I admit I was blind to the clash between these two occupations. I never understood why a female writer's struggle would be any different from the tension between raising children and any other occupation. But as someone with a journalism degree, my initial instinct is to research a subject. So, I was surprised to discover there are close to 5 million results when I Google "writing and mothering."
Indeed, it seems to be a genre of writing in itself. I've been publishing fiction since 2005, the same year I gave birth to my fifth child, so at that moment I became a mother to five children under the age of nine. According to millions of articles, writing and mothering is problematic, possibly catastrophic. Who knew?
Turns out some people believe there's a "solution" to this problem I didn't know I had: the key is to have only one child. To prove it, those seduced by this idea point out that some of the most popular female authors only have one child: Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joan Didion, and Ellen Willis.
Never mind that the whole premise of this thesis is absurd; for every successful female writer with one child, you'll find one with none or two or more children, like Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ayelet Waldman.
And where would stepmothers fit into this theory? Is it the actual pregnancy and birth that women writers stumble over more than women in other professions? Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, has three children and two stepchildren. Is it only her three birth children who we are meant to believe stifle her writing process?
So, here's my take on it. Motherhood has made me a better writer. The very act of being a mother expands my definition of myself, thereby, enhancing how I see the world and my writing.
Mothering builds empathy muscles
Writing is intimately connected with creativity, imagination, and empathy. Great writers convey the thoughts and feelings of their characters, so that their readers are with them every step of the way.
Motherhood – okay, maybe not on our bad days — but motherhood on our best days forces us to imagine what it would be like to be the new girl in class, or face the pressure of three tests in a row, or deal with the frustration of an incomprehensible teacher.
Parenting, like writing, requires the development of mountains of empathy. That's great news for mothers who are writers. We're exercising our empathy muscles 24/7.
The writing life is nothing if not a highway of rejection from which there's no turnoff. I've experienced more rejection than I can possibly quantify in two lifetimes. You know all those stories you read about writers who can wallpaper their rooms with rejection letters? I could wallpaper the Wailing Wall and have enough left for King David's Tower.
Rejection can take you down, and, yes, it can bury you. Well, that's not going to pan out too well if you're a mother. You need to be a model, and an example, and you need to succeed for your kids.
How in the world will you explain that just because they failed a test, it doesn't mean they are failures? That as long as they tried their hardest, they did well? And that tomorrow's another day if you give up on your writing because someone in Somewhere USA emailed you something about your story "not being the right fit?"
You won't, at least not genuinely, and kids will sense the phoniness and see right through your platitudes. When you are the person who honestly keeps going after a fall, they'll sense that too, and you'll both be stronger.
No time for self-pity
Hate your first draft? Haven't heard from your agent in two months? Tough luck. Mothers need to get their tushes out of bed, stop feeling sorry for themselves, and make it to the next parent-teacher meeting, dentist appointment, and dance recital. Crying under the dining room table is not an option.
It doesn't matter how sure you were that your story was perfect for that publication. Your time to dwell ended as soon as the front door slammed and the first "Mommy!" echoed through the house.
Rejection blues? Forget it. Mothers have to hit the grocery lines, wipe noses, and study for grade four spelling tests. Those blues are for someone who has time to actually ponder them.
Your children are in it with you, not against you
Your kids are your biggest cheerleaders, your loudest fan section, your most adoring audience. They're swallowing their third pasta meal in a row, throwing together their own lunches, and mastering how to fold shirts, so you can write when you're not at your actual paying job.
They're sacrificing. For you. I'm not talking about the ones in diapers, but as soon as they're old enough to slap a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread, they're on your team.
Take that sacrifice and turn it into energy. It's a genuine strength; don't waste it. I use it to propel me forward. How can I not revise my novel and resubmit it after my daughter hauled herself off the couch after a long day of school and went out in the wind and rain to pick up her younger sister from dance class, so that I could finish that last chapter? How can I give up on my sequel when they're creating a roster to walk the dog in the evenings, so I can squeeze in another half hour to research?
We all need somebody to lean on
I don't know if I could keep going without my kids. I'm not referring to writing. I would write no matter what. But the complicated and overwhelming business of book publishing that today goes hand in hand with the need to be a first-class marketer, web builder, social media manager, salesperson, and cover designer can sink even the most enthusiastic writer.
It is my kids' devotion and their sheer belief in me that holds me up when I want to feed my first draft to a match, delete the 20-page document my publisher sent me on how to get Amazon reviews, and cringe when another person asks me if my novel is all true.
I hear their voices saying, "Way to go, mommy," and I keep going.