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A message from the other side of mother guilt

In the Acknowledgments section of my first novel I thank a woman named Lois who, more than any agent or editor or publisher, made that book possible. You see, when my eldest started kindergarten, she offered to have my youngest at her house one morning each week so that I could write.

Gramma Lois did this for years. “Just thank me in the acknowledgments when your book comes out,” she’d say. And then, at the launch, she was right there in the front row, just delighted.

Gramma Lois died suddenly and much too young, quite a few years ago. I still cry when I think about her and how kind she was to us all, but here’s the thing. As kind and generous as her support was, I felt guilty about it.

Gramma Lois with Boy #1 in the before times.

As a young mother, I felt guilty about everything.

I see you there, mothers on social media, mothers of young children that I know, taking a moment or an hour or a day to yourself and thinking it is all your fault now, and then, and still tomorrow.

If you are a mother that yearns to write, there are a few things I want to tell you. I want to grab you in the grocery story and hiss, “Write! They are not going to die if you take 20 minutes a day to yourself!” For sure I’m in your DMs, and I apologize if my fierce encouragement spills over into overbearing advice. It’s just I really want you to do the creative work that is calling you.

I almost lost myself completely when my kids were young. I knew I needed to be writing, but between nursing and diapering and cutting up small snacks only to throw them away later, between work and day care and exhaustion and trying to stay connected to my partner, between stress over colouring homework and piano lessons and that one time the church ladies asked me to make a jellied salad and ALL OF IT, there was just no time.

What became intolerable to me was devoting my life so fully to my kids becoming themselves, while losing myself so completely in the process. What kind of example was I setting? Who would they become if their mother was nothing more than a reflection of their wants and needs?

Most of all, I could not tolerate the idea of my kids not knowing the real me. And so I started to speak up. And, guess what?

No one died.

I carved out time to write. It was an active process. No one was going to give me this thing. Over and over I had to claim it. I had to reach across my husband and children and grab it. As women we are taught that this behaviour is rude, but isn’t it more rude to erase a woman’s very existence?

Yes, I got up early. But I also took up Gramma Lois on her offer. My husband wanted to start bringing the kids to church, and I said yes, go, and also, I’m not coming. I set my lawn chair apart at the soccer field and wrote instead of making small talk. I wrote in the waiting room at the orthodontist. I did not go along on every trip to visit my husband’s family and stayed home to write instead. I took up multiple offers of house sitting and empty cabins and guest rooms to go on solo writing retreats for a night or three or as long as we could manage. Once my books were published I went on book tours and to festivals and I stayed in cheap motels and fancy hotels and in friends’ guest rooms and studios and once, a hunting cabin.

If I could get an hour or a night or a half day to write, I would take it.

I am not saying any of this was easy. I felt guilty every single second. And I am not saying pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or buckle down, or neglect your children. No. What I am saying is that some of the things mothers are expected to do, we don’t really need to do. No one is going to die if you write instead of going for Easter dinner at your in laws’. You can speak up and take back that time.
(I wrote everything I know about negotiating and committing to creative time in this post.)

But what I want to talk about today is not the time, but the guilt.

Oh, yes, I felt guilty about all of it. Every single minute. My stomach cramped with it, on so many nights, in so many guest rooms. It was physically painful to hear their happy voices over the phone. I cried on airplanes and spent precious writing retreat hours talking myself out of guilt so I could actually write.

I almost let guilt stop me, but I kept going anyway. How could I? (How could she?)

First, I always knew my kids were safe and cared for. They may not have been cared for by me in those times, but they were cared for. They may have preferred to have me. It may have been easier for everyone else if I was there, but am I here on this earth to make everyone else’s life easier? Is that my purpose? Really?

I refuse to believe that.

Second, I was playing a long game.

I want my kids to live lives where they feel free to follow their creative curiosity, at least somewhat unhampered by conventional expectations. This is very important to me, because I come from a long line of ancestors who used alcohol to repress their creativity. Many of them died much too young, leaving a trail of broken relationships in their wake. The very act of devoting a few hours each day to my own creative practice is breaking the pattern of generations. If I said no to some of the trappings of motherhood, it was in service of this bigger vision, saying yes to my own creativity, so my children and grandchildren could as well.

Treasure each damn moment

People know better than to say treasure every second anymore, right? I hope they do. That’s just too much pressure. But I will tell you that time will pass. Whether you carve out time for your creative expression or not, time will pass.

In a few weeks, that toddler that I left with Gramma Lois all those mornings, all those years ago, will turn 18. And a few weeks after that, he will graduate from high school, and then he will go to college to study in a creative field that he has pursued with dogged, self-propelled curiosity since he was eight years old.

A while ago, he was sitting at the kitchen stool and I was chopping up snacks for him. (The good news is that when they are almost 18 they will eat all the snacks you chop up, and then some.)

I started asking him what he remembered about those times.

Did he remember me going away for writing retreats? (No.)
Did he remember Sunday mornings going to church without me? (No.)
Did he remember long weekends at his grandparents’ without me? (Nope. I mean he remembered the weekends, he loved the go cart his Papa restored for him and all the fun Easter egg hunts, but he didn’t remember me not being there.)
Did he remember the summer we all went to Vancouver so I could take writing courses and I was in class all day every day and he was with his dad or at summer camp? (Nope.)
Did he remember my 4:30am mornings, that I did for years and years. (No.)
Did he remember me ignoring his soccer playing so I could write in a corner of the field, or not being a Cub leader so I could write in the car during Cubs meetings? (No.)

The only thing he remembered was Gramma Lois. Of course he remembers her. (Can you imagine if I, out of mother guilt or mother fear, had said no to Gramma Lois’ kind offer? What a loss that would have been!)

When I told him that I almost did not become a writer because carving out that time to write was so very difficult, he looked really surprised.

And he said, “I can’t image you not being a writer.”

Young Mother, on your way to the coffee shop for an hour, or away to a hotel room in your own city for a night, I leave you here, with this message from the other side.

Are they safe and cared for? Then off you go. Your creative work is calling and you are listening. You are not deserting them, you are showing them the way. They will not remember the circumstances, but they will remember what you showed them. If you let this happen, if you listen, if you write, you will express more of you, and your children will know you that they too can be themselves.

What a gift you are giving them! Are they safe and cared for? Then off you go now. Write, even if ‘just’ for 20 minutes. The daggers in your partner’s eyes, the criticism from the other parents, the spear of guilt in your own belly are the cost of knowing.

Off you go now. You must write.

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