Sometimes I chose the homemade cookies, sometimes I chose the poem. The years following the birth of each of my daughters have been some of my most productive as a writer. By the next year I had no time at all, even for a shower, and everything to say, because I had become a young mother. I watched him give up on me. Who did I think I was? My son said he tells all his friends how proud he is of his mom for pursuing her dream.
When my children were babies, and I was struggling to make it as a freelancer writer, I scanned even the simplest author bio at the bottom of local newspaper articles, looking for signs that other writers had young children. I read memoirs by well-known women-with-offspring writers, looking for survival tips. Most of all I wanted to meet a real mother-writer in person. Finally, an Alaska woman fitting that description called out of the blue and asked me out for a coffee — my chance at last to meet a literary comrade! — and we both brought our toddlers. Our lattes were still hot when my toddler boy reached across the cafe table and smacked the woman’s chattering daughter on the face. My son had never done anything like that. We were all shocked. End of that bonding opportunity.
Years later, I can happily say that I’ve met many more women who write, and I’ve learned from them all. (I can also say my toddler is now a very mellow 14-year-old boy with good manners.) But even today, most of us are too busy juggling writing and family to get together and trade stories. So I asked four other women if they’d do just that — online. We all posed questions to each other, roundrobin style. In the exchange that followed, there is still much more to ask, much more to say, but at least we got a start — and I respect these four women writers more than ever.
The participants are: Eowyn LeMay Ivey, mother of 10-year-old and 2-year-old daughters; Marybeth Holleman, mother of a 17-year-old son; Cinthia Ritchie, mother of a 17-year-0ld son; Deb Vanasse; mother of a 28-year-old son and 25-year-old daughter; Andromeda Romano-Lax, mother of a 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. For longer bios, see end of post.
To what extent does your identity as a mother and your identity as a writer overlap? Was there a particular moment in your life when the conflicts or harmonies became particularly clear?
Eowyn: It’s interesting because in ways I think motherhood forced me to clarify my identity as a writer. With each of my daughters, a few months after the birth I had bouts of panic as I felt my sense of self as an individual slip away. There is something beautiful about the selfless nature of parenthood, but it is also frightening. In both cases, I had this overpowering need to reassert my own identity. And in answer to the question “Who am I?” always came “a writer” as one of the answers, and I would throw myself into a new project.
The years following the birth of each of my daughters have been some of my most productive as a writer, which seems crazy when I think about it. These are not periods of harmony and calm. Instead, I often feel torn in different directions, trying to be a good mom, a supportive wife, and a writer. But somehow it is in that struggle that I realize how important writing is to me. At the same time, I’d like to think that being mother, having that experience of letting go of my ego and completely focusing on the well being of another person, has enriched my writing. That’s not to say that to be a good writer you have to be a parent. I just think it is one of many experiences that have opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world.
Cinthia: Well, my son leaves for college in August so I’m past the writing-and-being-slammed-in-the-head-by-a-Nerf-football stage. In all these years, though, I don’t think I could separate my identity as a mother and a writer, they are so intertwined: I am the writer I am because I am a mother. But I do remember the day the harmony became clear. It was four or five years ago, a winter evening, and my son and I were curled on the floor reading Stephen King novels. It was the end of my work week and I was exhausted. But there I was, drowsy, smells of popcorn in the air, my son breathing with his mouth open because he had a cold, when suddenly a heavily accented voice slammed into my head: “Gray horse, gray horse, you not know the way, the way, the way.”
It was the Polish grandmother from the novel I had begun and then abandoned, begun and abandoned because I didn’t see how I could possibly work full-time, raise a child by myself and write a novel. Who did I think I was? Yet lying on the floor in our aging apartment it suddenly occurred to me that I could have both, I could commit myself fully to both parenthood and writing, I could allow myself that luxury. And if my son ate pizza for dinner three nights in a row because I was writing, so what? If I forgot to do laundry and we had to wear the same clothes the next day, big deal. I was writing, I was saying: This is who I am and I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize or make excuses any longer. I suffered for it, of course; I suffered terribly. The guilt and shame were maddening. But I kept on writing.
Marybeth: My identity as a writer and as a mother are so intertwined it’s difficult to think of them separately. As far back as I can remember, I meant to do them both, and saw them not as conflicting, but as complementary. I had this idealized vision of me sitting at home writing while my child/ren were at school, then being there with cookies and milk when they got home. Homemade cookies, of course.
Now, it didn’t work out that way; making a living writing proved to be more like winning the lottery. So then came various jobs, all piled on top of writing and mothering. Sigh. When I was pregnant, I was in my final year of an MFA Creative Writing program. My advisor (and mentor and primary teacher), himself married without children, was disappointed that I, in whom he saw a promising young writer, was with child. I watched him give up on me, as he assumed I couldn’t do both well. Meanwhile, a fellow student, mother of two young children, wrote beautiful stories that came straight from insights she’d gained as a mother. I read her stories and thought, my prof is wrong: mothering will inspire my writing.
As with most things in life, the truth stood somewhere in between. Over the past 18 years, parenting has always come first – and often at the expense of writing. There are only so many hours in a day, after all. Sometimes I chose the homemade cookies, sometimes I chose the poem.. And now, as I stand ready for my son to fledge in the fall, off to a far-away college, here’s what I think: parenting has probably made my writing self less productive, but I know it has made every word I do write richer, more meaningful, and ultimately (I hope) more useful. And I can’t imagine any other kind of life. Which is to say, I have no idea what next year, when there’s no kid around to foil my writing plans, will bring…
Deb: Motherhood kept me from writing for several years. My job was too demanding and I was both the primary wage-earner and the primary care-giver and I wasn’t as brave as Cinthia, though I think oddly having another adult in the picture made it tougher to even consider taking the risk of adding writing to the mix. But I always had in mind the twenty-year retirement (that’s what it was for teachers then), and my plan to retire and write full-time.
When my children were young, I wrote like I read – for a few years not at all, and then in ten-minute bites. But I did take the kids Outside for six weeks to work on grad school credits that I needed for salary advancement, and I slipped in a writing institute for credit, which was where I wrote the story that later became my first novel. My son was five and my daughter was two and we stayed in an old farmhouse we’d bought as an investment (it wasn’t) and I wrote after they fell asleep at night, listening as bats crawled around in the walls.
After twenty years I retired as planned but there was little money to help the kids with college, so I sold real estate for eight years to earn enough to help them through. As passionate as I am about writing, parenting has always been my first love, and I remember a moment of release when I realized that my children were grown and if I died right then, I’d go with total peace and fulfillment, that having known and loved them would always be my greatest accomplishment and my greatest joy. So perhaps it turned out that parenting took the edge off, and I don’t feel the need to prove myself through Great Writing Accomplishments that are, as Marybeth points out, as much about luck as talent. A couple of years ago, when both my son and daughter had diplomas in hand, I extricated myself from real estate sales to live the (frugal) life of a writer, and I enjoyed another great moment of joy when my son said he tells all his friends how proud he is of his mom for pursuing her dream.
Andromeda: I remember a quiet six-month stretch following completion of a marine science graduate degree (my husband was still in his grad program), when we were living in rural Nova Scotia, with ample time and a gorgeous coastal view of forested islands and a lobsterman’s dock out my window. We had no kids yet. I was already published (magazines plus one travel guidebook) and now had the temporary freedom to launch a more challenging book project. And yet – I couldn’t find quite the right subject, or the burning motivation. I hadn’t lived enough. I didn’t have anything I needed to say. And perhaps I had too much freedom.
By the next year, I had no time at all, even for a shower, and everything to say, because I had become a young mother. We moved to Alaska, and those first years, with one baby and then two, and a dire need for freelance cash, were my apprenticeship. I was desperate, inbetween the long hours of nursing and diaper-changing, to express my feelings and follow my interests.
Like Eowyn, I felt a strong need to develop my own identity through my writing and my lifestyle (including being more physically adventurous though, ironically, having adventures was harder and riskier now, with babies). Everything felt amped up. Seeing the world through my children’s eyes, I noticed things more. Was it sleep deprivation? Living in a new place? Anxiety mixed with bliss? I don’t know, but every walk outside felt like a revelation and I couldn’t sort out my thoughts and feelings without writing – alas, there was never enough time!
The frustration pushed me beyond perfectionism, forcing me to write badly and quickly, to let things go into print even if they weren’t fully realized or triple-checked. Also, my colicky first baby trained me how to manage time: his naps always lasted 40 minutes. If he fell asleep in the car, I drove home quickly to write, take notes or just read, even if for only the 20 or so minutes remaining. Now that my kids are independent and wonderfully helpful to me, I’ve lost some of that early discipline, but our lives together still inform everything I write.
Part II of this conversation will be posted on Saturday. Part III will be posted on Sunday.
Cinthia Ritchie is a reporter and news editor for Alaska Newspapers. Her work has been published in literary journals around the world, and she’s a Pushcart Prize, Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska Arts Council fellowship recipient. She’s currently finishing up a novel. Her son is 17 and leaves for Lewis and Clark College this fall.
Deb Vanasse is the author of two young adult novels, three children’s books, and two travel guides. Her latest book is Picture This, Alaska, a collection of archival photographs. She’s currently revising a mystery set on the present-day Chilkoot Trail and drafting a literary novel, Cold Spell. Her son, Lynx, works as a mechanical engineer in Bremerton, Washington, and her daughter, Jess, is a grad student in Speech Pathology at Portland State.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of a novel, The Spanish Bow, and many travel and natural history books about Alaska. She is currently working on a novel that takes place in 1938 Italy, as well as a film project. Her children, both homeschooled, are 14 and 11 years old.