It’s 6AM. My daughter has nursed long enough to be lulled into a nap. She’s struggling to push out some gas, her shoulders tense and legs jimmying, her face scrunched as she grunts. She awoke hungry at 5. She’s no cruising nurser – she’s so serious about the food and the social opportunity at the breast that she stays until last call. And now, if she sleeps for fifteen minutes, I’ll be amazed.
It’s been almost two months since I was admitted to the hospital because I was overdue, because I am of “advanced maternal age,” because my amniotic fluid was low and my placenta, the experts surmised, was growing calcified and fatigued. Two months since I was induced for two days, my cervix constantly checked to the beat of the fetal heart monitor that echoed in my dreams long after delivery, midwives’ fingers attempting to pull my fisted cervix forward. Despite the prodding hands and pills and IV drips, the cervix remained stubbornly posterior, clamped.
It’s probably weird to draw a poetic analogy between my cervix and my current inability to write. But now that every minute is taken up with feeding and holding and showing the world to this child and the nagging question of when I can do the other work I want to do, my writerly self (whatever that is) seems locked up tight somewhere else.
Two months in, emerging from a haze of novice parenting to the work I choose to do, I’m starting to consider the inevitable merging of parenting and writing. Like all of us who face a new kind of writer inside as our lives change, I must get acquainted with this newly-born part of me that influences how I perceive and generate my work. I’ve written about mothers before, but now I wonder who that woman was who could write about motherhood before her own pregnancy, before her own baby. The novel I’m working on boasts two main characters plagued by the ghost of a teenaged son who killed himself in their backyard. A short story I published last summer in Nashville Review is about a woman whose toddler died. Who was that woman writing about the deaths of children? Not me, I suspect. Not me anymore.
The short story with the dead child was originally an essay about my time in Ireland just after graduating from college. Then it became a story, though the narrator was still me, observing and reflecting upon some things that happened abroad when I was twenty-one. Eventually, I applied some basic fiction lessons: give your main characters more interesting reasons to be wherever they are, and don’t make them observers with little at stake. Enter a young mother, visiting Ireland with her husband. Their marriage is falling apart because their young child has died. While we traverse Ireland, there are flashbacks of the mother feeling ambivalent about this child. I wonder if she is a convincing mother. She was a plot device, and her memories of her weird child were my memories of the way I imagined my parents perceived me sometimes. The story is published and finished, but I wonder how I would write that story now. I almost wish I could have another go at it, though perhaps the mother and child would evaporate from the story.
And what about this novel with the grieving parents? For almost eight years, I’ve been picking away at it, but I don’t know how to return to it. Writing a novel doesn’t match the blood, sweat, and tears of laboring with a baby, but it has been an awful lot of work, and I have to ask myself if I’m willing to lose all those pages and hours and immersion in that world just because I am not sure if I want to delve into the plight of those mourning parents. If I open this dormant document, how will I re-imagine them? Will I be able to stand even imagining their feelings? Will I be able to get around my superstitious certainty that writing or thinking about horrible things can both cause them to happen and ward them off? How can I write about a dead child when that is now the worst horror I can imagine?
The opportunity I have before me is to reassess the problems and choices I used to see in my fiction, to generate new problems and choices based on a perspective that is not necessarily clearer but different. It seems that being a mother and a writer will be about mining the generative parts of myself in several directions, like splitting the sun. After all, at least for the moment, I am the center of my child’s universe. Every morning I eagerly wait for my baby to rise and do simultaneously pedestrian and miraculous things. And, as these questions about my writing have emerged, I wait for the writer-me to return. I think I am the only one waiting, the center of my writing’s existence.