In the opening of the poem, “Advice to Myself,” award-winning, Native American writer Louise Erdrich reminds anyone who has somehow managed to raise a family, keep a home, and make art to,
“Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.”
Mid-way through the poem, the narrator reminds us to, “Pursue the authentic—decide first / what is authentic, / then go after it with all your heart.” That last line especially became my rallying call.
In my first trimester of a much-wanted pregnancy, I discovered Erdrich’s wise words. At 38, none of my friends or work colleagues knew I was pregnant. Until I crossed the threshold into the relative safety of the second trimester, I was too scared to share the news.
After the joy of cutting into a rainbow-frosted cake to see gloriously pink lines of raspberry buttercream, I distinctly remember reading the essay, “Great Writers, Terrible Parents: Are Children the Enemies or Allies of Authors?” not too long afterwards in a coffee shop with my friend and fellow writer, Mary Knobbe. As I sat reading, I remember laughing at Irish novelist John Banville’s controversial statement that no writer could be a good father.
Mary knows a thing or three about balancing work, writing, and parenting; the sign in her kitchen reminds her (and anyone who dares to judge): “Good moms have sticky floors, dirty ovens, and happy kids.”
I also knew firsthand Banville was wrong. I grew up with a working mother who took my younger sister and me to the community newspaper she and my grandmother owned and published. Every Friday night in the mid-1980s, as our mother laid out the newspaper on-deadline, my sister and I ruled the old darkroom, where we crafted newspapers of our own with X-Acto knives, rubber cement, and blue-gridded paper. The question of whether life imitates art or vice versa could likely be answered by observing children whose parents allow space and time for love, writing, and making messes.
Of course, women and men have raised and continue to raise children while writing. I watched my mother and her mother, my maternal grandmother, raise children by themselves and still put the paper to bed each week. Perhaps they were lucky because their work was, in many ways, their art.
What I did not know, until my daughter was born 18 months ago, was exactly how the women in my family actually wrote, worked, and minded children. How do we continue to write while learning how to nurse a child or bottle-feed a colicky baby or keep the toddler from playing mountain goat on the kitchen table? Let us not even mention sleep (who gets it, who does not, when it is no longer interrupted with cries or calls of needing something).
Ever since my daughter arrived, I have been writing my own how-to guide for how to just keep writing. I have written an entire script for The Story Collider on my phone after my daughter would fall asleep at the breast. I have negotiated with my husband how much time I need on Saturdays so I can write. I may not be as prolific in my baby’s first years, but the goal these days is not quantity as much as quality.
Just keep the knives sharp, I tell myself. Just keep grinding. Just keep going.