Today I’m stealing moments from my “writing time” to take Mose and his class on a field trip to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market, so that they can cook a feast later in the week. I won’t be attending the feast. I’ll be in Florida, reading picture books to other people’s kids. But this is something I can do… I can drive a car full of kids to buy fruit.
This is what my life looks like. This is why I laugh when people ask about how I set boundaries, or express curiosity in my “approach to work-life balance.” There is no such thing, not really.
But I’m thinking about parenting and writing a lot this week, as I read Leonard Marcus’ wonderful new book about Madeleine L’Engle. I’m thinking not about how we strike a balance, but how we admit that we don’t always have one. How we accept in ourselves that sometimes we simply prioritize one thing over another. We ”phone it in” or cancel events or miss deadlines in the name of parenting or partnership or physical wellness. Or we do the opposite– we accept that our kids do not always need us for every little thing, and we forgive ourselves for missing the feast, or the soccer game, or the surgery, or the diagnosis, or whatever. Trust that we are building resilience and grit in our kids (an important plank in my own personal parenting platform)
But this is not balance! This is a teeter totter. Up and down. Back and forth. This needs me, now that needs me, now I need this, now I need that.
Madeleine, (if the book is to be believed, and I think it probably is), prized her time to write. She could work anywhere, and did. She loved to travel, and do public speaking. She harvested (as one does) family moments and dynamics for use in her work. And in doing so, it sounds like she hurt some people along the way (as one does).
But even if she did, do we fault that? First of all– her books altered the lives of generations of kids, gave voice to so many, made us weep and think and hope and helped us find our tribes. She restored faith and provoked doubt. Her work was “worth it” if anyone’s ever is. Secondly, who can ever know what effect one is having on a child? Who can say whether more time at home would have actually been good for her kids? Thirdly, a devoted artist who allows their work to suffer for other people is often not much good as a friend/parent, because the resentment builds… so that the cost might have been greater than the boon. Fourthly, Madeleine’s own parents hardly modeled hands-on parenting, (boarding schools, nannies, etc)so her expectations for herself as a mom were a long way from the helicopters of today.
So… all things considered, I read this book, and I see a woman on a teeter totter, doing a pretty good job of “having it all.” But it does sound like she was an writer first and a parent second. (I’d love to hear from others reading the book about whether they read it the same way). It does seem like she’s sitting pretty firmly at the “author” end of the ride.
Me? I’m not Madeleine. And I’ve been thinking about that too.
I’m writing a book this year, and struggling with the book. On some level I think that maybe the best thing for the book would be if I vanished for a few weeks, into a hotel room. You know what? We won’t be finding out. Because it’s never. Going. To. Happen.
A weekend? Sure! I’d love four days of concentrated work-time, and do that now and then–I take it as I need it. Head out to the shed, or go stay at my mom’s house, to escape the distracting and grubby love of two small boys. But it will be years before I hole up for longer. Not because my kids would fall apart, but because I just don’t want to. Because, at the end of the day…
I am a focused writer, but a devoted mom.
I like writing a lot, but I love parenting.
My books make me happy. My kids make me human.
I struggle with these statements, some. I have been writing for thirty years. THIRTY YEARS! It’s been a part of me for much longer than my kids, defined me all my life. I believe in books and words and stories, more than I do G-d or country or whatever. I guess I just believe in Mose and Lew more than I believe in stories?
It’s strange to type that, but even as I type it, I know it’s true.
This is NOT to say I think my way is the right way– not at all. Mose and Lew are fine, fine. They truly are. They are strong and amazing and if my plane goes down on the way to Florida (let’s hope it doesn’t) they’ll be fine without me. They would not “suffer” if I gave more to my work. It’s me who would suffer. Me who has chosen my end of the teeter totter.
They go off to school each day, and I work. When the clock hit 2:30, and I have to stop, and get in the car to fetch them, I am HAPPY.
I never thought this would be me. When Mose was three months old, I flew away for four days, to attend AWP, because I was NOT going to be that kind of mommy writer. I was going to talk and think and listen to poetry readings and engage in spirited dialogue and stay up late and know that back home, Mose was just fine. I was going to strike a balance. I was going to retain my independent writer self. But at that conference I spent four days crying in bathrooms, a hormonal wreck. It was too soon and I knew it. It still is. It may always be so.
Madeleine said, “You write the book that wants to be written…” I think we need to live that way too. Get out of the way of the true story. And I’m living the book that turned out to be mine.
(and Lewis, if you’re reading this archived, years in the future, I just want you to know that I went on YOUR class field trip last week, to the pumpkin farm. Remember? We saw a pig race!)