If you read a lot of blogs about writing, or even if you just read one writing blog but follow it over a long time, you know about the kinds of crazy things writers do to stay in the game despite their other obligations. And we all have other obligations: the day job, the unfinished degree, the aging parent, the kid, the kids. Even J.K. Rowling, who can buy her way out of any amount of vacuuming and dishwashing, has other obligations.

We like to share tips about how we try to game the systems that impinge on our lives, or even the systems that are our lives. Write on the boss’s dime, or on the boss’s equipment, write at three in the morning, write in a cafe, write with your legal pad propped on the steering wheel during red lights, embark on National Novel Writing Month and crank out 50,000 words in 30 days. The hunger for writing time makes us desperate, and desperation makes us goofy.

In the month when we’re all writing about mothers and motherhood on the Drollerie Press blog out, I thought I’d be writing a post full of time-juggling writing tips that I’ve picked up in the 18 months of my son’s life. Instead I’m going to say something that no writer, and no writing parent, really likes to talk about.

Sometimes it’s right for the writing to take second place.

I feel kind of heretical saying that. It’s as if we have a secret compact to back each other up in public, to say, Sorry, long-suffering spouses and patient children, the writer in your family has no choice but to write, so there’s no point in asking him or her to come down from the attic this weekend. It’s our form of collective bargaining, and nobody wants to be the scab.

The problem is that we then apply that standard of absolute loyalty to the work to ourselves, and judge ourselves failures when we put our human connections first.

This past Mother’s Day week, there was a lot of talk in the media about how mothers hold ourselves and one another to an impossible standard of maternal perfection. Ayelet Waldman, for instance, was all over National Public Radio flogging her book Bad Mother and doing all motherkind a favor by calling attention to the cost of that impossible standard. Waldman tells it true: to feel ourselves fall short of the ideal of the Good Mother is an agony. We are as enraged at ourselves for failing as we are enraged at others for sharing our ridiculous expectations.

And what is a Good Mother like? I’ll paraphrase Waldman’s description of this mythical creature: She puts her children first at all times and yet is personally fulfilled, has a kitchen full of fluffy home-baked cupcakes that are paradoxically perfectly nutritious, looks fabulously put together and yet is always happy to get down on the floor to play, gets all her housework and volunteer work and perhaps professional work done and yet is never too tired for sex.

What Waldman doesn’t talk about is that many of us who write and parent hold ourselves to a second impossible standard, the ideal of the Good Writer. For Waldman, practicing law was the primal career dream, and writing was something she took up after she gave up her legal successes to stay home with her kids. Lucky her. For mothers whose identities are bound up in being Writers, who cannot be happy without building some variation on the Writing Life, the double bind of aspiring to Good Motherhood only adds to the writerly double bind we were already in.

The Good Writer writes every day, protects her time on task for eight daily writing hours as if she were a book factory worker or perhaps a walking book factory, uses everyone and everything to further the work and yet keeps a clean conscience, lives on pennies a year, cares nothing for the market while being infinitely salable, and measures up favorably against Shakespeare without being so presumptuous as to try. Top it all off with a glamorized addiction (booze, heroin, fisticuffs, sex), a flashy cause of death (war, homicide, suicide, tuberculosis), and a maraschino cherry.

Even if we fantasize the existence of the Good Writer and the Good Mother, what could a Good Writing Mother be like? In addition to being impossible to attain, such an identity is impossible to imagine. So the mother who writes must hold herself to each separate impossible standard in turn, bludgeoning herself alternately for being too selfish and too selfless, too committed to her work and too committed to her children, depending on which disastrous ideal she was just momentarily closer to approximating.

Waldman, bless her, has blundered into being a lightning rod for our expectations of mothers, braving death threats in the mail and physical threats on the set of Oprah for having admitted to loving her husband more than her children, and now she’s parlaying her blunder into a long-term push to expose and disarm the double bind of Good Motherhood.

Much as I’d like to do the same for the double bind of Good Writerhood, that would eat too much into my writing time and take up energy I will need for the next looming parental crisis: potty training. Somebody ought to take this on, but it won’t be me. (Alicia Ostriker tackles parts of it in Stealing the Language, a book that deserves more readers outside academia.) I’m not there yet. I can name the problem, but I can’t claim to have any answers. Besides, who am I to speak on the subject? I’ve been a parent for less than two years, and I’m a long way from breaking into any genre’s canon. Here I am instead, tied up in the loops of the quadruple bind.

Strangely, the writer whose assertions have given me the most comfort on this subject is Raymond Carver, whose stories I admire but do not particularly love, and whose life troubles–glamorous alcoholism, divorce–I would not trade for mine. There were times, he said, when he put his writing aside for months at a time so he could work jobs that paid, because his family needed him to, and that was right and good. Role juggling doesn’t seem to have done Carver’s work any lasting harm.

What if the right and the good were defined by the moment, not by the abiding role? What if?

Thank you for stopping by Sarah!  And peeps, if you’re interested in learning more about Ms. Avery, please visit her website.  ~HSI

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8 thoughts on “drollerie authors' blog tour: of writers & mothers by sarah avery

  1. I agree. Sometimes being a mother has to be the abiding rule, with other interests or activities taking a backseat to whats best for the children. But mothers almost instictively know when they are needed, and when they can be in the background for a while to tend to life.

  2. Sometimes it’s right for the writing to take second place.

    This is advice I think any writer, whether a parent or not, should learn to live by. Great thoughts, Sarah!

  3. Wow. Glad Walden thinks she can label every mother.

    I feel strongly that a lot of problems with families today is that parents are putting their needs long before the family. It’s good to have your own time, your own hobby, etc. But it shouldn’t hender the fact that sometimes your family and other people truly need you.

    I’m not a mother, but I do love to write, and without doubt I would put my family and friends first before writing. My writing will probably never mean anything, but the relationships I have with people do.

    Nice thoughts.

  4. You know, I don’t really believe in social roles as defined. Perhaps we’d all be better off just going with the flow and doing what we feel is best in the moment? Urm… and never stating the fact on Oprah? Just a thought.

    Interesting stuff up there! -Elisa

  5. This Good Mother stereotype is just a grown up part of the Good Girl stereotype (which at least I have been fighting off internally since adolesence). The Good Mother thing is so insidious but it is still ridiculous because no one can be perfect, especially as a parent (there is just too much learning as you go and every child has their own quirks). But I do think you, me, and most other parents manage to be Good Enough Parents most of the time and look for help if things get bad. Besides, trying to be the perfect Good Mother is just not conducive to good mental health for Mom.

    I am not a Writer so I can’t speak to the Writer’s compulsion to write expect by observations of my spouse (the designated Writer in the household). He has managed to continue to write in at least small amounts since our children have been born but it definitely varies as to where it is on the priority list for a given day/week/month. I think the conflict between Writer and Mother is an example of a problem most women have balancing work with motherhood and it is worse because Writer is more a part of your identity than most other jobs might be. Social expectations are also at fault here as well. I think it is unrealistic for both parents of young (under 5) children to work full time and not expect some aspect of life to suffer. Sure, people do it out of economic need but why do you think we are seeing such high levels of stress, health problems, and some kinds of parenting problems?

    I am glad to see you writing about finding a balance since it can be a hard thing to do. As for the potty training crisis, don’t ask me since we have yet to succeed on that one in our house. And in spite of my rambling on at legnth I am still not a Writer–just an unemployed psychologist with a lot of opinions and, of course, an overworked Mom.

    1. So I’m the “Designated Writer,” huh? Does that mean I do the writing when everyone else is drunk?

      There’s a lot I wish I had time to say here, mostly wanting to agree with everything that’s been said, and wanting to rail against Little Red Writer for what reads to me like blaming parents for wanting to keep their own sanity (I think I’m exaggerating that a bit).

      But the one thing that struck me as worth saying while I was reading the post was that I once heard Gail Carson Levine (author of Ella Enchanted) speak at a writers’ conference, and she mentioned that she had started out wanting to be an illustrator and took her first writing class just to get the writers’ perspective. Which I mention as my way of saying that the Driven Writer stereotype can be just as toxic as the Perfect Mother stereotype, and both can get in the way of the work that needs to be done. I mean, if an unpublished illustrator can turn out such a wonderful book (and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I do recommend Ella Enchanted [but in this case, really not the movie]), then the notion that we have to be absolutely driven and starve in garrets and all that becomes a little suspect to say the least.

      I don’t want to go too far the other way and condone abject laziness, but for those who’ve been trained to expect too much of themselves (and I go back and forth on whether or not to include myself in this group), sometimes it’s possible to become a better writer, a better parent, a more effective person in general, just by relaxing and taking a step back.

  6. That’s a very good point about the Good Mother stereotype being a grown-up version of the Good Girl stereotype.

    Thanks for stopping by, Rachel. 🙂

  7. I think you mis-read what I said, or I didn’t explain enough. I didn’t mean not to have your own activity. I think it’s a total need for parents to spend time on their own. I just see a lot of parents taking that to an extreme is all. Sorry to have ruffled your feathers.

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