Before I had children, I had all these rituals to get myself in the mood for writing” you know, the right music, fragrant tea, some quiet reflective time. After I had children I learned to go at it like a high diver off the spring board, no preliminaries. I learned to write to the soundtrack of Sesame Street with a cockatiel crapping on my shoulder.
It took me seven years to write my second book, The Baby Lottery. As the mother of two children, a writer, and an associate professor, I understand the complications of balancing a career and a family, though I’m not even sure that using the verb balancing is honest, since my life often resembles wildly tipping scales. I don’t want to sound like the commercial women’s magazines that always offer time-saving tips, which seem to imply that we should cram even more into a day. The impetus for this book was my desire to portray women’s lives as authentically as I could.
The question I’m most often asked is, how do you do it all, i.e. parenting, teaching, writing. I think the question encourages women to mythologize each other. The answer certainly offers the temptation of mythologizing oneself (oh, I just have a lot of energy). The truth is by the time I’d finished, my health had crashed, and I was beset by some stark epiphanies.
I have to say that having children politicized me. My first child was born before the Family Leave Act, and I went back to work two weeks after his birth because otherwise, my family would have lost health insurance. Although there are five women from different professions featured in The Baby Lottery, including an obstetric nurse, a social worker, and public relations professional, I came up with my character Virginia out of my own experience, and many times it was through her that I was able to return to the book. Often, I had to put the book away for long stretches. I kept the manuscripts in a cardboard box under my desk, which I’d drag out. Before I could begin writing again, I had to get over being away for so long. I’d read the manuscript and think: Who are these people? Virginia allowed me to record some of my own frustration. She teaches at a community college whereas I teach at a state college, but her struggle to finish her novel reflects my own.
I wrote this book in many ways to keep myself company and to keep my women friends company. In the chick lit zeitgeist, there’s a bias against any kind of implicit social or political content, but it mattered to me very much to write about women at work with their loyalties divided. It mattered to me to portray the tremendous amount of pressure on families, and I’m talking middle-class families. The former Pope, Jean Paul, said we live in an age of savage capitalism. I wanted to record the savage feelings that go along with that. Women are exhausted; men are exhausted; children see that in their parents. The social changes that feminists envisioned in the the 70s were not enacted. These things are very real to me. I feel there’s little social analysis in the public forum, in fact, I think instead men and women are encouraged to blame each other, ”the so-called mommy wars.” Or we’re encouraged to pathologize our problems, the exhaustion of the impossible task must be some personality disorder. Two parents working full time and trying to raise children is such a grind, one scarcely has any feelings left. It mattered to me to write about men and women finding unconventional arrangements because maybe the old forms of partnership are worn out and don’t work.
In the book, Virginia, who has separated from her husband Finely, realizes ruefully that she only has time to rest and create outside of the marriage. Finley, to his credit, realizes that the space she needs separate from him can be brought back into the marriage, which is why there’s some hope for them at the end of the book. But that didn’t happen in my case. Without knowing it, I allowed myself to explore a lot of issues that pertained to my life, and in the end while my character Finley understood, my former husband didn’t. My children have been fairly good-natured through it all, though they’ve learned to scrabble in the laundry baskets like the rat family because clean clothes never get in the drawers. No one gets a perfect life, I tell them.
I’m lucky that both my parents were mavericks in their way and modeled risk-taking professions. My father was a medical resident at L.A. County Hospital before Roe v. Wade was passed, and he worked the O.B. Infection Ward where women with botched abortions ended up if they didn’t die first. His views as a result of that experience have had a lasting effect upon my writing. My mother worked as a script supervisor on film crews where she was often the only woman besides the make-up lady, and she worked on early multicultural films like House Made of Dawn. My parents dared to live unconventional lives; they lived with their children, not for them. I think you could say that’s true for me as a mother of two children who also writes and teaches. I believe it’s as important to model the creative act as it is to encourage it.
Kathryn Trueblood’s most recent novel, The Baby Lottery, was a Book Sense Pick in 2007 (published by The Permanent Press). She is an Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University.