A Room of One’s Own Sounds Great… But What If You’re a Mom?
Ilona Bannister on the Fantasy of Compartmentalization
The screen was blank. The sky was dark. At five in the morning, the house was quiet. I drank coffee at the kitchen table, typed, deleted, began again, and battled with the voice that said writing a novel was an indulgent hobby for a delusional housewife, a misguided attempt at “working” by a stay-at-home-mother, reaching above her station. Just before six, every day, my then three-year-old son would find me in the kitchen, and would require granola bars, and milk, and hugs and turning on Paw Patrol. Then I would move to our family’s “office,” a tiny extra room filled with—and this is truly the most accurate description—all our family crap. And there I would wrestle with the screen and the keyboard and the voice.
At 38 with two children under age five, I had been a stay-at-home mother for three years. I wanted to go back to my career in immigration law, but I couldn’t get hired. Me and my optimistic questions about my potential employers’ flexibility for working parents were no one’s first choice. When I finally did get a job offer, my new salary would have meant only breaking even once we paid for childcare for two kids. The penalty for leaving my profession was steep. The price for readmission devalued the worth of my experience and ability.
I’d remind the voice of this, that this was why I sat writing in the office at six in the morning: because the outside world didn’t want anything else from me now except for cooking and cleaning and picking my children up and dropping them off and play dates and bath time. And this is how I wrote my first novel, When I Ran Away, in the hours before sunrise, driven by panic and anxiety at the loss of my career and the loss of my identity outside motherhood, surrounded by books and toys and the electric piano and my husband’s blue guitar and the laundry hamper, the theme to Paw Patrol faintly calling from the other room.
Now my novel has been published, my boys are older, and the office is where I usually write, though it remains mostly unchanged. I like to refer to its all-white, mass-produced, flat-pack furniture décor as Scandi-inspired. I think my office probably looks like the inside of most working mothers’ brains – there are pockets of order and beauty straining to maintain their dignity in the chaos. There are some shelves that are always neat because they hold the things I look at when I’m working—my RBG mug next to my grandmother’s Ukrainian folk art mug; my shelf of great authors; my favorite piece of pottery; my children’s art work; a picture of my husband and me dressed as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born.
Those are the shelves my eyes migrate to when I’m thinking, so that I don’t see the rest of what belongs to everyone else in this room—my son’s dyslexia tools; receipts; home insurance letters; the superfluous top of a bookcase that was too tall for the bedroom; my husband’s business school binders from thirteen years ago; my kids’ canvas experiments with acrylic pouring paint. On my hard plastic chair you’ll see a blue wobble cushion, which helps kids with ADHD to focus. My son uses it while doing schoolwork, but I use it when I’m writing because it’s supposed to work my core. There have been no visible results yet.
This room is where I have written a second novel, during the months of London’s three strict lockdowns, while remote schooling my two boys, with my husband working on a foldout camping table in our bedroom. Although everyone had their work and schooling to do in different pockets of our home, it was this smallest room of our house, my office, that was routinely taken over by the family, often while I was writing, for help with remote lessons, for discussions of finances, for reassurance that lockdown would eventually end. My sons’ and husband’s presence is always felt here whether they’re physically in the room with me or not.
The line between my work and my family is blurred, which I’m sure is the experience of so many more people who are working from home now. But while that blur was much more visible and so much more blurred during 2020, I think that it has always been the reality for working mothers, even when they still had offices to go to. We compartmentalize, but when we are working and parenting, whether in the home or outside of it, all the compartment doors are open at the same time. They always have been. They have had to be.
For example, let’s take the mundane but essential chore of laundry. The family laundry hamper is a fixture of my office that I try to avoid looking at but am always conscious of. My office is the midpoint between the family bedrooms, so the hamper ended up in here. It is often used as an extra seat for my sons when they share my desk to do their schoolwork, or my husband, when I ask him to listen to my story ideas. It is an extra surface for temporarily depositing books and papers, stuffed animals, or the hand-held vacuum. But its main function, as the guardian of our dirty clothes, has also made it my reluctantly acknowledged, ever-present sidekick.
There is never a time in my life when there is “no laundry.” At home, which is my workplace, at any given time, I am always within six feet of laundry: clean, needing to be put away, or dirty needing to be washed. I put a load in as I wait for water to boil for tea and think about dialogue for a scene. I fold clothes when I try to work through what my characters will do next. As I write this, my son calls to me from the next room because he can’t find his sweatshirt in the bag of clean laundry outside my office door.
In each of my books, it is no surprise then, that my characters have encounters with the laundry. They obsess about it or become overwhelmed by it. They develop routines and eccentricities around it. It symbolizes their mental health. It is a metaphor for lost dreams. They see it and ignore it or see it and can’t ignore it and it becomes a flashpoint for conflict within their marriages. When people say that you write what you know, it’s true.
I look up at my shelf of favorite books, sip my tea, cold now, and examine my favorite pot, considering how I might end this article. But my sons are engaged in a dispute about the ownership of a pair of clean socks that I have just washed and my other job, as their mother, intrudes on the page again. Before I get up to arbitrate, I think about Virginia Woolf and her room. A room of my own would be nice, but my room is for my family and my writing is for me. Except that it’s for them too.
Ilona Bannister’s When I Ran Away is out now from Doubleday.