What Becoming A Mother Taught Me About Writing (And What Writing Taught Me About Being A Mother)


A piece by Michelle Herman

I started out thinking I didn’t want to have children — or, rather, that I could not be both a writer and a mother, that I had to make a choice. If you’d asked me in my 20s, I would have responded with great certainty: no kids, absolutely not. By my early 30s, I wasn’t quite as adamant — I’d been in a relationship by then with someone who wanted six children, and whom I’d spent four years helping to care for his own younger siblings, for whom he was guardian — and although that relationship had ended (because I had finally, anxiously, ambivalently, said, “Maybe one child — okay, one child — but certainly not six”), I had discovered along the way that I might in fact want to be a mother after all.

By the time I was 35, and still single and childless, careening my way from one disastrous relationship to the next, I knew I wanted to have a child. I thought about it a lot; I talked about it a lot — I was especially interested in talking about it to women writers who’d had children. I talked about it to Tillie Olsen, who was alarmed, who urged me to wait (who commanded me to wait) until I published my second book — I had just published my first, a novel — before having a child. She pointed out that it had taken her decades after the publication of her first book to write and publish another, because she’d been so busy raising children. I knew that; I’d read all her books, including Silences, which was in part about this very thing. But I didn’t want to wait — I didn’t think I could wait — until I’d published a second book. I was running out of time, I thought.

The only trouble was: there was no potential father in sight, and while I wasn’t ruling out the possibility of bringing a child into the world without two parents — if it came to it, I thought, I’d do it — I didn’t like the idea. Ending up as a single mother was one thing; planning fatherlessness was another — an act of bad faith, I thought, especially for someone whose own father had been (and still was) so important to her.

And then, at 37, I met Glen, a gentle, brilliant, serious, good man, a man with whom it was easy to imagine having a child.

And then I didn’t have to imagine it any longer.

I named our daughter Grace because that was how I felt then: graced by her. I still do. And — oh, how I wish Tillie were still around for me to tell her this! — I published my second book when she started kindergarten, after writing two — two! — that remained unpublished between the first and second. I wrote my third published book, nonfiction about being Grace’s mother, while sitting waiting for her during piano and guitar lessons, birthday parties at ice skating rinks and bowling alleys — whenever I had half an hour to myself, I opened up the laptop and jumped back in.

I had worried so, when I was young, that if I ever had a child I would stop being a writer, would have no time or energy to write, would lose focus, would lose myself — but I became more, not less, productive after I had Grace. Once time and concentration were at a premium — when I no longer had the luxury, ever, of a whole day, or even very many unbroken, uninterrupted hours, to write — I learned to focus quickly and accomplish plenty in short periods of time. I also learned to write no matter how noisy the environment might be — something I had never been able to do before — and while my daughter and her friends, once they were old enough not to require constant supervision, wandered in and out of my study, sometimes pausing to read over my shoulder and offer comments.

I used to be so precious about writing: only in this particular spot, in this chair, at this time, after doing these several preparatory things, and only if I had at least three hours to spend at it. But the shift from all my eggs (no pun whatsoever intended) in one basket — the meaning of my life entirely bound up with my writing — to the opening up of life that motherhood offered, the sense I had, from early in my pregnancy, that my life’s work was to be found here, too, changed me and changed my work forever. It changed the way I wrote, and it changed what I wrote about.

I write about my daughter all the time. She doesn’t mind; sometimes she likes it. I have always told her that I’d quit doing it any time she wanted me to. Since she hasn’t asked me yet — and she’s 21 (and has done a little writing about me by now) — I think it’s unlikely that she ever will.

But I will say this: when my book about raising her, The Middle of Everything, came out in 2005, and I suddenly became panic-stricken myself (what would people think of me when they read it? They would think I was a terrible mother! At certain points in the book I called myself a terrible mother!), Grace, at 12, dismissed my anxiety. “The only one who gets to say how good or bad a mother you’ve been is me.” And of course she was right about that. But I will also never forget that a few weeks after the book came out, a woman I didn’t know grabbed me as Grace and I made our way downstairs at the Columbus Youth Ballet after Grace’s modern dance class and said, “I just read your book! I can’t decide whether you’re brave or stupid to have put that all in writing.”

I’ve thought of this more often than you’d think in the years since. I’ll read over something that I’ve written and think, “Oh, dear, you are either being brave or stupid, aren’t you?”

But for me, “stupid” stands in for not thinking, only acting, for rushing — blundering — ahead without worrying about the consequences. And “brave” stands in for exactly the same thing.

And so the question makes me smile, every time.

Be stupid, I tell myself. Be brave. Go ahead. It was how you became a mother, wasn’t it?

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