In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s tiny, lovely book, “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” she writes to a dear friend who has asked her advice in raising her newborn daughter as a feminist. Adichie’s first suggestion is that she encourage her daughter to “Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person.”
Adichie goes on to comment that the first descriptor on Hillary Clinton’s Twitter account is ‘Wife,” while Bill Clinton’s was “Founder,” and not “Husband.” Currently her marital status still is first, but it’s followed by “… mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, SecState (sic), hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate.”
I thought of this as I recently struggled to craft a brief autobiography for a magazine that published an essay I wrote. I have been a mother for what seems like so long, sometimes I forget that I did things, I was things, before I gave birth, and then again. I started with “Wife and SAHM,” which are both true but are they the lede? They are overwhelmingly who I am and I am not ashamed or embarrassed to be at home with my sons, so why did this feel disingenuous? After several attempts, I closed the file in frustration. The irony of having writers’ block while writing my writer’s bio was not lost on me.
It goes without saying that the first few days/weeks/months (years?) of parenthood are overwhelming. How can you help but not go deep under when you are in the early stage of parenting? How do you emerge? And when?
It seems that parents who work outside the home don’t struggle with this as stay at home folks do, because on their resumes and in their lives, there’s no gap even if they took a leave for any length of time when they became parents. If they were lawyers, they always were lawyers, or whatever. But once you no longer are that profession... then what are you? Who are you?
It’s an exciting time for our family, and for me. My boys are big enough to be independent for periods of time, but they still need and want us and love their Daddy and Mommy unashamedly. We’re experienced enough to know when we need to step in and help them and when to let it ride. It feels like a little Personal Renaissance, a parenting sweet spot for my husband and me.
My writing has taken on a new level of priority in my life. I have actual deadlines and responsibilities and things I want to say. And yet I struggle to be confident enough to carve out time that I need for myself. To create. To write. To recharge. It takes a lot of will power to make it happen.
But it takes more than iron will because a modern parent handles it all: Summer camp registration and before and after school programs and extra math help and monitoring screen time and nutrition and music lessons and sports and hygiene and reading and apparel and report card progress. We love taking care of our families, but many of these things need to be done during the day, on top of normal ‘keep the house and yourself functional’ tasks. Many of my friends and I lament that there’s no way to get it all done and we think we can get ahead somehow by working late into the night. By then our batteries are flat-line empty.
So while our hearts are full, so are the kitchen trash can and the Cloud backup and the email inbox… If all day is full of family and home and life, what time is left to do more? To be what we desire to be next?
Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes: “I've seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write... and you know it's a funny thing about housecleaning... it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she "should" be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. Beautiful and heartbreaking.
I have seen glimpses that it is possible. I have friends who are on Version 2.0 of their lives: They have become photographers, jewelry makers, poets. They are full people, and parents. They are making art. They inspire me.
Sometimes I feel like I have another person in my head living a parallel life of words and ideas and grown up conversations. While I’m doing The Things I Have to Do, this other person is grinding away, thinking and writing and working out transitions on college-ruled notebooks. She is tapping at the door, ready to come in, ready to be take over and be who I really am, who I was once, after the kids are put to bed and the lunches made and the cat litter swept.
Why does she have to wait?
She has waited through sleepless nights of nursing and teething and croup, through days of exhausted wonder and nap strikes and play groups, through first steps and potty training and all the milestones that we hold tight in our hearts forever. Everyone else has been a priority what seems like a really long time and they are still a priority but it’s time to let her in.
A stranger on a train and I chatted about my Alma Mater (Northwestern) and what I had studied (Journalism) because I commented on her son’s purple NU sweatshirt. He had applied there and they were tourists checking out the city via the CTA. I doled out lollypops and held my boys up to the window and reminded them to stop touching each other, and the woman asked me what I was doing now.
The question stopped me for a moment.
It seemed pretty obvious what I was ‘doing now’ – I was a mother. But that’s not what she meant. Then like a bolt of lightning, I knew.
“I’m a writer,” I said. And I believed it.