by Amy Cipolla Barnes
I live in a house of people that love science and math and Venn diagrams. They’re always telling me how this and this meet here. I’m always trying to find that small life intersection of parenting and writing. I’ve honestly struggled writing this column by the deadline because it is that writing portion of the intersecting circles. The motherhood circle has been the priority as school winds down: band and orchestra concerts, college pick-up day, and late-night AP test studying.
Before I had kids, I was always staunchly in the camp of “write what you know” and “write every day.” I didn’t write about motherhood, because I didn’t KNOW motherhood. I’m a daughter but writing about the flip side of that relationship felt like something too complicated or risky to approach. Even now, my kids know I’ve written books and articles. When an article I wrote for Allrecipes popped up on one of my daughter’s google searches, I was officially labeled as a writer by her. My mother doesn’t know I’ve written books and I haven’t shared my writing with her since I was a kid. I added my maiden name back on to my recent collection with a fair amount of trepidation I might be found out.
In that vein, I swore I would never, ever, ever write about motherhood, much less an entire book, and yet my first collection of stories is about mothers, titled Mother Figures, and my second collection hopscotches around them, too. As I eased into motherhood, I also found out that writing every day is often a misnomer for parents. If I don’t write for days, months, years, it’s okay but there’s no good way to get around “parent every day.”
While I’m not sure I know motherhood any better now my kids are practically grown, my feelings on writing about parenthood have changed. Before, I believed I would never have a book published because I didn’t have an audience, or a publisher, or the time to write a book. I also glibly thought I would never let my kids eat grapes or cookies I hadn’t paid for yet. I imagined I would only use cloth diapers and have babies that slept through the night. No screen time. Only organic fruits and veggies. Family portraits every year in adorable settings. Spoiler alert: I’ve tossed empty boxes of goldfish crackers on the Publix conveyor belt, given up on sleeping through the night, had a kid who tried to love the photographer’s Easter bunny a little too forcefully, and also bought cell phones for both kids in middle school.
There are reasons for my change of heart. When you need groceries, you open cookies in aisle 5 so the crying stops. When you’re exhausted, you put the Babywise book in the trash. Everyone sleeps when and where they can and no one has to clean up puke at midnight because someone screamed themselves into vomiting. The Wiggles, Dora, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (and even Caillou in a pinch) are the main reasons I was able to shower or cook for most of the toddler years. Before you’re a parent, you don’t know what depths you will have to sink to, to survive.
When you’re a struggling mother/writer, you also sometimes announce you won’t ever have a book published because you’re scared you might have a book published, or you (me) think the only book that matters is one that has a six-figure advance and makes it into Oprah’s book club on television. I still have doubts that I’m a “writer” even though I’ve written hundreds of articles and stories, edited and read for journals and had three collections published. I know things like food, travel, and history and I write about them. I also did a stint writing greeting cards including Mother’s Day cards that tried to be funny and tender.
As soon as I got pregnant, my pledge to avoid writing about motherhood went out the window as quickly as my ability to sleep more than 4 hours a night. I wrote in present tense because that’s where I was as a parent: present and often tense. My early columns and early motherhood merged. I wrote about diapers and nursing, funny things my kids said and that ever-present exhaustion. Until they told me to knock it off. As a rule, middle schoolers don’t like even the inference that they’re being written about. Now, I write about imaginary mothers. Hints of my own mother. Callbacks to my own mothering. Am I writing about motherhood for the same reason I let my kids eat crackers in aisle 5? Yes.
I also think parenthood may be one of the reasons I moved into writing flash fiction. My writing and life pre-kids was all well over flash length. I wrote 30 and 40 page dissertations on academic subjects, longform researched articles all while sleeping through the night and grocery shopping alone. As a parent, I mostly write flash fiction in the flashes between helping with homework, finding shoes, making lunches, going to band concerts, or just listening. Even my non-fiction articles are distilled down to 700 words on things like cleaning strawberries or cleaning out your refrigerator. As parents and writers, we do what we can.
For me, it all boils down to this: there are no absolutes in motherhood or writing, just circles and intersects. It has taken me a long time to come to that realization. Every kid is different. Every writer is different. If a kid doesn’t ride a bike until they are 12, so be it. If you don’t have a book published until you are 50, same. I think parents and writers often have an image of the perfect kid or the perfect book. I’ve rewritten my stories and books more times than I can count. I’ve readjusted how I parent even more times than that. I talk to other writers about writing, and other parents about parenting, and to other writing parents, too. I read books on writing and parenting. I read words by writers who are parents. I get rejected and accepted by literary journals and my teenagers on occasion. Accepting the lack of absolutes has hopefully made me a better parent, and a better writer.
I’m getting ready to adjust again in writing and parenting. My youngest kid goes to college in a year. I won’t have a school schedule or concerts or lunch packing. On the writing front, I’ve had books published. It’s a reckoning: I don’t know what comes next in writing or motherhood. There is a new circle in my future now. An empty nest. A full circle. I will still be a parent and a writer.I can even guess I’ll be writing flashes about motherless birds. In reality, all I can do is lay out my circles and see where they meet.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Read more of Amy’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – Casual Savior
Non-Fiction – Parental Reckonings: Writing in the Silent and Loud Hours
One response to “Parental Reckonings: At the Intersection of Motherhood and Writing”
Hi, Amy. I found your column on parenthood very revealing. I’m not a parent, and so have to “fake it” when I write stories in which parents as parents figure. But I do so by listening and remembering all the things I’ve heard parents say about it, all the complaints, the bouts of saving humor, the sheer wildness of style that can result when too many (or even one kid with a flair for the demanding) are depending on one parent, or even two parents, at once. So I guess you could say I’m sort of writing about what I know, in an abstract sort of way. Your column puts the perspective you gained in front of me in a very appealing way, with its insistence on recognizing how human parents are in their foibles and supposed shortcomings, the things that their kids at one point might fault them for, but might in later years retell as adorable personality quirks. From a daughter’s perspective, and a sibling’s perspective to my brother, who is a father, I thus write as much as I feel I can safely claim to know, or invent with justifiable liberty. Thanks for your column, again; it’s always important to learn what folks like the characters you create, in this case parents, have to say about their experience, and to know and learn where the points are that you simply might not be able to facsimilate their lives.