In the Company of Women Writers
Before I was anything else, I was my mother’s daughter. My mother is a writer, as well as a woman who insists on herself, unapologetically. Too often as women, we disappear into our relationships. Our parents, lovers, husbands, and children define us. We learn, in whatever small and insidious ways, that we are insufficient on our own. It is too easy to fade away inside, distracted by the dishes in the sink, the ringing phone, the spouse who wants sex, or the baby who wants milk. The work—paid or unpaid, acknowledged or not—consumes us. We lose sight of the most essential work of daily life: insisting upon ourselves; having an emotional and intellectual life that we choose and craft, that is wholly ours.
I knew from early in my relationship with my husband that I wanted a child with him. We spent 10 years together working, traveling, and finishing school before I started trying to conceive. It took me three years to get pregnant. During that time, I wrote. I fantasized about becoming a mother, maybe even a mother as good as my own. I wanted to be the kind of powerful presence for my children that my mother has always been for me. Never in my life had I wanted something so badly.
Time passed and my hope of getting pregnant became a desperate thing that cast a shadow over my life. Someone mentioned in passing that a women’s writing group, called Powder Keg, had started at the local library. It was affiliated with the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, which I loved, and taught by the writer Suzi Banks Baum, whom I had seen give a reading once. I went to the next meeting. I quickly found that the constellation of relationships and desire that drove my own life was familiar to the women with whom I gathered every week to write. They were also mothers and daughters. They had also met loss and failure and survived. They told their stories.
In the midst of this writing and telling in the company of women, I finally got pregnant. I felt the little fish swimming about inside me and I knew that I wanted to be someone worthy of his respect. I wanted to teach my boy to navigate the world as a person of character and integrity, to own his strength without using it against anyone, and to honor women. As an expectant mother, I was overwhelmed with the expectations of others. I felt burdened by their efforts to redefine me. I felt myself becoming smaller. How could I be a good mother if I allowed motherhood to consume my identity? So I wrote to insist on my own subjectivity and my own agency, to be a mother and much more.
Now my husband and I share our home with a rambunctious toddler named Wayland. He will turn a year old in a few weeks. He walks confidently around the house unplugging things and chewing on slippers. His laugh is the best sound I have ever heard. Somehow, my tiny baby is becoming a little boy, and I am prouder than I knew I could be. I am also exhausted, following the well-worn path of women through time who have striven to be mothers, wives, and—by extension and always—workers. These days, my writing consists of answering work emails on a phone or a laptop while nursing or pumping breast milk. Sometimes life unravels, but slowly I am reclaiming myself from the upheaval of early motherhood. As my son’s first birthday nears, I feel compelled to celebrate his birth, his growth, and the way my husband and I have survived the most tumultuous and wonderful period of our lives together. To parent alone would be unthinkable. Suzi’s question from Powder Keg, “Who helps you mother?” regularly surfaces in my mind. The answer? More people than I could count: my patient husband, our generous parents, our beloved daycare provider, countless friends, babysitters, understanding local business owners, a welcoming yoga studio, a great boss, and a small group of women who have not permitted me to forget who I am in the face of a sea change in my life.
Now I wonder if all mothers face these questions: How do we not lose ourselves? While attending to all other things, how do we insist upon an inner life? We write, we speak, and we refuse to fade away. We do not do it alone.