When a post popped up in my inbox from Grattan Street Press about The M Project, I was delighted to read that, according to GSP’s definition, I am a millennial! Just. I was delighted because this fact made me feel young. Since returning to study, I feel exactly three hundred years older than most other students in my classes: I grew up buying tram tickets from conductors, making mix tapes and wearing double denim. Adding to this Jurassic feeling is the role of parenting while working. I look longingly at the students who can leave the house without the seven meltdowns and pleading for cooperation on the simplest of tasks. Although my classmates pay no mind to my wearied expression, it’s the lack of my own joie de vivre that creates a chasm between our generations.
I dread the question on Mondays, ‘How was your weekend?’
Last weekend, for example, a mother of my kid’s school friend suggested we meet at a playcentre (which shall remain nameless). I was sceptical but felt I should show some generosity and good spirit. What a godforsaken place that was: a veritable petri dish of germs and diseases. I’m sure it has never been disinfected and I was surprised my kids didn’t contract the bubonic plague that day. A friend later told me she saw a kid piss in one of the tunnels. The piss is definitely still there – just dried with its own colony of bacteria on the march.
My classmate tells me she went out dancing with a bunch of mates, went home with the sax player of a band she saw in Brunswick Street, and snuck out before he woke up to meet the drummer for the afternoon. Another mate had been surfing down the coast on Saturday, followed by pub trivia made hilarious with the help of some high-class hash. Meanwhile, I have been delousing my children. And disinfecting the house after another epidemic of threadworms, which are definitely as disgusting as they sound.
Honestly, before I had kids I thought parenting was a Hallmark card. I would see parents pushing prams out on my walks by Merri Creek and think ‘that looks like fun!’ If I did see a kid having a public meltdown with a parent struggling to control their child, I would actually think can’t you shut that child up, and was sure that would never be me.
At work yesterday, while doing my best to seem in control and on top of my life, I received a phone call from the principal of my kids’ school. I needed to collect my son immediately as he needed stitches. He had brought a pocketknife to school. Did I mention that he is five? Looks like my award for Mother of the Year is just out of reach again this year.
But it’s not the childfree freedom to party that I yearn for, it’s the time for a creative practice. Writing a novel while raising kids feels as though I am running a marathon waist-deep in molasses. Exploring the experience for this blog post, I googled ‘Can you be a parent and a writer?’ The answers were bleak. One mum wrote, ‘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 relate to that description on a cellular level.
There are superhuman writer parents out there like Sarah Krasnostein and Chloe Hooper. Sarah simultaneously worked as a government researcher, wrote a multi-award winning book (The Trauma Cleaner) and achieved a PhD, all while raising small children. But to the rest of us mere mortals, trying to straddle parenting, working and maintaining a writing practice is like trying to run up a sheer wall of ice.
You need uninterrupted time to write – time to imagine vivid characters and scenes. Uninterrupted time to simply look out a window and ponder. Parenting forces you into a secondary position. There is no time to waste; I am completely obsessed with time. Right now I am writing this from the grandstands overlooking child no. 2’s Auskick training. It’s three degrees with a blustery wind and the coaches are giving me dirty looks for not helping put out cones, or at the very least watching my son kick and pass. But this is the only chance I’ll have today to write.
Despite my complaining, there have been delightful moments with my children. I mean there has definitely been one – I believe it was a Thursday. But, as a bibliophile, could there be anything more heart exploding than seeing my children sitting up in bed with a pile of books reading to each other, entirely of their own volition? Or when my (knife-wielding) son tells me stories before bed, pretty good ones too, and pronounces he wants to be a ‘booker’ (writer)? Each night my daughter sneaks into my bed, presses her chest against mine and whispers, ‘do you feel the love flowing from my heart to yours?’ These moments are my new happiness.
Thing is, I can’t give up the writing, no matter how much I cringe at what I put down. I dug a little deeper into the situations and perspectives of other writer-mums (of more than one child) in search of inspiration.
Liane Moriarty describes motherhood as, ‘a joy, a complete joy.’ So deluded. Moving on.
Enid Blyton may have published north of 700 books and sold over 600 million copies, but as her daughter wrote in her memoir, Childhood at Green Hedges, her mother ‘was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, … and without a trace of maternal instinct.’ In Enid, a 2009 film of her life starring Helena Bonham Carter, the cost of smashing out 10,000 words every day and over 20 books a year was deeply felt by her daughters, despite what the novelist claimed publicly.
Toni Morrison writes of motherhood, ‘somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity … and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.’ I would like to believe that, though it is hard when my kids see sides of me I wish no one would: there is no offstage at home.
Danielle Steel has written over 179 books over her five-decade career, selling more books than any other living author. Now in her early seventies, Steel has made it through raising nine children and calls herself ‘a mommyaholic … I have spent 35 years of my life being a full-time mother. It’s the most fulfilling job.’ Her secret? Steel works 20 to 22 hours a day: four hours is a good night’s sleep for her. She also doesn’t drink coffee. I might just have to pop her in the same category as Sarah Krasnostein – a superhuman.
Geraldine Brooks gives some a practical insight, which I might just hold onto:
I have found that some of my gnarlier plot points resolve when my hands are in the challah dough or stirring the roux. For it is only by letting roots dig down deep into the rich humus of quotidian family life that we can ever really understand the full range of emotion–the loves and hates, the aggravations and exhilarations, jealousies and generosities that are the necessary subjects of art.
When Zadie Smith was asked about the impact motherhood has had on her writing, she responds that having children was ‘super useful’. She continues,
I used to think, as a young woman, that life was something I was controlling and directing. Now I only think: What a mess we all are, with so many contradictory impulses, so many things about ourselves we’ll never entirely understand … [Kids are] teaching you who you are, for better or worse, and that is certainly a useful – if painful! – perspective to write from.
This description brings me closer to the power that comes from surrendering to this complex and chaotic human experience, and how it can even feed a creative practice.
For now, it may have to suffice to keep my little toe in my writing practice while I get through this stage of my children’s total dependence on me. Not being blessed with superhuman qualities, accepting the time limitations might abate some frustration. But as proved by David Bottomley, who graduated earlier this year with a PhD in philosophy at the age of 94, a dedication to knowledge can be a lifelong adventure, and can produce communities of learning that I am honoured to be a part of. Perhaps, for creative purposes, this stage of motherhood and studies is a space to gather the material needed for later projects.
Siana Einfeld is a visual arts teacher and student in the Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program.