I began this essay based on a prompt by the online magazine Literary Mama. I had just discovered the 20-year-old magazine in my journey through Twitterspace, and I noticed a call for submissions, with a deadline two weeks past.
The call asked writers to discuss the intersection of motherhood and the creative process, focusing on growth or rebirth as it related to literature (books you have read) or as related to writing pursuits. Like many things in life, I came upon it too late to meet the deadline, but it seemed to me to be a topic dripping with latent potential, so I decided to give it a try anyway. I focused more on what I have read during motherhood than on the writing process.
Motherhood and Creativity
I never would have guessed as a young, single woman or as a child, that motherhood and writing could be complementary. I have written in journals, penned poems, written snatches of stories my whole life. And now it seems like I have had children for nearly as long. That both states of being—that of the writer and of the mother—could co-exist, if not necessarily always in the same space and time, is not something I used to believe could happen. Neither would I have believed that reading would be reinforced, informed and nurtured by having children.
During the waking hours of my own upbringing, my mother was singularly, if begrudgingly, devoted to being a mom. She was the mom that all the other kids loved and wanted to hang out with. Then, in the wee afterhours, she would focus, in solitude, on her passion, poetry. At the dining room table, with a glass of wine, scribbling her inscrutable scrawl. Hers would be the only light on, in the dark, quiet house.
Though central to her nature, creativity was, in terms of hours spent during her busy childrearing years, an afterthought. Even though I was not privy to her inmost thoughts, I noticed that the process of creating caused her pain. Perhaps it was exhaustion, or rejection, or the fear of not being good enough, or of not being heard, or the regret, in thinking how much better she might have been, without kids. She was fabulous, so this last concern does not merit consideration. But that rarely stops writers from feeling this way.
I did not want that pain. I did not want that, at all. And yet, I wanted to write. And in the alternative, to read.
Becoming a Mother
As I entered into a serious relationship with my husband-to-be, this assumption that writing or reading and children were mutually exclusive bothered me. Was the impulse to be creative—and I had, at least in my own judgment, inherited that impulse—was it something that could co-exist with raising children?
On my little detour to law school and while working as a lawyer, I often heard the expression, “Law is a jealous mistress.” Could the same be said about writing? By insisting on my own personal happiness, through loving and seeking a life with my intended spouse, would I never read a book again? Was I ringing the death knell of my writing career?
The “career” part of that phrase is key. When you think of climbing a ladder to success in the traditional way, motherhood can get in the way. My awareness of this caused me to make a pact early on with my husband. Though I had a law degree and had passed the Bar, I told him, as he slid the ring on my finger, I hope you’re not expecting me to work, once we have kids. Even as an eighties “career woman”, there were limits to my imagination.
There were also real, practical limits imposed by the lack of services. Daycare and afterschool care, were, so to speak, in their infancy. Rarely did a woman’s salary function as more than a coupon, to be tendered in equal exchange for daycare. And the more kids one had, the worse the math became.
I was having none of that, if I could manage without it. Why would I volunteer my time in exchange for the annoyance of having a job? Kids alone were likely to be annoying enough.
My resolve was not so steadfast, when the moment came, to decide. I worked until within a few days of giving birth to my first baby, padding back and forth to the courthouse in tennis shoes; abandoning pantyhose even before this was fashionable; sporting a belly even more distended that it is now, in middle age, under a dress with large lace collars and plentiful pleats. I dragged behind me a file carrier, stuffed with files, as I went to motion calendar and to short, repetitive hearings. The hearing officers who saw me most would ask anxiously about my progress, and when I would take off work, and whether I would ever come back.
Even when I was nursing, in the first weeks after birth, I still heeded the urgent call of the office. I came in during maternity leave with the baby, laying her in a file box to slumber, while I clicked on keys and shuffled folders. Not everyone in the office approved of this state of affairs, but beggars can’t be choosers.
It was a surprise then, when the law firm suddenly folded, and the partners went separate ways, midway through my leave. There was no place for me to go professionally, without a boatload of work, interviewing and scrambling for a job, when a recession was still on. So, I just stayed home.
That was how I become a stay-at-home-mom or SAHM, as the early days of the internet liked to call it. I did, in the end, what I had threatened my husband I would do. And I have been doing it ever since.
Books for Mothers
One of the banes of the modern world is that there is a how-to book for everything. Even Motherhood. And it is incumbent upon each of us, to know as much about this amorphous thing, motherhood, before we actually get into it, as we possibly can. As we progress through the different stages and our children grow, we graduate to more and more specific books, which continue to tutor us in the appropriate ways to behave, given the strains of life that we experience, and the prevailing childrearing fashions.
Of course, I read What To Expect When You’re Expecting. And then beyond that, What to Expect the First Year. These were my literature; these were my encyclopedias and my Bible. Did I read anything of literary merit during the first several years? Well, yes, I must have. Because young children, despite being constant motion machines during waking hours, thankfully take naps.
One book I recall reading is Clan of the Cave Bear. I was going to the library then, since we were surviving on a single income. My daughter was about one and a half, and full of delights. I will confess that part of my interest in these books had to do with the author’s comments, in which she said she was reading books and criticizing them so much, that finally, her husband suggested she write one of her own.
For those not familiar with the series, it deals with a Homo Sapiens named Ayla (I still recall her name!) who gets raised by a group of Cro-Magnons during the time when both types of man existed simultaneously. For fans of archaeology, it is a must read. Cro-Magnons were an earlier version of the humans we now know, and I remember being fascinated by all the different processes: using plants to provide a kind a soap to bathe with, curing leather with urine, etc. It was all in the do-it-yourself vein of the age I lived in, and the same attraction to hand-worked crafts drew me toward homeschooling later in life, with a later-born kid. I read all the books in the series that I could find in our local library.
At about the same time, my father was in a terrible automobile accident. It sent him to the hospital for months, part of the time spent in a coma, and part of the time recovering from brain surgery and being given seizure medicine as a precaution. The medicine made him a bit loopy, and caused him to forget who I was. He assumed that I was an attorney from Tampa, working against the environmental groups to protect mining interests.
Even when he came home, he seemed a different person. It wasn’t until they cleared him of the need to take medication, that my father returned to the person he had once been. Fortunately for our family, and thanks to modern medicine, he fully recovered and lived well into his eighties. Only recently did he return to the hospital for a final visit, where he was forced, once again, to endure similar medically-induced personality changes, before returning to his old self, prior to his death.
We went to visit him at the hospital, traveling from our home in South Florida to the central West coast, where Tampa is. I remember the smell of McDonalds (located in the hospital!) making me nauseous. This is not my usual reaction to the smell of French fries! I remember being fearful of walking with such a young child, through a building filled with menacing diseases. Now, in an era where we casually co-exist beside the lethal COVID-19, this fear seems overblown and naïve. We didn’t know how good we had it.
Shortly after that visit, I discovered I was pregnant. But not in a good way. My reading then focused in an obsessive way on medical literature and all the ways that a fertilization can go wrong. My particular anomaly was called a molar pregnancy, and I had constant nausea and anemic weakness.
The solution was to remove the pregnancy, which, after all, was no more than a cluster of over-productive cells, nothing that could ever have resulted in a human being. Nonetheless, I thanked my lucky stars that Roe vs. Wade was in full force and effect, useful to me, even as a stay-at-home mom who wanted more children. Children are not the only result of pregnancy, as I discovered. There are also molar pregnancies and miscarriages. And so many more ways that everything can go wrong. Which I had the good fortune not to experience, though many do.
From Obsession to Submersion
My reading during my four children’s childhoods would vacillate like this: From obsession with a practical topic of interest, bent on solving a problem, to complete submersion in a single author’s work, devouring every single available title, feeding my hunger and thirst for words (and chocolate) in the quiet hours, between putting a child down for a nap and waking him or her back up.
During my second child’s early years, I consumed a fair number of older British novels that I had not read in college, as well as some that I had. Those re-reads somehow struck me in a completely different way in my early thirties, versus their impact on me during college, under the pressure of time and grades and social or drinking obligations.
Reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters at thirty-five was the medicine I needed, after the harried work of caring for young children. Their voices vindicated and defended the institution of motherhood I now inhabited, whereas in the world around me, self-actualization and career were more prized.
I had more patience now, with the strange literary norms of that former time: the floweriness of the language; the slowness to get to the point; the determination to drop detail after detail, in a kind of Chinese water torture, that builds to an agonizing or terrible or exhilarating or joyful climax; the meticulous description of a city street, or a slum, or the sparce sitting room of a woman of modest means.
As an English major in college I was taught to dissect literature, to take it apart and categorize it, to separate the gold from the dross. What gave me the right to conduct such abominations on a living, breathing work of art I will never know.
As a mother, on the other hand, I allowed myself to read for enjoyment. To pause, as I recognized our common humanity across the ages. To laugh, as I savored a turn of phrase or a dry witticism.
History and Books
Many period piece movies came out during my children’s early years. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is one I remember particularly. It deals with people of a certain (upper) class in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, who lived in New York most of the year, but would overwinter in Jacksonville, Florida, where I live. Of course, once I watched the movie, I had to read Wharton’s books, too.
The idea that North Florida was the end of the line—that is, the railroad line from Up North—until Henry Flagler came along and built the railroad due South, through St Augustine and all the way to the Keys—cultivated in me an interest in the history of the place where I live. A history I had previously disdained, with the grandiose sense of the Victor. Thinking I was somehow superior, and certainly not to blame, having formerly been a resident of the Great White North.
History and literature are good companions, as one informs the other. As Netflix and Amazon Prime became more accessible ways to view cinematic content, I became somewhat lazier in my reading. But in a way I also became more literate. I watched many more novel and short story adaptations on the small screen, than I ever would have had the time to read.
I used to be a purist. I’d never see the movie before reading the book. But now, I feel it works both ways. One informs the enjoyment and understanding of the other. It is hard to compete in your imagination, if you have never been to such places, with the expertise of those who dress up a scene, like those in Downton Abbey or A Room With A View. I’m a devoted fan of Masterpiece on PBS (this is a link to teacher’s resources on their literary drama, the vast majority of which I have seen) and I even find myself watching new editions of adaptations I watched in my childhood (All Creatures Great and Small) or early motherhood (Sense and Sensibility or The Durrells in Corfu.)
The Disability Effect
As my brood grew to four, two girls and two boys, one preoccupation was with special education and its intricacies. That drew me to stories about inclusion and exclusion and the harshness of society. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, which I read very young, is such a story. Another example is the classic but hard to watch 1962 film adaptation of the Helen Keller story, The Miracle Worker.
Such stories had a strong influence on how I viewed disability and society, as a young person, and it is a slow evolutionary process to try to see beyond them, to what is and isn’t actually true, through a clearer modern lens. My mother told me that in her day, the condition of autism was still blamed on “refrigerator mothers” who did not give their children enough love. We have come a long way, in a few short generations.
Almost from birth, my elder son has had intellectual disability, and he was later diagnosed with autism as well. That was something that was difficult to wrap my head around. So I read lots of nonfiction books and manuals, as well as online articles on those topics and on homeschooling someone with those difficulties, once I began pondering the decision of whether to do so. We live in a culture that has little compassion for mental illness or difference of any kind, so it helps to be armed with information. We feel shame about things that are hidden, and the discussion of mental differences was only just beginning to make its appearance on the shelves, as my son grew older. I am happy to see these things treated more openly and respectfully today.
The beauty of nonfiction and memoir works of our own age—a few favorites, The Boy Who Loved Windows, and The Reason I Jump come to mind– is that they lay out a path of expectation for new parents, a way to see further down the road. And for individuals who have disabilities, they provide a source of understanding and pride in their unique difference, and an appreciation for their God-given right to inclusion.
One interesting aspect of having a child (now an adult) with disabilities and being exposed to other instances of mental health challenges over my lifetime is how much more sensitive I now am, to the fictional or cinematic portrayal of people with these challenges. I don’t remember ever really noticing them before, but now I do.
Some characters stick with you, long after the story has been forgotten. Whether it’s Tiny Tim “God bless us, everyone!” from Dickens’ Christmas Carol or the main character in Flowers for Algernon, characters with disabilities have been much toyed with in our literary tradition and some might say abused or mocked or judged as having a fate worse than death. Much like reading the books dealing with women’s status before they had property rights, the author’s own complacency with the status quo ante in these books can be painful.
I’m not a more voracious reader, as a result of having a child with disabilities, but I am a different reader. A more discriminating reader. A reader and viewer of films, who is more likely to hold a work up to the glass of my experience, and see whether the image is true to life, or whether it is more like the image in a funhouse mirror.
Making Time to Read
Another interesting aspect of being a mother of teens and having a husband in a demanding role at work is that as a writer, I have become more aware of how little time most people have to read. Just as I was able, in the days of my early motherhood, to suspend those constraints, and bask in Victorian or Regency Literature as if there were no limits on my time, I now am more aware of—though willing to ignore–the modern penchant for the brief, for the executive summary, for the acronym. Books have a hard time surviving, when everyone is so busy.
Now, as my last child winds his way through college, I find myself delving into historical nonfiction works, especially those by the rather conservative author Niall Ferguson,though I self-identify as liberal. He does a terrific job of providing explainers of bafflingly complex modern phenomena such as the evolution of money, or the way Western Civilization evolved and impacted the rest of the world, or the way cultures have acted in the past and present, in response to disasters such as pandemics. As seems to be true across all my favorite books, the language he uses is beautiful. In addition, his stories carry you along,with the disturbing inevitability, found only in history.
Another brand-new book I am in the middle of combines history and the natural world. It is called Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers. Through tales that happen to be true on the subject of these flowers through history, the author amuses us, while showing us the connections previous generations had with a plant that existed at the time of the dinosaurs, and is still much beloved today.
The Influence of Adults
Now that my children are adults and are more socially aware, they demand that I be so, too. Most prominently, I feel the need to learn more about the history of racial issues in the US. This has become increasingly urgent, since the Black Lives Matter protests pointed out to me, how profoundly ignorant I am on this topic, despite having lived in the South since my teen years. Besides reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker in college and taking a World Lit Survey course, my education, like those of many my age, has been profoundly white.
To make up for it, my personal library is now full of books I have yet to read, from Maya Angelou to Zora Neale Hurston (who also has some history in Jacksonville FL and surrounding areas) to James Baldwin to W.E.B. DuBois (Not to be confused with William Pene duBois, whose Twenty-One Balloons I read as a child) to contemporary authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I have my reading cut out for me. Now I just have to find the books. I purchased them prior to moving, and they are in a cardboard box, somewhere in my house, waiting impatiently and disapprovingly, until I find them. Meanwhile, as a stopgap measure, I’ve been reading tales of racial injustice in my own town’s appalling past, in the pithy blog of Jacksonville author Tim Gilmore, Jax Psycho Geo.
Why Children Should Teach Their Moms to Read
This essay has meandered, from the topic of motherhood and literature, to literature alone, to what stands in the place of literature in my hectic life and in the modern world. For who can say, which of the many volumes now being published or otherwise promulgated, will stand the test of time? Literature is that which gets under our skin and becomes part of our being. It is so much more than a boring list, that we are assigned to read during summer break.
So much of a parent’s life has to do with finding the missing pieces, the unanswered questions, the moments that were omitted from whatever was instilled in us, purporting to be an education. We are always searching for ways to refine our smudged and incomplete and fractured image of the world. Reading helps remedy that.
Our beings are nurtured by the words we consume. Whether emotionally or socially or instinctively, through fiction, or factually or strategically or practically or even philosophically, through nonfiction and history, the result is, we become better people. Our world is broadened.
No doubt about it. Having children can prove a barrier to spending all ones time with books, or writing one’s own, as one might like to do. But having children also helps makes the time you do spend with books– or any of their manifestations– more multifaceted, meaningful and precious.