Before I hit 40 I often forgot how old I was. My twenties and thirties were pretty much a blur with one running seamlessly into the other without so much as hic-up between. This year I hit 40. Or it hit me. Like a mallet. That’s half of 80, or twice twenty, I like to say. But however I try to frame this picture--That’s half of my life already gone. I’ve spent more of my life married and being a mom than anything else.
I spent the later part of my 30’s finishing up a college degree. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been happier to have just saved the money and stayed home braiding my daughters’ hair. I have three girls, two boys. I really missed being there in the morning before school to help them get ready. I don’t think they actually missed me though. When I was a stay-at-home mom, my oldest, who is 20 now, would go to school each day be-dazzled, be-ribboned and be- fluffed. My kids did not walk out of our front door without looking like they’d been spit-shined and polished. Without fail each day the oldest came home de-ribboned, un-dazzled and un-fluffed. Apparently the big bows and feminine curls just were not her thing, and as soon as she got to school she’d literally let down her hair.
Eventually I just gave up, though I still have moments when I itch to grab a comb and a blow-dryer when I see her leave the house with a wet head, hurrying to work right after taking a shower. I have learned to shut up and just let them be who they are, and since then I have enjoyed the heck out of seeing who they are becoming.
And this is exactly how I deal with writing too. So often I want to “purty” up a piece I’m working on, give it some fluff here and there, a dazzling phrase, a ribbon of righteously remarkable alliteration abounding.
But that’s me. I like sparkly things. If they aren’t sparkly I like to add the sparkle. But that’s not being genuine, and being genuine, I think, is the most beautiful aspect of writing and to be more dramatic here, the most joyful part of living. If you can’t write or live in a genuine way, why bother?
I read an excellent collection of essays recently called The Writer on Her Work. There are some intelligent, touching stories in here I think every writer, male or female (but especially female) should read, Alice Walker’s “One Child of One’s Own” shares:
“Someone asked me once whether I thought women artists should have children, and, since we were beyond discussing why this question is never asked of artists who are men, I gave my answer promptly.
‘Yes,’ I said, somewhat to my surprise. And, as if to amend my rashness, I added: ‘They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one.’
‘Why only one?’ This Someone wanted to know.
‘Because with one you can move,’ I said. ‘With more than one you’re a sitting duck.’
I read this essay with a feeling of trepidation. Oh, I’m definitely a sitting duck with five. Quack. Quack. Quack.
Published in 1980, this book came on the heels of the feminists movements of the 60’s and 70’s. I’m thinking specifically of the literary ones, the tragic feminine victim, in particular the confessional poets who had done their work, and for bad or good, motherhood and the concept of family would never be revered in quite the same way again. I tend to think this is a good thing, yet not without some replacement myths taking over where the old patriarchal dogmas left off.
Alice Walker’s essay perpetuates what I like to call the “Yo Mamma” myth. The Diminishing Woman Who Chose to be a Mom but Should have Been an Astronaut Myth. Oh, how we all love labels. Alice, dear, it used to be, what, fifty years ago—a woman was considered “less” than a real woman unless she was married and had a family. Yes, she was limited by society and that was wrong. The pendulum, however, has swung in the entirely opposite direction now and in my experience, albeit, limited to a singular woman with a singular life, unless you are a strong career oriented “independent” female, you are not a “real woman.” And if you have five kids, you are either a slut or insane. Okay, really, folks, this is not an exaggeration… from one limiting viewpoint right into another and, in my interactions with people through my writing career, work (the day job that actually pays), and college, there is a growing discrimination against mothers and this is not just coming from patriarchal venues, it is coming from within our oddly developing, staggered matriarchal systems.
In response to Walker’s essay in which she explains how limiting motherhood is to creativity I must call: Bullshit. There is and was a time to demand gender equality, but sorry and to admit my own sexism here, my view is that the female has been naturally more attune (elevated? perhaps) to the creative energy for countless ages, even before the written word. For Walker to imply that motherhood somehow limits or diminishes a woman’s ability to create art is for her to be a member of the kingdom with no practical knowledge of traveling the pathways within the realm.
Yet, and judge me if you like, I must contradict myself here to some degree because Walker is not completely wrong. It is true, when my children were babies, feeding and diapering was an all day long event (I’ve changed 20,000 diapers in my life. Yes, I did the math) and I did not write anything more involved than a grocery list during those baby days. But, by God, those grocery lists were AWESOME. And I tend to think all those years cleaning up shit without a second thought have added more to my editorial savvy then any class I’ve ever taken.
I loved it, not cleaning up shit, but the longs lists of food, the planning a month of healthy meals in advance. But the baby days are over and now I’ve replaced the biscuits and bacon with odes and sestinas, or poems about bacon and biscuits. I tried to write a grocery list the other day and got as far as bread and milk and found I could go no further. Being a woman is a continual evolution, a daily one, and yes sacrifices for art are a part of the deal, just like parenthood requires sacrifice but on a totally different level.
The most poignant essay in A Writer on Her Work, in my view, was Michelle Murray’s “Creating Oneself from Scratch,” written in the 50’s this explains the dichotomy women had to suffer at that time:
“I am a teacher, a fiancée’, in addition to being a daughter, a granddaughter, cousin and friend. And perhaps by December 31 I’ll be a mother, a published writer. But all of these views of me are only partial.”
She expresses beautifully the challenges of being a mother and a writer:
“Crying has become my daily companion. Jim and I have almost no time together. No Jim. No God, no writing—is this what life is, bondage to children and them alone? For what? Is there nothing else? God knows I don’t hate my children, I love them, but I don’t want to give up my life and everything I am to them. I feel such a failure in every respect; it seems I can do nothing—many, many women do more without any sort of upset. Yet, I want to cry, I am me, not anyone else, and this is not for me.”
In the course of her writing career and becoming a mother of four, Michelle discovers she has cancer. She stops going to church, works on publishing her first collection of poetry and documents her wrestling with family responsibilities, religious, and societal expectations, she writes:
“Less and less do the signs of current literary life touch me---but to find myself in my own poetry—that is what I would give my life for.”
“It is as if my whole body were flowing out in words like blood and only a husk is left for everything else.”
I am most certainly not suggesting you have to be a parent in order to write well, and Murray herself wonders if she would have been more successful had she been a man. She summed up her experience before she died: “I feel that my authenticity is trapped inside me by fear, habit, custom, and I will die without being able to express it in my words…Don’t we poets all delude ourselves at one time or another with tales of our talent or importance? Either we wait too long for recognition and grow bitter in the waiting, or experience it too early and must live out a long decline…”
And written five days before her death:
“And then, each time, the fear that this is the beginning of the end—one doesn’t receive a formal announcement in the mail, after all, for it remains ambiguous to the end, I’m sure.”
She died at the age of 41.
I wrote this essay thinking I could reconcile being a mother with being a writer, but there is no reconciliation. They are not the same. I would not give up my life for a book of poetry, thank goodness things have progressed enough I don’t feel I have to choose between the two. I do have to give up a lot in order to write, sleep, for one, because I’m not willing to give up watching my daughter play softball, for instance…and money is another sacrifice, instead of trying to find a good paying job I’ve taken a part time one so I can have time to write.
Though I can’t reconcile writing with motherhood as motherhood IS always more time consuming, and more soul sucking, but also ultimately more fulfilling (some days) somehow I combine them. I compiled and edited my book in between games at softball fields. If you want to do something, you don’t sit around and focus on what you can’t do, or who says you should or shouldn’t, or why you can’t do it, or if you are good enough, you will be good enough IF you just do it.
Being a writer does not make me a better mother, in all likelihood on those writing splurge days it’s made me less a mother and more just myself. But, I see this as a good thing because the kids also see me as not just their mom there to serve them 24/7, they see me as a person. I do think being a mother has in fact made me a better writer, more importantly, a better person. I don’t think this is always a fair trade off, and there is no balance. Sometimes the kids seem to take so much from me there is nothing left for my writing, and sometimes my writing takes so much there is little left for my kids, but it is what it is and I am glad I have left the guilt at the altar of Womanhood, knowing I can, if fact, do both.
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Melanie Moro-Huber's book of poetry, Axe in Hand was published in 2012
by New York Quarterly Books, and she is currently the poetry book
review editor for New York Quarterly. Her chap-sized collection "The
Memory of Paper" appeared in the 2011 anthology Ahadada Reader 3. She
is a graduate of Hollins University and was a Tennessee Williams
Scholar at Sewanee, 2010. She also thinks bios are rather boring and
feels rather pretentous writing them, for those who have read this
one, here's an owl for you: