Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Parenting and Writing (May Theme) - Stephanie Burgis

Parenting is one of those issues in life that suddenly takes on completely different angles when you start doing it yourself. It was a shock, when I had my baby, to find myself suddenly a "mom", expected to be ever-nurturing, ever-compassionate, ever-strong. When you have a child, you stop being just a person - in a lot of ways, socially, you also become a construct: The Mom (or: The Dad, which has its own intimidating set of cultural ideals).

When I studied American Women's History in college, I remember my professor, with a wry quirk to her mouth, writing the phrase: "It's all Mom's fault" on the chalkboard, as she discussed the rise of that psychological approach. There can be a real sense of betrayal for a child (even a grown-up child) whenever we see a mother who has done something that isn't objectively right (or in other words, the way moms are supposed to behave).

I think the years of MG fiction are the years when many kids first start really noticing the ways their moms are failing to live up to that cultural standard. I know that my friends and I were vocal in those years whenever we noticed our moms' failures.

Well. Now I'm a mom, and guess what? I fail to live up to that cultural standard every. single. DAY.

I love my son more than anyone or anything else in the world. I would sacrifice anything - or, to be brutally honest, anyone, including myself - for his welfare. And yet: I lose my temper, I say things I shouldn't, I fail in a thousand different ways to be the ideal mom I'm "supposed" to be.

I balance my own novel-writing with my freelance writing work, all while he's at preschool, for just two and a half hours a day. I fail at that, too, a lot. I feel like I can never do well enough at either job (and having a chronic illness just makes the situation harder). This week is just one example.

I was going to spend this whole week working on my WIP and nothing else. I have a break in my freelance schedule. I was going to get SO MUCH done this week, while my son was at school! Unfortunately, my son woke up sick with an ear infection Monday morning, and as of today, he still isn't well enough to go back to school yet. I've lost three of my five writing days so far. I was so worried about his health the first day, I didn't even care about that part.

Then he started feeling better - not well, but better, so that my worries eased and I knew he'd feel better with just a bit more time - and at that point, my WIP started wailing in my ear, reminding me that this was supposed to be its big week, my big chance to get a huge chunk written.

It's not enough to make me regret prioritizing my son - nothing could ever be enough for that - but it's more than enough to make me crazy with frustration as I watch my scarce writing days slip away through my fingers. And at the same time, I feel intense guilt about FEELING frustrated, when, as a mom, I should care about NOTHING but my son's illness. Because if I were a true mom, a great mom, I wouldn't even feel that frustration in this situation, would I? My entire mind would have no room for anything but the childcare I'm doing!

So the fact that I feel this frustration...well, inside, where I've internalized every social rule of motherhood, I feel like I'm doubly failing now - failing as a writer AND failing as a mom for the fact that I'm minding that first failure.

Guess what's getting me through this tough period? My own mom. She may be in a different country from me now, but not only is she wonderfully reassuring over Skype and on visits, but every time I look back on my memories of her from childhood, they give me strength.

I'm inspired every single time I think of how she started a whole new career fresh in her mid-thirties - starting from undergraduate work and progressing all the way through a doctorate, while balancing parenthood of three children AND a dayjob. She was the same age as me when she started that process - and yes, it took her longer than it would have if she'd been in her twenties and childless - but guess what? Not only did she get there in the end, she rose to incredible heights of achievement. She has done amazing things in her field, reached great heights and earned incredible professional respect.

Even if I'm moving slower on my own career than I want to be, partly due to the fact that I'm a parent...well, starting later, and having to move slower because of parenthood, didn't stop my mom in the long run, did it? And not only am I incredibly proud of her for her achievements, but I know - because she's poured her own confidence and pride into me my whole life, telling me over and over again that she believes in me - that I can do it, too, even if it takes me longer than I think it should, even if I'm not writing a thousand words of my own novels every single day.

In my own series of books, my heroine, Kat, starts out in Kat, Incorrigible by simply resenting her stepmother for all the things she's done wrong, all the ways in which she's failed Kat and her sisters. By the end of the novel, though, she's finally starting to see that her stepmother isn't just the 2-dimensional "wicked stepmother" Kat wanted her to be - Stepmama's genuinely trying to do what's right, even if her stepchildren profoundly disagree with her about what is right for them.

The relationship arc between Kat and her stepmother - and between Kat and her loving but deeply imperfect father - doesn't close until the end of Book 3, Stolen Magic. But there's one crucial moment in the second book, Renegade Magic, when Kat has a serious shift in perspective. She and her stepmother have far too many dissimilarities to ever easily understand each other - but they may be able at least to accept each other.

I'm fighting to accept my own imperfect motherhood.

13 comments:

  1. Yes, this. All of this. No one quite seems to understand what it is to take on the role of "mother" until it's done and over and there's no going back---as if we'd want to.

    My kids are all in their twenties now. It's no different than when they were all babies. Their troubles are just bigger, more complicated. They need you more, but we're supposed to be stepping back, letting them find their own answers, their own paths. We're supposed to stand back and watch them fail, flail, hurt, when all our lives, we've been the cushion they fall upon, the hands that lift them and bind their wounds.

    This mother, like everything worth having, is hard.

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    1. *hugs* YES. So, so worthwhile, rewarding and amazing - but also the hardest thing I've ever done, by far.

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  2. This mother GIG--d'oh. I blame my kids. It has to be their fault, somehow.

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  3. Ohhhhh, yes. Yes to all of this. I have felt the same blend of gnawing frustration and guilt and worry and impatience and inadequacy so many times. I want so badly to be a great mother and a great writer, but finding the balance between so many conflicting obligations is *hard.* But, Steph, you've already accomplished so much! And you are an incredible mother, a generous friend, and a remarkable woman. (((((hugs))))

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    1. *HUGS* Thank you so much, Jen. It really helps to hear from other moms and writers who feel the same way!

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  4. Your honesty and your kindness make your writing and, I'm sure, your mothering, well worth having. They make you one of my favourite people!

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    1. Oh, thank you for that. *HUGS* And you know the feeling is very mutual! :)

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  5. Oh man, when I became a mom, my first thought was "I have to do everything absolutely right". And then my second thought was, "Or, I could just be honest when he gets older, and admit the stuff I screwed up."

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    1. OH, yeah. One of the things I'm trying hardest to do is to force myself to admit it to my son when I realize I've been wrong, and to apologize to him for it. It's shockingly hard to do, and I think it's because there's so much cultural pressure that we SHOULDN'T be wrong, so admitting to it and apologizing feels extra-painful!

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  6. love love love this post. thank you for being so honest about it all. becoming a mother was the hardest thing i have ever done. i wanted/want to be perfect just so i don't have to witness the point when my daughter realises that i don't really know what i am doing! the hardest lesson is that in this job, we never get to be experts....because the job description keeps changing! you sounds like a wonderful mum and writer...i admire you being able to do both and hope to be like you when i grow up ;-)

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    1. the hardest lesson is that in this job, we never get to be experts....because the job description keeps changing!

      YES. That is so true!

      And thank you so much.

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  7. So beautifully said, Steph. Your son and your readers are BOTH lucky to have you.

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