I’ll be 46 in less than a month. There’s no longer any gray area about whether to round my age down to 40 or up to 50, at least from a mathematical perspective. I’m squarely in the middle of middle age. For me, the half-century mark is fraught. Twenty years ago, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at 50. At the time, my mother was only 3 years older than I am now, and her youngest child was 14, the same age as my oldest. Looking back, I had no idea how young 50 was. Is.
I can’t help but see the parallels between my mother’s life then and my life now. Like me, she went back to school in her forties, earning a law degree at 45, an aspiration she put off when my 4 siblings and I were younger. She attended night school for three years with three teens still at home, heading to class in the late afternoon, leaving a roast in the Crock-Pot, or a casserole in the oven. When exams rolled around, she’d book a retreat space at the Abbey of Gethsemani for protected time to study. It seemed extreme at the time, but now I get it; even though her children were older, her role in their lives remained all-consuming. She knew, as Shara McCallum aptly captures in her poem, “From the Book of Mothers,” that motherhood, in all its stages, is “the country of want, of want, of want.” McCallum’s metaphor suggests not only children’s insatiable needs but also lack and inadequacy. This idea of mothering defined by feelings of “want” rings true for me. So often, it seems there’s not enough of me to go around at work or at home, not enough time to satisfactorily fulfill my responsibilities to my family or myself.
Words—languages, books, stories, poems—have always been my first love. I wrote regularly in college and graduate school, even published a handful of poems and my first chapbook in my late twenties. But after getting married, having three children in three years (including twins), relocating several times for my husband’s job, and working full time, poetry receded into the background of my life for over a decade. I was immersed in the intense physical and psychological trials of early motherhood, which poets like Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds have depicted with such honesty and imagination. In her “Young Mothers” series, Olds expresses the ambivalence of the role in all its contradictions. She voices the sheer terror of the new mother who suffers from nightmares of her infant succumbing to “death by fire, death / by falling, death by disemboweling.” At the same time, the narrator grapples with a body blow to her own identity: “she enters the dream of murder, mutilation, her / old self bleeding in pieces on the butcher paper.” I spent much of my first decade of mothering overwhelmed and anxious, awash in often conflicting emotions. Throughout the sleep-deprived haze of my early child-rearing years, I wrote very little, if at all—but somewhere deep inside, the longing for poetry remained, dormant but very much alive.
My generation—born on the heels of the women’s rights movement—was raised to believe we could have it all. But the freedom and opportunities my feminist predecessors fought so hard for proved elusive. In college, I was presented with the archetype of the poet as a reclusive, typically male figure who had the luxury of adhering to an idiosyncratic yet rigid writing routine, unencumbered by the so-called “minutiae” of daily life such as holding down a nine-to-five, changing diapers, helping with homework, or planning meals. While I recognized the inherent sexism in this now outdated yet strangely persistent notion of how to be a real poet, it nevertheless exerted a powerful influence on me: how could I ever hope to write if I couldn’t work at the same time every day for several hours with no interruptions?
Even so, the pull to my roots as a writer grew stronger, the voice inside more insistent. I spent my thirties searching. Or flailing, really. I started doctoral studies several times, first in language and literacy, then linguistics, finally settling on educational psychology, which I abandoned 36 credit hours and a passed qualifying exam in. I flitted between careers, working in educational research and assessment, writing and managing federal grants, and finally as a consultant with a work-from-home arrangement that looked perfect on paper but in reality was a punishing race from deadline to deadline. I found it both convenient and isolating to work from my home “office,” a confusing and liminal space. I was always at work and always at home, and there was always too much to do in both realms.
Remembering this time in my life, I’m reminded of Adrienne Rich’s collection, Diving Into the Wreck, in which the speaker, chafing at traditional gender roles—”It all seems innocent enough, this sin / of wedlock”—experiences a sense of dissociation, a splitting of the self, due to the trauma of living in a world that “masculinity made / unfit for women or men.” Poems such as “The Mirror in Which Two are Seen as One,” “Translations,” and “The Primary Ground” speak to the feeling of alienation from the true self, a part of which is languishing, dying inside:
But there is something else:
your wife’s twin sister, speechless
is dying in the house
You and your wife take turns
carrying up the trays.
To free the dying “twin” and birth a new self and social order, the speaker must wake up to her intuition and see things clearly:
Underneath my lids, another eye has opened
is not for weeping
must be unblurred
though tears are on my face
its intent is clarity
it must forget
Such insight, recognizing a painful truth (in my case, that some part of me would never be fulfilled if I didn’t embrace the artist inside), is the beginning of the journey. Having the courage to take action, and figuring out how to do so, is a process of trial and error.
At 39, when my twins were 4 and my oldest was 7, I left my consulting job and began teaching elementary Spanish through an arts-based curriculum I designed myself, and spent 2 years becoming certified as a dyslexia therapist after my own daughter was diagnosed with language-based learning disabilities. I was getting closer and closer to the heart of what I love most, language and literature, and yet the emptiness inside continued to yawn. I searched out local poetry workshops and readings, began scratching away in my speckled composition books again. I sent a few poems out, marveling at the ease of online submission portals in contrast to the large manila envelopes stuffed with poems and self-addressed stamped envelopes I’d sent out over 20 years ago. But I still struggled to sustain a regular writing practice.
It took almost five years of soul-searching to finally give myself permission to go all in. When I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program in poetry at 43, I turned to the words of other women poets navigating writing and motherhood to illuminate my path. As Jane Hirschfield notes in the introduction to the anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women.
Spiritual experience is fundamental to human life, and the profound connection that exists between each individual and a reality larger than the narrow or personal self (and yet fully resident within that self) is at the heart of every religious tradition. Still, the descriptions we have of this most intimate of encounters—the self meeting the Self—have come to us predominantly through the words of men.
Eavan Boland eloquently explores this theme in A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet. As she puts it: “I have come to believe . . . that . . . becoming a poet cannot happen with one set of directions only. Or, to use the figure I choose here, one map.” She goes on, in the afterword to the collection, “Letter to a Young Female Poet:”:
Gradually I came to believe that the only way to change a tradition was to go to the sources which had made it in the first place. But what were they? Intuitively, I felt that the way to touch them was by reaching back into my own imagination, attempting to become not just the author of the poem but the author of myself. The author, that is, of myself as a poet.
I’m struck by Boland’s desire to actually “touch” the “sources” or relics of the literary canon, venerating them like the pilgrims of old. Boland’s purpose is not only to pay homage to the female poets who preceded her, but also to see them with fresh eyes, as she does in essays she calls “Maps,” such as “The Other Sylvia Plath,” “Looking Back and Finding Anne Bradstreet,” and “Reading Gwendolyn Brooks.” While I wanted to study the work of these poets to improve my craft, I was also seeking models of how to live as both a writer and a mother. Like Boland, I began to dig into my poetic lineage, to lay hands on the poems of my foremothers like touchstones in hopes that some of their wisdom and brilliance would rub off.
One such touchstone for me is Rhina Espaillat. I was drawn to her poetry for many reasons, not least of which is her stunning formal dexterity and the beauty of her language and insights, but also for her story as a woman and a writer. Espaillat’s work and life are awe-inspiring. After immigrating from the Dominican Republic as a child, she published her first poem at 16. She married young, raising three children while working full time as a teacher. Now nearing 90, she has published a dozen books—the first at age 60.
In her gently subversive poem, “Workshop,” Espaillat uses metaphors of domestic life to analogize the making of a poem, cleverly elevating and ultimately equating what has traditionally been considered ‘women’s work’ to the creative act of writing. When asked, “Where have you been” by “my old friend the poet, / and what have you been doing” the speaker replies:
Well, I’ve been coring apples, layering them
in raisins and brown sugar; I’ve been finding
what’s always lost, mending and brushing,
pruning houseplants, remembering birthdays.
As she lists these quotidian tasks, they transform from concrete to metaphysical:
I’ve been setting the table for the dead,
rehearsing the absence of the living,
seasoning age with names for the unborn.
I’ve been putting a life together, like
supper, like a poem, with what I have.
Like Espaillat, I’ve spent countless hours engaged in the tasks of daily living and caregiving. Many days have seemed interminable, yet somehow 15 years have slipped by in an instant. My twins are now 11, my oldest is 14. And while the physical demands of parenting have decreased—rather than carrying them to and from cribs and high chairs and bathtubs, I spend half the day in my car, driving them to and from school and other activities—this relative respite is offset by the emotional challenges of mothering adolescents. The intensity of parenting three spirited, sensitive, and, as it turns out, neurodiverse, children persists, just in different form. And yet, in spite of, or perhaps in response to my changing role as a middle aged mother of teenagers in the midst of my own hormonal turmoil, I’ve succeeded in making writing central to my life again.
I completed my MFA in poetry this past June at 45, the same age my mother was when she earned her law degree. There’s no question my mother’s example, her determination to develop her intellectual and creative gifts in mid-life, inspired me to take this step. She was, and remains, my first and best guide to carving out a self amid the competing demands of motherhood and modern life. Likewise, my MFA mentors, working artists with families of their own, taught me as much about crafting a writing life as they did about crafting poems. My graduate studies are completed, yet my journey as a woman writer is just beginning. Or rather, continuing. Like motherhood, it will be lifelong. Fortunately, I’m happy to report, as Eavan Boland did, that “the language at the end of my day—when the children were asleep and the curtains drawn—was the language all through my day: it had waited for me.”