I never wanted the accidental housewife to turn into an internet wasteland – who ever wants that for their little corner of the internet? But even though I firmly believe what’s online is real life, it turns out the bits of real life that are offline have a way of asserting themselves. My real life offline is demanding everything I’ve got, right now.
For those of you who feel like I just announced the birth of my daughter, let me update you to the sixteen-month-old spark that fills my hours, my senses, my mushy mum-brain:
And let me also announce the expected birth of my son, in March. The body is truly a terrifying and miraculous thing! Didn’t that womb, like, only just finish building a whole person???
Before I began my second baby, I spent the first half of last year writing the beginnings of a new book. The hero, Merryweather St Acre, turns up at the heroine’s door in one scene and she sees him thus: She had thought perhaps she’d invented or exaggerated his beauty. That the circumstances of their meeting had made her imagine that extra quality to him – the something naïve and ardent and easily broken. But there he stood, too close and without speaking, and he may as well have been the virginal unicorn in human form.
The virginal unicorn in human form. It also has the heroine murdering a man in cold blood, the hero ruining some cheap pornography in the throes of pleasure and lots about the tender horror of motherhood. It’s kind of a hot mess, and I think my agent might have cried a bit when she read it because I will obviously never write anything marketable.
But. Then motherhood visited a second time.
So this isn’t a mum-blog post, this is a writer-blog post. But it’s about being a mum, because the two have collided in my life, and I made the decision that being a mum wins this round. I decided this because being a writer really, really wanted to win, and all that did was make me feel bad about everything.
A friend said to me recently, “In the scheme of things it’s not really that many years out of our lives.” She’s right. What’s 5, 6, 7 years in a whole lifetime? But it’s not just 5, 6, 7 years. It’s the difference between being 30 and having my first novel published, and being 38 with almost no work experience, and qualifications in a shrinking industry.
Before becoming a mum I had the vague impression that huge strides had been made into supporting women to be mothers and also have careers. Being a mum, I now know that to even begin to keep up you have to be motivated and organised. Two inadequate words to describe what it takes.
I also don’t think you can really know, until you’ve experienced it, how even though you are taking on half the work of your family life, somehow it’s the invisible half. And no matter how you tell yourself that what you do is important there is a subtle shift in the way your family relationships work.
This is the contradiction that bothers me. There’s an assumption that our babies are the best of us, our greatest achievements; and yet we are somehow diminished when we embrace motherhood fully. This is the risk I take in choosing motherhood: that it diminishes me. How sad that it’s not an easy, obvious choice to make. How especially stupid when it’s the hardest thing I have ever done, the steepest learning curve, forging something true and tough from whatever wibbly stuff I brought into my thirties with me.
I’ve spent a long time trying to write this post, and it’s this contradiction I keep bashing my head against. If I describe the deep sense of completeness and contentment that comes from holding my daughter while she curls an arm around my neck and pulls my hair in a short, gentle rhythm – I feel like I’m reinforcing the idea that she’s my greatest achievement. If I describe my frustration that being a mother necessitates me also becoming a dependant – I feel like I’m misrepresenting my situation as awful.
And at the heart of it is this inescapable biological difference. I don’t know how exactly motherhood would look in a truly equal society, but this isn’t it. When being a woman and wanting a child throws you into playing a certain role, this isn’t it.
I’m not removing myself from that inequality, either. Much as I dream of being a working, autonomous adult, when it comes down to it I’m not prepared to give up being the primary care-giver. I covet being the safe harbour in my daughter’s life. I covet the comfort only I can give, the intimacy we share that only hours upon hours upon years can create. I wouldn’t give up being the final word.
It’s an intense experience of living with compromise, making a good life out of unequal parts. There’s something about the physical nature of motherhood – the body used as an incubator, the labour of birth, the bovine lactation – that cannot be easily sorted into an equal or even a common experience between men and women. It’s the first truly immovable experience I’ve had – more complete than heartbreak.
It’s not really just one or the other, though: writer or mum. My decision has had a slow, positive, exciting effect. I’m not one of those mums who can suddenly do a day’s work in an hour, haha, no. But I never did get that second book out within a year of my first, so now it’s like – the pressure’s off. Now I have time to think again about the kinds of books I want to write and the kind of career I want to have. Now I have the experience to understand that overnight success in the American market doesn’t necessarily equal a fulfilling career. Things take time. I like being able to – having to – let things take time.
So really, all of this is to say, to any wonderful readers out there waiting for my next book: I’m so sorry. It’s going to be a long wait. And also, hopefully, it’s going to be worth it.
It’s a huge gamble, no matter what you choose. I’m 55 and I have friends mourning lost opportunities, women who put their careers over families who now second guess that choice, women who had kids and let their careers falter while parenting who regret that call. There isn’t any easy way for women. You follow your heart and hope for the best.
Thanks Dabney – I always take great heart from women further along this journey than I am. I do sometimes think about the existential crisis I would be in the middle of right now if I didn’t have kids, haha. They have a great way of focussing you on the now and giving life a sense of meaning.
Anna, hate to tell you, but you are absolutely still doing both. You will always be a writer and a mother, the evidence is clearly in this post.
It was nice to hear your voice in my head again.
Thanks for this lovely message, Scott. Gosh it’s taken a while to integrate the writer and the mother, but I feel like I’m getting there. I read this great article about Mary Shelley the other day, and it described her listening to the men around her talk the meaning of life, when she had, at 19, already given birth twice and lost one baby. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/13/frankenstein-at-200-why-hasnt-mary-shelley-been-given-the-respect-she-deserves-