After my poetry reading, my daughter Simone, who had listened attentively, looking up at me from the front row, told me that she’d enjoyed my poems, especially the ones about her. This made me happy. And then, almost immediately, sad.
I wanted to have written more about her; I wanted my work to reflect my love. But my poems about Simone were mostly about my pregnancy with her 15 years ago.
She shows up again in my poems in snippets: a girl holding a bucket, drawing a flower. But the live, dynamic person that she is, my kind, spunky, thoughtful daughter with her blue-gray eyes, the girl who ran around the house putting on elaborate acting shows, who I held in my arms, who now goes about the world with such grace and surety, but whom I still lie down next to at night to check in about her day—that person who means more to me than language can ever express hardly appears in my writing at all.
Pregnancy turned me into a writer four years before Simone was born, when I was pregnant with her brother.
My changing body turned me inward. The more my belly protruded, the deeper I went and the more I wanted to translate that inner life into language.
I wanted to write partly to represent myself on the page. At twenty-six, in New York City, in 1999, I’d read few accounts of motherhood. And the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, famous poet mothers who had killed themselves, scared me.
I thought I wanted to create a new story of motherhood, a new story of what it means to birth and nurture life, a new story of what it means to be creative.
My early poems were about pregnancy and motherhood. Later, I wrote a memoir about the first year of mothering my son. But when memories of an early childhood sexual assault started to surface, I pulled the memoir from my agent: in part writing about motherhood had made me start to remember pieces of my own childhood, and I didn’t want to publish a story that I myself only vaguely understood.
Now my son is off at his freshman year of college; Simone is in her freshman year of high school. And I’ve hardly written about being a mother.
What if when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t important to me because I don’t write about them? What if they make the mistake of thinking that the real me is the me on the page?
I want to burn all my writing when I have this thought. I feel an old disembodied despair of not being seen in my wholeness. Of being only part of me, of being fragmented.
When I teach writing, sometimes my students say that they are scared to share their writing because they feel like they’re sharing all of themselves. They’re worried that their deepest, innermost selves are on display. I know that feeling all too well.
But I also know that this fear comes from a misequation between our writing and ourselves. It’s the ego speaking, that wishes we could have a stable, monolithic self that could be seen, understood, praised; it’s the bruised parts of ourselves that are afraid of rejection.
We can put parts of ourselves on the page and leave whole other parts off. We can be seen and also not seen at the same time.
For women it is particularly hard to be fully seen. It was Walt Whitman who wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But it was Emily Dickinson who said, “I dwell in possibility.”
For women, it’s that hard to feel that we are large enough—that the space around is large enough—to hold all our identities at once. We’re expected to be one thing, but we are so many. And then we worry that if it’s not all on the page, it’s lost—not important, not given the weight that it deserves.
But then I remembered again for the hundredth, the thousandth time: my writing is not me.
Just as my trauma is not me. Just as motherhood, too, is not me, just part of the experiences that have made me who I am.
Thinking about the ways in which I have—and haven’t—written about motherhood helps me reconsider and see more clearly the role writing plays in my life.
I had thought that I wrote to represent myself, to give voice to what is important, to explore what means the most to me and what I work hardest at, but none of this is so simply the case.
If I wrote to represent myself on the page, certainly I’d have written more about motherhood.
If I wrote to give voice to what I think is important, certainly, too, I’d have written more about motherhood—because I think nothing is more important for us individually or as a society than how we raise our young.
If I wrote from the parts of my life that I worked hardest at, then, too, I’d have written more about motherhood. Sometimes people—who have not, perhaps, themselves had children—think that writing about motherhood is sentimental, clichéd, easy, a story we’ve already heard, but nothing is more demanding than mothering and nothing more particular.
And what’s kept me from writing about motherhood isn’t, either, that I haven’t wanted to intrude on my children’s boundaries. I could have written about them but not published it. After all, I have hundreds of pages of unpublished writings on other topics but not on motherhood and my children.
So my basic assumptions about why I write are undone.
Why, then, do I write?
I write, ultimately, not to express myself in any kind of static way, but to explore possibilities.
I write from the part of myself that can’t be actualized in other ways.
I write from the places I do not know myself and need to meet myself again.
I write from silence, from the place language does not yet go, to try to put into language what I do not understand.
I write from confusion, from the inchoate, that place of becoming that has not yet become. I write from the place of potential, coaxing possibility into words.
My writing—like my meditation practice—teaches me again and again that there is no fixed location for my identity, for myself. And also that I can’t depend on other people to see me or for my worth. I need to see myself—on the page and off, in all my many dimensions, in all my multitudes and all my possibilities.
I wrote about motherhood as a young mother, I realize now, because motherhood turned my world upside down, upended my identity, startled me in ways that I couldn’t work out only by living.
Now that my children are growing up, are moving away from me, I find myself wanting to write more about motherhood again perhaps exactly because I’m somersaulted again in and through my own understanding of myself, another transformation under way.
In the end, I realize, I write my creative work to encounter parts of myself that I do not encounter in other ways. I write not for the people I love or for any abstract public or judge, but for myself and also for some reader I don’t know and will probably never meet who might stumble across what I write and find in it something that she begins to recognize, some part of herself that she didn’t even know she had.
And truth be told, though Simone liked the poems I wrote about her, when I gave her my book, she smiled, thanked me, gave me a hug, and put it on her shelf where it still sits, unopened.
And that’s okay. She and I have a different way of communicating, and we share so much more than what’s on the page.