It’s unusual for me to write a post two days in a row, but I started replying to the comment left by my friend Helen on yesterday’s post and realised there was more I wanted to say that a return comment would allow. Helen writes: “Sometimes I wonder how I did it [write a book] – take that step to believing that it could be more [than a short story]. And now with not a moment to spare…because of baby Iris I despair of it ever happening again. Although one thing she has already taught me is to seize the day when you can and to quote (unfortunately) a well known producer of shoes – just DO IT! Is it as simple (and hard-fought) as that?”
I could devote a whole blog site to dealing with those questions (as one of my friends has done). But I’ll try to keep my thoughts to a single post.
It’s a good question: is being a writer and mother (a writer who mothers, a mother who writes) as simple as seizing the day and just doing it? – Certainly, it pays to be flexible and spontaneous: to have notebooks with you wherever you go; to have your desk set up for work at any time; to make the most of it when your baby takes an unexpectedly long nap…
But more often than not, the reverse seems to be the case: when I’m keen and ready to write, Natasha only has a micro-sleep, or goes through a needy period, or is so much fun I don’t wanted to miss out on precious moments with her.
I’ve touched on the quandary of being a writing mother in a previous post. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d still want to be a writer at all after my daughter was born. There was a chance my desire to create and put my creation out into the world would dissipate in the wake of giving birth – just as years earlier, my initial desire to have a child dissipated when I started writing fiction full-time.
But having a baby did not make me want to stop writing. Admittedly, writing was unimaginable during her first three months. But just before she turned four months old, I put Natasha into childcare for one day per week in order to work on my second novel. It wasn’t a straightforward decision, and I felt some guilt about leaving her. But I was a writer before I became a mother; and the day will inevitably come when Natasha needs me to mother her much less than I do now. When that time comes, I will still be a writer.
I love my daughter with all my heart, but my emotional well-being is not her responsibility. I believe it’s important for our relationship that I maintain an identity independent of her. And so I write on.
Since returning to work four days a week when Natasha was eight month’s old, my ‘day off’ is now the one day a week when she’s not in childcare. At first I tried to write on this day, but it made us both miserable when I tried to do anything other than focus on her. So now I snatch evenings here and there when my partner is available to babysit. I take long-hand notes on the train or tram going to work and type them up when the opportunity arises. On a good night, I can write over 1,000 words in less than three hours.
Finding the love, passion, inspiration, imagination to write is not the problem. In 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ A woman who is also a mother needs not only these things but also time.
I read an interview with writer Khaled Hosseini in the weekend papers; I’m currently reading The Kite Runner (nominated by a few of my readers as a favourite); his new book A Thousand Splendid Suns is due out soon. According to the article, his son was three months old when he started The Kite Runner and he used to get up at 4.30am and write for a couple of hours before going to work. My first impulse on reading this was to chastise myself for not being dedicated enough to my craft. ‘See,’ I told myself, ‘if you were really committed, you’d get up at 4.30am, too. And you wouldn’t spend your evenings knitting in front of the television – you’d be writing. It’s no wonder you’re only halfway through the first draft of your next book…’
Then I realised how ridiculous I was being. Until recently, I was almost always up at 4.30am, breastfeeding and settling the baby – a task that no doubt fell to Khaled’s wife in his household (I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s just the reality). It’s only been in the last month that I’ve started getting anything close to a decent night’s sleep in nearly a year. And there’s still the effects of working four days a week to deal with, which explains why I’m often too tired to do anything other than collapse on the couch at the end of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love my life. I love that I’m a published writer with a beautiful daughter and a loving partner of 17 years; I feel lucky to work for an organisation that matters, where I have flexibility and make enough money to cover my costs. While I wish I had the ability to bi-locate (as some Catholic saints were reputed to do), I suspect I just have to get better organised.
My desires to be a good writer and a good mother will always be in a tug-of-war – or more aptly, a tug-of-love – for my time and attention. I think the best I can do is learn to live with it and to make the best of both.