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Quack, Quack: My Writing/ Parenting Conundrum

By Amy Yelin

Ten years ago, I entered the Lesley MFA program as a 34-year-old, newly married communications professional. During that first residency, I wrote, “My soul is doing cartwheels!” in my journal, opposite a page on which I was exploring my ticking biological clock and whether or not I wanted kids.

I asked one of my writing mentors, a married but childless woman, for her advice on the topic. She answered me in the same confident tone with which she always critiqued my manuscripts, instructing me to: “Only have one.” Case closed.

The author Alice Walker shared a similar but more brutal-sounding sentiment in her essay in the 1992 anthology The Writer on Her Work: “With one you can move. With more than one you’re a sitting duck.”

But I’m not here to debate how many children you should or shouldn’t birth if you’re a writer (see this recent New Yorker article if you’re interested in that discussion). Although I planned to have one child, life surprised me with two – a second boy born 17 months after the first, in the summer of 2007. I was miserable throughout that second pregnancy, convinced my writing life was over, until the sight of my boy’s brand-new toes on the hospital baby warmer amped up my oxytocin levels (not to be confused with Oxycodone levels). I’ve since written several essays inspired by this baby and his toes (and other parts), one published in an anthology called Mamas and Papas, and in Literary Mama and other journals.

People ask me: but how do you do it all? How do you raise children and work and write? So I’ll tell you what I typically tell them:

 “I kind of suck at it,” which feels true—at least on those days I’m certain all other mom writers who also work outside the home are as organized as Martha Stewart and as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates. On better days, I accept that’s horseshit and I allow my writing, professional, and parenting personas to duke it out until someone wins. In other words, I have no tried-and-true prescription for juggling it all. I simply write when I can, because if I don’t, I’m certain something melodramatic and scary will occur, such as my soul shriveling up like an old grape and dying. So I  write and sometimes I crash because I’m doing so much my brain wants to explode and my body is tired and wants more sleep and my kids are asking When’s Daddy getting home? He’s more fun. And yet I still try to do it, because the rewards of writing outweigh almost everything else.

And then I barely write at all, for weeks or even months at a time, because paying work demands more attention or because the desire to snuggle in bed with my six-year-old for just one more hour kicks writing’s butt.

“I try to reduce my Spaghetti Snarl.” Thanks to Hillary Rettig for this little gem. She writes about the Spaghetti Snarl in her wonderfully helpful book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific (and, no, she didn’t pay for me this plug).  The spaghetti snarl is made up of all those things outside of your writing that take away your time and attention and create more drama. I’ve got a pretty big plate of snarled spaghetti that I’m nibbling away at right now, strand by strand. Some days this means skipping the dishes or the laundry in exchange for writing time. Others days it means saying “no thanks” to an invitation. I’ll never rid myself of all the spaghetti, but then again, I wouldn’t want to.

“I run away.” OK, this idea isn’t for everyone. Some people are uncomfortable abandoning their children. I’m actually one of them, yet I run anyway. In 2011, I escaped to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown for a week. I bawled on the ferry ride over, and then had an amazing time—a literary vacation topped only by my week away this past August, at VCFA’s post-graduate writing conference.

Yes, I feel guilty about leaving my family, but I come back nourished and inspired, and my children seem to appreciate me more, at least for a few hours. Next year, I’m leaving again for two weeks (gulp) at the Vermont Studio Center, courtesy of a Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowship. (If you are a parent-writer, check out their website. In addition to residency opportunities, they also offer financial awards for parent writers.)

Sometimes I wonder if my running away makes me a horrible, selfish mother, but I don’t think so. I think it makes me a better one, for immersing myself in what makes me happy.

And as long as I keep moving, you see, I’m no longer a sitting duck.

yelinAmy Yelin has published essays and memoir in the Boston Globe, Globe Magazine, the Gettysburg Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. Her essay “The Memoirist” (LunchTicket.com) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and “Torn” (The Baltimore Review), was recognized as a notable essay of 2006 in the Best American Essays 2007. She also has essays in the anthologies Mamas and Papas and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. In 2008, she won the Skirt magazine and WEKU (an NPR station) “This We Believe” contest and recorded her piece “On Magic” for a radio special. Recently she was awarded a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship from The Vermont Studio Center, and has received scholarships from the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony and the Prague Summer Writing Program. Amy completed her MFA in creative writing at Lesley University in 2005 and she has been mentoring students in the program ever since. Her website is www.yelinwords.com.

About the Author

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