Once, I lived in a world far away from the one I currently reside in. I spent hours and hours alone in this world. Reading. Writing. Reading some more. There was time in this world, and I spent a lot of it thinking about stories and the best way to tell them. There were other people who lived in this world too, and we talked about books and writing. We read The New Yorker and The Atlantic. We studied bestseller lists in Publishers Weekly. We brushed our hair every morning. We didn’t wear yoga pants. We went to lunch and always said yes to another glass of wine. Some days were better than others, but the peace and comfort of solitude were never hard to find.
But then, in November 2011, I was told by a nervous doctor (you never want a nervous doctor) that I was pregnant with triplets. What followed, in this exact order, was a somewhat polite but expletive-laden discussion on whether the ultrasound machine had malfunctioned; a nurse running to get my husband a cup of water (he’d asked for whiskey); and the realization that I would be leaving—or had already left—that quiet world of books and writing.
Not long before I found myself staring at the staticky image of three beating hearts, I had decided to double down on my life as a writer and apply to a few creative writing MFA programs. I’d been accepted to two when I took that trip to the nervous doctor.
While there are countless women who have advanced their education and careers while taking care of newborns and, probably—somewhere—three newborns, I knew I wouldn’t be one of them. I decided to go ahead with the risky pregnancy and forgo grad school.
That spring, when my maternity leave began, I left my publishing job. For the last time, I walked down the long hallway of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that led to the elevators, recalling my days as an undergraduate. The creative writing faculty all had offices along a narrow, meandering corridor. Their doors were the only break in the endless bookshelves. I relived the thrill of stopping and knocking, then being greeted by a smiling professor in a warm office. Those little offices were the spaces of Writers. Writers sat at old desks. Writers had time to think about words and stories. They spoke about craft. They had dedicated space to practice what they loved.
Stepping into the elevator, I felt lost. I thought about all those professors, and all the writing class critiques. I thought of the career I was leaving, the early-morning meetings about upcoming books and jacket designs. And I thought of those grad school applications, and all the work that had gone into them.
Someday, I thought, I’ll come back.
And so, I stepped out of the elevator and into a new world. In this world, I was on bed rest and in and out of the hospital. When there was time to read, I read articles about which vehicles could fit three infant car seats. When there was time to write, I wrote lists of baby names. In the brief moments of silence during checkups, while I held my breath, hoping to still hear three beating hearts, my mind went back to stories. I thought of stories I’d read and stories I’d written. I thought of stories I’d been told and the comforting voices that had told them. I reassured myself that one day I’d get to share these stories with my babies.
And share them I did. As soon as the triplets came home from the hospital, I got to work. Naturally, I started with the classics like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. There were times, usually at three in the morning, when two babies slept and the third was on my lap, looking up at me with big, wet, unblinking eyes, when the quiet came back. In these moments there was time to think and room to catch my breath. And there was the happiness that comes when old stories are made new again. There in the dark, I’d repeat the same lines my mother had once whispered. I didn’t need to look at the page to know the words. Goodnight noises everywhere.
These early days of motherhood were a constant reminder of how my life had changed. I’d always been quiet, and dreaded any sort of attention. But try going unnoticed when you’re with three babies. They often became the main attraction. Once, at the pediatrician’s office, a receptionist had to escort us into the building because of the crowd that had surrounded us in the parking lot. My identity now was Mom. And there was nowhere to hide. These triplets were dragging me out onto center stage. While I laughed at the irony, I recognized that maybe these babies had a lot to teach me. One day, I thought, I’ll have time to write about it.
The toddler years were especially rough, and often found me curled up on the bathroom floor, binging on Snickers while three tiny hooligans banged on the locked door. Life was a volley between extremes. Either the kids were napping or they were all screaming. Either my husband and I were smiling at each other, grateful for this incredible gift of triplets, or we were giving each other dirty looks, trying to redefine our marriage while navigating our new routine. My only goal in life became getting us through the day in one piece. It wasn’t easy. There was a time when the emergency room attendant at Pascack Valley Medical Center knew us by name. I lost sight of perspective. I was so deep in the woods that I was unable to see a way out—much like a writer trying to finish a story that’s taken over her life.
Practically the only thing that could restore peace to our frantic house was stories—stories like Rain Makes Applesauce and Thank You, Octopus, with silly words and headstrong characters. The same triplets who, a moment earlier, were shoving and biting each other would fall silent with anticipation as soon as I opened up Where the Wild Things Are. It was during this phase that I felt furthest away from the world I had left. I longed for the solitude I’d had before motherhood, then felt guilty for longing. The thought of reading an adult book often made me laugh and cry. Writing? I could barely remember how to. I attempted to start a journal but only filled in the first few pages, and it was mostly about things I’d eaten. Let the wild rumpus start.
As the triplets started school, our house filled with therapists. I learned that, like many preterm multiples, the kids would need help reaching their milestones. There were speech therapists and vision therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists. I worried that the trio wouldn’t be able to appreciate books the way I did. But then I’d find them examining the beautiful artwork of Jan Brett, or snuggled up with Home by Carson Ellis. Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse was another favorite. The intricate illustrations in these books gave my kids a way to dive into the stories when their speech was delayed, and they had trouble reading.
One day, they started writing and illustrating construction paper books of their own: books about scary tornadoes and sad fairies and cozy cabins in deep, dark woods. They couldn’t yet read on their own, but they were driven to get their ideas on paper. And I remembered then what it felt like to write. I remembered how fun it was to tell a story, in spite of how hard it was to find and arrange the right words. I remembered how something so difficult could make me happy. It felt like I’d found a path that might lead me back to the world I had left. I began thinking about where I’d go next. Where is your home? Where are you?
Slowly, I began searching for a way back. I started with podcasts. Writers on Writing, hosted by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, was my favorite. While the kids were at dance or gym class, I’d sit in the car and listen to writers talk about words. Leaves and rain fell and, in 45-minute increments, I’d leave the world of motherhood, in search of the world I’d left.
Soon, I found myself thinking about voice and theme while folding laundry; setting and pace, while emptying out the dishwasher. One day I wandered into the audiobook section of the library. The old me would have been mortified. But I missed stories. I didn’t have time to read printed books and, fortunately, my outdated car not only fit three car seats but also had a CD player. So, when I couldn’t read, I listened. In fact, I listened to shelf after shelf of audiobooks. I relearned the classics and kept up with the bestsellers.
I’d started down the path that I hoped would take me back to the world I’d left, but something was missing. That world was still far away. I no longer had the confidence that I could be a Writer. I had stories, but could I tell them?
Then one Tuesday I was in the car with the kids, racing to jiujitsu, and one of them said, “Mom, tell us a story!” I thought of the quiet nights when they still fit in my lap, big eyes staring up at me. And so, I began. I told them a story about three-year-old triplets banging on a door. Then, the next week, I told them an autobiographical tale of a little girl who shaved her eyebrow off because she was bored. Eventually, I started to make up stories. There were sad stories and weird stories and stories that ended with them yelling, “and then what?” In spite of all the years that had passed, and the monotony of motherhood, I could still think like a writer.
Now, when everyone’s yelling at everyone else and we have no idea what to have for dinner, I’ll whisper to my husband, “I’m going upstairs to . . . write.” I say write as if it’s some reprehensible act that would shame us all if word ever got out. It’s hard to consider myself a serious writer, and it’s still hard not to feel guilty for escaping the craziness, no matter how brief the escape might be. But it’s these little desertions of my family, I’ve learned, that ensure I don’t lose sight of who I am. I am more than a mom.
The triplets are ten now, and we’re working our way through A Series of Unfortunate Events. The kids love correcting me when I mispronounce “Baudelaire.” They appreciate how Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are smarter than the adults in charge. I appreciate the message that no matter what hairpin curves life throws, every challenge can be met with courage and humor—even if the humor is dark and the courage feigned. When things don’t go right, go left.
People no longer crowd around us when we go out. I’ve left center stage and am back in the wings. The calm may be temporary (in six years I’ll have three kids with driving permits), but being a mom has taught me to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to pay attention to all the moments—good and bad—that make up our story.
Once, I thought that becoming a mom meant forgetting the writer. Now, I see that she never left. She’s always been there, surrounded by stories, waiting for me to find her.
I’ve decided that my goal for 2023 is to brazenly step out of the chaos and steal some time for me, the writer—but that means accepting my new world. It’s a world where I’m teaching a trio of tweens to love reading, even when it doesn’t come easily. Even when it takes forever to finish a page, and there are no pictures. It’s a world where solitude is fleeting and always comes at a price. I’ve traded in hardcovers for audiobooks. I’ve abandoned my old-fashioned idea that a Writer must have the perfect conditions—an antique desk and a warm office overlooking a quad—and that a Writer must have quiet. I no longer believe that being a writer and being a mom cannot coincide.
I know now that a writer—a real-world, multifaceted writer—can scribble ideas down on the back of an unpaid bill while in the pickup line at school. A writer can stand on the sidelines of a soccer game in the middle of a raucous, cheering crowd and be in a world far away—a world similar to, yet totally different from the one she started out in.