade of things to do. Bills needed to be paid, children chauffeured, appointments made. I didn’t earn most of the money, but in every other way, the buck stopped with me. I liked that, too. Responsibility created structure and bound me to the necessary work of the world.
But there remained the gaps where the darkness seeped out. I could knit a sweater or bake a birthday cake, I could construct my own little world, but it could never totally camouflage the chaos lurking underneath. I could ignore it, let it fester, and live a half life. Or I could acknowledge it the way I knew best, by putting it down on paper. Confined to print, twisted, stretched, elaborated, and disguised, the darkness was under my control. One of those works of fiction turned out to be the embryonic beginnings of my novel, Wrong Highway.
In my novel, Erica’s nephew, Jared, rebels against his straight-laced parents and he reaches out to Erica for help. She responds, but her actions are motivated as much by her own longings as by a genuine love for Jared. The boundaries between adult and child blur. Making all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons, Erica sends everyone involved down a dangerous and twisty path.
My novel is out in the world and my little baby is now 16. My older children, all in their thirties, are healthy, reasonably happy adults. We are all close. My daughters have given us four granddaughters, whom I help care for. I am 61 years old. Child care, apparently, is what I was meant to do, and I am fine with that. The primary biological imperatives of all life forms are food and reproduction, so I am comfortable with my role in the world.
I am also writing another novel. I’ve always believed in the adage “write what you know,” so once again my protagonist is a mother satisfied by her daily domestic job. She’s also an unsettled person living in an unsettled world. Her reality is multifaceted, like mine, like all mothers, like all humans.