I strongly feel that I need a designated time and space in order to write, and I’m painfully aware that presently I lack the resources to do so.
What I have, on one hand, is a well oiled machine called family. It’s astonishing how much I’ve achieved in the past six years in terms of making a home, creating human beings, finding my groove as a mother, adapting to life in America, and personal growth (learning new things, attending to my health, building character, putting myself out there and getting involved in causes I care about).
In between there are numerous wonderful experiences such as travel, perfecting my photography, meeting new people, and having all sorts of fun with John.
On the other hand I have a large but imperfect body of work. This big huge pile of drafts, unfinished stories, journals, and notes (of every single remotely good idea I’ve had through the years): my writing. It comes with a clear plan on how to put it all together, with a confident voice and consistent form/style, with themes ready to be developed and explored further. Plus, a burning, overwhelming desire to get on with it: to do it daily, to devote myself entirely.
Life does not accommodate our desires and ambitions just because they are important to us; we need to work to make it happen. My problem is that I’ve worked really hard on dealing with myself and my personal issues, and I have worked twice as hard to create a happy and functional family.
And now I’ve come to the point in my life when I really, really need to work on something outside all of this, something that is different in quality but equal in value.
I want to write a book.
I don’t know whether or not it’ll be a good one, but I know it’s worth trying because writing is an intrinsic part of me, it’s what makes me me. I am ready.
I don’t harbor the illusion that I need to disappear into some sort of idealistic writer’s retreat forever. Yet I also know that the way my reality is now it’ll take me a decade to complete a book. In order to focus, to give my best, and be productive, I do need the appropriate environment (the proverbial Room of One’s Own).
I’ve already adopted a minimalist approach to life in general and have trimmed distractions as best as I can (I hardly procrastinate, I have meaningful but rare social interactions, I put artistic photography before commercial photography, I avoid getting involved in projects that don’t lead to my ultimate goal)… the remaining distractions are mostly related to my pop-culture interests (to keep me sane) and the biggest one of all — the kids.
While I can isolate myself for a couple of hours a day, a few times a week - the way I work requires more. My method of writing includes setting up, getting into the right mindset, re-reading what I last wrote and editing with fresh eyes if needed, and then building upon it. Lately I don’t count on inspiration to start. It’s a deliberate process and if I get a good idea I certainly write it down, but mostly I compose in a slow and laborious manner. This is also due to English being my second language and of course, forming a thought into the words that come closest to the original idea I’m trying to convey is not always easy. Sometimes fully formed sentences or even paragraphs just come to me and I don’t need to change anything. More often than not I have to craft and paraphrase and simplify until it all sounds right and makes sense.
This can take hours upon hours, during which I can’t think about or do anything else. It requires my full concentration and every ounce of ability I can muster. And at the end I feel drained, fuzzy, stiff, and malnourished — a state that takes another hour or so to come out of in order to rejoin the “real” world.
I can’t hop in and out of “the zone” easily. I often need to talk myself into getting into it, to be disciplined and even be forceful with myself. Given the effort it takes to simply begin, those few hours of work that follow are precious and fragile. I have to turn my phone off because a single beep can ruin it all. And the hours of work are not always productive, either! I can write 5000 words one day (most of them later thrown away during editing) and just 50 words the next day… not to mention that despite my best effort I still don’t get to write every day.
And here’s my conundrum: if I consciously decide to put in the work and divert my main attention to writing… if I put writing first, this will inevitably disrupt my family life.
It comes down to this:
If I had a conventional job/career that gave me the opportunity to leave for extended period of time while paying me handsomely, it would be much more acceptable — socially and morally — than going away simply so that I can write, which not only isn’t paid, but comes with extra expenses (including time, and financial help with the kids).
The question is, which work is more valuable and important? The obvious answer to this, in my case (in the absence of a paid job), is always the kids. Family comes before my personal aspirations as I can’t morally justify putting writing before my children, even if only because writing doesn’t help me provide for them — moreover, it is time consuming and takes focus and energy, which I choose to give to my family instead.
The paradox is that I can’t become a better writer or successfully move forward to attempt a career in it (or to just try and come what may) if I don’t prioritize it as work essential to my wellbeing. And of course I will never profit from it (financially or emotionally) if I don’t devote myself. I am forced to put writing on the back burner because I feel it’s practical and necessary, but at the same time I also feel the necessity to write, and I am deeply unhappy without it.
I’m torn, and it hurts me. If I choose writing (i.e. myself), I’d be the monster who put the kids second. If I choose the kids, I’m the regretful woman who could’ve been.
I know it’s not as black and white as this, but how to you do both, and do it equally well? Not perfect, not all of it, but well enough to feel accomplished and happy? How do you balance and switch between the two? How do you adjust from mom mode to creative mode without feeling utterly and completely exhausted and defeated? How do you combine the two personas, the two lifestyles without going nuts? How do you put one on pause to tend to the other when one is unpredictable and all-consuming (kids) and the other requires consistency and a free state of mind (writing)?
Spoiler alert: turns out you just do it. But listen:
Being successful and hardworking are qualities any parent should teach their children, and teaching by example is the best way. I want them to see me work, but often I can’t work because I’m perpetually distracted by the demands of daily life.
I believe that if I’m going to do something, I’ll do it well. I hate half-assing things. I hate not finishing what I started. Especially if those things are important to me. And the way I am*, I always end up choosing to half-ass, neglect, and leave my writing unfinished for the benefit of the kids. The other way around would be unthinkable, and even though I hate to admit it, I just don’t think I have it in me to do both right.
Or do I?
At their age, I always ask myself, what is better for them? My presence and attention, my guidance and care, or them seeing me as a realized individual with drive and passion? Again, the answer more often than not seems to be that they need a referee, a teacher, a nurse, and a housekeeper more pressingly than they need a role model in some bigger, wider sense.
They are six and not yet four years old. They don’t know how to do so many things. Some things I have to teach them to do, and others I just have to do myself until they are old enough to learn. It’s a fact of life. Humans are born very unequipped to survive without their parents, and as simple as our lifestyle is, and as hands-off/go-with-the-flow as my parenting style is, chores are abundant. What makes it even more exhausting is that it is never done. Parenting does not stop. It’s perpetual and always on my mind.
It is an impossible situation in which choice seems moot. I try to incorporate writing in my daily life and to do it on the side, but it never seems (long, consistent, dedicated) enough. I’m critical of the resulting work as I know I am capable of much better. It’s choosing between doing, say, laundry and preparing food over writing a paragraph or two. One is imminent, the other — abstract.
One takes menial effort but makes my domestic life easier (i.e. the “trap of scheduled life”: the kids need routine and I need ways to automate tasks in order to spend less time on chores, yet the very repetition of these structured acts tire and numb me). The other takes intellectual effort and makes my life creatively fulfilled.
Both have value and importance, but when there are bickering kids and punching at school and biting nails and homework and sickness and so on, it’s obvious what’s more urgent.
I wrote 50 000 words last year exclusively on my phone. I wrote everywhere, anytime I could. If I didn’t have the chance to sit down on my computer, I’d jog down notes on my phone and later transfer them into a larger document (yay for technology and synchronizing cloud services!). And I always carry a notebook with me, in case I need to brainstorm on paper.
I’ve been writing this past week on my phone, as well — while waiting for my swim lesson to start, at the checkout at Walgreens, in my car. Our dishwasher broke two days ago. It bugs the heck out of me that my kitchen is a mess. There are wet rags on the floor, more in the sink, and piles of dirty dishes. Yet I keep ignoring it because I want to finish this... whatever this is (a self-therapy piece?)
And as I write this, I get a call from the Principal letting me know that Johnny has been hit by a school friend. It doesn’t require me to pick him up, and I sigh with relief that it wasn’t Johnny who did the punching, but suddenly my train of thought is broken, and with a deeply rooted instinct of a mother which I am unable to resist, I start planning how to approach the issue in the evening, what to do to reinforce the rule of “using words instead of hands”; from there it parlays into what to make for dinner… and it’s all over. Composition stops and real life takes over.
These examples are just the easy stuff I get to deal with. I can bring myself to overlook the state of the house or the endless school-related responsibilities, but life is full of surprises and not all of them are as banal. I struggle with nicotine addiction. I lost a dear family member recently. I feel I’m drifting away from my Bulgarian family and it’s unsettling. I put effort into supporting my husband and maintaining a close bond with him. I try to volunteer at animal shelters weekly, and I’m dying to get more involved with activism and work for women’s rights and gun control…
But for the sake of argument, let’s focus on the responsibilities of motherhood — and those damn chores (menial and emotional). I seem to deal with fundamental life crises better than I do with the repetitive chores of parenthood. I miss my freedom (how very Revolutionary Road of me!) and I can’t get over that, want it or not, parenthood somehow always requires us to take care of others instead of ourselves (they should put a warning label on kids).
You’ve got to laugh! It’s terribly ironic. I love my kids. I can’t help but want to do the best for them (damn nature!). Plus, as a result of a funny string of events and circumstances, despite my free-spirited personality and my rebellious mind, I appear to have grown into an adult who’s more pragmatic and loyal than artistic and idea-driven.
*To illustrate how difficult this situation is for me, you should understand that I am the person who took care of her infant niece after a twelve hour night shift before I even had kids of my own. I’ve been known to have the boxes unpacked and the furniture arranged after only a single day when moving to a new place. And I came home from the hospital, delivered my first child after three days of labor which culminated in an emergency C-section, and then cleaned the entire place immaculately.
I was taught to be the perfect homemaker by my mother, who raised me in a cozy, safe, pristine household which was her only way to counter the chaos and hardship of a politically and economically ruined Bulgaria (damn nurture!). I’m borderline OCD. I have doubled down on my efforts to learn how to parent because I had to compensate for having trouble bonding with my first child. My home is an embodiment of my desire to settle down after moving many times all over the world. My family is my own little version of a safe haven where I can be myself and be accepted after leaving my Bulgarian family behind.
Understand my conflict? I put so much hard work into carving my place in the world and surrounding myself with love and comfort, that a) I’m terrified to do something that’ll jeopardize its integrity and b) I simply have forgotten how to do anything else.
It makes my head spin but I can’t stop doing it. I have made my own prison out of love and, in turn, I have fallen in love with my captors.
So here I am: I can’t in my right mind have a chaotic daily life (as a parent as well as someone who craves quiet and peace, and values aesthetics) or ongoing issues with the kids so my impulse is to tend to these first, and to my art second. I wrack my brain daily how to bypass this and steal time for myself without coming back to a screaming mess of feral children...
I know it’s just fear. I don’t wish to be paralyzed by fear and I want to function in spite of it. Namely, the fear of failing as a mother. Because while “fail again, fail better“ is definitely the winning formula in writing, failing as a mother is the ultimate sin, isn’t it? The daily care and guidance is just the path that eventually leads to releasing well prepared, and hopefully, good people out into the world.
Bringing up decent human beings is a gargantuan task. We have to read books together and learn how to pet animals, how to do math and how to manage money and how to follow the law and that boys and girls are the same and so much more. We have to do and learn everything! No means no. It’s okay to show emotion. It’s more important to be honest with yourself than to be popular or liked. Etc., etc.
I have two boys. Aside from their individual qualities and specific characters which only they can change and develop, my job is to make sure they grow up to be decent men.
I don’t have control over so many things, and I want them to choose their own path, but it’s my responsibility to teach them to use what they have to get what they want, without hurting themselves or others in the process.
All while keeping them alive.
Mistakes will be made. There will be dead ends and lost causes. They will have their own experiences and draw their own conclusions. But there’s a bottom line. I have to ensure that they are mentally, physically, and emotionally strong and confident and inspired to walk their own paths and see how far they can get.
Just to clarify, I don’t subscribe to any particular philosophy nor am I influenced by a certain parenting style. My only guide is instinct and the desire to have a close, good relationship with happy children. If there’s another motive, it is the need to avoid the mistakes my own parents made while raising me (not accepting me for who I am because they didn’t entirely understand me, and putting the pressure of unrealistic expectations on me — very classic), and most importantly to avoid (unwittingly or not) traumatizing or hurting my children to the point of no return (and them acting self-destructively as a symptom, or worse).
The boys will be perfectly fine if they have pizza every night for dinner for a week, but they won’t be okay if they don’t learn compassion, or understand the concept of sharing, or the importance of education. I can live with raising my boys into pizza loving men, but I’ll never forgive myself for not noticing them becoming bullies or narrow thinkers.
Even if I put off, say, the laundry or the dishes, there always going to be something else — someone’s having night terrors, another’s having attention problems; one is eating too much sugar, the other one isn’t eating at all; the older one wants praise but also time alone, the younger one wants constant cuddles and company…
And here’s the kicker: I quite love spending time with them.
It’s not just the hard times. It’s the good times as well that catch me. It didn’t use to be like this. I had difficulty synchronizing with Johnny and I was in constant pain with Julian during the first two years of their lives, and I didn’t enjoy our time together like I do now. Now I simply adore watching them thrive and do their thing, talking to them and hanging out with them.
So when I say chores, I mean responsibilities. My sense of responsibility as a parent is so great that it makes me an awesome mother but a shitty writer. And I want to change that.
The thing is, no matter how much I try, I fail to write “on the side”, in the middle of all this. I criticize and shame myself, thinking of all the other successful writers (and working women in general) who worked two day jobs and still managed to write their best pieces. Writers reporting from the trenches. Writers battling depression. Writers with financial struggles and social disadvantages. Writers with children, just like me, still finding ways to be productive and stay sharp and perfect their craft. Writers being discriminated against, or persecuted for their ideas. Writers teaching in university and publishing papers. Writers bound by illness or disability. Writers of all ages, sexes, and paths of life somehow succeeding while I sit and whine and feel sorry for myself.
And yet it persists, my problem. I carry this huge sense of responsibility and duty towards my family. Doing anything else that requires my full attention and effort makes me feel guilty, or feel like a failure as a mother.
I don’t know where this guilt stems from, probably from my belief that if I don’t give my everything, my best, to the people I love they’ll find me useless and worthless, and will not love me back.
Perhaps I’m traumatized by something in my past and I am subconsciously acting out of fear of abandonment or the need to be loved at any cost. I am my own worst enemy, with my constant hesitation and lack of confidence in myself. It’s exhausting to keep proving myself, to keep trying to make up for something I’m missing.
I operate on the premise that if I do all the chores and keep things in order and am available to my family’s needs I’ll deserve their affection and respect. But if I lock myself in a room to create a masterpiece (ha-ha!) they will resent me for not being there for them. And I fear that I’ll miss out on the opportunity to teach them and protect them and share the good times with them.
I desperately need to be free from that notion.
I am confident now that what I want to do is worth it, that my work is important. I need to put work into something that stands on its own and speaks for itself. I need to build and create. I need to know that whatever I choose and wherever I go, my loved ones will still understand and support me. And moreover, I need to find a way to write that doesn’t come at the expense of others, and if it does, that they’ll be okay with that. I wouldn’t be able to stand the guilt otherwise.
John, my husband, says that I have very high standards, great expectations from people, especially relatives and loved ones. It’s only partially true. Yes, I’ve been disappointed by close ones and by my Bulgarian community. It was painful, but as I get older I find less and less value in holding grudges. Sure, I’ve been let down by the men in my life and disillusioned with the system, but I moved on and became stable and independent enough to be secure in my voice and power. One might argue that I became so strict and demanding of myself because I didn’t find what I was looking for in the world and from others. And thus, I’m so determined to “do the right thing” that instead of benefiting from my ambitions I’m constrained and stumped by them.
As I fight that self-imposed paradox questions that seem very grown-up pop up all the time:
- Is it time to accept that life is a string of compromises that leaves us disappointed with only half of what we want, and then we die?
- At 37, do I have to be realistic and understand that I can’t have it all, or is this my last chance to push for more?
- Is wanting and needing more a good or a bad quality?
- Am I missing the point?
- Do I undervalue what I already have in my pursuit of something different?
However valid these seem, the answer cannot be yes, because being older and wiser means that the time for self-sabotage has long passed.
Doubt is human, questioning is natural, but suppressing the need to create isn’t the answer to surviving children. I just have to work smarter, not harder.
I had to grow and develop a lot to get to this point where I have healthy, realistic hopes for myself. I say that I want to win a Pulitzer and fly in Space, and only half-jokingly. I want to be a working writer and to continue to be a good mother. That’s all.
Self-doubt and insecurity aside, I’m actually proud and happy with myself for not settling or giving up (core values and bottom lines vs the complacency of middle age), and I’m working on being more accepting (being gracious/generous by not judging, but also by letting go of the unimportant things as a self-preservation mechanism).
It is all coming together, slowly, as the kids grow older and the challenges become different, if not easier. I’ve talked about escape velocity and surely my life is smoother now than it was when the boys were newborn or crawling or throwing temper tantrums for fun. The key to this entire puzzle is perspective, perseverance, and patience; keeping one’s eyes on the prize (or so I tell myself when the kids fight in the back seat on the way to school and I want to just put them in the trash and go home to write a short story full of profanities about murder).
As I kept writing this something wonderful happened: Mother’s Day came and went, the dishwasher got fixed, I had an interesting talk at a Parent-Teacher conference about Johnny’s behavior and performance, Julian still has a snotty nose, and I did a million little chores around the house, but this piece never left my mind. What exactly was I trying to get to? What’s the real premise here? What am I trying to work myself up to do?
And then it presented itself, utterly obvious and almost trivial: I can totally do it. I can write well and be a good mother all at once, it’s just not going to feel the way I think it will feel.
It’ll be annoying. It’ll be maddening at times. It’ll be fragmented and all over the place. It’ll be difficult, occasionally subpar, exhausting.
But I am capable and I want it, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Giving up is not realistic, acceptance is.
Acceptance of the fact that I will never be the version of the free, genius artist I created in my head as a child or the romanticized type of a writer I idolized in college. Instead I will be my own kind of a writer who pieces together her work in bursts, in stolen moments between life’s humdrum busyness. Acceptance that parenting is relentless and omnipresent, and that’s okay because it has made me tough and flexible and adaptable, and less willing to take crap.
Acceptance that it’ll be what it’ll be, but in the end it’s all up to me.
I used to think that being a writer is the coolest job in the world, and I felt that motherhood somehow took away from that. And it did, for awhile. It took something from me that I thought was so precious that I believed I would die without it — my ego. But something else took it’s place. Self-worth.
If motherhood deconstructed who I really am then writing is the tool to put it all back together. To take it out into the world hoping for something good ... just like I hope for my children.
I’ve decided that I will indeed go away this year with the sole purpose to write. I’ll start with two, maybe three weeks somewhere local but isolated, and I’ll work on my book until it’s time to go home. It won’t be enough, and it’ll be extremely hard on John (I’ll miss the kids and worry like crazy) but I’ll take what I can get.
And in a few months I’ll go away again.
And in the meantime I’ll keep writing in bursts, whenever I can.
And that will be fine.
Now, for the next big question: Does anyone have a summer home/cabin somewhere in California that I can use?
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