Lofty Expectations for Writing and Motherhood
When I was nine months pregnant with my son, I was a completely different person than I am now. I didn’t really think about writing and motherhood as being connected. My baby would fit neatly into my writing life, of course. Like a puzzle piece. And into every other aspect of my life as I knew it.
In other words, I was one of those obnoxious pre-parents who thinks she’s the best parent ever. Who thinks parents and their kids should live tidy lives where kids shouldn’t throw tantrums or bother parents too much. Yep, you know the type I’m talking about. I was that awful lady giving mothers of screaming toddlers the side-eye at the grocery store. My kids would never dare do that, I thought. I was that woman solving other peoples’ babies’ sleep problems in my mind: just let them cry, I’d think. Just put them on a schedule. They’ll sleep eight straight hours at three months old.
In keeping with this naive and imperious mindset, I settled in at my laptop a couple weeks before my son was born to write out our daily schedule. Having recently finished the coursework for my MFA, I was used to managing every minute of my day. I mean, I squeezed the maximum usefulness out of each second. So I did the same thing to my unborn baby. I divided my son’s day into nine tidy sections and divided those by three. Eat, sleep, play. Rinse and repeat.
I also wrote myself a nice schedule to, as I put it, “pair with the baby’s”. It’s embarrassing to paste it here, but I’ll do it anyway. Just to show you how completely unprepared I was for the reality of motherhood.
Laura’s Schedule (pairs with Abel’s schedule)
5:00 am: wake, feed Abel, change diaper, put him back to bed
5:45 am: snack, followed by exercise—T25 or walking
6:15 am: play with Bella, feed
6:30 am: shower, make breakfast for myself and Louis (except Tuesday and Thursday)
7:00 am: sit with Louis and feed baby, change his diaper, take care of his hygiene
7:45 am: read Abel a story, keep him awake
8:00 am: put Abel down for nap
8:15 am: eat breakfast, read for pleasure—Wolf Hall or The Art of Fiction, spend time with visiting family, free time—will later become writing time
9:30 am: feed Abel, change his diaper, take care of his hygiene
10:15 am: keep Abel awake, play with him, talk to him
10:30 am: put Abel down for a nap
10:45 am: free time—read, spend time with family, do laundry, prep meals. Will later become writing business time. Eat lunch either now (before noon) or at 1:15 pm.
12:00 pm: feed Abel, change diaper, take care of his hygiene
12:45 pm: keep Abel awake
Mind you that this was only supposed to be his schedule for the first two weeks of life, meaning that a whole new schedule awaited him in week three. Also mind you that I only pasted half the day here. I didn’t want to bore you with the other half.
Fast forward two weeks to the morning of August 6, 2016, when after over twenty-four hours of labor, Abel still didn’t want to come out. His head was bruising from trying to be born and the monitor fastened to him told us he was getting agitated. Terrified of losing him, I agreed to a c-section. I was rolled, alone, into a cold white room. Transferred onto a surgical bed. Asked what music I’d like to listen to. Given more regional anesthesia, which didn’t completely numb me even though they gave me the maximum amount.
“We can’t give more regional, but general anesthesia is an option,” said the nurse anesthetist. But I’d heard general was dangerous for babies, and besides, I wanted to be awake when my son was born. I said no. Soon they turned on my music of choice: Bob Marley. Please play Three Little Birds, I thought. I need to hear Bob say, “Don’t worry about a thing / ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.” I don’t remember if that song played or not, but I do remember my doctor coming in and grinning and saying she liked my choice of music. This slim blond woman had bags under her eyes from working on call all weekend, yet she was so cheerful. I loved knowing her capable hands would perform the surgery.
But I was still having a silent panic attack and trying not to think about what was about to happen to my body. Focus on the baby, the baby. Then my husband got to come in and I gripped his hand while they cut my son out of me. I felt so much of the surgery: the half-dulled pain of the knife slicing. The immense pressure and pain of the doctor pushing the baby out of my womb. And, after a glimpse of my beautiful baby boy, the pain of the needle stitching the incisions back together. I was reborn under the fire of all that pain right along with my son.
Motherhood Changes Everything
I soon learned that the pain, it doesn’t stop. When you’re a mother there’s constant pain, whether emotional or physical or mental (a.k.a. exhaustion. Am I right or what??). You’re constantly being shaped into the mother your child needs, and it changes you.
Two days after the c-section, I could stand up and walk around. Even though it hurt quite a bit. Our sweet new baby was doing great, so we were getting ready to go home. The nurses took him away for a last blood draw and I settled in to pump some milk.
Then we got a phone call. A nurse tech had thought she saw him have a seizure. A seizure, the doctor said, was serious in newborns. I sat there with my breast pump wheezing, arms aching for my son, terrified that he was about to die. I cried so hard and for so long that I couldn’t walk anymore; I’d aggravated my incision. They told me I could go see him before he got transferred to the Level IV NICU (the highest/most advanced NICU level) in the adjoining children’s hospital. On my way there I wrapped his soft muslin blanket around my shoulders, drinking in his sweet newborn smell, still weeping.
In the Level IV NICU, Abel got a bedside EEG and thirty-six hours of monitoring. Every day I took showers and got medicine in my hospital room and then my husband would push me to the NICU in a wheelchair so we could be with our son.
For over twenty-four hours of that time, we couldn’t hold him. We took as much care of him as we could, mourning the loss of a day of normal parenting. My heart ached for the parents who lose even more—or all—of their time. Thankfully, our son turned out to be fine. The doctor said he’d probably just had newborn jitters but they couldn’t take any chances. By the time Abel got discharged, his carefully scheduled first week of life had passed in a wild emotional and physical rollercoaster not remotely resembling the tidiness of my pre-baby life.
And that pretty much sums up motherhood.
All the Changes
In the twenty months since my son was born, I’ve:
- Stayed up all night feeding him, waking exhausted and unable to think straight the next day. (So much for eight hours of sleep by three months.)
- Forgotten what exercise was. (“T25 and/or walking”? Forget it.)
- Failed to “keep the baby awake” when I wanted him to and realized that he’s not a robot, he’s a person.
- Figured out that Wolf Hall is a very, um…slooooow book that I wouldn’t count as “pleasure reading.”
- Held a burning-up baby while his body raged with fever and he thrashed in my arms, fighting sleep.
- Played with a chipper baby who thought it was time for a party from one to three in the morning.
- Realized that I’d never let my baby cry it out and learned to accept him as he is, fragmented sleep and all.
- Sprinted through the grocery store with a screaming, board-stiff toddler, trying to get all the stuff on my list before he lost his cool completely. (And punching my pre-motherhood self in the face for her rude side-eyes.)
- Planned many a two-hour writing session during a nap that only lasted twenty minutes and had to smile anyway and read my baby a book and enjoy him because he didn’t have a clue that Mama needed to work.
- Felt like melting with contentedness when my toddler’s soft hands grabbed my face and he smiled right into my eyes for the first time.
- Learned what it’s like to love someone more than air, more than life.
Writing and Motherhood: A Symbiotic Relationship
And because of all this, I’ve realized that when you meld your lives of writing and motherhood, you have to take writing time when you can get it. Not at exact nap times, because nap times are not exact. Or even guaranteed. And when a nap you thought was going to happen ends up getting skipped, the frustration is so real. You just have to let yourself feel the disappointment, take a deep breath, and adjust your plans. I was a strict morning writer before motherhood, but now I write anytime the baby sleeps. Whether that’s at eleven in the morning or eleven at night (ahem, like right now). I also learned how to give myself the grace to let a writing day slip away when I just could not keep my eyes open and had to nap with my baby instead of work.
If you have a supportive partner or family member nearby who can care for your baby while you leave the house to write once a week, do it. My wonderful husband gives me three hours every Monday and that time is precious to me. Yet sometimes while I sit there writing, I find myself glancing at pictures of my son on my computer. I find myself thinking of his sweet baby-shampoo smell. His uneven, toothy grin. The way he tries to copy the funny faces I make. And my favorite part of those Mondays comes at the end, when I open my front door and see him run toward me, babbling and grinning with joy.
He’s taught me so much, this boy. I’m a better person and writer because of all those long nights, those moments of frustration, those feelings of intense love. I’m more motivated to work hard when I get free time than I was before he came into my life. I draw from a much deeper well of emotion and experience than I ever have before. And the best part is, I will continue to learn and grow as a person and a writer as time goes on and I face life hand in hand with my son.
Parents and writers, what things have your children taught you about life and writing since they came into your life? How have you navigated your passions through the lens of parenthood? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.