What Becoming a Parent Did to my Writing Practice
I didn’t notice when I stopped writing. It happened because of a scheduling disruption too ordinary to complain about, no matter how enormous the effect: I lost childcare for my infant daughter. Also: I was pregnant again, although I didn’t know that yet. It took two months to find a new part-time babysitter and two more months to find someone reliable. What time I had to myself went to satisfying my responsibilities to other people. What time I had left after that went for napping, not writing.
At first, it felt horrible to be not writing. I missed the solitary practice, the self-centered time with nouns and verbs.
Some writer friends who knew my former discipline and the magnetism of the book I had been writing for three years, suggested ways of getting back to it. Their practical-sounding advice embarrassed me. No amount of reminding me to eat healthy food, laugh too hard, take time for ME made such indulgences commonplace in my life as a pregnant parent of a toddler; it was the same with writing. I terrified all of us with what I had become, because if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. The writing life is a devotion; anyone can fall off the wagon.
Feeling badly about not writing was a tether. It reminded me that I was a writer and someday again I would be a writer who writes. I envied the successes of my writer friends, especially the one whose book you can now read in German and probably French. I had given feedback on that book as she had on mine and in the year since then, she revised, got an agent, and sold at auction. Being envious also seemed good for me; it was a sign of longing that would lead back to the book languishing in the proverbial drawer and allow me to become the version of myself capable of writing it.
I told everyone I wasn’t writing. Writers who were also parents of two said of course you’re not writing, not while the children are young. Friends who knew me only as a parent and not a writer said of course you’re not writing, who has the time?
And then it happened. I stopped feeling badly. Realizing that should have yanked the tether again, but it didn’t--no rope burns. A vague sadness, some guilt, sure, but fear, real fear, fear about a lost identity, a lost country of creativity, these felt like remnants of privilege from the old life. Being mired in the 24 hour newborn cycle left no space for reflection, no fire able to summon the old writer in me to active duty.
What I missed most was reading, the cuddle of a good book. I read, of course, but not as I used to, with my consciousness surrendering to a new place to live in; now, as I read, the confines of my present circumstances vied for my attention. The natural pauses of a narrative - the end of a chapter, the break after a difficult passage - I ignored them and read on until someone cried from a crib or climbed into my bed. Being a responsive mom made me bad to books. Poor listener. Incapable of establishing intimacy. On a practical and psychic level, I didn’t commit to any words, not mine or anyone else’s.
Maybe the thing that most draws a person to the writing life is an instinct for story. A craving for story. A desire to reinvent story over and over again. A scene at a restaurant or something your boss says feels more like story than real life--the sense of glee that comes from realizing that reinforces who you are, what you’re meant to do. How many times did a story or an essay I wrote fail to satisfy my vision for it? That doesn’t matter. What matters is that sometimes I can do it or I could. What matters more is that I felt story. I needed some time to live in the world of stories. I needed to let them out.
Having a story in your head and writing it are two entirely different things. As a writer who was writing, my thinking was muddled, the writing brought clarity. I didn’t know that that was something I could lose, but I did lose it, like a child who forgets her first language.
It’s this experience that made me write again: something ordinary and intriguing happened at a preschooler’s birthday party and I didn’t know how to get at the meaning behind it, why I was so compelled and repulsed by the experience. I couldn’t describe it in a conversation to a friend. And when I gave it a-go on my laptop, nothing came, just disfigured sentences in a clump. I had lost my voice. It felt as though someone handed me a slice of bread and a toaster and I asked what song I should play. Nonsensical on a fundamental level. Witnessing myself like that - with a story trapped inside of me - it was unbearable. Something essential had atrophied. And I wanted it back—for good.
Jenn Scheck-Kahn runs two online services for writers: Journal of the Month and Tell It Slant. Her prose has placed in contests hosted by the Atlantic Monthly and Glimmer Train, and appeared in a number of literary journals.See other articles by Jenn Scheck-Kahn