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Talking about writing in bathrooms
On my first book club meet & how my children will perceive being written about
Hello, hello! greetings from beautiful faces, interspersed with baby and toddler babble, popped up on Zoom. I was sitting on a pillow on the toilet with my laptop on a book balancing on my knees. My bathroom is the only room other than the child-occupied bedrooms that has a closed door. I wasn’t writing at that moment, but it seems fitting that I was talking about writing in a bathroom so that my sleeping children wouldn’t hear me. Olivia Campbell writes that, “Bathrooms and closets are … filled with hiding writer-moms.”
Last week was the first meeting of the Art Monsters book club/reading group I started. There were nine of us on Zoom (illnesses and an impending snowstorm that never materialized kept even the local participants apart), from Canada, USA, and China. We stuck around for much longer than anticipated—two hours (!)—taking time to pay attention to Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Madeline Donahue’s Scissors and each other.
I left the evening with an extraordinary high and I’m grateful for the brilliant and astute conversation around motherhood and mothering from a literary and artistic perspective.
When our conversation turned into musings on the legacy of work about parenthood, specifically its relationship to the children of the artist/writer, Patti Maciesz said the most shrewd thing: It is a beautiful and vital thing if we make the art we need to make so we can feel fulfilled and model a life worth living for our children.
I am often at odds with this desire: the need to make work versus the time needed to make the work. Making the work eats into the time spent with my children, especially baby O—. We can only afford 15 hours of childcare for O— (and where all the subscriber money goes!) and S— is only beginning to understand that his parents’ ‘work’ involves sitting at a computer, or sometimes just sitting in thought. But that understanding doesn’t yet translate to an acceptance that our work isn’t something we do against him, or time with him.
From “Dear Rose” in Time Is a Mother (2022), Ocean Vuong writes:
you bought me pencils reader I could
not speak so I wrote myself into
silence where I stood waiting for you
to read me do you read me now
He wrote this after his mother’s death.
I don’t want my yearning to understand mother-time to miss the expansive child-parent time. Sarah Manguso wrote an entire book about this that I read out loud over and over again to S— after he was born. The book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), a meditation on (motherhood’s) temporality, with phrases like: “Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything,” made me question the yearning but not know how to stop it.
I know many parents travel away from their children for their ambitions, and have at least one family member that can tuck them away into loving arms. We don’t have that, and have no understanding beyond envy of how that could be. But then again, in Little Labors, Galchen writes, “being a writer who has a baby is really nothing like being a writer who has a child.” This is true. Sarah Manguso writes:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world. —Ongoingness (2015)
(I remember being awash with strength and recognition the first time I read the above in 2016; it’s possible to be pulverized to nothing, and simultaneously be everything, in child-parent time.)
What meaning will writing about motherhood and/or our children have to them? What will they make of it? Will they care? My writing and art is always undergirded in part as a love letter to my children, even the difficult, confusing, desperate parts of parenthood. But how I understand expressions of love may not coincide with how they understand it.
How do you make sense of parent-time, and the way it is constantly changing. Do you remember your parents ever having these contradictory feelings? Or you, figuring out how to live alongside their art? your art?