Reflections on Mothering and Making Books

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This post is part of celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Twitter #kidlitwomen or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen.

When I was pregnant with my first child, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to parent and keep up with a publishing schedule, in the way I always have. I figured I had the perfect set up; I worked at home and could plan my life around my projects with ease. If I wanted to take a month off and do a yoga training, no problem! Plan a trip around a book festival, easy! I wasn’t getting massive advances or huge royalty checks, but I was working regularly and had so much flexibility. Why couldn’t I plan parenting around my work? I imagine everyone stumbles into parenthood with some measure of delusion, and this was mine.

Then my daughter arrived. And the waves of sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, and consuming love for my child washed over me, all at once. I both couldn’t get enough of her and felt like I would collapse from the weight of her care. I kept looking for the moment when body and soul would return to a recognizable state. That didn’t happen, but at some point, when my feet started to feel some steadiness, I decided it was time to start working again.

Of course, I had immense privilege to be able to make this decision at all. So many mothers don’t get any maternity leave, even if they do it’s so very short— three months? Inhumane. As a freelancer, I didn’t get paid leave, but my partner was working steadily and I was able to get back to work slowly, which I am very grateful for.

But when the time came to write again it was an entirely new landscape. Exhaustion from nighttime wakings and longing for my daughter were constantly buzzing in my ear. I also found, strangely, that the creativity that her care demanded held a lot of space in my mind. It made the thread of creativity I needed to write harder to find. It was still there, of course, but I had to look more closely to see it. I wasn’t used to orbiting around two different worlds at the same time.

Still, the break from care-taking was a huge relief, and I treasured the hours I had to write, either while a sitter came, during naps, or after bedtime. It was a connection to my life before parenting took over, and helped me feel like me again. I chugged along, sold a couple projects, and started working around deadlines again. 

By the time my second child arrived, I had a precarious work schedule that more or less worked, thanks mainly to an incredible day care provider and a partner who gets up with the kids in the morning, so that I can work at night (both ways in which I am so very lucky). But of course, in the joy and chaos that ensued, life got turned upside down again. When my son was two months old, I found myself bouncing him in a carrier at my drafting table, trying not to wake him up as I painted illustrations that were long overdue. The months that followed were a blur of adrenaline, euphoria, and more exhaustion than I thought I could bear.

My son is nearly four now, and again my feet feel somewhat steady. Or maybe I’m better at navigating unsteadiness? But there are a few things that have become very clear to me, as a writer, an artist, and a mother:

“Having it all” isn’t a phrase that even makes sense to me anymore. I don’t know what that means. You can have many things, you can have a few things... something will always be in abundance and something will always be lacking. Right now I have healthy, beautiful children that I am deeply grateful for. I do not have personal space, time to myself, or a stack of contracts to work my way through.

The creativity required to parent should not be underestimated. It is never-ending problem solving, adapting, and learning to be flexible in ways you didn’t think you would need to be. This can be an asset to your work, it can also be a drain on your work.

The way I have to approach any goal now is in small pieces, one little bit at a time. I used to think the only way I could write or paint was in long stretches of uninterrupted time, but that’s no longer possible.

I need to constantly remind myself that all the work I do has value. We live in a culture where caring for children and a household is so invisible, and certainly not considered important. If it was, we would have lengthy paid parental leave and subsidized child care. I often wake up in a cold sweat, panicked that I’m not able to devote myself to my craft like a “real artist”. Then I repeat, slowly, until the panic passes, “The world has many books, my children only have one mother” (the last bit I borrowed from a friend). There will be time to produce more later. In the meantime I will trust that caring for them will help my craft in ways I can’t yet imagine.

I feel immensely better when I’m around other parents who are artists, and hear their stories. Parents, writers, illustrators, how are you balancing parenthood with your work? What is different than you thought it would be? What helps you stay rooted in both worlds? How has parenthood helped your work, how has work helped your parenting? If your children are grown, what did you do right in balancing it all? What would you have changed?