June 20, 2024

Feminist Reads: Literary Mama

Pentecost, from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Pentecost, from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

I’ve been thinking lately about the competing demands of parenthood and literary creation. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time – about two years, ever since the birth of my second child and the discovery that the demands of small children cannot be measured geometrically, as in, 1+1 = twice the number of meals to fix, twice the bathing time, or double the weight of the diaper bag with two sets of extra clothes, two sets of books and toys and snacks. No, adding another child to the mix has an exponential effect on the increase of demands. You might at the least expect some synergy, and perhaps this kicks in at quotients of 3 or more. But what I found was that with two children, their demands, their crankiness, and their energy fed off one another, creating a constant clamor of need and activity that expands to fill all available time and space.

As the activities of child care-taking increased, the amount of space in my own head correspondingly shrank. The amount of energy I had to address my own needs dwindled to undetectable levels. In the days before daycare, when it was just me alone in the house, all day, with these two small, active, and ridiculously changeable beings, everything that I had once cherished as my personal space, my refueling station, disappeared or grew so changed as to be unrecognizable.

At any given moment of my relaxing in a hot bath, someone else might climb into it. Any attempts at yoga invited at least two other practitioners onto my mat, and they didn’t follow any sequence. Meditation was impossible. Those quiet evenings I expected, after the kids went to bed, never seemed to happen; someone had nightmares, someone was hungry, someone was watching YouTube videos on his smartphone in bed next to me. I look back at my writing notebook and, in between long gaps of time in which there is nothing, I find only scribbles, notes, sentences, and essays or journal entries begun and then ending abruptly after a sentence, a paragraph, a page.

I did not invent the problem of finding that having kids takes away from your time to write, and yet I still find it puzzling that it should be so very difficult. Shouldn’t there at least be some synergy here, in that the energy of caring for and spending time with creative, silly, playful, if emotionally explosive small children should feed one’s energies for other sorts of creation? If nothing else, don’t small children offer endless moments of artistic inspiration – the moment you want to capture, the feeling you want to savor, the darling memory you want to savor, or the ridiculous declaration that you simply have to write down. Parenting, mothering is endlessly productive as one recruits the imagination to find more ways of entertaining the little beasts, more ways of getting the girl to wear pants with her T-shirt, getting the little boy to eat his peas. It shouldn’t follow that these efforts should be so energetically, imaginatively, and artistically exhausting. And yet they are.

It’s a paradox I haven’t resolved, but fortunately I’m not the only one working on it. A while ago a friend led me to the fantastic website Literary Mama, which offers “reading for the maternally inclined.” The site offers fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and reviews; there are profiles, ongoing columns, a blog filled with writing prompts and inspiration, and my current favorite, a section called Literary Reflections, which dwells specifically on the intersections between motherhood and literature, the ways in which both of these monumental and deeply committed activities feed into, inspire, cross-pollinate, and sometimes rob from one another.

Some of the material is more maternally inclined, and some caters more to the creative aspect, but the entire point of the site is to continue to nurture the mother’s intelligence, creativity, inspiration, and interest in the written word as parts of her that can still co-exist (though some negotiating is necessary) with the demands of maternal nurturing. It offers a valiant way for mothers to remember that their personhood has not disappeared, sublimated into the wants and needs of one or multiple tiny beings, no matter how much our culture venerates the Sacrificial Mother.

And it provides a remedy for the problem I encountered, in the days before daycare, of finding balance between the need to feed the souls of the young ones in our care and feed our own creative souls with bread we did not have to cook ourselves. Of capturing ways that the endless tasks of childcare can feed our art or our writing, not just with direct moments of or subjects for inspiration but as a kind of boundless, ever-renewing creative energy that moves easily between reflecting on experience, building lines or sentences, plumbing the depths of emotion, and making up songs to get the kids to pick up their toys. Literary Mama suggests that motherhood and creativity CAN go together; it nourishes the literate, and provides a literacy of motherhood, all at the same time.

Besides, all the content on Literary Mama is FREE. Education, inspiration, beauty, solace, laughter, and knowing you’re not alone in this journey – all free. You can’t beat that, people.

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