I’m the author of four published works of fiction, along with two children and one on the way in May. People often ask me how having 2.5 children has affected my writing. For one, I answer (in my head), how often do you ask a male writer that? Not very often, I’m going to assume. For two, I go on (in my head), people evolve, man. Like, it’s okay if my writing has shifted or pivoted or wholly changed now that I have progeny, maaaaan.
In the beginning, I clung to the idea that having a child could be separate from my work. It felt unfair of people to assume that because I was a mom, my writing — known for being dark and funny and gross — would soften in some way. It was another instance in which I’d have to push past the stereotype of Female Writer. Like the world was saying, “Welp, she’s a mother now, so…,” while holding its hands palms up and shrugging. Like, it can’t be helped, her transformation into an oatmeal-brained boob-leaker! I felt like I was zip-tied into this new role, my wrists bleeding as I struggled against that kind of restraint. No, was my whole vibe. If creative output changes after motherhood were a spectrum, from minuscule to only-writes-about-giving-birth-forever-amen, I rejected the entire spectrum. I washed my hands of the idea.
Now, more than five years into parenthood, I am comfortable admitting that things have changed. I’m still very into the grotesque — just scan my Goodreads reviews and you’ll find a plethora of readers who have had it up to here with how often characters fart in my books — but the way I write is radically different. Prior to spawning, I could write whenever I pleased. I could wake up at four in the morning and have an entire draft of a story before it was time to shower for work. I could count on solid chunks of writing time that I didn’t even have to schedule. I once spent an entire weekend at my desk, getting down 10,000 words by the end, gazing blearily around my office like I’d been drugged.
That kind of freedom blows my mind. These days, I have to be my own bitchy personal assistant. I have to insist on time; I have to carve it out of my days, and I have to force myself to open the laptop. Because the first thing that goes after you become a mom, the first thing you’ll sacrifice to lend normalcy to your newly upside down days, is anything that doesn’t fall under “keeping child alive + relatively happy.” Does my infant want to watch Mommy clacking away, her hair a nest, as she works out a difficult plot point and ignores his cries for someone to change his bloated diaper? That would be a no. Does Mommy want to fill any of her heartbreakingly small periods of free time with work? Sure, if she can figure out how to do that while asleep.
There are all sorts of arguments about what happens to creativity once becoming a parent. Some say it’s never the same; others say it’s actually better, deeper, more enriched. I think it’s a damaging assumption and a hurtful stereotype to pile that kind of pressure — the possibility that she will never produce work as meaningful as she did before — on a mother. What happens to our brains and priorities post-birth is beyond us; it’s managed and dictated by our body’s bitchy assistants, our hormones. Even a friend innocuously asking “What are you working on right now?” can feel like an accusation, an opening into another type of guilt. What if I’m not working on anything? What if I’m just surviving? Will I still be allowed to publish once it feels like I can breathe again?
I believe both arguments are true. Your creativity belongs solely to you pre-motherhood; your mind is wholly your own. As a mother, there isn’t a single thing I do that isn’t done without considering my children in some way (even if that “considering” is me thinking, Oh my GOD I am so annoyed right now). But that means my creative output means more, because it costs me more. And because I’ve lived through many moments when there’s nothing but me and my helplessly sick or enraged or needy child, nothing except for perhaps the night, which can’t even cast a sympathetic glance my way, those moments of actual creative work mean so much more to me. I’ve learned to dig deeper than I ever thought possible, and it has stretched all my muscles, not just my mom ones.
I had a dark period of depression earlier this year. My oldest had just turned five; my youngest was about to turn two. I was pregnant with my third. I wasn’t writing anything. When my children napped — a two-ish hour chunk of alone time for me — I napped, too. Or I read. Or I stared at my phone. It was all I felt capable of. And yet there was this other force inside me that was hollering about how smothered she was, how useless. It’s just the winter! I told myself. It’s just what’s happening to my body! I’m psychologically and physically tired! But what was actually happening was that I’d given myself completely over to my children, to my household, and even though I was mastering all of that like a champion, an important part of me was atrophying. I kept waiting for something to change, for life to change, for life to right itself to how it had been before they came, back when I could write with a breezy sort of freedom, when I could write just because.
I had to realize: Post-motherhood, at least when my kids are so little, “just because” is for ice cream, or letting them pick out crappy toys at the drugstore, or buying the expensive shampoo. “Just because” couldn’t be what I was waiting for to write again. I had to look at it as an important daily task that would ensure my mental health, my relative happiness, my sense of worth. My method for moving through those dark periods is to actively move through them. Motherhood forces you to live in the moment, and I mean second by excruciating second. Depression is the same. And it’s easy to fall into a nihilist trap as a writer: Why am I doing this? Likewise, as a mother: Am I making any difference at all in these small people’s lives? What is the point? I’ve come to realize that the only way out is through. So, when my kids nap, I write. I give myself a daily word count, and I’ve stress-eaten so many M&M’s that my blood is 95 percent food dye, but at the end of the day, when I get into bed, even if I get into bed depressed, I can at least feel like I’ve made my day matter, for me.
The truth is I feel so lucky to be a mom. But it’s not enough; motherhood is merely a part of who I am as a whole. My creative output, my work, is just as crucial to who I am. And who else is going to write all those fart scenes?