25th Trillium Award

Mom's the Word: Tips and Confessions from Writing Mothers

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Baby Bunting

by Erin Knight

Writers and mothers have their hands thick with the putty of becoming and creating. These two roles so essentially shape one's identity that it can be difficult to understand how they can co-exist within one body — even if we set aside for a moment (assuming we have one) the very practical concern of time and energy. "I never thought anything could matter more, be so essential to who I am, as being a writer," says Camilla Gibb, author of The Beauty of Humanity Movement and the Trillium-Award winning Sweetness in the Belly. "And then I became a mother. It matters so much more."

Given the reshaping of the universe that occurs every time a mother is born, it's no wonder that a woman may be left feeling wordless, the symbol-formerly-known-as-writer, rather than the writer she believed herself to be. Of course, every writer has a different sense of when she became one, as does every mother. Carrie Snyder, whose book The Juliet Stories was published this spring, found it easier to accept and identify herself as a mother than as a writer. "Maybe I feared the pressure of identifying as something I wasn't sure I had the talent to sustain," she suggests. "Maybe I wasn't sure I could be both things at once."

As for Julie Booker, who went into labour with twins while editing the final draft of Up Up Up, motherhood brought the two spheres together. She no longer has time to wonder if she belongs. "Before my book, I longed to be in the room with amazing women writers but I didn't have the credentials. Now I'm meeting them in mommy groups."

Mothers are notoriously hard on themselves — as are writers. Both lug around feelings of inadequacy and guilt in already crammed diaper-bags or antiquated laptop cases. The combined pathos of the two roles together can be smothering, especially for a new mother who isn't writing. Lisa Martin-DeMoor, author of the poetry collection One Crow Sorrow, remembers a particularly difficult time when her daughter was not yet two. "I felt like I was struggling so hard not to go under, not to lose my sense of myself completely in daily, undifferentiated, domestic work (and play)..."

"If I could have recognized how essential it was — for me, for the person I am, to be writing — I could have short-circuited some of the difficulty. But what happened instead was that one day, somehow, I understood that it was okay to disappear, to go under... And once I had accepted that, once I stopped trying to hold onto who I had been before my daughter was born, things got a lot easier."

So how do they do it? The advice of these four writers boils down to a nourishing cocktail of patience, kindness and community. Camilla's advice to new mothers is inspiring in its simplicity. "Give yourself a maternity leave. Don?t think about or worry about not writing for a year. Your income might depend on writing, you are not eligible for EI if you are self-employed, but you must take leave from writing. Promote, do readings, do the rest of it if you want, but the writing comes from the same place your mothering does. Give yourself permission to be a mother for a year."

And while you're there, says Julie, "Lose the niggling voice that says I SHOULD BE WRITING and enjoy the wonder in front of you."

"Don?t fool yourself into thinking you?ll write at the kitchen table while the baby coos at your feet," adds Camilla. "When the year is up, find some space outside the house in which to write. You can find space for free if you are resourceful. If it cannot be a room of your own, find a library."

Lisa emphasizes the importance of getting out of the house. Better yet, "Go write in the same place every time you manage to get away, so you can more quickly tune out everything else and get down to your work. If you don't have any time to work, get concrete about making space in your life — even if it's just the mental space at first — for your work to happen. And, most of all, don't compare yourself — your work or your life — to anyone else, whether she's a mother or not, a writer or not. Give yourself the dignity of radical self-acceptance."

A supportive community is as important as a creative identity. Though, as Lisa warns, "don't let your closest writing friend be someone without children or you will start to go a little crazy, even if that person is very nice to you (perhaps especially if this is the case). Read the books and look at the artwork made by other women who are mothers so you will start to understand that it is possible."

Carrie has been inspired by the generosity of friends during intense writing periods. "Being a writing mother takes the help of many," she says. "Never ever be afraid to ask for help. It's humbling, but you will discover that people love to help. And you'll get a chance to repay the help in one way or another."

And in the midst of this kindness and support, you must also return that kindness to yourself, says Carrie. "Know that you won't always be sleep-deprived. Know that your children will grow more quickly than you can imagine." (You can trust her, she has four.) "Accept all offers of help. Also, be selfish — and don't call it that. Squeeze time out of the everyday for your own writing, and for your own pursuits. Someday, your children will admire you for it."

Some things will be left by the wayside. Some things (and some cries) will be left unanswered. "I have shut the door on a crying child," admits Carrie. "More than once. To go deep, you have to shut out all other immediate concerns. Even your children's. This can feel and appear harsh or mean. I don't have an easy answer for that. But I also don't know how else I would have gotten my books written."

The confessions of a writer-mother strike at the core of our identities. Camilla hasn't had time to "read much of anything" in two years. Lisa confesses a deep ambivalence about motherhood. "For a while, my ambivalence was a source of unhappiness for me," she explains. "Sometimes mothering pulls me away from the work so profoundly. Sometimes writing pulls me profoundly away from mothering. But over the nearly four years of my daughter's life, I've come to realize that, as the Buddhists say, "everything is connected."

The breakthrough came when she decided she didn't need to fight those feelings. "I've stopped always feeling like it's a problem to be pulled out of the writing into the life. I'm not going to try to get rid of my ambivalence. I'm going to turn it into a source of strength, into something useful, like ambidexterity."

If anyone needs to be ambidextrous, it's Julie, whose twin boys have just reached toddlerhood. Still, she finds joy (and subject matter) in the chaos. "Twins are a great motif. I suspect I might have been bored, in a literary sense, if I'd had just one," she says. "Writing remains my secret identity. It's the way I process the world, all the things I can't say out loud. I'm observing motherhood in the same private, rebellious way."

As with the most challenging pursuits, the ones that require you to propel yourself further than you thought possible and with greater force, there will be moments of grace. Some are as simple as having a good reason to say no. "All those things you felt obliged to say yes to? The book club of a friend of a friend, the readings that brought you home late from towns faraway, the unpaid appearances, the students who ask you to read their manuscripts? You have an excuse now," says Camilla.

There's the tranquility Lisa experienced during an intensive five-week stay at the Banff Writing Studio when her daughter was two, even though it was "kind of insane" to be away from her. "My partner brought our daughter and they camped nearby. I visited them at their campsite, and they hiked, and I wrote. This time in the company of other writers — other adults! — and in the company of myself was a gift. I understood after my time in Banff that interruptions, no matter how complete and long-term, were just that: interruptions. Not ex-communications, not permanent exiles."

And Carrie was overwhelmed by her daughter's reaction at the launch for The Juliet Stories this March. "Seeing my nine-year-old daughter immediately after I'd read was a moment that knocked me to my knees. She was radiant with pride. Oddly, it made [closing the door] seem worth it. I should ask her whether she agrees."

Is it really so easy? Of course not. Many of the writers I contacted declined to share their experiences, suggesting that they didn't think they'd be very good role models, or that they had only neurotic confessions to share, no advice. Another similarity between writing and mothering is that what works one day may not work the next. The yarn we've so patiently untangled at one end will snarl itself up at the other.

Perhaps the real secret is not to spend so much time worrying at the knots. What good is a single strand? "Motherhood is part of my life, part of my every day, part of my self, but it's woven in everywhere; it doesn't stand in opposition to all the other aspects of my being. It's not in the least bit separate," says Carrie. "Motherhood doesn't cancel anything out."

Do you have writing-mother tips or confessions to share? Add a comment below.


Julie Booker?s fiction was shortlisted for the Metcalf-Rooke Award and has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including the 2010 edition of Best Canadian Stories. Her first book, Up Up Up, was a short story collection published with House of Anansi Press in 2011. Her twin boys are 21 months old.

For more information about Up Up Up please visit the House of Anansi website.

Camilla Gibb is the author of four novels, including the Giller shortlisted and Trillium Award winning Sweetness in the Belly. Her most recent novel is The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Doubleday Canada, 2010). She is currently at work on a memoir. Her daughter is 19 months old.

For more information about The Beauty of Humanity Movement please visit the Random House Canada website.

Lisa Martin-DeMoor is the author of One Crow Sorrow (Brindle & Glass, 2008). She's currently at work on a novel and a second full-length collection of poetry. She's mom to two little ones, Juniper and Harris, who are almost-four and nine-months-old. She blogs about writing and motherhood at writerinresidence.ca.

For more information about One Crow Sorrow please visit the Brindle and Glass website.

Carrie Snyder was born in Hamilton and grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua and Southern Ontario. Her first book, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband and four children, aged 10, 9, 6, and 4. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama at carrieannesyder.blogspot.com. Carrie will be reading from The Juliet Stories (House of Anansi Press) at Indie Night at the Starlight on May 15 in Waterloo; at Type Books in Toronto on May 16; and at Books and Brunch at A Different Drummer in Burlington on May 29th. For more details, click here.

For more information about The Juliet Stories please visit the House of Anansi website.

Buy these books at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.


Erin Knight is Open Book: Ontario's Contributing Editor. Chaser, a collection of poems on tuberculosis and manic economy, has just been published with House of Anansi Press.

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