March 10th, 2012 - Michelle Ross
My son is two years old today. I pick up Elmo balloons from the party store. I bake cupcakes and poke in toothpicks topped with Elmo’s face. In the afternoon, small children climb my furniture. My cat disapparates. After the children and their parents leave, there’s wrapping paper to throw away, dishes to wash, crumbs to sweep, stories to read to my son, and then the dreaded task of lying beside him until he falls asleep. It’s a tricky business slipping stealthily from my son’s room without being detected. I must wait patiently for his breathing to change, his grip on me to deaden. Then I must extricate myself out from underneath his arm with grace and skill. Shift my weight off the bed without the bed groaning. I’m not very good at any of this because impatience to claim a minuscule part of the day for myself makes me sloppy. Also, I’m tired, so tired. I lie there trying not to fall asleep before my son does. If I fall asleep now, that little bit of time that could have been mine alone will slip from the room without me.
Becoming a mother has given me a new appreciation for the luxury of free time, a resource that I once had in abundance. Whole weekends without any obligations? Now I can’t even take a shower without interruption. What did I do with all that time when I had it?
Here's what: Since finishing my MFA nearly ten years earlier, I took a full-time job writing standardized science assessments, work that was creative, work that scratched a somewhat similar itch to writing fiction. Also, I ran marathons. I painted the rooms of my new house. I built a vegetable garden and tended it every morning.
I wrote stories, too, but I wrote like a person for whom time is no scant resource. I wrote like a person unconcerned with how much time slipped quietly from my grasp.
Then I became a mother, and everything changed.
Becoming a mother is not a choice I made lightly. I feared the ways in which the responsibilities and pressures of motherhood would compete with writing. Also, I had once been resolute that I wouldn’t have a child until I’d published my first book. Betraying this commitment worried and shamed me. But the facts were that the collection of stories I had thought would be my first book was uneven (I would eventually replace well over half those stories), and I was in my thirties with limited time to spare if I wanted to get pregnant. I did want to get pregnant.
What I didn’t anticipate, couldn’t possibly have anticipated because it flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about the relationship between writing and mothering, is that motherhood would be like rocket fuel to my writing.
For starters, motherhood gives me new material, so much new material that my second book, Shapeshifting, published nearly ten years after my son’s second birthday, is centered on mothering and motherhood. Shapeshifting is a book I could not and would not have written if I hadn’t become a mother.
Motherhood gives my writing much to rebel against. I rebel against the erasure of motherhood, which makes me desperate to see myself once again as someone other than a mother. I rebel against the notion that motherhood requires sacrifice of one’s own ambitions. These rebellions are for my son’s sake as well as for my own. I don’t want him to see motherhood as an all-encompassing thing that swallows women’s desires. I want to be my best, most present, and most generous self when I’m with him, and I can’t do that if I don’t write.
Most importantly, that tired, new mother now appreciates the immense value of small increments of time. Even five minutes can yield something. A sentence, maybe even a paragraph. I become resourceful, willful. I scavenge the day for these precious minutes. If I skip cooking dinner and instead quickly arrange apples, bell peppers, crackers, and cheese on a plate, I can reclaim thirty minutes. If I sit in the back row at the karate studio (the other parents crowd the front rows), I can revise a small story.
In the first couple years of my son’s life, I succeed for the first time in my own life at adopting and actually maintaining a daily writing schedule. In my former, childless life, the idea of a writing schedule seemed too much like an obligation, as exciting as scheduling sex. The concept of a schedule made me rebellious. Now, in my new life as a mother, scheduling time to write every day is the rebellious thing.
I probably don’t imagine that by the time of my son’s twelfth birthday, I will have published two books, with a third to be released in the next month. But on his second birthday, I am becoming that writer. These stolen minutes are adding up.
The writer I become, a writer whom other writers will call “prolific,” sometimes foolishly envies writers who don’t have children or who don’t work jobs. I envy these childless writers and these retired writers for the stockpiles of free time I imagine they must have. So much time they can afford to be wasteful. But then I remind myself how my writing thrives when the act of writing, in the face of so much else I should or could be doing, feels like an act of rebellion. I remember how I got to where I am.
Michelle Ross is the author of There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (2017), Shapeshifting, winner of the Stillhouse Press 2020 Short Fiction Prize (November 2021), and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in 2022)