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.