There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby's diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin), and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.
-Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write
I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a parent, and my greatest fear in having children was that I would no longer be able to write. I knew few mother-writers. I was terrified it couldn’t be done, and that in choosing parenthood I was sacrificing my artistic goals.
That fear drove me, and instead of losing my writing I became more disciplined, more efficient, and more dedicated as a writer, bypassing inner resistance and procrastination and the paralysis of perfectionism because there wasn’t time for that anymore. Motherhood turned me into the writer I had striven for decades to become: a writer who shows up (at 5:30 in the morning, if need be). A writer who just does it. A writer who writes.
Becoming a mother required a huge metamorphosis and opened up a deep layer of thought and inquiry in me, and so it's also become a richly inspiring topic for my writing. Much of the creative non-fiction I’ve published since becoming a parent has focused on this journey: maternal ambivalence, grappling with what it means to be a mother and an artist, choosing to mother in the unconventional way that I did—namely by becoming a biological and adoptive mother simultaneously—and finally my evolving relationship with the two precious humans I am privileged to call my daughters.
I spent a morning this week thinking about the ways in which being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life. This thanks to the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which is a fantastic non-profit I learned about only recently whose mission is to support artists and writers with families. Given that being a parent has inspired and challenged my creative life a whole heck of a lot, I am beyond appreciative that somebody out there is actively working to help artist parents flourish. As they say:
Too often, creative impulses are set aside to meet the wonderful, but pressing, demands of raising a family. The foundation's goal is to encourage parents to continue pursuing their creative passion, and to rekindle it in those who may have let it slide.
How much do I love this? I love this very much.
If you're a writer or visual artist who is also a parent of a child under 18, they have a grant deadline coming up Sept. 8.
Last night, walking down Bay Street toward the launch of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, I looked up to see the sign above Ben McNally Books and flashed to a memory of the last time I walked down Bay Street and passed this bookstore. Maia had been with us for all of one week, and I was maneuvering her stroller through the flood of well-dressed professional people, noting how glaringly I stood out from them. Late to meet up with Richard. Overwhelmed and near-defeated at the logistics involved, now that I had a child in my care, in the gargantuan task of merely going downtown. And I looked up and there was the bookstore, and I went Oh. I have been wanting to go to that bookstore.
Not that I couldn't have gone in, but at that point in my sudden and ill-fitting mothering role, the orchestration of door-opening, stroller-hefting, diaper-bag-and-child-wrangling, was almost more than I could manage. Also, I was late. Also, I wanted to really go to the bookstore, I wanted to wander and browse and soak in and enjoy, quietly, peacefully. And in the preceding week, I had learned that such pleasures were no longer mine.
"With hindsight I understand," writes Rachel Harry in last week's National Post review of The M Word, "that the gift of motherhood, shared by every woman who wholly accepts the lifelong commitment of loving a child, also comes with a loss — a loss most mothers don’t communicate, because its definition tends to lack language and vocabulary, in what becomes this new and uncharted maternal world."
Oh, that day on Bay Street, I was feeling the loss.
And last night on Bay Street, I entered Ben McNally Books, and I was greeted by stacks of books that contain an essay that I wrote, and I stood in front of an audience and read from that essay. The essay is, in part, about Maia, about my experience of becoming a mother in the sudden and unconventional and overwhelming way that I did, about how I felt in those early novice-stroller-wrangling days. About the loss. The choice. The love. I read out loud from this excellent book, in the company of other women writers articulating their own thoughtful and nuanced experiences, and I signed books and had my book signed, and there was so much warmth and attention, a standing-room crowd.
And I thought, This is a pretty good way to finally enter Ben McNally Books.
(Another thoughtful review, from Angie Abdou, here.
My rant begins as I circle the No Frills parking lot for the second time.
All day long I have been patient. I have been patient through games of dinosaur and games of watch-the-baby-chick-hatch(-18-times). I have been patient through I don’t want to go to the grocery store today even though we have no food left in the house but maybe I’ll want to later. Though I prefer to shop earlier in the day, I have no trouble finding work to do and I have done other work while waiting for them to feel like going to the grocery store.
I have been patient through multiple pairs of socks chosen and discarded for precise and important reasons (colour, pattern, feeling inside the shoe, a dearth of castles on them). I have been patient through meltdowns over the need to wear this exact very-long shirt even though it conflicts with the need to display the skirt that is covered by the very-long shirt and there is no resolution to this contradiction and thus many tears. I have been patient through the abandonment of this finally-resolved contradictory outfit when it becomes suddenly necessary to wear an outfit that matches the sister’s outfit instead.
I have sought consensual solutions for the day’s requirements. I have endeavoured to arrange the day so that all of our needs are met, no matter how trivial the need might seem to my adult perspective. I have been patient beyond the point most adult humans would consider it efficient or prudent or desirable to continue in the vein of patience.
Now, as we arrive at last at the grocery store and it is evident that we have failed to hit the magic hour before crowds will fill the aisles and complicate the already-wearying task that is grocery shopping with an almost-5 and almost-3-year-old, I am not patient.
“You [blank] [blank] girls! Do you see how full the parking lot is? Do you see that there is nowhere even remotely near the door for us to park? Do you realize this means the store will be crowded, and the lines will be long? Do you remember how all day I have been saying we need to go to the grocery store and the earlier we go the easier it will be? Can you please put it into your heads right now that Mama knows what she is talking about when she tells you things, and she tells you things for a reason, and you should just freaking listen to her?”
Silence. I park. Not even really all that far from the door.
“Mama,” says Aphra placidly, “who were you talking to?”
“I was talking to you girls!”
“But—” she is perplexed but unruffled—“you were being mean!”
I laugh. I laugh with delight at my almost-3-year-old’s confidence in her right to be treated with respect. I laugh because she is in harmony with reality and I am not. I laugh because she has called me on my negativity and reminded me of the mother I want to be. I laugh because sometimes I am patient and respectful and consensual and gentle beyond the point of most adult humans’ comprehension, but sometimes I am totally, completely, very much mean. I laugh because it really does feel like the mean me elbows her way in ahead of the patient me more often than not, but evidently Aphra does not think so. I laugh because I feel absolved by my almost-3-year-old. I laugh because if Aphra thinks I can’t be talking to her because I’m being mean, maybe I’m doing something right after all.
We go into the store. It's really not that crowded.
Sometimes we go to a concert, a festival, a Christmas fair, because I forget. Because I hope that this time will be different. Because I want, despite the anxiety and sensitivity of our eldest child, to be able to do some things that most people in the world consider to be fun.
The music is too loud. There are too many people. Too many voices, too many bodies in quarters too close. Too much going on at once, sight and sound and smell conflicting and over-powering.
Immediately she is reaching for me, crying to be held, her forty-pound, almost five-year-old body climbing me like I am a fortress that will save her. Her anxiety is high-pitched. The children are frenetic. The carolers are grating. The people press too close. It's too loud, too hot, too cold, too much. She wants to leave. Sometimes, there is one point of stimulation that goes too far--a kindly stranger saying hello, a drumbeat too close--and she shrieks.
Sometimes I remember and understand. I prepare. I hold. I put in the time--sometimes it's all the time we have--and I hold and soothe and bestow my nurturing presence until, as though a switch has flipped, she acclimates and is at ease. I can identify this point; it is a night and day point, and if we're lucky, it comes.
Sometimes we leave the concert, the puppet show, the craft room--her younger sister pulled away from her dancing, her singing, her enjoyment--because she is in tears or, sometimes, hysterics.
Sometimes the operator has to stop the ride so I can claim my screaming, panicking child.
Sometimes I am fuming because I want, just once, to go out as a family and enjoy a thing that is supposed to be enjoyable.
And sometimes, she sees the carousel, and even though it moves quickly, and the horses go up and down while the carousel moves round and round, and there are a lot of people, she thinks that if she chooses the smallest horse, and I stand beside her, she can do it. She wants to do it.
And more than I would love any other supposed-to-be-fun thing with any other always-has-fun child, I love this carousel ride. I grin wildly through this carousel ride, tears in my eyes, because this carousel ride is a triumph, a milestone, a wonder. I love this carousel ride, because my beautiful sensitive child is holding on tight, and she is loving it too.