I remember anxiously asking women writers who had kids: “Is the writing different, afterwards?”
I remember reading an article in Mslexia that filled me with panic as several women talked about how having children had killed their creativity.
I remember a whole literary history of women writers that taught the lesson to me, as a woman in my early 20s, that for a woman to be a great writer, she had to be childless…using Charlotte Brontë, who was killed by pregnancy complications, as the ultimate example. See???
Of course, Jane Austen actually died at around the same age as Brontë, without having gone through pregnancy – there were, after all, a LOT of things that killed women at young ages in the 19th century. On the other hand, Elizabeth Gaskell successfully wrote and published after having several kids. Fanny Burney (D’Arblay) continued to successfully write and publish after having her son. Later on, I found a whole history of “scribbling women” in the 18th and 19th centuries who published novels and nonfiction not just for the sake of their art but also to support their kids. Mothers have been writing and publishing for a very long time.
But of course, they weren’t the women held up in the literary histories that I read when I was younger, which mainly went in a linear progression from childless Austen to killed-by-pregnancy Brontë to childless Virginia Woolf: The Greats. And even as I yearned for kids myself – because I’ve always wanted children at a deep level that had nothing to do with my career – I felt a lot of panic about what I might do to my writing by having them. How could I possibly justify that? What if, by having kids, I did something terrible to my writing – the one passion that had defined me since I was seven years old?
And in some ways, of course, I was right. It took me months after each childbirth before I felt creative again. I was lucky enough to get a real maternity leave after my first son’s birth, but even so, I remember the feeling of pure relief, the first time a story finally popped into my head after he was born. Oh, thank God. I’m still a writer.
The second time, I didn’t get a real maternity leave, and maybe for that very reason, it took me even longer to start to feel ideas flooding through me again. I worried that they would never come back. It wasn’t a rational worry, but then, when you haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time in several months – oh, and when you have hormones flooding your system, too – it’s hard to stay entirely rational.
I looked at my second son’s beautiful face. I told myself that having him would be more than worth it even if the ideas never came back. I felt like I might die if they didn’t. But if anyone had tried to take my son from me, I would have killed them! It was exactly that kind of over-the-top moment in my life. Getting by on one-hour chunks of sleep – adding up to less than 4 hours a night, for over a year – isn’t good for anyone. I don’t like remembering my state of mind at that point.
But guess what? Kids get older.
I’ve always had a habit, when I get stressed, of mumbling to myself: “Once upon a time…” It’s a reminder that things can feel bleak in stories, too, yet still turn out well, with a happy ending. Of course, when I mumbled that to myself as a stress-reliever, I never bothered to keep going past those first four words.
Then one day, when my older son was about a year and a half old, I was worrying about a variety of things when I muttered to myself, “Once upon a time…”
Something caught my attention, in the corner of my eye. My son’s eyes had lit up. He was waving his hands impatiently. He hadn’t started to talk yet, but the message was unmistakable: Well? Keep going!
So I did. And that was the day that everything shifted.
You see, both of my kids devour stories like chocolate. When I tell new stories at the dinner table, my older son shouts suggestions and requests, and my younger son – still a toddler and not talking much yet – hoots with excitement and bounces in his highchair, his eyes getting bigger and bigger with every new twist. And in reaction, I make my storytelling even bigger and more visceral, so that they can both take part. My dragons roar more loudly, when I’m telling stories to them. My slapstick moments get sillier. Everything has more heart.
That’s happened in my writing, too.
As I wrote my latest MG novel, this past year, I distilled the story to its purest elements and told it to my then-six-year-old oldest son every day after my writing session ended. Together, we ate chocolate cake and talked excitedly about my chocolate-loving dragon-girl heroine. He always, always wanted to know: What happens next?
So far, he’s made approximately twenty different possible covers for the book. He’s going to pick his favorite, in the end, and we’ll put it on his copy of the published version, which will (of course) be dedicated to him. I could never have written it so joyfully without him.
I’ve written a few short stories about parenting since becoming a parent, and those stories have been published, which is nice. But having kids has inspired me as a writer in so many more important ways over the last seven years. Telling my stories to my kids – sharing my writing with them – isn’t just fun for me (although it really, really is).
It reminds me what stories really are, what they do, and exactly how important – and fun! – they can be.
I write fewer books and stories, right now, because I have young children. There is just no question about that. My younger son isn’t yet in school; I don’t have many hours free in the day. I struggle to hit my deadlines, and sometimes I think longingly of the books I don’t have time to write, or of the writing retreats (organized by my friends) that I don’t have the freedom to share. I think of how much more I could be writing, marketing, traveling, and researching, if I only had the time.
So maybe, in my early 20s, I was right, after all. If my only goal in life was to write the maximum number of words, then of course it would have been smarter not to have had children. And I would never, ever tell another writer what their own choices ought to be, because all of us have different underlying needs. What fulfils and inspires me might smother someone else, and vice versa.
But there’s a secret that I’ve learned about myself since I’ve had kids: my life is big enough to hold more than one driving passion. And more than that: for myself, personally, having something else in my life matter to me even more than my writing hasn’t been a bad thing for my writing after all, no matter how unimaginable that concept would have been for me before I became a parent. My heart got stretched wider when I had kids…and so did my writing.
I write less, but I write bigger, nowadays. My dragons roar louder. I care even more. And nowadays, there’s an element of joy to my storytelling that comes directly from my experience as a parent, even when I’m writing stories or books that are far too mature for my own kids to read yet. Because no matter what the exact words I type might be, the underlying story, every time, begins: Once upon a time…
And inside, a little voice says: Keep going!
This post was part of the Parenting & Writing/Editing Blog Tour (hashtag #ParentingCreating on Twitter). You can read previous posts in the blog tour here:
· Leah Moore: On Being a Creative Parent
· Patrick Samphire: Scenes from an Exhausted Land
· Aliette de Bodard: The Myth of Entire
· Fran Wilde: Parenting(Creating).FailMode
· Joyce Chng: Writing and Mothering: A Burning Path With Nice Morning Glory Flowers
· Jim C. Hines: Balancing Writing and Parenting
· John Reppion: A Morning in the Life of a Writing Parent