I was wheeled out of the hospital with tears streaming down my face after my son’s birth. I’m still not sure why I was crying because I felt nothing. My mother looked at me and said kindly, “Someone has the baby blues.” I thought, “I’m not blue. I’m nothing.” I thought, “The world is gray now.”
That’s how the world felt for a long time: gray, affectless, flat. I, too, was gray, affectless, and flat. I don’t have fondness anymore for my ex-husband, but I do feel compassion for what he must have experienced with a newborn son and a wife whose body suddenly seemed like an empty container with no soul left inside of it.
I was never officially diagnosed with postpartum depression, but a year later, I started antidepressants. They didn’t help. The world only became grayer, more muted, more two-dimensional. Looking back, it’s difficult to know whether I had postpartum depression or was depressed because I had married a man who would alter the course of my life via his fists. I understand a little bit more about intuition now, and I understand why I sobbed the night before my wedding, just as I later cried in that wheelchair. Though my rational brain didn’t want to see it yet, my intuitive brain knew that I was walking my own gauntlet when I married the man who would later abuse me.
When I got pregnant, I wasn’t ready to have a child. I didn’t even know if I wanted children.
In an MFA workshop, a visiting woman fiction writer once said, “A pox on tears!” It was lazy, she said, to describe a woman’s emotional state via tears. We could, she said, be more creative than that.
This is my disclaimer: A pox on tears!
And this is where I say that, when the test came back with two lines, I broke into tears. Tears are always a warning for me. They know what I can’t see yet, but what I feel intuitively.
I wasn’t ready to be a mother.
Despite the flatness, I always loved my beautiful son. He was perfect. His face round and symmetrical. His eyes big and bright. His personality, even as a baby, larger than it should have been. And he has turned into an exceptional 16-year-old who is beloved by everyone who knows him, who has a 4.0 gpa at a magnet school for gifted and talented kids, who is funny, who respects me, and who I love more than anyone else in the world.
I cannot say that I regret having my son because he is the best thing that ever happened to me, but always, in my heart, there is this sense that I was lucky. That whatever higher power exists, that higher power recognized that I needed a child like him, that I was spared a child like myself.
My childhood wasn’t a happy one. I was loved by my parents, but at that time, my mother had untreated anxiety, and her response to that anxiety was to try to maintain control over her environment. I was an uncontrollable child. Not bad-hearted, but a poor listener who lacked discipline. A daydreamer. Chaotic. Wild. The more that my mother tried to control me, the more that I failed at being the kind of child that she needed, and the worse I felt about myself.
I was 44 when I was finally diagnosed with ADHD, and as I drove home from the doctor’s office, I called my mother and cried. Maybe she cried too. A pox on tears!
I’m sure that we both wondered how things could have been different if we’d known.
This was supposed to be a post about parenting and the writing life, yet here I am. In typical fashion, I haven’t even gotten to the point yet. Perhaps that’s why I chose to write this as a blog post rather than an essay for publication. I knew that I wanted permission to meander, to meditate. Maybe I won’t even make it to the part about the writing life. I can do that—cut it short—because this blog is my space and only mine. Since becoming a mother, there is nothing I’ve craved more than having my own space.
I won’t go into the specifics of my labor and delivery because no one likes to hear those stories, but it was traumatic. What I will say is this: I was unconscious at one point.
A friend had recommended that I take advantage of the hospital and use that time to catch up on rest, so I asked the nurses to keep my son in the nursery while I slept and bring him back to me for breastfeeding when he was hungry. I slept feverishly. Painfully. At one point, I woke to voices in the hallway outside my door. A nurse said, “Why is that baby in the nursery?”
Another nurse said, “Her labor was really hard.”
“But he’s her baby,” the first nurse said.
That was the first time that I felt a pang of mothering shame. The shame of knowing that, from that point forward, any time that I put myself first, I would be failing my child.
It will never be enough, I told myself. I will ruin his life, I told myself.
This has been my only parenting philosophy: Do your very best not to ruin his life.
A few years ago, I had a spat with a very famous, woman writer. I had shared an essay by Michael Chabon on social media about all of the books he had written despite his many children. I said something to the effect of, “This is not the voice we need in the world when it comes to parenting and the writing life.”
I’m not intending to shade Michael Chabon here. He’s an exceptionally good writer who obviously has a very good heart. I suspect that he is also a very good parent, but as a single mom living off of a $15,000 a year stipend while in graduate school, I did not think that his story of parenting—one that I perceived as privileged—was necessary. “Where were the writers like me?” I asked in my post. “The single moms? The working class parents?”
Another writer commented that those writers didn’t have time to write think pieces about parenting and the writing life. I vowed to write one myself, but then the very famous, woman writer who had no children, came into my comments. She was apparently very good friends with Michael Chabon. She told me, among other angry things, that she was tired of me deciding who was privileged and who was not. She was punching down. I deleted the post and didn’t engage with her for a long while until she did it again, at which point I simply deleted her from my social media, but that’s another story that will probably only remain in the memories of those who witnessed it.
But here’s the thing: I never wrote that think piece about parenting and the writing life. I was writing my first book, getting a PhD, and raising a child alone by then. I simply didn’t have the time.
It has been four years since my first book came out, and I’m only now finishing the book proposal for my second book. It will go out on submission soon. I have seen friends publish books and then sell new books within that same span of time. There is a part of me, a very deep and dark part, that feels like a failure, even as I rationally know how much I have managed to accomplish despite great odds.
Someone who was close to me during my PhD program and who now has her own child, said to me recently, “I don’t know how you did it.”
I thought, “I don’t know how I did it either.” Then I started crying. A pox on tears!
So, I guess this is where I get to the part about the writing life. How did I do it? I wrote at night after my son went to sleep. I wrote in the afternoons when he was in the after-school program that I couldn’t afford. I wrote when he was at his father’s house every other weekend. I racked up 150+ thousand dollars in student loan debt. I didn’t date. I didn’t have a social life. I rarely went to parties with the other graduate students. I took my son to campus with me on snow days. I took my son to campus with me when he was sick (I know, I know). I was, myself, privileged (as a divorced parent) in that I had 8 weeks to myself in the summer while my son was at his dad’s, and I wrote when I wasn’t working 10-hour days for the US Forest Service in order to supplement my graduate stipend. I wrote when I wasn’t reading for Brevity Magazine where I was the Managing Editor in order to supplement my graduate stipend. I wrote freelance pieces for a website for single mothers in order to supplement my graduate stipend.
Desperation and the upside of ADHD (which is intense focus and passion when you care about something) made me obsessive about:
1. My writing
2. Never turning down a paycheck.
And because I have no interest in being a martyr, I will disclose that I sold my memoir on a proposal for six figures in the third year of my program, so I suddenly didn’t have to take every paycheck that was offered to me. Despite that six-figure book deal, the most I ever made in a year during that time was $48,000.
I knew that good parenting takes a village, but I didn’t have a village (my parents lived across the country), so I paid for my village. I was particular about my childcare, and I had some of the best babysitters on the planet, including Erin who, to this day, will always be like my son’s second mother. When I received the first advance for my book, I wrote her a $200 check. It wasn’t much, but it was something. She protested because she knew that we were living in a ramshackle house in the country where birds frequently and mysteriously got trapped in the walls, but my son said to her, “My mom couldn’t write this book without you.” He had, of course, heard that from me, and it was true. It was so very true, and Erin, if you’re reading this, neither Reed nor I would be who we are without you.
How else did I finish my book and PhD while single parenting? By having a child who, by all luck and circumstances, was physically and emotionally healthy. Every parent knows that this is not a given, and that it is, perhaps, the biggest privilege of all for parents.
For a while, I had a friend who was also a single mom. We were fast and close for a couple of years, but we grew apart. Her parents lived nearby and would stay with her son for weeks at a time so that she could visit her long-distance boyfriend. She received more from spousal and child support than my entire monthly salary and child support included. She was able to go out to bars and restaurants and parties. She was very talented, but very fixated on portraying her success as a matter of hard work and grit, and though she certainly was hard-working, there is no way around the reality that she also had a lot of unacknowledged privilege. I know, I know. Who am I to decide who has privilege?! Though I knew she was inspiring to other single parents, I grew to resent her.
A friend recently told me that her therapist says that resentment is always rooted in envy, and I realize that’s true. I resented Michael Chabon’s piece because I envied his financial circumstances and his coparent. I resented my then-friend because I envied her spousal and child support, as well as her attentive parents (who were in proximity to her). Maybe I envied her talent too, because I’m sure that I’m not the only one who read her posts about her productivity and wondered what was wrong with me that I was not able to produce at that speed.
And though I cannot and should not be the privilege police, I do know this: she happily turned down many, many paychecks in favor of her writing time, which I both envied and resented.
My son went to a creative writing camp last week that’s sponsored by Ohio State University. It’s only for Columbus City Schools students, and it’s entirely free. Redlining is a big issue here, and the entire district is considered to be economically disadvantaged because so many students fall under the poverty level. We do not fall under the poverty level now, but we did for a long time, and I refused to move to a suburb where my son would feel alienated because we don’t have a lot of money. He has thrived in this district, and I’ve never regretted the decision.
One of his instructors at the creative writing camp, an OSU MFA student, was shocked when she learned that I’m his mom.
“Mom,” he said, “She knew who you were when I said your book title! She didn’t even need me to say your name.” He was clearly surprised and thrilled and also seemed to think it was a little funny.
“Are you famous?” his friend asked.
“No,” I said, explaining that the literary world is small, and we tend to know each other.
But I was proud. I was proud that my son was able to see that all of the sacrifices we’d made together wasn’t for nothing, that his patience with me as I wrote for all of those years had created this world that makes his world better too.
The creative writing camp students all did a reading at the capstone event, and my son was so confident, so clear, and so, so funny. How is that my kid? I wondered. Where did this confidence come from?
Two days later, we watched Coco on the couch together with his best friend and my partner of a few years. Well, they watched Coco (while I read a book that I’d been asked to blurb). Still, I looked up and listened. There was so much joy and respect in the room.
Maybe I’m just a better parent for a teenager than a baby. Maybe I’m just no longer in an abusive marriage. Maybe I’m just no longer poor (though still lower middle-class), but the world is no longer gray. It’s no longer flat. It’s no longer two-dimensional.
“Look at how real that guitar looks,” my partner said, gesturing at the television. “How did they do that?”
How did they do it? How did these creators of Coco make this one-dimensional world look like so much more? How did they create something so full of love and joy and color, even though that world on the television must have, at some point, been flat?
I can’t know, but I can guess. My guess is that it was a world borne out of hope, and perseverance and luck. Maybe luck more than anything else. Just like the luck that gave me such a beautiful son, and the same luck that, though I floundered and failed in so many ways, somehow, I didn’t ruin his life, and you know what? He didn’t ruin my life either. In the end, he only made it more dimensional.