The Delicate Balance Between Motherhood and Writing

by Abby on June 24, 2013

It was one of those nights when I was waiting at the door with my running shoes on for my husband to get home from work. One of those nights when I feel as though every last drop of patience has been wrung out of me like a sponge by small, sticky, surprisingly strong fists.

When at long last my husband arrived, I grabbed my earphones and the dog and took off, slamming the door behind me. I had been hoping to go to the gym but it was too late. It closed in less than an hour. I’d have to go for a walk instead. The air seemed unusually cool and fragrant. I forced myself to breathe. In, out. In, out. In came the damp, mossy scent of early-summer evening, out went the tightness in my chest… slowly, ever so slowly.

With Pandora playing and the dog keeping pace with me, we walked. And when we got to the end of our usual loop, we kept on walking, and then walked some more after that. Eventually we ended up on a street I love. The trees are ancient and towering, the homes stately and secluded in their lush, landscaped yards. The dog stopped to sniff and I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye.

I turned and saw that it was a firefly — the first I’ve seen this year. Then, like flashbulbs popping in a stadium, dozens of fireflies began blinking and glowing in the darkening light, hovering just above a bed of deep blue-green hostas. Then the very lonely firefly saw what it had been looking for… A group of fireflies, flashing their lights. Now the firefly wasn’t lonely anymore.
– Eric Carle, “The Very Lonely Firefly”

Willow tree, by Abigail GreenAround another bend I was again stopped short, this time by an enormous tree — a willow? — looming overhead like a craggy sea creature, the moon peeking out from between its limbs. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew – and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around…
– Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are”

Sometimes it feels as though motherhood sucks the life out of me, literally. Leaving me nothing more than a squeezed-out, dried-up sponge. Nothing left to write. To create. To think. To breathe, even. But it’s actually not true. I wouldn’t have noticed these things – the air, the fireflies, the tree – were it not for the fact that I have children. At least not with stand-still wonder, hushed awe.

The internet exploded (again) last week when writer Lauren Sandler claimed in an essay for The Atlantic that the secret to being both a successful writer and a mother is to have just one kid. I don’t agree, but I can see her point. (Here is a good response to Sandler’s piece, forwarded to me by another writer/mom.) I distinctly remember the shock of going from one child to two, and the impact this had on my writing time. Before, any time my son was asleep or with his dad, I was free. With the second child added to the mix, the balance shifted and that time was gone. I had to find it, fight for it, elsewhere.

But as I’ve told the writing students I’ve worked with in my essay classes, and as I constantly rediscover and remind myself, time isn’t the only thing – or even the most important thing – that goes into the creative process. Especially not time at the notebook or computer. So much of my “writing” process is not actually writing at all. It’s the turning over of ideas in my mind while I’m doing other things, like making dinner, reading bedtime stories, or walking the dog.

I am not a writer in spite of being a mother. I am a writer whose work, and life, is richer because I am a mother.

SONG O’ THE DAY: The song that was playing when I was watching the fireflies was “Delicate,” by Damien Rice. I’ve decided that’s the perfect word for the balance between motherhood and writing, or any kind of work-life balance, really.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Smock June 24, 2013 at 10:58 am

I loved this! I hadn’t read Rebecca Mead’s piece, and I loved your perspective. I’ve been thinking so much about Lauren Sandler’s book. I got a review copy and am about to write about it myself. It hits so close to home for so many reasons. The decision to have another kid… it’s such a big one. There’s obviously no “right” or “wrong” answer, but I often feel torn between my heart, gut, and mind.


Abby June 24, 2013 at 12:56 pm

In a way, I feel bad for Sandler because I believe her book, and her point, are probably so much more than the attention-grabbing, polarizing headline of her Atlantic essay. Of course, that’s what generates traffic and debate, right? interested to hear what you think of her book.


Stacy B June 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Abby, I think you’re in my head again. I just finished Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. It has my mind churning more than usual. Of course, I read it on vacation, where I got to spend lots of time with my son and some time away from him. I know exactly what you mean about noticing things because you have children. My boy is shaping so much about what I think and what I do right now. It’s reciprocal though… we’re shaping who they are… and our work is one way that we inspire and influence them. So we may as well have a go at both working and raising kids (any number of them) as well as we can, right?


Abby June 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I agree. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, nor do I think anyone has the one, perfect, right, formula for balancing motherhood and work. It’s such a individual thing for all of us.


Angie Mizzell June 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Yes! That is all.


Kathleen Basi June 30, 2013 at 8:50 am

I’m with you–richer because of my experiences. It’s no secret I’m a spiritual/religious person, and I find that all experiences that make me grow spiritually enrich my writing. Nothing has pushed, pulled, challenged and exercised my soul as much parenthood. And not just parenthood, but *multiple* parenthood. But I will grant that it is very, very difficult to balance writing and motherhood–and it was definitely easier with smaller numbers.


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