I am in a low-residency MFA program, so most of my course work is done independently and packets of critical and creative work is turned in once a month to my faculty advisor. Once a semester, about every six months, the faculty and students meet on campus for a ten-day intensive residency, although, so far, all my residences have been remote thanks to COVID. Ten whole days of screen time while my children are strategically on break from school and so, so bored.
During the first residency of my MFA, I attended a reading by a well-known poet and in the Q&A that followed, another first semester mother asked the poet how she balances her writing career and raising children. It turned into a touch of a joke, as men are never asked that question, but the inquiry was well-intended and relevant to all the mothers in the audience. The quest to balance childrearing with ambition resonates with women, as society is constantly tugging us around with rivaling expectations of what makes a mother “good.” The poet ultimately said she doesn’t balance it, that balance is never possible, she just makes time for her writing.
At the time, I took her advice as something of an easy answer, almost annoyed by her unwillingness to give us prescriptive advice on how to do it all and be successful at it. My first residency, I was strict about keeping my kids out of my office and out of my webcam’s background. I was obsessed with appearing professional and serious, despite how often my little dog would jump on my lap and spin around to show the whole Zoom her butthole.
I was also just coming off a year of facilitating virtual school with four elementary aged daughters and was desperate for the opportunity to be seen as professional and serious; as literally anything but a mother. Coming into that first residency, I even made the conscious decision to not lead introductions with my status as a parent, as I realized how frequently my motherhood was the first, most prominent fact I shared with other adults. I finished residency burnt out and frustrated with the conflicting demands being thrust upon me, still stubbornly determined to find a proper balance between my time as a serious writer and as a good mother.
Even though I bumbled and struggled through my first semester, when the second residency came around last June, I was more confident in my writing, in the program and the remote format itself, and, of course, more comfortable with the faculty and my cohort. I didn’t want to be frustrated and burnt out by my professional and maternal obligations. Coming into my second residency, I was still pitting these two sides of myself against each other, and I thought again of the poet’s dismissal of the myth of balance.
I ultimately made the conscious decision to embrace that I am in this MFA program because of my daughters, not despite them. I am motivated by the chance to show my girls that a woman is more than just a mother figure and that there isn’t an expiration date on accomplishing her goals.
I decided to blur the lines between the different parts of myself.
During my second residency, rather than steadfastly keeping them blocked out of my writing life, I let my daughters get involved when appropriate. I let them sit in on my lectures if they wanted – most of the time they drifted off about two minutes in, declaring it boring and “like school” – and they loved listening to student and faculty readings, even when they didn’t exactly “get” what the reader was trying to say. My youngest liked to just sit in my office with me and she drew rainbows with my highlighters and passed me encouraging love notes that I kept as bookmarks. Quiet and stillness was all I required, not tolerating visual or audible distractions for the rest of the class, remaining conscious that just because I can tune out the chaos doesn’t mean others can.
I discovered that by opening this side of my life, my children are now more tolerant of the time I spend in my office writing. There isn’t as much conflict between us when I ask them to quiet down or to give me a few more minutes to finish my thoughts. While I don’t let them read what I write yet, I have become more open about what I am writing about, especially if it involves them. Now they tell me ideas of their own and even show me stories they are writing themselves. We have started bonding through my passion for writing, and they offer far less resistance when I need to make time to write.
Yet the guilt remains; of course, it does. Society tells us that a mother should put nothing before her child, and the reality is that my writing absolutely takes time away from my children. I am almost always reading or writing when I am home with my children — or cleaning or folding laundry or cooking dinner or playing with the dogs. My focus is rarely completely on just one child, but, when it is, the moment is magical and memorable for both of us. I believe giving them early permission to choose goals for themselves including and beyond having their own families someday will serve them far better in life than if I continued trying to pretend there was the chance for perfect balance. Children are always watching, and I am showing my daughters who are growing into their own womanhood that a woman is not just a mother or just a caregiver of any kind. They are bearing witness to my dreams coming true.
Is it balanced? No. It’s chaos most of the time, but it’s real and we are in this together.
Originally shared with HerStry for Babes Who Write as a guest editor.
Featured image taken by Erica Mueller.