This article is part one of a two-part series on parenting and pursuing a creative vocation. Part two will appear next month, June 2017: Retreat.
Being both a mother and a creative is a catch-22. Unless you are one of those rare and mythical creatures who can make a living from your creative work in your young and child-bearing years, you face a dilemma: be a working mom with no time for a third vocation, or be a stay-at-home mom with little resources for childcare to get away and create. Either way, you don’t get the space to pursue your creativity unless you fight for it. Really hard.
When I was 6 months pregnant with my first child, I stopped writing. As writing was my hoped-for career path, this felt disastrous. I was in my twenties and longed to write novels but had never actually written one. I had a first draft in progress, a few tiny article clippings, and the firm conviction that I was running out of time to seize and make something of my creative dreams before they evanesced into mid-life regret. I was young in my craft, still uncertain of what I wanted to say or what my voice even sounded like. The writing didn’t come easily to begin with.
Then, nesting hormones set in, and the time I spent alone in our apartment with an open Word document and writer’s block went from painful to impossible. The doors were shutting and I had a choice to stand pounding on unyielding timbers or to turn into the wind and let it carry me into new lands. I conceded defeat. I felt that if I was meant to write vocationally, then I would find my way back to it. I had to be present to the mystery unfolding right within me and the total transformation my life was about to undergo.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end. Several things happened—a series of minor miracles and a lot of hard work—which eventually led me to signing with my agent, sending my first novel manuscript out on submission to major publishers, starting Kindred with this beautiful group of women, and now working on my second full-length novel.
The story is too long and circuitous to tell here, but I do want to offer the bones of what saved me. Because the “narrow season” of early parenthood (as my husband and I like to call it because you’re slim on everything—time, money, energy, personal hygiene, sanity) is hard. Hard enough without adding late nights up with your manuscript to late nights up with a sick baby. The love and exhaustion and frustration of those experiences are frighteningly similar. And I so wish another woman who had already gone through this season could have sat me down with a cup of honey tea and said, “Love, if you want it, you can do this. Here’s how.”
First, a manageable investment: I kept reading and sometimes went to see writers when they came to town. Writing guru Natalie Goldberg came to a writing conference in the little seaside town where I live (one of those minor miracles). I didn’t go to the conference, but I went with two friends to her keynote address. Goldberg is a huge proponent of “writing practice,” twin spiritual discipline to her Zen Buddhist practice. She says with stupid profundity that the secret to writing is writing. Sit down, fill pages, don’t be precious about any of it. Do it again. When I brought her book up to be signed, I asked from the depth of my longing: “I want to write, but I have a baby. How do I do it?” She said, “Ten minutes at the kitchen table while she plays on the floor.” It was a band-aid for a fatal wound, but it got me moving toward that longing. I remembered that big jobs are most often the sum of many moments, a thousand small choices. You eat an elephant one bite at a time.
The next thing that happened was in many ways what made everything else possible. Seeing Natalie was the spark for the three of us that began a fledgling writer’s group. It was an early version of what is now the Kindreds. Avonlea, my oldest, was nine months old and I’d just gone back to teaching part-time. I went to that first meeting—strategically scheduled a half hour after her bedtime—thinking, “I can’t commit to this. Maybe I’ll come once a month. Maybe.” And then we spent an evening at that late-night diner with bottomless coffee and warm pie, settled into vinyl booth seats doing timed free writes and reading them aloud to each other. And I was hooked. The writerly me that had lain dormant for a year woke up like my baby so often did—hungry and bawling to be fed. Miracle number two.
But I needed time to work—the ever-present conundrum—so I got creative with my time. I did swaps with other moms. One of us would drop off our child with the other, go to a coffee shop to write for a few hours, and then come back and watch both kids so the other could do the same—or just go find their sanity, if they didn’t need to write. Early in my motherhood, a woman in the YMCA locker room told me about how she would get Saturdays as her “day off” when her kids were little and she stayed home with them. She said she didn’t care what happened while she was gone as long as everyone was alive when she got back. She spent time with girlfriends, went to go see a movie alone, or whatever she wanted to do. She emphasized that she did it all with zero guilt. She might have been a messenger sent by God. I envied her leisure, but gleaned the moral. I bought a breast-pump for Saturdays and took at least one a month. (Here’s where having a supportive spouse helps so much. I did get lucky there.) These became my writing days. I remember the first one—driving down the road, alone, on a rare sunny spring day in Seattle with music blasting, getting drunk on the freedom. I also remember idly considering what would happen if I just kept driving until the car ran out of gas. There’s a chance I might have done something like that if I hadn’t had those days off early on.
Eventually the time I stole, swapped, and was given became an early morning routine that I didn’t have to borrow from anyone but myself. I found that if I tried to write at the end of the day, I just had nothing left to give. What little time was left after the kids were in bed went to vegging out in front of shows. Stephen King says in On Writing, “TV…really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.” Instead I began to go to bed early (like 8:30 early). Never a morning person, I woke before dawn and wrote. And I fell in love with those dark silent hours all to myself with my work. And when my kids woke up, I didn’t resent it. I had already filled the well of my soul.
Speaking of Stephen King, another major influence along the way was either talking to or reading other writers. Goldberg and King’s books helped, as did Elizabeth Gilbert, Julia Cameron, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and many more. These are reports from the trenches, user’s manuals, and benedictions for writers at any stage of the journey, and all these authors became mentors, friends. I also met up with local writers who were acquaintances, friends of friends, or whom I met by chance. One put me onto the region’s biggest writing conference and taught our writing group how to pitch (miracle). Another pointed me to good teaching on craft when I thought my manuscript was flawed past saving (miracle). Another gave me much-needed perspective when the publishing process got rocky (miracle). One or two generously offered feedback on first chapters (PUBLISHED authors. Hello, miracle). I found space to meet them as play dates with our kids, or on a Saturday off, or by hosting them with treats and a love offering (10$ per person) at a writing group meeting. Many of them became my friends.
I want to say more, but I’m saving it for next month. Our theme will be “Retreat,” and I want to share about going to my first writing conference and the writing retreats I’ve taken—many, now—large and small, alone and in the company of other writers. Miracles, all.
Fellow parents—you may have no time, no money, no family living nearby. You may be parenting alone. You may be covered in spit-up at this very moment—oh I remember the faithful geysers that came from my oldest! You may need a shower and a work out and a meal and a coffee and a clean house and so so many things that you feel you will never have again. An uninterrupted trip to the bathroom! Is that too much to ask?
But. If you know that your soul needs to create—if you know it in your knower—then also know this: you can. You really can. You have to make sacrifices. Your family or friends or church may judge you for not looking like a perfect stay-at-home mom. Or your coworkers may judge you because you have to say no to that extra account or committee. But you can do it. I’ll be that mama I wish I’d known back then. Here I am sitting you in the wingback chair beside the window. Here I am with tea in hand (or wine, if you’d rather). Love, I am telling you, if you want this, you can have it. If you were born to create, you must create. If you are willing to be unconventional, and kind to yourself, and hard-working, you can do this. And the miracles will rise up to meet you.
J.M. Roddy is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.