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Motherhood and writing and why we sacrifice

September 17, 2013

A few years ago when I told my mother I’m a writer she dug into the bottom row of a bookshelf she’s had since I can remember. I swear it’s been in the living room of her railroad style apartment since before I moved away to boarding school when I was 13. I’m 37 now. She pulled out a yellow legal-size steno-pad. The pages were curled at the edges and the pages were filled with her fat script. She pushed the pad into my hands. “Yo comenze a escribir mi historia.” She smiled and walked into the kitchen to make us coffee. I sat and read. Mom wrote about sitting at the edge of el Rio Cangrejal in La Ceiba, Honduras, while her Abuelita Tinita, who raised her for many years, slapped their clothes against the rocks. She wrote about when she stole the gallina when she was ten because she wanted a soup so bad, she didn’t think beyond her hunger. She wrote about her beloved Honduras and how hard it was for her to leave her grandmother behind when her mother sent for them to come to New York in 1971.

“I’ve always wanted to write my story, mama.” She said, placing a cup of café con leche in front of me. I looked up at her and flipped through the pages. Mom’s hand is so heavy when she writes, you can feel the grooves of her words on the pages, like braille.

“When did you start? Did you always want to write, ma?”

“Ay, yo no se. It’s hard to write, Vanessa, when you have kids and you have to work and you’re alone.”

I thought of this scene yesterday when a student had to drop out of my Writing Our Lives Workshop because her husband doesn’t support her writing. “What you need that for?” he asked. “We don’t got time for that.”

The workshop started this past Sunday, September 15th, the day after the Mayweather vs.Canelo fight that had all the bars in Manhattan jam packed. Her husband got home in the wee hours of the morning, drunk and apparently set on not taking care of their kid so she could come to class. She’s been eying my class for about a year now, she told me. “I was just waiting until I had the money.” When she didn’t show up to class and I didn’t hear from her, I sent her a message asking if she forgot it was the first day of class. She wrote back not long after that her man was still asleep. I knew something was up.

She called yesterday to confess that her husband wasn’t supporting her. She has no one else to take care of the baby so she’s going to have to put off taking the class. A class she says she really wants to take. She says she wants to write her story. “I’ve been through so much,” she said. I thought I heard her voice crack but I didn’t push. I think she just wanted someone to listen.

We’ve all been there. Sometimes we just want someone to listen.

My memory went rushing back to my early writing career, when I made the decision to pursue my writing. I was pregnant with my daughter then.

I filled up five or six journals while I was pregnant with Vasialys. I wrote about my childhood and my dreams of being a writer. I’d already shared my writing dreams with my baby daddy, we’ll call him Lee, but I’m not sure he believed me. It’s not like he’d seen any dedication in me up to that point. I told him once, while I was swelling up (my feet already looked like two large pot roasts), that I was going to quit my job. I was miserable in corporate America. I had been for years but pregnancy hormones and the sad reality that was my life amplified my misery. I told him I was going to pursue my writing. “I don’t know how but I’m gonna do it.” I was serving him the turkey chili I’d made for dinner. He grabbed his plate and glared at me. “You need to work, Vanessa.” “Writing is work.” “You need a real job.” I didn’t push the issue after that. It was clear where he stood on it.

When Vasia was born, I set it up so that I would get fired. I told my boss that I was having trouble weaning my daughter off my breast and would need more time. I knew she would fire me. The woman was Satan’s sister, I swear. She did what I knew she would—she fired me—and I was able to collect unemployment for the first year of my baby’s life. That was when I wrote my first book, Woman’s Cry, all while being able to cover my half of the bills with my unemployment money.

I wrote the book in a matter of a week and a half. The idea had been banging around in my head for a while, until one day I sat down and I started typing. It was like a dam broke and all the writing I’d had stuck in me poured out. I didn’t sleep for those nine or ten days. I stopped to nurse and cook dinner and make sure the house was half decent, then I went back to writing. Lee gave me shit from the beginning.

He’d put the volume all the way up on the TV. He’d tell me to go to bed with him. He’d pressure me into having sex. He bitched and moaned about me being home all day while he had to go out and work, because, you know, taking care of a baby and keeping a house isn’t work, right? He wanted me to cater to him and his whining and complaining, but I wasn’t having it. One day, when I pushed him away while he was trying to grope me, he sneered, “What do you think? You think you’re gonna be a writer? You’re not gonna be a fuckin’ writer. You ain’t gonna be shit.” I looked at him, smirked and said, “Watch me.”

From that point on, my book took on a whole new energy. I knew I wouldn’t be able to be with him and be a writer. I knew he would never support me. And I knew I had to finish and publish that book, if only to prove him wrong.

I finally got him out of the house a few months later and my book was published in 2007. I have no doubt that had I stayed in that relationship, I wouldn’t be the writer and educator I am today. I’ve never looked back. Never regretted the decision. Ever.

Still, mom was right. Being a writer while being a single mother is hard work. I imagine, though, that it isn’t easier for those mothers who aren’t single but whose partners don’t support their work.

In an interview by Julianna Baggott at Mother Writers: Interviews with Successful Contemporary Women Writers Who Are Also Moms, she says, “To be a successful writer, you have to have time — long before you ever make a dime or publish a damn thing — you need time. Period. Having children makes this harder. Time shrinks. It has to be fought for. A mother who writes has to demand time. If she isn’t given time, she will not progress as a writer.”

It’s not progress I’m worried about when I think about my student’s situation.  I’m more concerned about what will happen to her spirit. I know I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t write. I remember how unhappy I was when I wasn’t pursuing my writing, and how that sadness manifested itself in very ugly ways, like trying to fill the emptiness with bottles of Vodka and in the beds of men that didn’t give a shit about me. I’m a much happier person these days, even when the stories dig into me and make me cry.

What is it that makes some men try to crush the dreams of the women they say they love? What is it about her dreams that threatens their masculinity?

Dream Deferred
By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I’ve read enough to know that I’m not alone in my struggle to find time to write. I feel guilty when I spend time writing when I could be spending it with my daughter. It’s why I most often write at night or when she’s at school, but now that the school year is starting, that’s going to get more difficult as the teaching gigs come in and I’m spending more time “writing in the cracks”—on the train while commuting to and from a gig, on the platform while waiting for the train, in the wee hours of the morning when the world is quiet and I can sit with my stories. It’s so very difficult to keep up a literary career when you’re dealing with exhaustion, grief, identity issues, housework, job stress (teaching is hard work!) and the things that only we parents know about, like having to rush your kid to the hospital because she cut herself while cutting a bagel and that gaping slice on her finger is definitely going to need stitches. Yeah, it happened to me in August and my Minnie ended up needing five stitches, though, thank God, the gaping slice wasn’t all the way to the bone like my crazy-freaked-out-eyes had imagined. Add that profound guilt you feel over not spending every moment you can with your adorable but demanding kid, and, well, the picture is even murkier. Still, we do it. Somehow, we do it.

I am not beyond bribery. I’ve bribed my kid with everything from pizza to ice cream to movie tickets in exchange for writing time. I take her to the park so she can run around, ride her bike, feed the geese, or sit and read next to me, all so I can write and read for a while. I’ve trained her to sit and play while I teach a class. It’s how so many of my students met my daughter. I’ve taken her to readings and events and even workshops I’ve taken. We do what we have to do to make this life happen.

No, it’s not easy. It’s hard work, but if it matters, if it’s important, you’ll figure out a way to do it. You have to!

And it helps to know you’re not alone.

If you want to write, please figure out a way to do it. And, please, please, please, don’t use your kids as an excuse not to. Use them as an excuse to do it! To write and share your stories and poems and blogs. We don’t need any more people who resent their kids because they felt like they had to stop living and dreaming once they became parents.

And if your partner doesn’t support your writing, I think you have some real sitting with yourself to do. I’m not telling you to leave him. I mean, who the fuck am I to tell you to walk out of a relationship? What I am saying is that not pursuing your dream of writing will probably have some seriously detrimental effects, the least of which is resenting your partner and anyone else who is standing in your way. And then hating everyone who is doing the writing you wish you had.

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