Ten Books for Mothers Who Write

Writing Motherhood: Tapping Into Your Creativity as a Mother and a Writer  by Lisa Garrigues

I love this book because Garrigues talks about her life as a mother and her insecurities as a writer.  Filled with humorous anecdotes and realistic writing exercises, this is the first book I turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

“Convinced that birth was the logical place to start, I asked students to tell their birth stories.  I had not anticipated such stark accounts of late-term stillbirths, emergency C-sections, and postnatal intensive care, nor had I considered that some women might have alternative birth stories to tell.”

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
  by Anne Lamott

Even before I got pregnant with my son, I wore this book out rereading it.  Lamott writes about being the mother of a new baby with real candor.  She writes the things we think as new moms but would never say out loud.  Her book is part memoir, part handbook of baby milestones, and part writing advice. Hilarious and touching.

“I just can’t get over how much babies cry.  I really had no idea what I was getting into.  To tell you the truth, I thought it would be more like getting a cat.”

Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within by Kim Addonizio

One of the best books on writing poetry.  If you’ve never thought about writing poetry, read this book anyway.  Addonizio touches on issues of race, gender, class, and addiction, and helps writers put their thoughts into words.  Emphasizes the poetic nature of everyday speech and everyday experiences.

“Look for the next step in your creative journey, and don’t worry about where or how that journey will end.”

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

A classic must-read for any writer of poetry or prose.  Rilke explores why we write, and his voice is as alive and present today as it was when this was first published in the 1930s.  Deeply moving.

“…there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree…”

Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids  by Christina Katz

Sensible and practical advice, I come to this again and again when I feel stuck.

“…responding to the happenings in everyday life is often the best place for beginning writers to start.”

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

The only author to make this list twice, Lamott has a way of relating writing to life, making this a self-help book as much as a how-to-write book.

“I wish I had a secret I could let you in on, some formula my father passed on to me in a whisper just before he died, some code word that has enabled me to sit at my desk and land flights of creative inspiration just like an air-traffic controller.  But I don’t.”

On Writing by Stephen King

King tells the story of his early life as a writer and father with as much drama as a feature film.  I love this book because it is part biography and part how-to, and like a magician sharing his secrets, King lets you in on how he became a master storyteller.

“I took her by the shoulders.  I told her about the paperback sale.  She didn’t appear to understand.  I told her again.  Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.”

Page After Page 
by Heather Sellers

This book is not just about writing, it’s also about reading and developing a love of the written word.  Sellers writes humorously about sleeping with large piles of books in her bed.  What I love about this book is that the exercises don’t feel like homework, they are fun and engaging.

“Ten minutes, in your journal: Write about your unwritten projects.  Interview yourself and find out what it is you really want to write.”

Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life by Faulkner Fox

Fox’s memoir reflects on everything from her writing career to her life as a mother. She discusses issues like attachment parenting, home birth, feminism, and miscarriage.  This book does not offer specific writing advice or exercises, but I read it to feel like I’m not alone in the trenches of motherhood.

“When I had a three-year-old and a seven-month-old, I loved my children passionately, and I was also very unhappy.  This made me guilty.  What did I have to be unhappy about?”

No Plot? No Problem!  by Chris Baty

The founder of National Novel Writing Month, Baty discusses how to write a novel in a month.  However, this book is so much more than that.  It’s really a book about how to give yourself permission to be a writer, and how to find motivation when your energy levels are low.  I keep it on my desk and thumb through it again and again while writing.

“If your fiction is anything like mine, you have long since become accustomed to the concept of underachievement.”

Confessions of an Invisible Woman

My summer, the summer in which I get to be a stay-at-home mom, the summer I’ve been dreaming about for years, is 2/3 over.  I have to go back to work in one month.  I have two words to say about that: THANK GOD. Yes, I will miss my son so much it will tear my heart out every day, but I will be taking a shower, putting on grown-up clothes, and using my brain.  And these things I need to do, as much as I need to eat and sleep.

I don’t remember who I was before I had a baby, but somewhere buried deep in my dying brain I remember that I was a writer, a teacher, a photographer, and a lover of books.  I was interested in politics and history and yoga. Now I spend my time debating whether I should feed my son rice cereal or bananas and reading parenting forums to find out more about the texture and color of his poop. I have a doctorate for god’s sake. I am an intellectual.

Who I used to be before I was Oscar’s mom is gone now, but I still feel her, like a phantom limb.  Most of all, I remember that time passed a little more slowly.  I used to while away a Saturday afternoon reading magazine and watching movies.  When I got together with people, we used to engage in long, leisurely conversations about a wide variety of topics.  Now, when I’m not talking over Oscar’s squirming body or impatient crying, I’m talking about Oscar.  Most people don’t talk to me at all.  They just see Oscar and immediately launch into squeals of glee and mindless jabber.  I understand, I do the same thing when I see him.  I have become Oscar’s personal assistant and entourage, doing everything for him and then getting out of the way of his adoring fans.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go out, without Oscar, and I jumped at the chance.  And for one brief moment, I felt like my old self, and it felt good.  But it almost didn’t happen, and I realized how much I used to take for granted the simplest outings.  It was Sunday night and all I wanted to do was spend a few hours at Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee, eating sweets, looking at books, and talking about anything except babies.

The first thing that went wrong was that Oscar wouldn’t go to sleep.  Don’t tell me that babies aren’t psychic, because my child knows when I need him to PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go to sleep NOW.  No amount of promising him a car when he turns sixteen will do the trick.  I just have to wait patiently while he launches into his stand-up-comedy routine, then cries loudly at the injustice of it all, then finally drifts off into a sleep so light that if I even think about putting him down his eyes will pop back open.  I was finally free at 9:00, only to find out that Barnes and Noble closes at 9:00 on Sundays (I would like to personally speak to whoever is responsible for that little travesty—please contact me).  I settled on an alternate but much less desirable location.  On the way over I was angry.  Angry at the delay, angry at the change in plans, and angry that I couldn’t find a good song on the radio (why can’t I ever find a damn song to match my mood?) and, most of all, angry that I was on the clock.  That’s what I call it, “on the clock.”  Because as soon as Oscar eats or falls asleep, I punch an invisible time clock.  Not only was I already exhausted, but I knew I would be awake sometime between 3-5 in the morning with my sweet little parasite sucking away all of my vital nourishment.  Then I smiled, because I realized that for a short period of time I was free.  FREEEEEE!!!

If I sound like a heartless, horrible mom and/or a spoiled brat, obviously you don’t have children.

To most moms of young children, those free hours away from our kids (whether they are napping or with a babysitter) feel like New Year’s Eve.  Everything has to be perfect and you want to wear a little paper hat and get drunk and feel festive, but usually you just wind up getting into a fight and passing out.

I was desperate to have a good time.  And since I am currently not drinking, that means books and some form of sugar.  Because Barnes and Noble was closed my friend Angie and I went to used a bookstore nearby.  Not as good, but it would do.  However, they didn’t serve beverages or treats (I hope there a special place in Heaven for whoever decided to put coffee shops in bookstores), so we found some books to buy and headed over to Angie’s house where we drank (caffeine-free) coffee and ate a huge piece of the Batman cake her son had made.  Red velvet cake with green icing.  It looked truly vile, but it contained sugar, so I was happy.

Then came the best part.  After browsing through my books (nothing about parenting or poop) I stretched out along the foot of Angie’s bed, like I used to do when we were teenagers, and we talked about everything except our kids.  She even locked the bedroom door so her kids or her husband couldn’t bug us.  It was like a slumber party and I felt twenty years younger.

Then my time was up, as it always is, and I went back home to Oscar.

I am now a mom.  In some ways, all of us moms are invisible.  We provide for our child’s needs, nurture them and guide them, and then watch from backstage while they shine.

The nice thing about having a five-month-old is that to Oscar I am not invisible.  When he looks at me, speaks softly in his little baby language, and reaches out to touch my face, I know I am the most important person in his life. This will last for a short while, and then one day Oscar will grab the car keys, say, “See ya,” and I will be invisible once again.

Letter to Oscar: Month Five

You were once my tiny button-nosed baby, a tidy package swaddled in your receiving blanket, and I could hold the lightness of your being with one competent arm while I went about my day.

Then I closed my eyes and dreamed for one moment that life with a baby was easy and could be managed.  That time would stretch out endlessly like a childhood summer.  When I opened my eyes you had grown into a long-limbed boy, reaching with your arms, grabbing with your hands, kicking with your legs, determined to explore and carefully dismantle the world around you.

You were once content to sit squat on my lap like a baby buddha, sucking on your fists and studying the world around you in quiet contemplation.  Now I can barely hold your squirmy little boy body.  I can no longer eat or drink while I’m holding you, because you are determined to upend my glass and grab my food.  The computer keyboard has become much more exciting than any of your toys, and you will yell out loud if I don’t let you bang on it.  You think the funniest thing in the world is grabbing hold of Mama’s hair and not letting go.  You have officicially become what they call a handful.  Yet how can I regret these changes when it means that you reach for me in recognition, that you beam at me when I come to get you in the morning, and that you laugh out loud when I blow raspberries on your tummy.

You are outgrowing your clothes so quickly I will reach for an outfit that fit you yesterday only to find out that it doesn’t fit you today.  You have already outgrown your baby carrier and are now in a “big boy” car seat.  You are so heavy that Mama’s arms are sore from lifting you out of your crib.  Where rolling over was a once a big deal, something your Mama and Papa cheered and got very excited about, it is now so boring and mundane.  We all yawn everytime you do it. Except that we can’t leave you unattended anymore, and life with a baby is suddenly no longer as easy as I thought it was going to be.

The next few months will bring many changes.  You will begin eating solid food.  You will try to sit up on your own.  You will eventually crawl.  I’m excited and I’m afraid.  I’m afraid that someday you will learn that the world is not always a good place.  I am afraid that someday you will be hurt, either physically or emotionally, and I won’t be able to protect you.  Most of all I’m afraid that I will forget what it was like to hold you for the first time, that I will forget the newness of your baby smell and the softeness of your baby skin.  I wish I could freeze time forever, but then I would never see you stand up and walk with your arms outstretched toward the world.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

One year ago today, July 7, 2008, was the first time we saw Oscar.

I was so afraid of that ultrasound.  Pregnant for the first time at thirty-seven, after our positive pregnancy test I scoured the internet for information, and I knew that there was a good chance, as high at 25%, that we would get bad news.  I was fully prepared to be told that the pregnancy was not viable, that my embryo was hideously deformed, or that I was not even pregnant. I was also terrified of having twins.

We arrived at the doctor’s office on time, but had to wait forty-five minutes in an over-air-conditioned waiting room because they were running behind.  I witnessed several very pregnant women come and go, and overheard a discussion in hushed tones about a patient who had just found out she was having a miscarriage.  I had to pee, I had to vomit, and I had to scream.  I held it together by jiggling my leg so fast I thought my foot might fall off, and babbling random gibberish to Darin.  Poor Darin.

When it was finally our turn I had given up all hope.  I had heard horror stories about doctors studying the ultrasound screen for long, quiet minutes before delivering the bad news.  My doctor placed the wand, turned to the screen, grinned, and said, “Congratulations.”  I immediately started to cry.

The best part came a few minutes later when he showed me and then Darin the heartbeat.  Just a rice grain of a heart, pulsing with a little light.  It was the most beautiful thing I had seen and that was one of the happiest days of my life.  On the elevator ride downstairs, on the walk to the car, and on the drive home, I couldn’t stop looking at the ultrasound.  My little bean.

One year later that bean has grown into my beautiful son.  Sometimes he looks at me like he has known me all along, with a kind of strange wisdom, like an old soul. Sometimes he bathes me with the light of his gummy smile, sometimes he laughs, and sometimes he spits up.  When I look at him I think two things.  One, that I am the luckiest person in the world, and two, Thank God he wasn’t twins.

I Remember Freedom

I thought Independence day would be a good time to think about what the concept of freedom means in my own life and how it has changed so dramatically in the past year.

Before Oscar I considered myself to be a pretty free person.  Free to live and work where I wanted, free to come and go as I pleased, free to eat anything, and free to sleep in until ten on the weekends.  Like the early settlers of this country, dependent on the Motherland, my freedoms have been stripped away one at at time by my own little tyrant king, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The first freedom that I lost was the freedom to put whatever I wanted into my body.  After seeing that positive pregnancy test, I gave up my beloved caffeine, as well as alcohol, sushi, bacon, sausage, and lunch meat (there is a special place in hell for whoever decided that these things are bad for pregnant women).  Darin and I argued frequently over what I should or should not be eating, until I developed heartburn so severe that I almost didn’t want to eat anything, and before I developed ketones in my urine which led our midwife to admonish me to eat anything, just eat.

What appealed to me about home birth was the idea that I would have control over my body during the birth process.  When Oscar moved into a breech position I was robbed of all of that control.  I not only had to have a hospital birth, I had to have a C-section.  Having a spinal block removes freedom of movement, and I wasn’t even free to hold my child after he was born.

For the first twenty-four hours of Oscar’s life I was confined to bed, utterly dependent on Darin, as well as strangers, for my most basic needs (not only freedom but also modesty is stripped away) as well as the basic needs of my son.  Except for feeding him in bed, there was little else I could do for him.  I will never forget the first time I got out of bed without being restricted by wires and tubes.  Darin handed Oscar to me, and for the first time,  I got to hold him while standing up.
After Oscar came home with us, freedom became a distant memory.  I am no longer free to go where I want when I want.  Any trip outside the house involves some sort of strategic planning, either to find someone to stay with the baby, or to figure out what I need to take along for the baby.  I am not even free to eat and sleep when I want.  My life is an endless serious of planning, timing, and negotiations.  That’s because the one person in my life who has absolutely no freedom at all is Oscar.  Oscar can’t feed himself, change himself, or even walk across the room to get his favorite toy.  To have someone so dependent on me is a tremendous weight of responsibility.

But there is one more thing that has changed, and that is the way Oscar allows me to be present in the moment.  He notices the little things, like the breeze on his face, a bright colored object on a shelf, the sound of birds in the morning.  He forces me to remember the kind of freedom that only little children know, freedom from the knowledge that anything bad could ever happen or that this day could ever end.  When I smile at him, his whole face lights up, and I realize that I am bound and shackled to him forever. I have never  felt more dependent, and I am glad.