One morning last year, my older daughter, Stella, woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Her pants were too tight or we didn’t have any eggs left or Zoë, her younger sister, sat too close to her on the couch. I can’t remember exactly what precipitated Stella’s flinging of her body onto the dining room floor with whining laments. But I was clearly not responding the way she wanted—I could not restart the day for her on a brighter note—and she finally looked up and wailed, “Mom, you don’t even love me!”
I knelt down, took her shoulders in my hands, and said in my most reassuring mother’s voice, “Honey, you know that’s not true. I love you and Zoë more than anything in the whole world.”
Stella narrowed her eyes. “Do you love us,” she said, “more than your book?”
I must admit that at the time I was neck deep in copy edits for my first book, and I’d been spending a lot of time either at the coffee shop or in my tiny office with red pen in hand. I was waking up at 5 to try to get an hour of editing in before my girls got up, before the lunch-making ritual, before wrangling Zoe into some clothes, and getting myself showered and off to my day job.
That morning, I hugged Stella and said, “Of course I love you more than my book—If I had to choose, of course I’d choose you girls.” I squeezed her tight, and then I added, “But I’m glad I don’t have to choose.”
She seemed satisfied with that, and I was able to coax her off the floor.
When I thought about this later, I realized that when I said I was glad I didn’t have to choose between my daughters and my writing, I meant in a life or death kind of way. Like a bad joke—my writing is in one boat, my girls in the other. I can only save one boat from going down. My daughters would clearly win that contest.
But I also realized that regularly I make a choice between my family and my writing. Some Sunday mornings, I decide to skip the coffee shop and take the girls to the park instead. But often I pack up my lap top, leave the girls at home with my husband, and head out the door even though I know they’d rather have me stay home with them.
This is a choice I’ve made since they were little. When Stella was 16 months old, we enrolled her in a Montessori preschool 8:30-3:30 three days a week. At the time, I was finishing my MFA and I needed to write and teach. When I finished my MFA program, however, she stayed in preschool.
Over the next few years, I spent those mornings writing. Later, I added teaching and some freelance work and some stints at part-time jobs into the mix, but writing was always my priority during those precious hours.
When Zoë turned 16 months old, she joined Stella at preschool. Stella is now 9 and Zoë is five. And all they’ve ever known me as is a working writer. A couple of years ago, when my husband got fed up with the computer and my books and papers all over the dining room table, he converted the four square foot pantry into an office for me. My daughters have decorated the walls with their art, and I happily pin up their stories and drawings in that tiny space, but everyone in my family knows it’s my writing space, even if I sometimes have one or two small people on my lap as I’m trying to type.
This is part of the dance of writing through motherhood for me, and sometimes it’s a tricky balance.
Seven years ago, I developed a creative nonfiction class for women interested in exploring motherhood in writing, which I teach online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One thing that always comes up in my classes is the challenge of balancing motherhood and writing.
And what I tell my students, always, is that if you want to write, you need to make it a priority in your life. It doesn’t need to be number one on your list, but it needs to be on your list. I’m not someone who believes you need to write every day to be a writer. That’s just not realistic for many of us. But you need to figure out what is realistic. Maybe it’s an hour or two on a Friday morning. Maybe it’s Sunday afternoon at a local wine bar. You need to figure out what works for you, and then communicate with your family about how important it is for you to write.
But it does take some sacrifice. You have to make choices, as I now realize I have done. But even though I sometimes choose my writing over my children (in that non-life-threatening way), I hope that my daughters understand how important writing is in my life—and grow to someday respect my work as a writer.
I love what novelist Julie Schumacher said: “I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.”
She couldn’t have said it better.
Kate is a mama and writer and teacher. She has been helping mothers tell the stories they need to tell since 2006. Kate is the author of
Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers(April 2012, Viva Editions) and Ready for Air, a memoir about the premature birth of her daughter, which will be published by University of Minnesota Press, fall 2013. Kate teaches “Motherhood & Words” online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. She is interested in writing and teaching and motherhood and where these things intersect. Kate’s blog is Motherhood and Words.