Signing the book contract, committing in writing to delivering an as-yet unwritten book in one year, felt like making a vow to wed my heart’s two desires. Book and baby: in sickness and in health. It was a rash, desperate, stupid thing to do. I knew this and I did it anyway.
“The baby was a deadline,” explains novelist Emily Raboteau in an article on books and babies in Poets & Writers. But I didn’t want a deadline. I wanted a future I’d been working towards a long time, that wasn’t yet assured, a future I feared would be thrown over by motherhood.
When the baby was born I had to throw out the first draft of my scheme to write while he napped or did whatever babies do for fun because there never seemed to be a time I put him down. I’d nurse, change, swaddle, rock and then try to put him down so I could go be my old self for a half hour or so, but it was already time to begin the sequence again: nursechangeswaddlerock, nursechangeswaddlerock…
Being a mother, I found out as all mothers find out—suddenly and without any real warm-up or transition period besides pregnancy, which isn’t the same thing—was total and all-encompassing. It wasn’t something I could turn off and on again, now I’m a mother, now I’m me. I was just mother, the whole oozing, anxious, obsessive mother creature. The me I had been before had been overwritten by nine months of hypothetical metamorphosis and one long laboring night.
One month, two months: a half chapter.
I panicked. I could shed my friends, my precious sleep, my second glass of wine, my aimless thoughts. But I didn’t want to lose the part of me that was a writer.
I wrote with the baby wrapped to my chest. I wrote with the baby in a seat beneath my desk that I bounced with my foot. (This child was one of those that was never satisfied by artificial or simulated soothing.)
Summer ended and I went back to grad school. A former student watched the baby for a few hours each morning while I taught. My husband watched him evenings while I was in class, but he couldn’t nurse the baby, or sleepwalk laps of the house to put him back to sleep, and he couldn’t tolerate the baby crying without coming close to wailing himself. The crying made him crazy.
“This baby is an asshole,” he’d say, and I’d extract my precious creature from his whitening fingers and began again.
I don’t remember when I prepared for class or graded papers or wrote my own papers. But I do remember that I was forever seeing bats in my peripheral vision, a fluttering darkness, but even as my field of vision narrowed, all I saw was the baby and the book: the baby sat up; two chapters were done.
By Thanksgiving, knowing I’d need a full first draft by New Year’s, I realized I had to ask for help. Fortunately, I got it.
My parents drove across the country while I wrapped up my courses. My mother cooked and bopped the baby when he fussed. My father took the baby out for long walks, then took the dogs, then hung out the diapers, then did it all again. Released, I fled to the library on campus that had the most natural light—nursing a baby who didn’t sleep meant no coffee; sunlight was all the pick-me-up I got.
The light chased away the bats, made the work come into focus.
In three-hour writing blocks between bike rides home to nurse, I wrote a chapter a week for six weeks.
“I entered the most productive time I have ever had as a writer,” Rabateau says of the two-hour writing periods she got in the weeks after her child was born. It’s an idea that runs contrary to everything else. Two hours, to a non-parent, is barely enough time to warm up a chair. A sentence—a really good one—can take two hours to chisel and rub smooth. But not when you are writing to save what is left of your old life.
To have my own self and not a self that belonged to others required a conscious and determined variety of selfishness. It was not free, of guilt or compromise or failure, but for me it was necessary. It was necessary to me as myself, and to me as a mother. I felt, as writer Cheryl Strayed describes in her essay “Baby Weight,” “that if I didn’t [write] I wouldn’t feel complete, and that would make it impossible for me to be the kind of mother to him that I wanted to be.” And so I wrote, nursechangeswaddlerock-ed, and wrote some more.
When winter break ended, I shipped the entire manuscript draft to my co-author. Six weeks and two revisions later, I sent it to the publisher, on time.
It did not feel like the most productive time I’d ever had as a writer, not then in 2008, the year my son was born and the book was written, and not in 2009, when the book was revised and the baby learned to walk and began to talk and I wrote my dissertation. But in December of that year I went to Ghost Ranch for a weekend writing retreat with other writers in my program. The sensation of having three straight days at a desk was one of pure and sudden buoyancy, akin to what it’s like when you’re trekking with an enormous backpack on, and then you take it off and you suddenly feel like those videos you’ve seen of astronauts “walking” on the moon. I drank wine and talked writing deep into the night and was up before dawn at my desk again. I wrote an entire essay and kept on going right into a second one.
Now that time had become so rare and urgent, it had a concentration and dimensionality that I had never before experienced. I’d lived in a sea of it before I’d had a baby, and never knew how to use, and now I savored it by the silvery drop: Time with my child, away from the page. Time with the page, away from my child.
In the spring that followed, the book came out, I defended my dissertation, I had work forthcoming in a half-dozen journals, and I was pregnant again.
See also “Map to Motherland,” Molly Beer’s featured essay on Vela.