Photo: Siestas

Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid

Recently, I was in New York City to do some publicity, and I was staying in a Holiday Inn in the Gowanus Canal of Brooklyn where the elevator shook and moaned every time we went to our tenth floor room as though the shaft were too small and the elevator was just barely squeezing through. I was certain we were going to die every time we used it. I was there with my mother who was helping me take care of my ten-month-old baby. We flew in, did the galley party, flew out. We were baby-publicity-air-travel ninjas.

Of course flying with a baby is torture. Visiting New York City with a baby is hard. But I breastfeed and my baby doesn’t take a bottle well and I couldn’t imagine how my husband could take care of the baby at night without me and my mammary glands, and so I brought my mother and my baby with me to New York. As it happened, I also got in touch with a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years, and he came to our hotel room to chat with me and see the baby before it was time to go to the party.

It was pure joy to see my friend after so long. Just laying eyes on him made me glad; he had grown a Freddy Mercury mustache and was wearing a weird child’s size sweater and I loved every inch of him. Out of our mouths flew sentences too fast to filter, so desperate were we to tell each other everything, to make clear what had happened in the last ten years. I found myself, as I crammed my thighs into my shapewear, saying, “Oh, well, I love my husband, he is the perfect man for me and it was love at first sight, but I would never willingly enter into this state of servitude again.”

I had not known that I felt that way until I said it. It frightened me that I said it. That night at the party, I kept thinking about it, and on the flight home, I kept thinking about it, and no matter how I looked at that phrase I couldn’t make it any less true. If something disastrous were to happen and my husband were to leave me or die or simply vanish, I would never remarry. I actually cannot imagine even dating another man. Part of this is out of intense loyalty to my husband, but part of it is because the idea of cooking some idiot man dinner for the rest of my life makes my skin prickle with rage.

But how can I be so angry at the idea of cooking dinner for a theoretical and highly imaginary man when I cook dinner for my husband, whom I love, all the time? Do I secretly hate cooking dinner? Do I hate being a wife? Do I hate being a mother?

These are difficult questions for me to consider. I am proud of being a mother. I love my two children. I love them so much that it hurts to look at them and I am pretty sure they are the best, smartest, scrappiest, funniest boys in the world, and having them changed my life. My life before children was selfish and bland, all feelings and no grit, just a drifting miasma of mood. To go back to living like that seems like hell. I get annoyed when women’s magazines try to edit my motherhood out of my work. I get depressed when they won’t run a piece unless I take out any mention of my having children. I firmly believe that having children has made me smarter and better and more interesting, and fuck you to any women’s mag that doesn’t think so too.

And yet, I am profoundly unfree.

I have a ten-month-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old. The three-and-a-half-year-old goes to preschool for a good portion of the day, but the preschool isn’t state-sponsored, so it eats our entire childcare budget. That means I am home with the ten-month-old full time. This is a luxury. Many women would kill to stay at home with their babies. I am fully aware of this. I try to write when the baby is asleep. He sleeps for about two hours in the morning. Otherwise, throughout the day I do housework, cook, try not to go insane. My husband leaves at five in the morning and gets home at eight in the evening most days, so I am short on adult conversation or help. There is a deep, almost suffocating solitude to my days, and yet there is also the California ocean, the flowers, the breeze. It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both.

I am tethered by many things: the baby’s nursing schedule, the three-year-old’s attention span. To read an adult book is out of the question. To sit quietly for a moment with no one touching me is out of the question. To poop alone is out of the question. Showering is something I have to ask my husband for time to do each night. A lot of nights I am too tired to even think about showering and I just go to bed dirty. I do not brush my hair every day because what does it matter if my hair is brushed? It is possible I am clinically depressed. It is also possible that taking care of small children is just really hard, and in the last six months we have had a move across country, a baby in the hospital for a week, and my new book come out. Maybe I am just frazzled and it will get better on its own. Or maybe it won’t.

There have been a series of articles of late that argue that there is an inherent conflict between motherhood and artistic work. There was Lauren Sandler’s piece, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” The thesis of the piece is in the title, and I read it on my phone as I nursed my second baby, worried that I was doomed, that I had lost my voice to the sea witch, that I would never be a thinking, writing, intellectual being again but would become nothing more than an enlarged mammary gland needing to be periodically drained. Was she right? Was it impossible to balance the demands of an artistic career with the demands of multiple children?

Then there was Kim Brooks’ “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” on New York magazine’s The Cut, in which she argues that there may be something fundamentally at odds between art and family, specifically that “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” So much in this piece rang true for me that I started shaking as I read it. At one point, she asks one of her friends about her photography:

‘I’m not doing it,’ she said. ‘I just can’t. I can’t get the space. Even when I have a few hours, it doesn’t work. They’re always with me, even when they’re not.’ I think she’s going to say something like ‘It won’t be like this forever,’ something stoic and accepting. But instead, she says in a voice that is pure anguish, ‘There are moments when I feel like I’m dying a little more every day. I feel like a fish that’s been caught and then abandoned on a dock, lying there, flopping and gasping, each gasp weaker than the last.’

I feel it too. I have tried to say it to my husband; I have tried to say, “I hate my life.” I have tried to say, “I need help.” I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the three-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind.

For me, the conflict between motherhood and my life as a writer is not so much Brooks’ fear that art’s job is to unsettle, while a mother’s job is to make safe. I unsettle and disturb my children all the time. I remain unconcerned that my safe, middle-class life as a stay at home mom makes me less edgy or interesting. I view my own interestingness as being directly related to the thoughts I think and the work I do rather than the aesthetics of my leisure time. After all, Wallace Stevens was an executive at an insurance company. The idea that parenting is any more boring than working at an insurance agency is absurd.

Still, there is a concern that the stank of uncool motherhood will befoul the beautifully tormented artist. It is, I think, this same stank that women’s magazines would like to occasionally excise from my work. In the novel Dept. of Speculation, which seems to be an epicenter for these sorts of worries in the Geist, Jenny Offill’s protagonist and narrator writes: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

I have never worried that the mundane world would muddy my celestial paws; I’ve always been perfectly able to lick my stamps myself. In fact, I have been far, far too able. The older I get, the more I recognize the leveraging power of ineptitude. My husband can’t cook well; I do the cooking. My husband accidentally shrinks a few sweaters; I do the laundry. My husband can’t lactate; the baby comes to New York. In his inability to do things, he is excused from labor. In my rush to excel, to shine, to be a good wife and mother, I have done nothing but ensure my labor will be lengthy and unpaid.

For me, the problem then, is not in some platonic incompatibility between art and motherhood, a conflict between the mundane and the celestial, the safe and the unsettling. The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.

My job when I am with my children is to have as few needs as possible so that I can meet theirs. It is my job to let my three-year-old dawdle on the potty of a Starbucks until he is sure he is done, even if I think I might shit my pants. It is my job to help him stop crying when he is overtired, even if I myself am so overtired I could cry. It is my job to be invisible to him.

There are other ways too in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, “Here, wife, pick up after me.” Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself.

“Sometimes,” I said to my mother the other day, “I feel they will devour me. I feel they will use me up like a tube of toothpaste and never even notice.” She nodded, watching me cry in her living room, my baby crawling on her floor.

“They will,” she said.

I read an interview with Jodi Picoult the other day, or as I will refer to her for this purpose, Jodi Fucking Picoult, wherein she described her writing life. The interview was old, from 2001, but keep in mind: Jodi Fucking Picoult had already written seven novels at that point. And here is her schedule: wake up at 5 in the morning, exercise, get kids to school, write for three hours, wrangle kids all afternoon, make dinner, put kids to bed, write after everyone goes to bed. “They are using her up like a tube of toothpaste!” I thought. I tried to imagine the family of a similarly successful male writer making him stay up to work after he has put the children to bed and I just couldn’t. Not with seven novels under his belt. You can bet his wife would be whisper-screaming at the children to stay the hell away from daddy’s office and go play in the yard. Your father, this imaginary wife would say, is Jodi FUCKING Picoult.

Which is not to say that Jodi Picoult hasn’t chosen her role. She may very well want to spend all day with her children and stay up at night working. Aside from our cultural expectation that women should spread themselves thin in order to spend time with their children, there is also the bald fact that some women want to. God knows, even if we could afford a nanny or daycare, the idea of someone else taking care of the baby makes me uneasy. He’s my baby. The three year old is my boy. If he told a nanny that he and the other boys saw a leprechaun spit on the slide, she wouldn’t get to the bottom of it; she’d just let it go because who even knew what that weird little boy was saying now. It takes a mother to continue questioning all the way until you ascertain that the leprechaun spit is actually bird poop. You cannot pay someone to care about your kids the way you do. You cannot pay someone to be you.

Yet there are only so many hours in the day. If you are with your children, you are not writing. If you are writing, you are not with your children.

Several female writers, Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley among them, reacted with ire to Lauren Sandler’s piece, “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.” Smith wrote that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse…We need decent public daycare services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family.”

I find comfort in this insistence on the terrestrial nature of the problem and therefore the terrestrial nature of its solution. Time is the issue, not some metaphysical conflict between art and motherhood. But another part of me worries that being a writer isn’t exactly like being a factory worker or a nurse. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill writes:

A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,” Barthelme said. “Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.” Also art, he amended. Also politics. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and X years in a life. Solve for X.

Offill’s point is that greatness as an artist is not something you can achieve in a forty-hour work week, but something that must consume you entirely, even to the point of sublimating your own desire to survive as an animal, i.e. eat and sleep. Certainly, then, it would seem to follow that art is not something one can achieve in a spare two hours after the kids have been put to bed. And yet, some women have. Toni Morrison comes to mind as a rather blinding example, writing The Bluest Eye while raising two children on her own and teaching full-time at Howard University. Really, if one considers the hours, years and decades many celebrated male writers have spent doing little else than drinking, perhaps it is not necessary to give up eating or sleeping or even raising one’s children after all. But is it fair to ask women to spin straw into gold over night as their children sleep? Or, more practically, is this even an attainable goal for most women?

My own mother wanted to be a writer, still wants to be one. She has not published a book yet. Occasionally people will tell me I am ambitious or productive or unusually driven, as though my accomplishments were my own. But I know that at every moment I am standing on her shoulders. I am, moreover, achingly aware of what this has cost her.

She raised me alone. When I first wanted to go to a boarding school, my grandmother chastened her—“It’s cruel to let the girl look at those catalogs when you could never afford to send her.” But send me she did, and paid for four years of college, and supported me again and again as I tried and failed and tried to have a career as a writer. I have lost count of how many times I have moved back into her house. I am living there now with my husband and children!

And she has not published a book. And I have published two. It is not because I am a better writer. It is because, when she solved for X, I came first. And if I came first, she came second.

It does not matter how brilliant a writer you are, your children cannot put you first. I could not put my mother first, nor can my boys put me first. Children are a hinge that only bends one way.

Male writers have often had children, but they have often famously refused to bend to them. On her twelfth birthday, Faulkner’s daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Tolstoy’s wife wrote in her journal:

How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child’s bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night’s sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.

When I shared these anecdotes with my husband, he responded with horror. “But these men were assholes,” he said. “You can’t possibly want to be like them? Even fathers nowadays couldn’t get away with acting like that.” “Of course not,” I said, because it is hard to defend wanting to be an asshole. “But is it the price?” I asked, unwilling to give the discussion up. “Is the price of great art being an asshole?” He looked at me like I was insane. “No,” he said. “The price of great art is not being an asshole!”

The next morning, I picked his underwear up from behind the bathroom door and wondered if he was right. I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole. It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don’t care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.

As much as I want to be a good writer, I also want to be a good mother. I even want to be the one who cooks dinner. I may complain about being the only one who keeps track of the ornate minutiae of preschool (bring an egg carton by Friday! We need $10 for costumes for the play! Remember: Thursday is a half-day!), but I also don’t want anyone else taking over this sometimes loathsome task. Life with small children takes place in the minutiae. Everything is in the now, and so if you are not part of the now, you miss it. As Offill writes, “A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.”

The idea of not having my children, my husband, my life, is unbearable, and I find myself thinking of Dorothy Parker, alone and drinking herself to death with her poodle bitch at the Volney Hotel. Robert Gottlieb writes about her regrets at the end of her life in a profile for The New York Review of Books. He asks: “Yes, ‘you might as well live,’ but for what?”

He goes on:

If only she hadn’t won celebrity so early and so easily. If only she had been blessed with Hemingway’s talent, had written her novel (and it had been any good), hadn’t succumbed to the easy life and money of Hollywood. If only she had married Mr. Right instead of lumbering herself with all those Mr. Wrongs. If she had had that baby…

The tragedy of Dorothy Parker, it seems to me, isn’t that she succumbed to alcoholism or died essentially alone. It was that she was too intelligent to believe that she had made the most of herself.

It is rare to see it supposed that a female writer would have written more or better if she had had children, but that is exactly what Gottlieb suggests here: That to be an art monster on some level also requires that one become a monster, and perhaps the work of a lonely and sad monster is actually less robust than that of a psychologically healthy, happy, productive adult.

To make the most of oneself. In the end, this seems to me the only thing truly worth aiming for. And in that sense, I am able to concede that my husband is right: I do not wish to be like Faulkner or Tolstoy. I do not want to be an asshole. And who knows what further greatness those men could have achieved if they had allowed their hearts to be broadened and deepened by their children? Who knows what interesting fissures in their worldview the humility of housework would have caused?

Women’s novels have long been criticized for focusing on the domestic, and in many ways the 19th century American hatred of Jane Austen has set the tone. Mark Twain wrote in a letter to a friend: “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. … All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? … Suicide is more respectable.”

Critic BC Southam summarized: “The novels are prized for their ‘perfection’. Yet it is seen to be a narrow perfection, achieved within the bounds of domestic comedy.” He explains that her work is “too pallid, too constrained, too refined, too downright unheroic.”

I grew up with this fear: that the material that was near to me would be no good. I would have to live a life that would somehow bring me nearer to the topics “real” literature was about: war, violence, politics, travel and adventure. To this end, I moved to New York, traveled to India, and dated men who could tell me about the worlds I did not have access to, men who had been to prison, men who had been homeless, men who had been in mental institutions. I was troubled by my female protagonists who seemed to have so many emotions. They would have to go; they would have to change. I would have to change. In short, I was certain that what I really needed to do was write for men. I’m not sure anyone has written more combustibly about this recently than Claire Vaye Watkins in her essay “On Pandering: How To Write Like A Man.” She writes of her short story collection Battleborn:

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

But when Watkins has a baby, her working life is thrown off-kilter:

[W]hile my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.

“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”

Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!”

Indeed, to relocate the heart of existence in the home and in motherhood is an inherently subversive artistic act. If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening. What if, in fact, motherhood is a boon to the artist? What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance? Brooks quotes Rivka Galchen: “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions,” as though this is proof that babies were inimical to literature. But really, I think the truth may be that Tolstoy was just a shitty father and so he left some important stuff out.

Indeed, it is the hallmark of systemic sexism to believe that fatherhood should be left out, that the world of children and families is not of interest to literature. It is easy to dismiss the inherent interest of raising children because such a profoundly meaningful period in life comes to us cloaked in so many boring and pedestrian details: breast pumps and counting wet diapers, homework and vaccination schedules. But any soldier will tell you that much of the Army is similarly boring and routine. Yet we do not ask a war poet, Do you ever worry your work will become clouded with bureaucratic detail? We assume that he can reach past the quotidian to the elemental, and we should demand the same of mothers.

Jane Smiley, one of the most prolific and brilliant novelists working in America today, who has had three children, two step children, and four husbands, told Nicole Rudick at The Paris Review:

But having the kids as a distraction, having to do my time and then go pick the kids up at school or go to the grocery store or whatever—that was always good because something might happen out on the street that would be an idea. One of the ones that sticks in my mind was when I went to the daycare and saw all the four-year-olds crossing the street in front of the church in two lines. My inner mom says, Oh my God, what if a car comes screaming down the street right over the kids? And my inner author says, Wow, that’s an idea. So my inner author was always sucking dry the inner mom or the inner girlfriend or the inner life or the inner horse owner and trying to make something of whatever that thought might be.

Here, Smiley locates the source of art in the world, insisting that it is a benefit to the artist to spend time puttering about in the quotidian world, in sharp contrast to Barthelme suggesting that the artist must absent himself from the world in order to more fully immerse himself in the realm of ideas. It is hard not to take Smiley at her word; after all, her advice is so much more palatable and practicable. And it seems the proof is in the quality of her work.

To make the most of oneself is not to forsake one’s identity as a woman or as a mother. It is not to become an art monster if the monster in question is nothing but a drunk asshole. But it is also not to bend entirely, to flap hinge open to your children and your husband and the underwear that may be nestled behind a door, and give up the terrible, wonderful, furtive dream that is the self. To come second entirely, to be only mother, maid, cook, wife, is also not to make the most of oneself. One must learn how and when not to bend.

It is this, the balance between selflessness and selfishness, that is so difficult, but also, I would like to believe, worthwhile.

These days, as I try to walk that sacred line, Jane Smiley has become something of a patron saint. I think of her words about her own mother, in her interview with Rudick: “That’s how I grew up. We did what we wanted to do. My mom was the example—she did what she wanted to do, she told you to do what you wanted to do.”

Instructions worded in the positive instead of the negative are often so much easier to follow. As lost as I felt when instructed by the well-meaning slurry of web-articles about “trying to have it all,” to somehow not “lose myself” to motherhood, as though my self were a tangible thing it was possible to misplace, the word “want” flips the problem on its head, and suddenly things seem much clearer to me.

“You should do what you want,” Jane Smiley’s mother says from the spot she now inhabits on a ’70s couch in my brain.

“What?”

“Yeah,” she says, “You should generally do exactly what you want.”

I can feel it, as I wander through my days, as I change diapers and pour sippy cups of milk: the magical lodestone that is want. There is no surer way to locate your self, if you have misplaced her for a moment, than to ask yourself what you want.

And there is nothing more subversive for a woman to do than believe she deserves to get what she wants and to recognize in herself the willingness to fight to get it.

 


Works Cited

Offill, Jenny (2014-01-28). Dept. of Speculation (p. 8, 65, 90-91). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Porter, Cathy (2010-09-07). The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (Kindle Locations 3249-3252). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 


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68 Comments

  • Dyan says:

    Profoundly true. I admire your honesty and grit, your love of motherhood and desperate drive to write. Indeed, “Do what you want” best works with the cooperation of all family members, so they’re working as a team to allow space and support for each one’s heart’s desire. Train your husband to pick up his own underwear and wet towel. Even a three-year old can begin to dress himself, with clothes laid out on the floor the night before. A mom shouldn’t be carrying the full load of running the household, artist or not.

  • Monica says:

    Thank you for this. The demands of motherhood are made so much greater by convention and the expectations of others. “Do what you want” is more than a day-to-day exhortation; it’s a way of life. It is the artist’s job to question, so why not question everything – when and how and why and whether she really ought to do the things that other people (non-artists, non-writers, non monsters mostly) decided are required of mothers, adults, artists, Americans, humans? It seems to me that one of the most unsafe things we can do is pour into our children the idea that they ought not question or disturb.

  • Dana says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. :-)

  • I recently had my first exhibition of my own artwork in a commercial gallery, entitled “Mother Vision.” I have three children, ages 8, 4 and 1. The ONLY reason why this happened, and I don’t count that I had supporters, or that I was lucky, or that I was talented: the only reason is that I wanted it. I wanted it. I wanted it.

    You’ve written everything in this essay. I love it more than I am able to express.

    Thank you.

  • Oh wow, what a wonderful essay to read with a chicken roasting in the oven – even if I did let the potatoes burn in their pan. Making the best of oneself, what else is there to do? Except, of course, as this essay so beautifully illustrates, once you want the best for the people you love, ie your family, the path is always going to be a meandering one.

  • Barbara says:

    I was so sad to read this, and to see myself so fully in it. Towards the end of the piece I saw how I’m responsible for what happens forward.

    Thanks for the push.

  • Sarah says:

    I’m not a mom, but a woman who aspires to be a mom AND achieve greatness in my work. This article was so personal and inspiring. Thank you.

  • Abigail says:

    I struggle so much with the pull between selflessness and selfishness, with wondering whether I deserve to ever be even the slightest bit selfish, and even as a writer had not thought to put it in those words. Thank you so much.

  • Sonja says:

    Thank you. I shared your post with a dear friends: poet/performer, wife, mother. Also 2 fathers/husbands each visual artists. I don’t know yet what I will be after I receive a hysterectomy to prevent cancer. I did spend many years helping to raise other’s children. I believe it’s very necessary for children to interact with more caring adults. It helps the child to self-advocate. I digress. I’m used to helping artists/writers raise their children. Also I am used to “the Help” being overlooked. Many work/family balance articles I distrust due to personal experience with parents taking all the limelight, as it were. As if to bitch and moan about existential crisis of parenting is a popular choice. I wonder how privileged you truly are. Your mother. Does she listen to you? Stay with the kids on a whim’s notice? Help shop, clean, cook. See she is your enabler, as it were. You have every right to publish. I love your foul language mix with “an embarrassment of riches.” Personally, I’m bitter. I’m biased. But hell, I get my womb taken out by a robot. Just like Angelina Jolie. Thanks though, I needed to rant too and encourage your experience with gratitude. Lucky.

  • Jessica says:

    Having only 1 child myself, who is now twelve, it’s easy for me to look back at age three on as a slow march toward freedom. Preschool, full day, playdates that last longer than two hours, playdates where you can LEAVE, summer vacations full of camp drop offs as opposed to schedule-imploding snack/swim/play with me! days. The glory of not having to get in the pool anymore, followed dropping them off (!!) at the pool. It comes. It really does. I promise. Until then, take notes. As Nora Ephron’s mother was famous for saying: Everything is copy.

  • evelyn says:

    Please– leave the underwear on the bathroom floor.

  • Andrea Early says:

    This is a brilliant and true piece. I’m standing on the other side of the story. Children who endlessly needed me, are growing up. They are now are 17 and 21 and I can attest that life is long. I’m so glad I was home with them when they were little, and I’m glad I figured out a way to keep working when they got a little older. I was the toothpaste tube and my career was what I thought about second, after half-days, $10 checks, schedules and the social life of a young family. My life work was really their lives, and I’m not sorry for this. Now, at 49, I still have a lot of work time left, and feel that my career has been long too. But, having my own children made me a more thoughtful and credible teacher (my career) and knowing the fullness life, including the struggles of domestic life makes you a writer I now want to read more from. Thank you for your piece.

    • beckie says:

      Hi Andrea, thank you for your comment. I am a teacher as well and I am currently on maternity leave with our second baby. I am scheduled to go back in September when my daughter turns nine months, but I don’t know that I can bear it. How long were you home with your babies before you returned to teaching? If I did it, we would be barely scraping by financially, but I also consider my children my life’s work.

  • Dee says:

    Dear Rufi. I am mystified. How is it that you haven’t spent any time in this essay complaining about your “asshole” of a husband, let alone divorced him yet? The dude works from 5 AM to 8 PM, quizzes you about your unhappiness, leaves his underwear lying around like a five year-old, is too inept to take on obligations or responsibility, and doesn’t earn enough money to hire help. The trick isn’t for you alone to figure out how to balance selfishness and selflessness, to navigate motherhood and writing. It’s to figure out how soon you can dump a man who doesn’t appear to want a relationship with his children or his partner, who thinks that only one member of the family gets to have a creative life. Maybe you don’t feel rage at the guy, or maybe you’ve sublimated it and you’ve got depression instead of rage. But I sure feel it on your behalf.

    • Amanda says:

      Dee, I think you might be adding layers of malice to her husband’s behavior. In the metropolitan area where I live, sadly, it is quite common for a working person to leave home at 5am for a 2 hour commute, work a full day in early career (as her husband is), and commute home 2 hours. I think Rufi’s questions about the possibility that it’s subversive to believe that the selflessness required to be a good mother (by which I don’t think she means picking up underwear) and the selfishness required to be a good, or even productive, artist can coexist.

    • KP says:

      Dee ~

      Are you kidding? Her husband works all day so that she can afford to stay home with the kids, & that is your analysis? My goodness. She divorces him, she too will have to go out & get a regular job like the rest of the plebeians in the world. And might still have to depend on government hand-outs to make ends meet. She will never even get to think about writing, & her kids will be raised by others, which she already said she is grateful to be privileged to raise herself.

      My husband is gone from 6 in the morning ’til about 8 at night, bless his heart. He works in a factory making plastic, never sitting down, lucky to get a dinner break. So that I can have the benefit of staying home. I would be more than happy to pick up his underwear. I encourage him not to lift a finger when he is home, but to rest so that he can endure another day of paying our bills. We live for weekends together, because we are so in love, after many years of marriage. I live in joy & gratitude, & our marriage is ecstatic. Marriage is not about self-gratification. It is about loving another as you love yourself.

  • Sara Nolan says:

    Rufi! The ineptitude cape! Yassssss! Behind which magical partners disappear just when the rabbits have shit all over!

    Thank you for speaking to a crux– a hinge, to borrow your metaphor– on which Motherhood hangs. I found having a child lasered my relationship to time– that is, made me pristinely aware of what it was, and how I was using or abusing it, or it was using and abusing me. I believe motherhood opens up your relationship to time and duty existentially AND practically.

    There is so much to respond to in your piece– I am especially grateful for the surprise comment that fell out of your mouth in the company of your old friend, which catalyzed this reflection.

    I do know some fathers who occupy the very position you describe as mother. I would love to hear from them, too.

    I am not sure that the opposite of self-less is self-ish, nor that either precisely describes our roles pre or post children, or domesticating vs. art-making, but they are terms worth getting to the bottom of. Also, I think of my art-making time as a hinge as well– when I chose to prioritize it, I also think I am showing my son (and anyone’s son, and anyone’s daughter) that art, writing, creative-making is worthy and necessary of attention. And not at the expense of the rest of my life.

    I know I am not responding to all the big categories you opened up, but this essays has inspired a LOT of intense conversation on the internet and inter-women and in my inter-brain, thank you greatly for daring.

    IN solidarity, and with so much heart,
    SARA

  • nope says:

    “You cannot pay someone to care about your kids the way you do. You cannot pay someone to be you.”

    Honestly no, and this is a big fuck you to full time working parents out there.

    • amy k says:

      yup to this nope.

      • Hope says:

        “Honestly no, and this is a big fuck you to full time working parents out there.”
        Only if they want to see it that way.

        When you let other people raise your children you have to accept that you are letting other people raise your children. They aren’t going to do everything the way you to do it and the tiny human involved will be changed by it. They’ll be fed to things you wouldn’t have fed them, they’ll see things you wouldn’t have shown them or vice versa. It’s not that it will worse for kids, it’s that it will be –different, not what you would have done and that’s a harder thing to accept than you might realize. And it’s not something that anyone really talks about in sunny articles about working moms.

        You can pay someone to take care of your kids and if they love them, too, you got lucky. Sometimes it’s better to send mom off to work. Some women are not born primary caregivers. But, face it, sometimes it’s not just different, it really is worse. You don’t get lucky. Your kid hates the pre-school. You have to fire the nanny. To insist that children can have exactly the same experience with a paid caregiver as with a parent is to dodge exactly the question that Thorpe is asking. So what if they don’t get their imagined Leprechaun Spit thoroughly examined? Can they suffer some small diminution in the full-time attention of their mother so that she can be home writing while a babysitter is with them in the park? How much diminution exactly is an acceptable amount? How much would she herself miss out on if she hired the babysitter and is she willing to give that up?

        • K. says:

          I agree. It’s just different. And it’s different for every parent. But I will say that nannies do care greatly about the kids they work with. I worked for years as a nanny and know many people who have made their careers as caregivers, nannies and preschool teachers. Sure, there are some caregivers who are better than others. There are those who don’t care as much. But, in my experience, there are actually tons of benefits to having different adults in their lives. It’s healthy for kids to have lots of caring adults in their lives who all approach life a little differently. As a nanny, I have loved and cared for every child that has come into my care. No, I may not slice the apple in the same way, but I feel compelled to give the child my complete attention (aka, no iPhone!) and listen to everything they say because a) I am getting paid b) I have the responsibility for a child who is not mine and c) I am genuinely interested in what the child has to say (benefit of not being his or her primary caregiver). So, yeah. On my watch, their Leprechaun Spit does get thoroughly examined.

  • Laura says:

    This is lovely. I’m not artist but I gave up my passion and put my husband and children first. I regret it and don’t regret it every day. They are my life, yet I wonder when I get to live my own again.

  • rebekah says:

    This is so good. So so good. Your essay has hit me in all the right places. I wish I had more eloquence in me but alas, I am a working mom of 3 and have no brain.

  • Martina Dinale says:

    Dee…THANK YOU ! Thank you for saying what I was first muttering then bellowing throughout my reading of this article . With additional ” ARE you fucking kidding me?? “s thrown in . How in the jesus do you describe a guy that …seriously ? – …leaves his nasty draws lying ON THE FLOOR ? Behind a damn DOOR ?? – for the maid to pick up you understand , as perfect for you etc?? Plus all the other stuff. I don’t believe I have ever …and I am past the half century mark…seen a worse case of denial , self-hatred , enabling or Doormat Syndrome in an otherwise bright , articulate young woman . Has this girl no FRIENDS ? Who might mirror to her what is actually going on ? Her interesting disquisition on women/ artists , time , Motherhood and the like simply disappears under an avalanche of what on EARTH is this girl permitting which any sensible reader must be thinking .

  • Ah, my struggle, my damn daily struggle, which gets translated into everything including the novel I have been writing for three long years now, while taking care of my children and a busy husband. I have struggled with the demand not “go to work”, so I can write and take care of everything apart from earning serious money. I have been guilt ridden and now I am at the breaking point. How often have I sworn the same thing: I will never remarry if anything should happen to my beloved, I will never ever date a guy and get convinced to live together…..and being 55, there will be no more kids and yet, here I am, serving my family with love and squeeze the writing in the leftover hours. I just participated in a self publishing seminar and the first thing I learned is to take the writing so seriously as to give it a firm primetime schedule and not to waver from it. Now that my last kid is a junior at Highschool, I finally take the plunge. Its time, rain or shine. But the issue of women’s freedom, art-career or family, bread-job or writing/painting/anything creative remains. As long as there is no safe affordable childcare, a fair legal share of men’s and women’s work and family time, as long as there is a ever-growing demand by employers to be available 24/7 and no general wage for home-makers, stay at home moms or dads, so long nothing will change. My daughter swears never to have children, she is disgusted with the status and the options. And I am sad to say, I can hardly blame her. Thank you for this long lament, I hear you.

  • Thank you. I needed this more than you know. Actually I take that back .You do know.

  • gemstone says:

    I felt as though this article does exactly what it pertains not to: induces guilt in mothers who write while their child is in daycare or with a nanny. The whole “leprechaun spit” anecdote was very emotive, followed by the assertion that you cannot pay someone to love your child or “be you.” A bit of a cruel aside, particularly when this writer has the on-hand support of her mother when many don’t.

    • Mary says:

      GEMSTONE- I agree with you. I feel the grips of motherhood and the losing of one’s identity as well, but I also work full time with two younger children and felt her overbearing stress on other people watching your children to be insulting. No one will debate that there is no substitute for our children’s mothers, but many women work, for many different reasons. Sometimes its simply so they don’t get swallowed alive at home which she seems to imply happens to mothers anyway, whether they are at work, or at home. Sure, she’s a writer and every writer I’ve ever met and known, likes to stress the importance of their work above others. While I found her points to be valid in many ways, the truth is that mothering is not for the selfish or weak of heart- it is a sacrifice we make to raise the best children we can. She seems to forget that most married couples with children are not choosing to live with a parent and therefore reaping the benefits that come with that, benefits that could include not being forced to work outside the home, away from their children in order to pay the mortgage.

  • Karen Hugg says:

    Oh my goodness, I don’t know where to begin except to say thank you for articulating nearly every feeling I’ve had while being a mother and a writer simultaneously. I loved your phrase about life before children as a “drifting miasma of mood.” I can so relate to that. And the idea of listening to a podcast and going vegan. Ha! Close to my experiences as well.

    When my kids were little, other mothers told me it gets easier as the kids grow up. I want to tell you how true this is. My children became more independent and able to understand/empathize that I needed my own time. The issues of constant labor for others and the safe vs. the unsettling still are there, but more doable.

    I recently wrote a blog post about resolving social and solitary time. I’ve found I’ve become adept at being social when the kids are home (including email, Twitter, promotional stuff) and solitary every second they’re away. I take my husband’s offers of help and I don’t feel guilty, ever.

    Thanks for discussing this very common and important dilemma affecting women. Cheers.

  • Caitlin Johnstone says:

    This is great. “Do what you want.” I sometimes wonder if the sublimation of the female desire is perhaps the greatest struggle facing humanity today. How many women such as us actually know what we want? If we did, I think the world would look like a very different place. I think deeply, we want our female advantages to be adequately valued. We are so much more capable in so many aspects of life, and yet nearly all those aspects are unpaid or badly paid.
    Why is that?
    Well, because the system which we work within was set up by men, for men. It is literally a patriarchy. It doesn’t recognise our female work, whether that be art, motherhood, domestic duties, food, distributing resources, pregnancy and lactation, caring, healing, the intuitive arts, creation and creativity; and that is deliberate.
    Which is why we are up to our eyeballs in crap no-one needs made by people who don’t want to make it, for the people who made it.
    What do women want – I think at the heart of it, most of us want a peaceful mind, a happy house, rosy-cheeked children, a healthy planet, and plenty of time to play with our art.
    We need the work of mothering and caring to be adequately valued so we aren’t forced to make things-no-one-wants or push around papers-no-one-reads.
    But we must fight to get that, it seems. The money-men won’t hand that over easily.
    And we must make that space where we can, too. So much space has been taken up by the patriarchal mind-viruses from a time long past.
    Why, for example, are we keeping our home like Downton Abbey manor? We are not servants, and we don’t have servants. There is no-one to white-glove our mantle except ourselves. We are our master, and our servant. Let the master relieve the servant of her ridiculous standards.
    There are a few egoic things like that that we can cut out of our lives. Mainly though, we need to demand a system that adequately values our natural work so we do not find ourselves bent into man-shapes just to get by, or chained to a man instead.

  • Natalie says:

    This was so good. I am always so impressed by my fellow mothers of more than one child (it’s true – one is so simple) who can produce creative works. My husband claims to be supportive of my dreams, but really has no clue how much I’ve sacrificed my own life and dreams to support him as wife and mother. I encourage him to go to that multi-day cross-country conference, but then hear complaints when I speak aloud my dream of going away alone for a couple days when the baby no longer needs me so desperately.
    Thank you for this article. You put into words so many of my own thoughts.
    And about the underwear, you may never be able to train your husband to pick it up. My own cannot see the the small bits and pieces of his grooming that he leaves behind. His eyes are only open to the details that matter to him. Tiny, infuriating hairs will never fall into that category.

  • Erin says:

    Oh my word. You said things I’ve tried saying many times before, but you did it so well and so much better. Amazing read. So packed with “amen” moments.

    Here is something I wrote recently, along the same vein (but much shorter than your amazing work here):
    http://education.penelopetrunk.com/2016/06/06/teach-passion-by-modeling-passion/

  • Deb Potter says:

    I put my notebooks on a shelf when my triplet burdens of motherhood, mortgage and man were all I could juggle. Years later, when I wondered who I was, I picked up the creative pen again. I started with poems I could scribble out after work and the dinner was done and the babies were in bed. When they got so they could get the bus home I wrote short stories and after I left my marriage the words tumbled out freely in all the spare time not looking after a man brings forth. Pressing pause on my career released me from five day a week marathons and bought me Wednesdays – a break in the middle to write up a storm or a typhoon or a haiku. I have hard won my freedom to create. My daughters conspire with me to make it so for all of us. One paints and stidies and does all our cleaning. The other studies and writes and cooks for us. We’ve stepped out of the cycle with our education and set our sites on wanting less stuff and taking more time.

  • Surya says:

    It was actually shocking to me, as each piece of this unfolded, how closely you were describing my own experience. The reflection is so much needed just right now, I can’t begin to tell you. Thank you for this insightful, necessary, affirming piece of writing. Thank you.

  • Christine says:

    Thank you for this!
    Beautiful beautiful writing.
    Gives me so much to reflect on. Sometimes I believe I am lazy because I can’t make amazing things or anything happen with my scrambled brain in the little bit of time that my 8 mo old son is sleeping.
    Our work is unappreciated, unseen, exhausting, sops our essence from us.
    Damn men.
    Damn our culture.
    We need more help.

  • Lisa Orange says:

    No, you cannot pay someone to “be you.” But you can pay someone (or enlist your partner) to feed, amuse, and care for your child while you do the thing that lights you up, that makes you more you.

  • Oh. My. Gosh.
    Thank you.

  • Emari DiGiorgio says:

    Thank you for this. Yes, “The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.” I am living this everyday. <3, Emari

  • Lily says:

    I love you. So perfectly written.

  • Elizabeth E. says:

    Lovely, raging essay, locating the source of that anger so succinctly (and I get the underwear pick-up thing–no judging, here) that many have responded as I might have done at that age, when I faced all those conflicts. But somewhere I read a line from a Famous Woman who said that the time frame for women is different for men, so why do we attempt to achieve on a male timeline? I only offer that up to say that perhaps that this reality is also a driver for this struggle–that feeling that we’ll miss out if we aren’t the cool, happening young writer/creator/singer/whatever, with the operative word being “young.”

    All my children are raised and producing grandchildren and if you think you would do anything for your children, wait until the grandies show up (so I also understand your mother, too). But they don’t live in my house. I’ve taken over one of their bedrooms as well as the guest room with my creative endeavors and it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to work as long as I want to, when I want to. I still cook for my husband, do the cleaning, but the absence of children gives me long hours in which to create. It’s a hard wait for someone at your stage, and I kept alive that “but I should be creating” angst inside me during that time, writing when I could, creating when possible.
    And one day, they were all gone. I totaled up what I’d achieved when it looked like I wasn’t achieving anything, and it was significant. It had just been unnoticed when living in the maelstrom.

    Your work is now, with these children, this marriage, the writing. Quiet the worries, and know that you’ll still be writing and working when the kids are raised and all those hot-shot other young male writers in grad school will be laboring with their mortgages, their wives and demanding jobs. I know. I lived it. No, no one knows who I am. But I am happy and satisfied and working in my creative life. Thank you for a revealing, thoughtful and yearning look.

  • Sue Sillano says:

    I’m 60. No one, I mean no one is going to care what you did when they were little. Do your own thing and EVERYONE will be happier now and later. Give them their freedom to grow, husband included.

  • Darian says:

    I wrote out some wisdom from your article with the markers and papers taken from my children’s art supplies. Like mantras, I have scotch-taped them on the walls above my desk. I’m trying to make the most of myself. Thank you.

  • Denise says:

    Great points. No easy solutions. I have four sons and a husband. Youngest in college now, but many ears ago I stopped picking up anything lying on the floor, and asked the owner of said items to do so. I taught people to iron, do their own laundry, and use the stove to prepare meals. Yes, the younger years were awful and wonderful. I lived far away from family, and none of our friends had kids yet–nor as many. I wrote sitting on the floor in their room among Legos, and with my laptop on an ironing board and a baby in a Snuggly. I had dreams of having a regular writing schedule when the youngest went to school, but I was frozen. Couldn’t write a word, or generate ideas for months. I was convinced, as many mother-creating-artists are, that I would not make anything again. But I realized that a writer is what I am. If I’d never done this professionally, I would still write poems in the dark, compose short stories in my head, write in various notebooks the novels that come to me. I still have momentary struggles within myself about balancing living and creating and mothering, but my guys respect who I am, and understand when I say “Can’t talk now. On a deadline.” And I smile to myself when I do not say that, but close the laptop, rue the all-nighter that my decades-old body really cannot handle well, and say, “So, what’s up?”

  • Emily says:

    Thank you for giving voice to so many things I have thought and felt since my daughter was born.

  • Karen says:

    Beautifully written and powerful essay, thank you. As the mother of an 11- and 7-year-old, I’ve found more personal/writing time as my kids have gotten older; older kids generally need less constant attention, and by age 10/11, often prefer to be with friends. (This of course may not be true for many special needs children.) They still need their parents a whole lot, but it isn’t the overwhelming, suffocating kind of need I felt when they were newborn/toddlers. But in my experience, it does not get easier to “do what we want.” This essay reminded me to keep asking what I want (do men ever question this?), and that I deserve help (from my partner, etc.) to get it.

  • Sally Veach says:

    Somehow I believe, in the final view of things, that those who are artists are often those who tried being normal first and just weren’t that good at it. We didn’t connect well with your average school kid, and struggled so much to be understood in the world that we turned to the outer world to express ourselves and connect there. This lack of interpersonal skills kind of sets us up to be less than ideal parents. No matter how hard you try.

  • Cuerva says:

    Thank you!

    As a mother who has been both a stay at home mom and a working mom, thank you. You have articulated feelings I have been struggling with for years.

    P.S. My husband also leaves his underwear on the bathroom floor, behind the door, everyday! – NOT kidding!

  • 1. You now understand the saying ” your life is never your own after having children” – which a person cannot ever fully appreciate when being urged by others who are parents already, to enjoy their “DINKY” years.
    2. It’s temporary. Before you know it, you’ll be waiting around with empty hours stretching ahead of you hoping those 2 babies of yours will phone or call in to see you. Immerse yourself in their need for you- it’s over too soon.

  • Brent Wingerson says:

    I enjoy reading and rereading, as a proud 50 y.o. father of a beautiful 13 y.o. daughter and 17 y.o. son, about all life encompasses from your perspective.

    I live by this statement I created, after many harsh experiences I’ve gone through (loss of friend, son wanting to commit suicide, brother with two young kids and a wife breaking his neck and becoming a quadriplegic, divorce, extracting a beautiful woman from my house who I thought I was going to marry until I realized I couldn’t get her opiate addiction and lack of coping mechanisms caused by horrible people in her life fixed and my wife at the time who was hospitalized in a psych ward for a week due to severe post partum unhinged from untreatable angry, severe angry anxiety) and have witnessed people going through (a friend losing both his parents in 6 month span, a friend who’s husband retired from the army and died from a fall while trimming trees leaving her an 8 y.o. son and 13 year daughter).

    Here it is:

    LIFE IS HOSTILE. IT POUNDS YOU. ACCEPT IT. FIND HAPPINESS.

    To that, in lifes beautiful twisted dealings, I’ve still found a way to embrace the journey, see and hear amazing moments I could never imagine happen with my kids, love my work, continue to search and work at matching with and marrying a great woman.

    Can I suggest something because what you’re going through is worth it and I’ve heard it from other women like you? Live the journey for 4 years, watch amazing stuff happen, live another 13 years and really watch unbelievable stuff be created before you and I promise you’ll see your life RICH with meaning and deeply colored with unimaginable LOVE. Love you never thought existed. Love you could never imagine is so amazing it’s worth the HOSTILE struggle.

  • Elizabeth says:

    It is true. All of it. Being a mother is both the best of life and the absolute worst of life, and you have captured that sentiment quite perfectly.

    But, a note on being married: I have been a mother while married, a mother while not married, and then that rather tricky hybrid beast, a mother and stepmother while remarried. When I was a mother while divorced, I quickly discovered that the experience was eerily similar to being a mother while married to my first husband, in that everything being accomplished was solely up to me and me alone, with no help or input from my husband. This not only made very clear the reasons why I was no longer married to my first husband, but also what I knew I would never again tolerate from a supposed partner in life. You may, by evolutionary design, be a slave to your children, but you are not a slave to your husband.

    A partnership is not asking for permission to shower. Your husband may work twelve hours a day, but so do you (more so, if you count the 24 hour demands of a breastfeeding baby). An adult man who is bother a father and husband does not leave his dirty clothing for someone else to retrieve. A healthy, able human male is fully capable of making meals for himself and his family, cleaning a toilet, keeping track of preschool activities, and taking a toddler to a park so that his partner may experience the comparative calm of one child rather than two.

    You are a mother to your children. You are not a mother to your husband.

  • Hot damn! I actually cheered out loud, alone, at my dining room table, as I read this. You get it, Rufi. You said it well. Thanks.

  • Madeline says:

    Thank you for this beautiful artistic piece of writing. It articulates so much of motherhood in such an insightful way.

  • Tsuntsun says:

    Dear Rufi,

    remember what they tell you on airplanes: fix your own oxygen mask before you attend to a child? Never forget that. You need to take care of yourself first. You can’t always put other people’s needs first. Even your childrens. Take that shower! Brush your hair, put on clean clothes. Your children will learn to wait these few minutes and you will feel so much better. Stay sane. Find some other people in the community and have something that resembles an adult conversation once in a while. Maybe you can even watch each others kids occasionally.
    Teach the older child to help pick up stuff. Your husband seriously needs to pitch in as well. You are not his maid. If you keep picking up his stuff you are condoning his behaviour. Don’t. If he does not like to cook, fine. He can do laundry. Perfectly possible to run that at night.

    All the best. It can be done. But not by you alone. You are a human being who deserves respect and support.

    Taught my two half grown sons to do chores around the house early on. They moan and complain that they have to do waaayyy more than their friend. But they are also proud they can manage fine when I am away for several days.

  • Julian Wyllie says:

    Wow, so much to think about here. As a man and young writer I completely agree with what you said, but I was even more impressed with the lovely words you put together. All throughout reading I kept thinking to myself, “I’m going to buy her next book.” That I will do.

  • Tina says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captured so many of the feelings I had as a young mother and artist.
    Now, with the perspective of a parent of a grown child, I agree with the commenters who said “it does get better”. It can. But it can also get worse.
    Like when you’re in your forties and taking care of your family and also caregiving for your incredibly needy, infirm parents, and the question you wake up with in the morning is not “will I have time to make art today” but “will today be the day I kill myself” because you are just that drained and defeated.
    Like when you put your art on hold because there will be more time someday, and then someday comes and there IS time, but to your great surprise, you’re no longer that bright young thing with all the advantages and access and connections that go with being a bright young thing and – surprise – you’re more physically tired than you expected, and – surprise again – no one is interested in what you have to say anyway, because now you’re just an old mom.
    Like when your brilliant artist daughter graduates high school with a bounty of choices in front of her, and you realize it’s now her turn; your turn is over. And you remember how your own frustrated bitter artist-mother said “don’t have kids”. And, although raising your child was the great joy of your life, you hope your own daughter does not lose her artist soul in exchange for love and family. You wonder if you are just another woman in an endless line of bitter frustrated artist/mothers.

  • This very graphic description of Rufi Thorpe’s life with kids reminds me that there is no answer to this contest between staying home with kids or not staying home. I’m 79, have written books and am still writing (not as well, probably, as I used to). My husband and I have three grown children. We both taught in universities, and I did not stay home with our children. I loved them deeply and was good with them when I was home, but never felt I could be there all the time. My husband helped, and we had two wonderful caregivers. One of them is close, even now, to our youngest child, and is sort of an extra mom to her (not exactly an alter-mom). Sometimes it seems to me that I am not as close to my grown kids as my friends are who stayed home, but at other times I’m not so sure. My writing career prospered for some years but then for other reasons, mainly of health, faltered, though the publishing world was changing, too, and my fiction came to seem rather too “literary” to attract publishers. I wrote certain non-fiction books as well, and they were better received. One of them made quite a difference in the world, as it happens, of human experimentation. Still, I do regret I could not do both tasks, books and childcare, and I know that making this choice as to which way to live has been a deep and troubling one for us “liberated” women, as the saying used to be. Families, on the whole, and ideally, are better off, I dare say, with a mother who’s always around, and a father who cares for his children, enjoys family life, and is not overworked. Sounds like magic these days! For myself, I wish I had had it all, but I couldn’t, and I hope I made the best of the bargain I’d settled on.

  • Alli Laners says:

    How sad of a story. Being a mother is different from being a monster or a maid. Being invisible to your children, especially as they are getting older, is a guarantee to raise narcissists – people who have have learned to only or mostly see themselves. If your husband’s mother might have taught him that she was his mother rather than his maid … he might be able to see on his own today that he’s now old enough to put his underwear in a hamper by himself. I believe that to put ‘an order’ on who comes first and second is at the root of the problem. How about an exchange instead: Sometimes the child comes first (more so if they’re younger), and sometimes it is also the parent. This is how children learn and how they will gradually and hopefully become independent of their parents, and their parents … of them. You should NOT generally do exactly what you want. Children generally do exactly what they want. You (should) are better off (to) SOMETIMES do exactly what you want … because YOU are both … your own child, and your own parent. That’s what Jodi Fucking Picoult would do. If her 3 year old continously dawdled on the potty in the morning … you bet she’d give a shit about herself.

  • Rossella says:

    This weekend the New Zealand Herald published your article on the Saturday magazine. I started reading it and in a moment, from this little country at the bottom of the world, I felt deeply connected to every woman that might see herself in your words.
    It was also such a supreme relief, that someone had finally picked up an end of this so very tangled ball of yarn that is motherhood, and with so much clarity started rolling it up in a neat ball. Thank you so very much for writing this.
    I don’t know if writing about motherhood is the last frontier, but for sure it is a frontier and it is not nearly written enough about. Even avid readers would change what they read about in different stages of their lives. After getting married, moving to a country different from my own, and having three small boys I often look for for books about mothers, I don’t think there’s enough. The minutiae, the dreary routines, the unstoppable domestic machine, the endless lists of things to do, and yes the invisibility of you and your work, the squeezed out toothbrush syndrome: this is not nothing. This is true for so many many women, and it is worth to be talked about, to be explored. Of course there all the immense beauty of it, the unbelievable love, the fun and magic and all the positive that you can think of, but we don’t struggle with those, they’re the good stuff that make the crazy adventure going. If dark, unsettled and mysterious is what is needed to be an artist, motherhood has got plenty, and the first huge step is into admitting to it. Talking about those secret, shameful, selfish feelings of being so happy and emptied at the same time, so loved and so used, so proud and so scared, “to learn how and when not to bend”, exploring that “balance between selflessness and selfishness”: this is the new frontier and it is worth exploring. And by the way, I think Jane Smiley got the dart bang in the centre.

  • Sarah says:

    Beautifully written and so precise. THANK YOU, just perfect.

  • Julie Cooper says:

    Being a mother is the umbilical cord to my best writing.

  • Jill says:

    This morning I got a text that woke me from my husband ( who thankfully is employed and went to work at 6:00am). The text, with an attached picture read, “The cat threw up in the hall way. Here is a picture of it so you don’t step in it.” I’m not sure I have to comment further…my life is exactly like yours. Thank you for putting it into words. I find it empowering. and hilarious.. and depressing .. all at once. You are my hero.

  • Laura says:

    It’s very hard to have perspective when you are in it, but–
    1) Rufi’s problem isn’t motherhood. It’s that she is married to someone who does no childcare whatsoever. Maybe they need to renegotiate their values and relationships. And what kind of idiot leaves his underwear on the floor?
    2) Yes, it’s impossible to get a lot done when your children are very young. If she does not have any more children it will be about 10 years of her life. Then she can have the next 40 to write her heart out.
    3) There are PLENTY of writers who are mothers. I would say prob. 50% of the great ones. This need for drama and bohemian existential crises is a bunch of Hemingway bullshit. Plenty of writers kept to a strict schedule and wrote at set hours during the day. Thomas Mann. Marcel Proust. Yes, you can be a great artist IF you are a great artist, in small spurts every day, although it is harder.
    4) Are those childless, neurotic writers (hello Franzen) really happy? Do you want to spend half your life in a lonely hotel room so you can reap praise in the paper? Or do you want a full life, with work, and family?
    You are LUCKY, even if your days are long and sometimes frustrating.

  • lou says:

    Not being a mother, I don’t know the dilemma of balancing being a person and being a mother, but this beautifully written article made me feel it, or at least gave me a feeling of unease, for a couple minutes. I find myself wondering if I could do it, if my life, my needs and my passions are not just too big to squeeze them up away for some years.

    What shocks me in the article, and in many of the comments below, is how husbands, men partners, should we say, are not considered partners at all in the family life, but part of the list of tasks.
    Even more shocking to me, the acceptation of all the women, who pick up dirty underwear, make dinner because the poor men can’t learn, and do all the child-caring and things related to school. Is it possible things are that difficult because you’re doing them alone? And is it possible you don’t want to share? As the writer was saying, she actually wants to deal with the school minutiae by herself.

  • Yuye says:

    Hey Rufi, thank you! You struck so many chords with my own sentiments. I am a mother of 2 daughters (one11 year old and one 3 weeks old, yes, the 11 year gap). I am a full time teacher/researcher on study leave for 2 measly two months, which, is a privilege already in my country. Husband is away for his PhD, and we basically only chat on video during wee hours when he is studying and while I am breastfeeding. Life is certainly a roller coaster. How do I channel my sentiments and rant with my days at home when he is also battling daily with his studies and his professors, nope. Just thankful I don’t need pick-up his underwear though. The challenge is when the maternity leave is over…..Keep on writing. You are an inspiration. I’m sharing your essay!

  • Yuye says:

    oops. zombie mode. I’m on maternity leave, not study leave. I need some shut-eye.

  • Cathy says:

    I was with you until you said you and family live with your mother. You have your village. And yet you enable your husband. And train up your children to be just like him. Push back, give him tasks(housework) to do. That’s how partnership works. You’re playing the victim. Yours are first world problems.

  • Ruti–
    I am a writer and mother of two (ages 4 and 1), and your essay brought up so much for me. I understand the sheer amount of work to do, the nursing and interrupted sleep, the details and mundanity and constant wiping of tables and floors and faces.

    But also: You have a choice. If you don’t want to be used up like a tube of toothpaste, don’t be the toothpaste. Choose what you want; let go of what you don’t want. Yes, you will have to let go of some things: if you want something higher, you need to let go of something lower to make space.

    What will that look like for you? What are you willing to let go of so you can feel connection instead of resentment, calm instead of exhaustion, creativity instead of stress? Maybe some cleanliness, maybe some moments with your children, maybe some control over the household? You get to choose. Maybe you’ll choose the things you’re currently doing, exactly as they are, because it truly *is* more important to you to keep house a certain or spend as much time as possible with your children. But then you will know you have consciously chosen that and can truly appreciate it instead of being tortured by it.

    My guess, though, is that you would make *some* changes… because your degree of unhappiness suggests that. There are alternative ways of thinking about some of these things. Early on, I was reluctant to let anyone else take care of my first son. But after getting some coaching, I realized I could see it differently: a caregiver could give my son gifts that I couldn’t. Of course no one will love your children as much as you do. But if you choose your caregivers consciously, you can have someone who is truly loving and does come to love your children, who cares for them conscientiously, and who gives them things I can’t. In my case, we brought in a Chinese-speaking au pair who could give them the gift of learning Chinese from a native speaker (I’m not). Our nannies and babysitters have also brought me the gifts of learning new approaches for raising our children, or new perspectives on life for the children.

    Or you may have to let go of your expectations about housework. Are you getting more satisfaction from picking up the underwear than from your writing? If not, you have choices: for example, have a clear conversation with your husband about what you’re now choosing to stop doing, what you’re asking him to start doing, what you’re willing to change, and what you’re willing to let go of. Then trust that he will do his part–but be willing to let consequences to unfold if he doesn’t. If he doesn’t pick up his underwear, leave it there. Let the towel mold, let him run out of underwear if necessary… just let go psychically and let it unfold as it will.

    In my home, there are some things my husband does because he knows they drain me (all after-meal cleanup, travel arrangements, fixing things). There are other things we pay for (some cleaning, some laundry, some childcare, groceries delivered by Fresh Direct, diapers delivered by Amazon, consultations on the best kindergarten) and some things we let go of (perfect order and cleanliness, folded laundry). There are some things I do (baths and bedtime, meal planning, managing the childcare, doctor’s appointment, education/school appointments, teaching our son to read). The key is that I do what I most want to do, and as much as possible, and in whatever way possible, let go of the things I really hate doing.

    I balance between my children’s needs and mine because I believe I’m modeling self-care for them (if things are urgent for my children or important for their emotional and physical well-being, I take care of them, but there are times when I allow them to wait and take care of myself first… yes, I would take the dawdling three-year-old off the potty if I needed to go… and if I later needed to clean poop off the floor, I’d just do it :-)). And I take whole days off from all obligations–work and family. I know all this allows me to earn more, be happier, and be my absolute best self for my children.

    Because I do those things, I feel very little resentment. And when resentment does come up, I take a look at it and do what I can to change what’s bothering me. My life isn’t perfect, but I feel cared for, happy with what I do, and aligned with my values. And I feel real gratitude for it.

    And you can do your version of the same thing. You are not toothpaste–you are a creative, powerful, passionate, thinking woman. And you can have a life where you feel cared for, rested, fulfilled and full of joy.

  • [Misspelled her name in the previous version of my comment–please use this one]

    I am a writer and mother of two (ages 4 and 1), and your essay brought up so much for me. I understand the sheer amount of work to do, the nursing and interrupted sleep, the details and mundanity and constant wiping of tables and floors and faces.

    I don’t know if you want outsiders’ advice, but this speaks deeply to me as another writer and mother (and as a coach), so I wanted to share my thoughts. My biggest thought: You have a choice. If you don’t want to be used up like a tube of toothpaste, don’t be the toothpaste. Choose what you want; let go of what you don’t want. Yes, you will have to let go of some things: if you want something higher, you need to let go of something lower to make space.

    What will that look like for you? What are you willing to let go of so you can feel connection instead of resentment, calm instead of exhaustion, creativity instead of stress? Maybe some cleanliness, maybe some moments with your children, maybe some control over the household? You get to choose. Maybe you’ll choose the things you’re currently doing, exactly as they are, because it truly *is* more important to you to keep house a certain or spend as much time as possible with your children. But then you will know you have consciously chosen that and can truly appreciate it instead of being tortured by it.

    My guess, though, is that you would make *some* changes… because your degree of unhappiness suggests that. There are alternative ways of thinking about some of these things. Early on, I was reluctant to let anyone else take care of my first son. But after getting some coaching, I realized I could see it differently: a caregiver could give my son gifts that I couldn’t. Of course no one will love your children as much as you do. But if you choose your caregivers consciously, you can have someone who is truly loving and does come to love your children, who cares for them conscientiously, and who gives them things you can’t. In my case, we brought in a Chinese-speaking au pair who could give them the gift of learning Chinese from a native speaker (I’m not). Our nannies and babysitters have also brought me the gifts of learning new approaches for raising our children, or new perspectives on life for the children.

    Or you may have to let go of your expectations about housework. Are you getting more satisfaction from picking up the underwear than from your writing? If not, you have choices: for example, have a clear conversation with your husband about what you’re now choosing to stop doing, what you’re asking him to start doing, what you’re willing to change, and what you’re willing to let go of. Then trust that he will do his part–but be willing to let consequences to unfold if he doesn’t. If he doesn’t pick up his underwear, leave it there. Let the towel mold, let him run out of underwear if necessary… just let go psychically and let it unfold as it will.

    In my home, there are some things my husband does because he knows they drain me (all after-meal cleanup, travel arrangements, fixing things). There are other things we pay for (some cleaning, some laundry, some childcare, groceries delivered by Fresh Direct, diapers delivered by Amazon, consultations on the best kindergarten) and some things we let go of (perfect order and cleanliness, folded laundry). There are some things I do (baths and bedtime, meal planning, managing the childcare, doctor’s appointment, education/school appointments, teaching our son to read). The key is that I do what I most want to do, and as much as possible, and in whatever way possible, let go of the things I really hate doing.

    I balance between my children’s needs and mine because I believe I’m modeling self-care for them (if things are urgent for my children or important for their emotional and physical well-being, I take care of them, but there are times when I allow them to wait and take care of myself first… yes, I would take the dawdling three-year-old off the potty if I needed to go… and if I later needed to clean poop off the floor, I’d just do it :-)). And I take whole days off from all obligations–work and family. I know all this allows me to earn more, be happier, and be my absolute best self for my children.

    Because I do those things, I feel very little resentment. And when resentment does come up, I take a look at it and do what I can to change what’s bothering me. My life isn’t perfect, but I feel cared for, happy with what I do, and aligned with my values. And I feel real gratitude for it.

    And you can do your version of the same thing. You are not toothpaste–you are a creative, powerful, passionate, thinking woman. And you can have a life where you feel cared for, rested, fulfilled and full of joy.

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