Report from Chicago: Writer Mother Writer

View from the Fortress of Solitude

Chicago of course turned out to be not so scary after all. And in spite of myself, I made some friends.

And I did many things as a writer that I couldn’t also do as a practicing mother with Bots in tow. I posted several reports–on the Art Institute, a poetry reading, a blogging panel–for the online creative nonfiction magazine Brevity’s, blog, which meant I stayed up Friday night writing ’til after midnight.

Then Saturday night I slept for eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eleven hours uninterrupted .

Then I showered without Gbot swinging the bathroom door in and appearing  through the water-stained glass in his fleece jammies, hair a floofy halo around his terribly wide-awake face, and asking to join me.

I sat down to drink my coffee. Coffee, like wine, is best when taken while seated, but most necessary when there is no time to sit.

I ate while sitting down. I sat for more than thirty-two seconds without hopping up to get something. I sat and I ate and I wrote, all at once.

A look down from The Fortress of Solitude. I did not dine at Harold's Chicken Shack, but if I had, I could have sat through the whole meal without getting up.

I attended a panel called “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life.” Two panelists were Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: a Memoir of Mothers, and Hope Edelman, both NYT best-selling authors; Jill McCorkle, a prolific novelist and short story author, Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and  Katy Read, journalist and author of  the Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom on salon.com, where she brings Jane Austen searingly up to date: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”

These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing altogether during her sons’ youth, are fiercely protective of both their identity and productivity as writers and the quality of their motherhood.

A man–one of at least thirty in an audience of over two hundred people, raised his hand. When called on during the brief question-and-answer period, he introduced himself as a writer and a full-time dad. “How,” he asked, “do you cope with the pure exhaustion?”

“Sleep when they sleep,” was the panelists’ answer.

The answer seemed as inadequate, unrealistic, and unsatisfying as it had three years ago when I was writing and teaching a college course in Mbot’s first months of life. I had fantasized about a one-handed keyboard, to increase my one-handed typing speed at 3 a.m. while I nursed Mbot, who sipped for hours, fell asleep every time a drop of milk touched his lips, and awoke the moment his head touched his mattress. Sleeping when they sleep is completely impractical. Will the dish fairy appear to clean your kitchen while you sleep? Or better, the book fairy come to write the next chapter of your novel? Peter Dish-Pan Hands? Peter Pen? I raised my hand to join the conversation, but time was up.

After the panel, I fought through the crowd to this man. He was no more than thirty-one or -two. I told him the only helpful thing I could think of: that I’d bought a Netbook, so I could work in the car, while I drove Mbot around willing him to sleep. I would pull over the minute his eyes closed, conscious of my extreme opposition to environmental consciousness, parking, in the 110 degree heat of Arizona, with the air conditioner on, under an orange tree. You have to choose your orange tree according to time of day. Orientation is everything. Sometimes, parked this way, I could write for ninety minutes.

A year later, I drove around both Bots. I was in my final year of my MFA program, and I needed every one of those minutes. If I needed to email a manuscript, I could pull up in front of the Starbucks or the Burger King, pirating their wifi. Making use of the Bots’ daytime sleep in this way, I could allow myself to (kind of) sleep that night when they (kind of) slept.

Having generously dispensed my wisdom to the poor tired man, I saw that he was not impressed, although he allowed that a Netbook was a good idea. In fact, he had one.

“ How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Five,” he replied. Ranging from eight to two.

“I don’t have any more suggestions,” I said.

But I think my answer, completely unqualified, should have been: “Wait.”

In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that she and her husband referred to their thirties, during which they raised their young family and worked and participated in their community, “the tired years.”

She penned the novels she is known for after her children were in school. This isn’t to say she didn’t write during the tired years. She just didn’t push to the deadlines of others. She was, of course, fortunate that her husband had a steady paycheck that kept her kids in Cap’n Crunch.

Hope Edelman, along with reciting a list of things she can do, now that she is a mother as well as a writer, also recited a long list of things she can’t do because she is a mother as well as a writer. Here is an overview:

Spend three months at a writer’s colony

Shower every day

Stay at literary events past 9:15 on a weeknight

Be a foreign correspondent.

On Sunday morning, I added one more thing to her list.

I pulled up the hood of my down parka and faced east, my back to the icy wind on the platform over Roosevelt Street, waiting for the L train to Midway Airport. Beside me stood a mother and two little girls about five years old. I stuffed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and hunkered down.

The other mother was laughing and chatting with the girls, gripping one of their mittened hands in each of hers.

There’s another thing mothers can’t do, don’t do, without thinking about it, without the world thinking about it, even if they aren’t also writers: No matter how cold it is, they can’t put their hands in their pockets.

The Bots at home fabricating a Mommy Extraction Device. Funding provided by Husbot.