I remember settling sideways in a black, plastic chair to sit across from a new client. I was developing my freelance corporate writing career simultaneous to incubating my first baby. My client, a land developer, stared doubtfully at the tent-like awning—er, maternity blouse—brushing the edge of the table. I tried tucking my “bump” under the table, but that didn’t work. That’s why I ended up sitting sideways to take notes.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to finish this job?” he asked, gesturing to my bump, “I mean, will you finish it before…uh…in time?”
“Of course!” I chirped in reply. “The baby is due next month—plenty of time to complete your information packets. Let’s get started.”
After my meeting, I drove home wondering if he was right. Would I be able to finish his project? Even broader than that, would I be able to launch this part-time career and deal with a new baby? Could I be the mother I want to be and become the writer I want to be? Could I do both well?
I wasn’t sure.
Somewhere along the line I ran into a Madeleine L’Engle quote:.
During the long drag of years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict. The problem was really that I put two things first. My husband and children came first. So did my writing. Bump. (p. 19)
The bump. How interesting that she chose that word when talking about motherhood: bump. Funny, with biological moms flaunting their bumps these days in photos on blogs.
Anyway, knowing that Madeleine L’Engle developed her writing life in the context of motherhood gave me hope. If Madeleine figured it out, maybe I could, too.
And then an amazing opportunity presented itself. During that phase of early motherhood when my computer keyboard was bumping regularly against the umbrella stroller (metaphorically speaking), Madeleine spoke at a college about two hours away from my house. A friend of mine and I eagerly secured tickets. As expected, her talk inspired my writing-mind with her musings on time and space and creativity.
After her message, she signed books. Just to get her autograph, we stood for a long time, maybe an hour, in a line that snaked down a hallway. Madeleine’s health wasn’t good at the time, so they streamlined the process to minimize her stress and strain (and maximize the number of people who got books signed) by having us open our books and file through the room in a certain way. It was orchestrated smoothly. They wouldn’t appreciate a glitch.
I’m famous for glitches.
As we inched closer to the table where she sat signing book after book, I kept thinking, This is my chance to get some nugget to hold onto, some hope that somehow I’ll be able to pull off motherhood and writing.
“How, Madeleine?” I wanted to ask. “How did you do it?”
Maybe as much as knowing how, I just wanted some encouragement from her.
Maybe I wanted to hear her say, “You can do it. You’ll make it.”
Maybe a knowing smile and a slight nod would be enough.
I’m sure I was a maddening companion for my friend Julia during our long wait. I waffled. Should I ask, or should I just say thank-you and move on? If I asked her, what would she have time to say in the instant we were face-to-face?
Actually, I had a long list of questions I’d like to ask her. But I would have about five seconds.
Of all the things I could ask Madeleine L’Engle during those seconds I would stand in front of her—a chance in a lifetime—you’d think I’d go for something more esoteric or profound. Or ask her something more personal about Crosswicks or life in New York. But at that stage in my life, the most pressing question nagging me involved writing and motherhood:
How? How would I do this?
I handed her a book to sign (Walking on Water). She asked for my name and scrawled a note on its pages. She looked up and handed it to me.
“Thank you,” I said. Then I blurted it out: “When your kids were young…how did you do it? How did you manage to write?”
She looked up at me.
I’m sure my eyes were bugged out a little from the desperation I felt inside. I needed to know.
“It was hard,” she said.
And that was all she said.
Then she looked past me, hand outstretched for the next book, to scrawl another name, another mindless message, to click the next cog in the wheel that would get the assembly line back in motion and make up for my glitch.
It was hard? I already know that, Madeleine. I’m living that. I’m struggling. I’m dealing with the bump—the conflict, the struggle—every day.
I shuffled along with Julia out of the room.
What did I expect? It was a book signing, and I deserved no more time, wisdom or insight than anyone else in that long line of fans.
But boy did I need it. I needed hope from some author-mom on the other side, with kids all grown, who could look back and assure me that I’d make it through—someone who could offer a few principles for how to handle that Bump.
Madeleine couldn’t offer that.
Deep down, I knew it even before I asked.
A bit later I found myself in a writing workshop. Holly Miller was teaching. She used to work for the Saturday Evening Post. She’s written books and countless magazine articles. She frequently teaches writing workshops and seminars.
The event was held years ago in a small, intimate setting. Unlike my limited, five-second exchange with Madeleine, I had time to chat with Holly. I was the mother of three kids at the time. They were still very young.
After the official seminar finished, the room cleared out except for a few stragglers. I stood back and listened as she interacted with three friends of mine. Then she turned her attention to me.
I was lugging my portfolio, which included feature articles I’d written for the newspaper. A magazine article or two. Some brochures.
I’m sure she was noting that same bug-eyed look of desperation that poor Madeleine had to face.
“Here’s some of my work,” I stammered. “My kids are all young. I want to write and develop myself more.” She was leafing through the pages. “But…you, Holly, you’ve ‘arrived.’ You’ve done it! You’ve pulled it off—I dream of one day being where you are now. And you did it with kids. I just wonder how? How did you do it?”
She looked into my pleading, buggy eyes and reassured me. “You’re doing it. I mean, you’ve got some nice work here. You’re getting your name out there. You’re working at it. I think you should feel good about what’s shaping up here.”
Then I remember her eyes. There was a shift. She asked how old my kids were. I told her, and her eyes grew distant, almost melancholy. I don’t know if that’s what it was, but that’s what I felt.
“I’m where I am today because I worked long hours full-time when my kids were young,” she continued. “And now they’re grown. You’ll still have time to develop your career later, but you only have now with your kids. Your kids are so little, and they’re little for such a short time. Right now, I suggest you focus on your children. You’ll never regret spending time with those kids.
“Keep your finger in the publishing world,” she concluded. “Just keep your name out there. Publish locally with your paper, like you are. Submit to magazines. Keep it going on a small scale and your time will come.”
Finally: An answer.
I thought I was looking for hope or a plan of action. What I was really looking for was: Perspective.
That wistful look has carried me for years. I did not want to live with regret that I gave too much to my career and not enough to my little children, so I let that reflective advice assure me, especially when others were building more impressive careers than mine, that my time will probably come. Eventually.
And if it turns out that my time never comes as a writer, I’ll have been (and be) the mom I want to be for my children.
I was never bug-eyed desperate after that.
Taking Holly’s advice, I’ve faithfully kept my finger out there in the publishing world:
- maintaining this blog
- submitting to a magazine now and then
- authoring a book
- writing for corporations, organizations and not-for-profits.
I could stand to be savvier. There’s probably a way to make money from all these words I compose for the blog. I’m working on new projects and ramping up my writing life in other ways.
Maybe my time is coming. Maybe not. We shall see. Lord willing, we shall see.
But there are still soccer games to support. Softball practices. Meals and birthdays. Doctor’s appointments and carpets to vacuum.
My little boy just today asked me to read Mirette on the High Wire, which I did, along with Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge and Possum Magic. And then we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an apple cut up.
But he also had to wait while I finished up an e-mail that I had to send out for my freelance work, and when I told him he had to go to drop-off childcare so that I could attend some meetings, he muttered, “I wish you didn’t have this job.”
Bump. Bump. Bump.
Life’s an experiment. It evolves; I adapt.
I live, laugh, love…and write.
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