December for me has always been the month of retrospection, soul-searching, summaries.
This year has been my first year of living the tricky life of a writer-mother.
I delayed motherhood until I reached the ripe age of 39 for several reasons, the chief being my fear that having a child would be incompatible with being a writer. It’d be convenient to blame Cyril Connolly for this anxiety, he who famously scared generations of women-artists by writing “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway”. He did scare the shit out of me, but I also grew up to the tune of my mother’s refrain that for a woman the most important mission in life is having children, and all else must give way to mothering.
Being a natural-born rebel, my mother’s opinion and watching some women I knew follow just such a path led me to resent the idea of becoming a parent. Motherhood seemed to mean being tied up by an overbearing creature that devours its mother’s personhood, destroying all I ever cared about – independence, intellectual curiosity, creative living.
The decision to “get myself a kid”, as I came to refer to it, took years. The thing that tilted the scales in the child’s favour was that last year I finally finished a memoir I’d been working on for five years. This was the first time in a decade that I’d completed a book and, as a result, I felt more inclined to do what I thought it meant to become a mother – sacrifice myself at the altar of the Baby. Once the baby finally emerged one fine autumnal evening, I realised that the experience I’d always thought of in the language of “sacrifice” and “hard work” was actually more akin to “joy” than I’d expected. Having my boy made me happier and within weeks this happiness also trickled into feeling happier about my writing, similar to what happened five years earlier when I met my husband. The baby, as loves often do, took the edge off the urgency to look for the ultimate fulfilment in writing.
Paradoxically, once the urgency to write somewhat diminished, I wanted to write more, because now this act was less bound with anxiety.
A happy ending to the baby-vs-writing dilemma? Well, not really… Ironically but not surprisingly, as the writing process felt more pleasurable, it became harder to do. How do you disentangle yourself from the amorphous existence of the baby-mother dyad to reconstruct the strict routines that writing requires? In my case, it was the tyranny of deadlines. Luca was born during the final months of writing up my PhD, as well as other, more creative, commitments. Six weeks into motherhood, I had to return to work. In those years when I contemplated Hamlet-style whether to be or not to be that mythical vomit-covered-mother-at-her-writing-desk, I used to read with admiration and horror all those biographical liner notes on books: “X lives with her husband, 3 dogs, 2 cats and 4.5 children…” I thought those writers were heroes, made of material I wasn’t. Then just before I returned to writing, Leah Kaminsky – a super-achieving writer-friend of mine who is also a mother of three – gave me Anne Enright’s memoir of motherhood, Making Babies. Enright describes writing whenever she could, often in short snatches and particularly at night time when her husband was home from work.
Having a supportive husband certainly helps and luckily I’ve been blessed with one. Still, he works long hours and although in my teens and twenties I had the stamina to write into the night, these days my creative brain switches off around 8pm. Besides, I’ve grown attached to spending evenings revelling in the satisfaction of “having written”, finally not having to feel guilty about reading for pleasure. However, once I resumed writing, I realised that my experience of cyclical time had changed. Day is no longer a clearly delineated entity with fixed rituals and there is some magic in this experience. Not a big sleeper to start with, I don’t feel as sleep deprived as many new parents. My baby and I lead a floating, moment-by-moment existence composed of breastfeeds during which I read (guilt-free!), playtime, naps, housework and phases of writing. Leisure and work became so enmeshed that the pleasure of well-deserved rest lost its relevance. Writing in snatches during baby’s sleeps, I also made the pleasant discovery that my child was born with literary sensibilities. Somehow he seems to know when I am in the midst of creative thought and often wakes up just after I finish the trickiest passages.
This may imply again that I’ve resolved the hostile pram issue. But I haven’t. While I’ve realised that the life I so far considered heroic was somewhat doable, I’ve also found plenty to grieve about. My biggest frustration with writing-in-snatches is that I lost daydreaming space that is essential to my work. Besides, such writing becomes less romantic once the deadlines loom closer and the pram once again acquires that ominous glow you see in horror films.
In her excellent memoir of motherhood A Better Woman Susan Johnson wrote that to beat deadlines she resorted to a nanny. She’d write while the nanny played with her children at her feet. However, my nanny is Russian. As such, she wouldn’t put up with my inattention to her. When we are in the same space, she discusses with me Chekhov and the latest misdeeds of Putin while also making me call various organisations to negotiate on her behalf.
But even with a less Russian nanny I’d still face a problem working at home.
The baby, I’m learning, constitutes a great temptation. The folds of his inner thighs and the dimples in his cheeks are infinitely more attractive than some of the paragraphs I write. With no room of my own I turn to cafes, whose virtues I sang in my May blog entry. However, while I find cafes conducive to writing first drafts, careful revision requires a quieter space. When my mother-in-law is out of Melbourne, she lends me her apartment. I also have a desk at RMIT. But commuting between these places eats into the little writing time I have when I’ve got the nanny. Besides, I am attached to my study at home and often need the books I have there.
Writers’ residencies are out of question for me now: I’d not survive a week without Luca. Worse, I’m not prepared to risk the possibility that he might survive without me.
My chief battle though is not for time or place, but for my soul. Motherhood has brought an unexpected amount of exhilarating delight into my life but has also put me at risk of becoming a bore. It is my worst nightmare that I’d turn into one of those tedious dinner party guests passing photos of their offspring around and monopolising the conversational space with detailed accounts of their children’s virtues, just as I’m doing in this entry. Motherhood can turn original writers into cliché-producers as happened to Erica Jong who in the wake of the birth of her daughter made her character Fanny from the novel Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones go through the same experience, describing it in the well-worn language of “the miracle of the birth” and “the perfect fingers and toes”.
I am yet to figure out how to write about Luca and perhaps I’ll never find the right words. More so, though, I am preoccupied by the question of how to convince the world that I am still capable of intelligent thought and still prefer talking about ideas rather than nappies.
On this note, I’m now trying to create my own mothers’ group with literati members. In my dream mothers’ group we’d sit around bouncing our babies on our knees while discussing contemporary French fiction. Anyone up for joining?