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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Saturday, February 04, 2006

More on Motherhood, Solitude and Writing

I've been wondering why that one essay in Literary Mama pushed my buttons like that. And I think it's because of the hundreds of blaring messages (from other mothers especially) who say that it is NOT okay to leave your children - for a day, or a week, or God forbid, a month - to be a writer.

It seems like it's more okay to leave for "business" reasons; ie, if you're getting paid, and the implication there is that you really don't want to leave, but you have to, for the financial survival of your family. So everyone has to sacrifice. And it also seems like it's okay to leave your children to have a romantic getaway with your spouse. We've done this fairly regularly for overnights, but not for a week or a month. But to leave the precious darlings, so you can scribble away in some cabin? Uhm, you must be related to the Unabomber, to want to do something like that.

When I was awarded a five-week fellowship at MacDowell two years ago, I was beside myself with excitement. A few days before I was to leave, we held a Memorial Day barbecue out on our deck. One of our guests, the mother of my then-13 year old daughter, gasped when I told her how long I'd be gone. "You're no mother!" she said. And if you pressed her, she would've said she was kidding. But she wasn't. Not really.

I don't know why I have found it absolutely necessary for me to find this time away, ever since my firstborn was about a year old. And even before then, since she was about three months, I always found a way to take a few hours in a cafe or library. Maybe this makes me a bad mother. I've never had a huge amount of separation anxiety and neither have my kids. My seven year old was chomping at the bit to go to sleepaway camp, and since I let her go, this also apparantly makes me a bad mother. (GASP! Sleeping away? At seven??) She completed her 8th and final year as a camper last summer, and is now hoping to be a teen staff at the place that has allowed her such joy and independence.

I've often found myself saying that my writing is like my third child, and I would feel just as miserable and neglectful if I didn't give it the same time and energy that I give my other children. And it's true - the more time that I write, the more generous and energetic and affection I feel when I return. And when I spend too much time carpooling, erranding, and tending to the other minutae of family life, without taking writing time, I'm a terrible, cranky parent. It has to balance out.

When my children were small, I took enormous solace and company in a book called A Question of Balance. It was filled with women who felt equal desires to create and to parent. It was a lifeline for me, really a vital link to my sanity, to know that I wasn't alone. Which is why I was so excited to read the beginning of that essay, "I need my solitude." What killed me is that she seemed to throw up her hands and say, "Oh well, but not now."

Well, I need it. And it doesn't appear to have harmed my family that I have taken it, in big and small chunks, since they were little. I truly am a big believer in this whole It-Takes-A-Village notion. I've been happy to have my children cared for by a huge community of people, from relatives to paid help to friends. Ten cheers for the sleepover! (which they both started at the age of three) Everyone obviously has to do what they feel comfortable with, but I think that more mother-writers would be surprised at how comfortable solitude could get if only they could give it a try, and not feel guilty about it. And if they could only feel as if they and their writing are worthy of it.

I recognize that a group for whom this is a massive challenge is single parents. I know it's hard to even find enough solitude and time to wipe your own bottom, let alone write a novel. But for people who have partners and relatives and friends and parents of friends, I say go for it. Your children won't be scarred or harmed. And they might even do better than if you didn't go for your solitude. They'll have a happier, more satisfied and fulfilled mother. And that's good for everyone.


Anonymous Harry/WO said...

Dear Susan, I think you got it exactly right. If your kids are healthy and have a dad and a babysitter and neighbors and a grandma, you must take that freedom esp if you kids are LIKE you and liked going away to camp fairly early.

The problem is for the not so healthy kid, with no family and only one parent. For those in this situation, it's really tricky. I had a clingy kid and probably she still is in her grown up almost 20 way, but over and over I had to postpone trips,

thinking of that famous Nora Ephron line that seemed made for me and my only: "Some kids do not want you, mother, to self-actualize. They'd really prefer you to be suicidal but HOME"... so you clarified for me the differences in family vs. single, in solitude that is good for you and kids, in the unallowed solitude that is due to 'special circumstances.'

I have read about Ingrid Bergman who was addicted to films and after four hours home just HAD to get out, that domesticity undid her. So say her unharmed kids. So, it depends. On one's idea of mothering, on the actual kid you get to mother, and the extended or defunct social system we live. I say to you, YES, writing and solitude are rightly yr third child. I also have often wondered whether you couldn't hire a GREAT driver, bec. the amount of time you spend in cars, as once I did, is damaging to yr health. Just my nickle. Love Harry/O

Monday, February 06, 2006 12:13:00 AM

Blogger reverendmother said...

Great post. (Found you through midlife mama.)

I just got accepted to a weeklong writing workshop here in town. It's a retreat type of thing--write in the morning, group critique in the afternoon. My baby will be three months old at the time, I am nursing, so I am going to write from home in the morning and commute to the retreat each afternoon. I have a dear friend who's offered to watch the baby so I can write and participate in the group stuff.

People think I'm nuts--why would you put yourself and your baby through this? (and the unspoken "what kind of mother are you?"), but I feel like I can't pass up this opportunity. It won't be the experience it would have been without a baby, but it will be wonderful in its own way. And what is the alternative when one has a child? There is *never* a convenient time. You take your moments, hours, days, when you can get them.

I haven't read the essay you're talking about yet, although I have the book. I agree that solitude is important and we shouldn't feel guilty about it, assuming our kid's basic needs are being met. I am trying to think about ways to steal away for an hour or three at a cafe, once she gets a little bit older.

Anyway, I really resonated with this!

There's a great essay in the new Mothers Who Think collection, by Rosellen Brown. It touches on a lot of these things too. Your library might have it.

Thanks for your post.

Monday, February 06, 2006 6:12:00 AM

Blogger Becca said...

I completely agree with you. I've never had trouble leaving my children, whether for a few hours with a babysitter at two months, or for a few days for a work trip. And they've been sad at times but always been, overall, fine. If I asked my nine year old whether moms should always be with their kids, she would laugh and roll her eyes--in fact I just asked her and she said when I go away on trips it makes her love me more when I come back. The longest I've done is two weeks, and that was admittedly hard for them (they were two and seven), but god I loved it. Then again, I know a woman who left her three year old for four months, and I know another who is away from her three year old right now for a year, with visits every few weeks, both for academic work. That seems crazy to me, but then I think that what I do seems crazy to some other women, so who knows. Must go read this Literary Mama essay which has stimulated you and Midlife Mama, who led me to your post.

Monday, February 06, 2006 7:46:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

becca, yes,I think often absence does make the heart grow fonder, on both sides. I've both appreciated and felt more apprecation from everyone in my family when I return.

reverendmother, yay for you for taking that workshop opportunity. And thanks for pointing out the Rosellen Brown essay - I will look for it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 1:32:00 PM

Blogger Lizbeth said...


As the originator of the essay on solitude, I'm happy that my essay has created a lively and necessary discussion.

I'm surprised at your initial response though, because by no means did I give up my solitude or did I intend that to be the message of my essay. I simply learned that I needed to exist more in the moment and stop harping on the ways in which my life had changed. There were definite adjustments that had to be made to my perceptions of my life.

I had a lot of guilt early on about separating from my children. I wish I didn't. But I did. I eventually learned (with the help of a therapist) that I needed that separation and that room to create or else I wasn't doing anyone any favors.

It has become amazingly easier to separate from my children and find more time for solitude as they get older. When I wrote that essay (2001) I was in crisis mode -- with a 2 and a 4 year old, I felt overwhelmed, and I never thought I'd have time for myself again. That made the future look very bleak.

The good news is that during those crazy first years of motherhood, I learned to write under "combat conditions" -- fast and furious. And now, I have hours and hours of quiet time to write while the kids are at school, and rather than feeling lonely or like an empty nester, I feel I'm back in my comfort zone. And I am incredibly productive.

But even back then, I was luckier than many women. I had my own home office, a room of my own. I had access to reliable/affordable daycare. I had a supportive husband who had no problem with me taking the time I needed when I needed.

Like many moms, my biggest hurdle was my own guilt. And I'm still struggling with that somewhat. It's hard not to when your kids tell you that you work too much.

In fact, I have a research trip planned for May (for a screenplay I'm writing with my partner) and they already told me that they're not happy about it. Part of me wants to never leave them, never make them unhappy. And another part of me knows they'll survive. Plus, hopefully they'll realize that it's okay for mom to leave sometimes too -- that my work is as important as dad's.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006 9:12:00 PM


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