On being a “mommy author”…

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!)

10 Responses to “On being a “mommy author”…”

  1. Kelly Barnhill Says:

    I think about this a lot. I love my kids; I love my work, and there absolutely is a tension in what I prioritize on any given day. Still, I was at a conference recently, and sat with a woman who was on her third week of a book tour – a different city each day, practically. She was headed to – I don’t remember. Somewhere in Ohio – the next day and would finally see her husband, who was driving out to meet her and have one night together in a hotel. It was the first time that she was to see him in three weeks, and then they’d be apart again. And I just sat there and thought, “Never in a million years. I could never leave my family for that long.”

    The thing is, that my gig as full-time mom is a contract job. I get them home with me for eighteen years – and the last third of that is really very part-time. My career as a writer will persist. The books will get written, the relationships with readers will grow, and it is okay if it is on a slower path. My work as a writer deepens my work as a mother, and vice versa. And I am incredibly grateful that I have the opportunity to do both.

  2. Anne Ursu Says:

    Yeah. Yeah. I struggle with this all the time. Especially since I’m on my own. I have to be two parents for Dash, and also provide for him. And I’ve been so pressed–trying to balance it all–writing, publishing, job, and momming, and there’s always some great crush of work on my head. There was a time this summer that I realized that it was simply always going to be this way, that there was simply too much work and there always would be, and I was going to have to figure out how to work around it. I still haven’t though.

    And some things have to give. I can only travel a little bit for promo stuff. And I have to have full time working hours, as much as that is possible, and these need to be pretty focused on writing or teaching. And the house is going to be a mess and we mostly eat microwaved food and… At the end of the day, I need to take care of him in every way–by being his mom, by making sure we have security, by not going batshit my own self– and figuring out how to do all that is…well, I haven’t.

    But this stuff haunts me. Always.

  3. Kate Messner Says:

    Love this piece, Laurel, and I know your teeter totter well. I think so much of this journey is learning to choose what makes us whole and to do so without apologizing. Anyway – thanks for this.

  4. Stephanie Burgis Says:

    Thank you so much for this lovely entry. I empathized SO strongly with it! And I particularly loved the line My books make me happy. My kids make me human. That is exactly how I feel. (Which is not to say that anyone else should! Different people and families are different, and that’s great. But it just feels like such a gift to read a blog that resonates so strongly for me.)

  5. Rebecca Einstein Schorr Says:

    What I love most about what you’ve written is that you’ve clearly thought this through and are doing what is good and right for you. And for your family. Doing this makes you the best version of you (the mom) and you (the writer).

  6. Jess Says:

    I was sent here via Alex Bledsoe’s G+ post and typing one handed while holding a binky for my newborn.

    I’m a scientist, which is not a parent-friendly field, and still trying to finish my Master’s degree. Like you said, the best thing for my thesis might be to hole up in my lab for long hours, barely coming home to sleep, but I can’t be that. I have two girls that need me and I need them. I will finish and I will continue to move forward in my career, but it is exactly a teeter-totter more than a balancing act.
    I know I will have some difficulty in my career for being what they call a “nontraditional student,” but I love my girls and I love being their mom.
    Anyway, what I’m saying is “Yes. This.”

  7. Miss Erin Says:

    I am far from being a parent, but I loved this, and I loved reading it, because – as an artist (writer, actor) – it’s something I think about, having relationships with people (and maybe, someday, being a mother) and having my art/stories, and sometimes there’s no such thing as “balance” – but you can never tell when one is going to need or take precedence, and you can’t control it, sometimes you’ve just got to go with it, and carry on, doing your best -

  8. Mallory Says:

    Oh, Laurel. I so understand. I think some of these struggles are just about being a passionate person. If you are a passionate person, passion will go into all that you do whether you want it to or not. And that’s one of the things that makes you so wonderful!

  9. Tyeisha Says:

    I just came across your blog as I searched the author site. I was looking at YA fiction on Good reads that I could read to understand the craft, and I come acroos the line “DeKalb Farmers Market”. Looks like we are neighbors. All the talent here in my own backyard. The talented everyday folks who are living the dreams that I want to achieve. Thanks for giving me the inspiration to know that it’s possible. I too can be a “Mommy author” oneday in my tiny home in Lithonia.

  10. Africa Says:

    Im sorry to bother you again and i know your a very busy women but i would love to get your email adress to help me with my paper i also know your starting to think im getting antsy only becuase my paper is due soon and i have nothing about you. all i have is all your books and im sorry to bug you like this but i would love if you would correspond to this message it very important to hear back from you i read some of your books and i love them me and my 4 year old brother im sorry to take time out of your day for this corrupution

    Thank you have a nice day….

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