When Writers Become Mothers

When my mother became a mother, she was new to adulthood. She’d never managed her own checking account. If she’d had a job, it had been for spending money. She’d gone to private Catholic school from kindergarten through college, and her parents bought all her expensive clothes and made sure she didn’t want for anything. You could say she was spoiled, but as a mother now myself, I am averse to that word sometimes.

My mother never had a career. She’d taken another path, that of — for the most part — a full-time mother. I couldn’t imagine being a mother at her age, barely out of high school. But she’d also had financial support from her family that I’d never had much of. She passed through her years of college debt-free, and I’d rejected, for most of my childhood and a large part of my early adulthood, the idea that I would ever even get married. I saw myself, partly because my mother encouraged me to do so, differently.

From a very young age, I wanted to be a writer or a teacher. I liked school and learning even if I didn’t always perform well as a student. I loved to read and write. I began keeping a daily diary when I was still in elementary school and have kept that habit ever since. My diaries are kept in plastic tubs in the garage now, but for years I moved them around in cardboard boxes, hiding them away from possible prying eyes, until finally, when we bought to our house in Brooklyn, I shelved them in my office. “You can read these if I die,” I said to my husband Josh. There are hundreds of notebooks filled with my scrawl dating back into the 1990s.

By the time our daughter Zelda was born, I had been writing professionally full time for seven years. I’d written about anything that struck my fancy, mostly the weird things I saw on the internet, or books, or video games. I kept little blogs where I wrote about pop culture or music. I wrote for tech blogs. But still, I’d never seriously considered writing about myself.

Writing that way is an intrusion first on yourself and your own privacy, and then, secondarily but often more problematically, on the other people in your life. But I avoided writing about myself mostly because I was a deeply guarded person. My mother was dead by then, and most of my friends knew my secret: My mother had been an alcoholic.

Sometimes, we avoid for good reason doing something that is very obvious and meaningful. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t occur to us.

Giving birth broke me open. It did so literally, the little cut on my belly that I tell my daughter about every night now before bed. That part is important to Zelda: that physically, she was pulled from just beneath my belly button. Her birth also broke me open to being able to make new and different friends, and to wanting to explore my experience as a mother in writing.

I didn’t start doing so consciously.

When Zelda was 6 months old, we got a nanny named Val. Her job was, at first, just two days a week, to care for baby Z with me in the house. What seemed like very quickly, they started to venture out into the summer sun, and I managed my tears at the separation.

I’d decided not to go back to the full-time job I’d had as an editor before she was born. “I think I’d like to try writing as a freelancer,” I said to Josh one evening as we sat on the patio in our little backyard after Zelda went to sleep.

“I think that if you’re ever going to do it, now is the time,” he agreed.

Freelancing would allow me to be around Zelda, to be more flexible. I didn’t want to be a full-time mother; I knew that. But I also knew, now that I’d formed a close bond with my daughter, that I didn’t want to be away from her constantly as well.

I had financial concerns, of course. In the time Josh and I had been together I’d never not had a full-time salary. I did not make as much money as Josh did, but I also didn’t make so much less that losing my salary would be meaningless. But Josh supported me, not by saying, “I will support you financially,” but by saying, “I think you can do this well enough to make a lot of money.” He believed in me, and that helped me believe in myself.

But when I finally arranged for and hired Val, I found that for a few weeks, I was happy just to tinker around the house, to sleep, to read, and to catch up on previously missed doctor’s appointments. I reorganized the kitchen and my office, cleaned out our bedroom closet, realphabetized our books.

And slowly I thought, I can make space for myself once again. I knew that the space I wanted now wasn’t for personal leisure time. I’d never been good at relaxing or vacationing, and Josh was the same. For us, working was what made us good company for each other in our off hours, and now that Zelda was part of our family, I knew that working was what would make me complete.

I thought back to when my mother had gone back to work as her children went off to school, and I got it. I wondered if she’d wanted something more, to find a place where all her creative energies could be funneled. She didn’t have a career, but she was a worker at heart. She worked at a day-care center, she worked at a stationery store. Eventually, she went through a series of jobs as a secretary at small, local businesses: lots of work for minimum-wage pay. For me, the effort even devoted to waiting tables in college had been time I felt productive, and I see that it must have been meaningful for her, in her 30s, to go back to doing something outside of her home. I felt the same when Zelda was 6 months old, which was longer by half than I’d expected to be not working. I briefly thought, Maybe I’ll go up the street and apply for a job as a barista.

I wasn’t sure; I felt at a crossroads. I had the time to myself to write. I had the means to live for a while without a consistent paycheck, and I was free to write absolutely anything that I wanted, to pitch pieces to whomever I chose.

One night, after Val had gone home and I’d put Zelda to bed, but before Josh had come home from work for the day, I sat down at my computer. I wanted to write something, but I didn’t know what. I had barely kept up my diary in the preceding months, breaking years of habit. I’d written grocery lists and sleeping charts but almost nothing else in six months, an eternity to someone who normally takes notes on reading for fun.

I stared at the blank screen and exhaled.

And then, without any assignment or reason for doing so, I wrote an essay about my daughter. About how I’d lost time, months, to the weird space created by caring ceaselessly for a newborn baby. Without thinking about it, I sent it off to an editor I knew, who published it within days. I was walking my daughter up the street in a stroller on our way back from the post office when it was published online, and for a moment I stopped there on the sidewalk in shock.

I realized just then what I’d done — I’d written about myself and Zelda, and I hadn’t at all considered what it would mean for us. But I felt great, like the spell of those six months had been broken, like I was active and in the world again. I felt a little nervous about being candid and open with an outside world, an incalculably vast world that encompasses possibly everyone. I’d spent so much of my life guarding my innermost thoughts and had suddenly broken that rule to muse aloud and publicly, to put my feelings out into the world. It felt good to do this. It felt raw and weird and exhilarating to write whatever I thought and not feel shame or confusion about how it would look.

I never considered before Zelda was born that I might write about motherhood, about that experience in all of its massive ups and downs. I didn’t even consider it as I began doing it. I simply began, and rather than trying to find a voice to do it, I used the voice I already had. In those first essays I found a space to complain about the boring days, to focus on minute details of babyhood that I had observed and wondered at. And slowly I realized I wasn’t writing about my daughter so much as I was writing about myself. And to my surprise, I was comfortable with it. I felt emboldened but also protected, in the way that saying something is bothering you aloud can often help to protect you, to make you feel immune to it. And I believe that this also gave me the ability to be a woman and a mother in a way that simply was never available to my mother. I claimed these identities simultaneously.

I felt sad, sometimes, about the fact that my mother had never told me about what I increasingly felt must be true and what I endeavored to explore in my writing: that motherhood is not always easy, but more than that, it’s not always fulfilling. It’s really, really hard and sometimes disappointing.

She never told me if she felt conflicted about being a mother, the way that I now knew that I did. I felt torn in many directions by the simple fact of my daughter’s existence. Because in the space of hours that I now began to make time for each day, five days a week to write, were hours lost that I could be spending with my daughter. And for me, motherhood meant feeling both that I desperately needed and wanted the space to be creative, to work, and to also swallow somewhat unhappily that I would sometimes rather give up and just spend my time with my daughter.

It’s a paradox central to parenting: I wanted to be with her all the time, and yet I didn’t want to be with her all the time.

Over the course of months I began to accept my own ambivalence, to understand that this is actually how it works: that hours spent away from Zelda are required to make me a whole person, a dedicated and loving one, engaged with her in the time that I do spend with her. That if I spent 24 hours a day with her, I would actually be a lesser person. I would have little to offer her. And a necessary side effect of that, of course, is that sometimes I miss her. I never miss a school event, now that she’s in school, or a special occasion. I handle a lot of the family holidays and am there every night to put her to bed. I have dinner with her every evening. Working from home has been the best option for me, because I do want to be there with her every morning when she wakes up, to dress her and pack her lunch.

But I think that the ambiguity, the times when I miss her, are fuel for me to work harder. I often put Zelda to bed and work for another few hours at night simply to get enough done that I never have to work on weekends. I try not to look at my email or phone when I’m with her, to really be there.

There has been a sort of rolling debate in magazines and online over the past few years about what motherhood does to women’s creativity, mostly writers’, because they’re the ones, after all, who write most often about the experience of motherhood.

I have had this debate myself, and often with Josh when I’m on a deadline and strapped for time. I have a hard stop each weekday at 5:15 p.m., when I need to go get Zelda. This is mostly a good thing, since it allows me to step away and get distance, literally, from my work. Then, at 8:30 p.m. or so, I’ll go back to it fresher. But there’s no question that the demands of motherhood force us to become adept planners and managers of our own time that, even still, many men do not succumb to when they become fathers.

Motherhood is not a job, exactly, but it’s labor, and it’s labor that doesn’t respect our own sick days or the deadlines of our actual jobs. Many times I’ve been forced to simply give up working for days at a time because Zelda is home sick from school. I feel fortunate that I have the flexibility to do it, of course, but it sometimes creates overwhelming periods of stress where it simply feels as though I’m not doing a good job at anything. This is a normal working mother’s experience, I know.

But for me, Zelda has prodded and added to my creativity, not stifled it. Not simply because I often write about her, though she is a great source of material. It’s that my time has become more valuable, day to day, week to week, and inside of me it’s created a rush to get to things before the hours run out. I have limited time to work each day, so I try to make the time count. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally blow half a morning dicking around on the internet. But it does mean that, more than at any other point in my life, I am making the most of my time, because it is so precious, and there is so little of it. I used to work 60 or 70 hours a week before I was a mother. Now, I work about 45 or 50. But in the four and a half years my daughter has been alive, I’ve written and published more than I had in all the previous seven I’d been working before she was born. She’s made me more productive, and I think she’s made my writing better and more honest.

Where before I used to think that all the stars needed to be aligned to force writing up and out of myself and onto a page, now, I have discovered, later in life than I would have liked, it can sometimes simply be forced, by a strict stopping time every single day, out of me like vomit when I’ve got the flu.

I think too, more generally, that being a mother has made me so aware of my own mortality that I simply feel a rush to get to everything meaningful that I can. I don’t consciously think this way almost ever, but every day with a baby, and then a small child, feels incredibly vital. There are hundreds of moments each week that stop me in my tracks with their originality: I’ve never felt this or done this before. I’ve never heard a child describe the life cycle of a frog or known how their head feels when they have a cold. And that has made me observant of detail and pressed to document.

I could have become a mother years earlier than I did. When I was 17, I got pregnant, I told my mother, and she took me to get an abortion. One of the things I took away from our conversations about this was that my mother didn’t want me not to have options. She didn’t want me to be a victim of circumstance, of an accident. She understood, whether any of her kids were “accidents” or not, what I couldn’t understand then and what I really couldn’t understand until I gave birth myself: There is nothing more irrevocable than a child. It is life-changing in all the good ways but also in plenty of unexpected and sometimes bad ways. My mother knew that if I had a child at 18, I would possibly never go to college or have the career that I wanted, and she helped me to reject that path for another one.

What is difficult, of course, is trying to fit these pieces of reality in with the facts of my own existence: Did my mother helping me to make my choices differently mean that she had some regrets about the way her own life had worked out? She always insisted we were the greatest thing to have ever happened to her, but as a teenager and a young adult, this prospect tortured me, that my mother might have some regret about having had us, that she might have harbored hopes for a different life for herself. I didn’t want that to be true.

I desperately wanted to have Zelda, to become a mother when I became one, and still there were days where I wondered if I’d made a mistake, if I wasn’t “cut out” for parenthood, if I wouldn’t rather be on a beach somewhere reading paperbacks for six days straight. Everyone occasionally wonders what the other path would look like. What I did not understand until I became a mother myself is that everyone has these doubts, as far as I can tell.

From Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June, to be published on July 24, 2018, by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Laura June Topolsky.

When Writers Become Mothers