“I’m right now in the Dordogne very close to Montaigne’s château and library, and I confess I have found myself thinking of the father of the essay and how decadent it might have been for him to be the father of the essay instead of the caregiver of his daughter, because an essay waits patiently and never interrupts with anything but a gift.”
—Bonnie J. Rough, “Email from Bonnie J. Rough,” How We Speak to One Another, edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
Last week a shining gem of insight presented itself to me. Caitriona Lally has just won Trinity College in Dublin’s prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. In the first report I heard, a news outlet made a very big deal about the fact that Lally also works as a janitor for Trinity College.
Instinctively, as a working-class kid, I was not as blown away by Lally’s part-time job. Instead, I hypothesized there may be a deeper reason why Lally picked janitorial work versus writing, copy editing, or teaching, all things I have done to various degrees after my own daughter was born a year and a half ago. Teaching while parenting is not the paradise many of the uninitiated think it is. There is never an off day–there are always assignments to read and grade, lesson plans to fine-tune or create, emails to respond to, recommendation letters to write, and committee meetings that often waste one’s time in mind-numbingly different ways.
Lo and behold, upon a little digging, Lally told reporters “her janitorial job works for her schedule as a mother and is a great fit for writing.” This was the tidbit that I found most enticing—here is an award-winning writer who openly discusses how she balances work with writing and parenting. Discussing the very real challenges of creating art when littles are underfoot is revolutionary. Where are these mentions of reality when male writers win prizes and awards for their writing?
I decided to make a Hail-Mary pass and lob an email to Lally to ask about her writing process and how she juggles work, writing, and the care of her 14-month-old daughter Alice. Lally was especially gracious in taking a moment to share the following thoughts:
“I feel very lucky to be able to be able to combine my part-time cleaning job with minding my daughter and writing. It can be tough—if I’m sick or if she’s sick, or if something happens to upset the delicate balance—but most of the time we muddle through just fine. I clock off work at 9:30 a.m., which leaves me a few hours to write, three mornings a week, while my daughter is in daycare. On those days, I pick her up at lunchtime and we spend the afternoon together. I’m grateful for that time, I know plenty of people would love to spend less time at work and more time with their children as they grow up. The other days when I don’t have daycare (which is prohibitively expensive in Ireland and not affordable for us to use five days a week) I get no writing done, it’s just work and child-minding … which means, I have to make those three mornings of writing count. I try to be vigilant about not doing emails or admin in that time, not getting sucked into internet ‘research’ and actually focusing on writing. It doesn’t always work—if my daughter’s been awake a lot of the night (she is not a fan of sleeping!) there is not enough coffee in the universe that will get me in a creative mood, so I let myself off the hook on those days and do some writing-related work that isn’t too taxing.”
What Lally wrote is not only human and honest, but her process also shines much-needed light on how time, the most precious of commodities, is what writers need to make art. Bonnie J. Rough, in the same essay this blog post opens with, considers the way writers, especially mothers, make time for their craft while also nurturing a child (or children):
“Western intellectuals worship too many bright personages who may, in fact, not have been such geniuses but just had extra time to ramble their brains.”
Which is why it is a cause for celebration when someone like Lally is recognized for her promising voice and her first novel Eggshells with prize money which ultimately gives her more time. Lally said in earlier news reports that she plans on using the prize money for bills, a new water tank for her attic, and daycare for her daughter. That last expenditure—childcare—is the one that is especially important for the writer who also parents. I only wonder how many other clarion voices we might be privy to if we continued to unpack the work women, especially, contribute to our society-at-large and helped them shoulder the wondrous yet time-consuming joy of raising good human beings.