Finding Time to Write About Motherhood… While Parenting During a Pandemic
Pragya Agarwal on the Struggle to Balance It All
I wonder if I should have a fixed routine. “Have a rigid timetable. That is the only way you would be able to write,” someone tells me on twitter. I guess I don’t have anything to lose by doing so. I bring out one of my many old notebooks with several empty pages in each, forgotten and abandoned for a new sparkling one, and stare at an empty page for a few minutes pen poised in hand, staring out of my window in my office at the road that runs in front of our house, watching the dog walkers go past one by one. I draw a line down the middle of the page. Not quite sure why. Maybe I should draw a grid, I think to myself. How do I organize the disorganization of my life within minutes and hours? How can I tell myself when I can write, when I should write while my children are screaming for me? How will I tell them and myself that their demands do not take priority right now because it is my “writing time”? I don’t think I have this luxury. I go back to staring at the road.
There are hardly any cars on the road, as we are in the middle of a pandemic, of a lockdown. I have a book due in a month’s time. I have just been promoting my first book with many talks and interviews, all virtual of course because this is the new norm. I wrote that book through the hours that my twins were at nursery, all writing and creative thought compressed between the hours of 10 and 5 three days a week.
On other days, my partner would try to take over as much as childcare as he could, taking the children for long drives, or for dog walks, or to the playground and local play centers and libraries. In these minutes, seconds, hours, I would sit at my desk, desperately trying to get some of the thoughts together, read another research article, write another section that would fit in not very neatly but somehow become another piece in this big sprawling jigsaw of my book. Then they would return noisily and hungrily, and all work had to stop, wherever I was, the thought paused and filed away, sometimes with annoyance, sometimes with a clean natural hiatus, and I would scribble a note to myself on the desk pad that I had right in front of me, so that when I returned to the desk, I would know where I was, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back in case I got lost. Sometimes I lost myself in snacks, and playtime and in the disorganization of myself where I had to uncover a persona and imbibe another every time I stepped away from my desk, from my writing.
I am writing about motherhood and mothering, about social and political constructs of motherhood, about idealization of motherhood, a memoir of sorts, but much more than that. And the world around us has closed down. No nursery, no playgrounds, no libraries. We are allowed one walk outside the house for a limited amount of time. It is raining a lot, and the children are cooped inside the house. My husband is working in his office, sometimes at the dining table, doing zoom classes for his students, and meetings with his colleagues. I am trying to write this book which brings up old buried traumatic memories of giving birth to my oldest and almost dying, and coming back to life, of going through the various rounds of infertility treatments, of loving and losing. We are working and parenting intensely, more so than ever. I am reminded of those early days and months when my twin children, born eight weeks premature, were never far from me, when they had become an essential non-negotiable part of me, my whole self consumed and subsumed in being a mother and keeping them alive.
I am a mother all the time, and I am a writer all the time. But it is the co-existence of these two things, these two states of me that I often find disorienting. I sometimes wonder if my mothering supports my creativity and vice-versa. I know that I have written more than ever since I had these twins four years ago. I have written hungrily, and ravenously while trying to bring forth all the words and sentences that seem to be bursting with a sense of urgency. I make many notes in my phone, tiny fragments of beguiling thoughts, persuading me to come back to my desk. You have to wait, I tell them with a smile. You will be ok because we will meet again very soon, I say to myself, and to them. And I go back to cooking, feeding, running around with my children while these fragments sparkle and jostle within myself all the time, desperate to not be drowned out in my children’s giggles and wails. I have to hold on to these thoughts, tightly and tenderly lest they disappear in the wind. These thoughts are all I have sometimes that remind me that I am a writer.
Sometimes I want to escape my writing because these fragmentary thoughts are slithering away and I can’t grasp at them, not make sense of the enigma that my book has become, and sometimes I want to escape my mothering because these thoughts are nudging me and all I want to do is to get them down on paper before their sharp edges poke holes in my belief that I can mother and write at the same time, both equally well.
I cannot dwell on the thoughts, let them simmer until they are ready. I do not have the luxury to indulge those irreverent ideas, the ones that lead me astray. I write in short bursts, in snippets, in scraps. I write ten, twenty, fifty words at a time. I do not have writing goals or weekly word counts. But words add up, slowly, gradually, painstakingly. I do not edit as I go along. I just cannot do that. I want to get all the words down, throw all the various pieces of the puzzle on the board, and then start arranging them into neat little patterns. I know it is not a pretty process, but it is the only process that works for me right now.
I think of Jane Austen who wrote while her family milled about in the house around her. Did she have servants and nannies, I wonder. I’m writing with them on my lap, and over my shoulders, on the floor in their room while they sleep, and while sitting next to their bath as they played. They’ve had a desk and chairs set up in my office alongside my own so that they can pretend to work. Sometimes, I cannot even hear myself think, but then sometimes I am ready to write as soon as I sit in front of my computer, because the rational parts of my brain have been mulling over the many ideas and thoughts even when I was running around outside in the garden with them.
I see on Instagram that some writers, mostly women, mainly mothers, wake up at 5 am, something called an early morning club where they write before their children wake up, carving out their own time. I think of Maya Angelou who used to write early in the morning. “It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous,” she said. I think it is a glorious idea, the thought of being able to write uninterrupted, just myself, and my thoughts. But I am not an early morning person, and I try once or twice, but I crave the chaos around me. The stillness is lovely and calming but it does nothing to my creativity. I feel bored, and sleepy. I have to stop trying to be like other writers, I tell myself.
I work best at night. After bathtime, storytime, bedtime. After demands for glasses of water, more excuses, sore elbows and knees that need plasters and attention, after needing the toilet and books and numerous questions about the world sloshing about in their growing brains, while I lie down on the floor in their room next to their beds. Sometimes I have a little nap for half an hour and wake up rigid and sore, but alert. I then head back to my desk and find my way back to my writing. These are the hours when I am just myself. I find this freedom so intoxicating and liberating, and this is the time often between 10 pm and 2 am that I have written most. I am writing this piece at half-ten at night. This is just how I work, and I have to acknowledge it, and perhaps accept it.
“You need a healthier bedtime routine,” my partner tells me. Maybe I will one day. Or maybe I will always work like this but be able to sleep until late in the morning, get up at lunchtime, have a leisurely lunch and write all day. Until that day happens, I will keep writing in short bursts and spurts, in this fragmentary way, finding my way back to the thread and the story.
What I have learnt through all this is that, even when we are not writing, we are thinking, dreaming and imagining. Beyond the act of actually writing words is the time that really makes us writers. I have read and folded pages, underlined words and paragraphs, and this created space for thoughts that sometimes get buried or forgotten. In some strange ways, this period of intense mothering and writing about motherhood and mothering at the same time has made me more willing to take risks, to allow myself to be more experimental and to find out what writing means to me.
Sometimes there is this lingering sense of failure, this anxious voice that keeps drumming in my head. What if I am not being as productive as I could be, should be? What if I could be, should be doing more? But then I push these thoughts down and away, while I lie on the bed sometimes languishing in my anxiety until one of the twins yank me out of my misery with her small body ramming against mine and taking my breath away, with pain, and with love. Maybe I need these intense feelings to be able to write like I do.
I needed this space, this odd time where an acute feeling of claustrophobia was regularly interjected with moments of true bliss, unimaginable terror of losing people I loved alongside the immense gratitude of having those I love most close to me. I don’t want to make this sound like a golden period—it wasn’t—it isn’t—but all I know is that writing about mothering while being immersed in it completely has given a certain immediacy to my writing that would not have been possible otherwise. Flannery O’Connor said that “routine is a condition of survival.” Maybe I need chaos to survive. Maybe as a mother and a writer, I have to accept that I will have to not just survive but also thrive without a fixed routine, or a schedule.
Pragya Agarwal’s new book, (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman, is available from Canongate.