On Being a Mother and a Writer in a Time of War
Lydia Peelle, in Search of Lost Time
Last month I published my first novel, which took seven years to write. In these seven years I also had two babies. The novel is about war, or rather two men caught at the cusp of America’s entry into World War I, and their struggle to reconcile personal liberty with social responsibility. The babies are now five and two years old.
Also last month (and in the weeks after), women and men around the world marched in support of women’s rights—of human rights. On the day of the Women’s March I was traveling for my book tour and so was unable to join, but at my reading at Parnassus Bookstore that night, one of my heroes, Ann Patchett, spoke about her own participation in Nashville’s march, and how as she walked she thought about me: a woman balancing children and a career as a writer. For such a strong woman to grant me the honor of recognizing this fact profoundly moved me. I have known Ann since before I even began my novel, and I remember sitting in her kitchen, still reeling from the surprise of my first pregnancy, and telling her that my plan was to finish the novel before my due date, clear my calendar, and then spend some extended quality time with the baby. Seven years later, standing there in the bookstore, this memory made me laugh and also want to cry.
Today, I pause to consider the fact that I wrote my first novel while carrying, nursing, and beginning to raise two children. I say simply this: it was hard. It was really, really hard. I don’t say this to complain, but rather to honor that fact, and to stand in solidarity with the millions of women around the world who are also, as I write this, doing really hard things, and to recognize the plight of generations of women before us who did infinitely harder things in order to earn us this right and privilege.
But the hardest part for me wasn’t all that mother stuff that so complicates the 21st century dream that we can have it all: lining up babysitters, figuring out what to do when they call in sick, making lunches or dinners or changing diapers. Nor was it seeing friends publish books—and then second books—while I watched the days and months rip off the calendar without darkening the door of my writing shed.
The hardest part was putting a baby to my breast while my thoughts were utterly preoccupied with the horrors of war. I would look down at my nursing child’s tiny hand clenching and unclenching and think: this is the opposite of war. Then I would go out to my writing shed and force myself to stare the atrocity of WWI in its terrible face.
These were the hard parts of trying to write this novel while having children. To turn my gaze to the ugliness in the world while in the midst of the beauty and miracle of new life. All I wanted to do was slip into happy la-la land with my babies, enjoy those fleeting beautiful first months of cooing and rocking and sweet songs and baby yoga class. Instead I would wake early in the morning, kiss them goodbye, put on two sweaters and a pair of fingerless gloves, and come out to the frigid shed to read and think and write about war.
As I worked, every year thousands more American troops said goodbye to their families and went across the ocean to fight in what was becoming known as the Endless War: to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Syria. Though my novel is set one hundred years in the past, it is not by any means a strictly historical piece—rather, the era of WWI was the route I discovered where I could best engage with our own times, with this war, with this political and cultural climate. To do that I had to learn a lot about the world in 1916 and 1917, and to do that I had to winnow down my life to two things: the babies and the novel, which paradoxically meant almost entirely tuning out the current events that had moved me to write the story in the first place.
I rolled myself around in the period so fully it sometimes felt I was living in it, and I would be disoriented at times (Sasha and Malia? I once struggled to place the names when a friend mentioned the Obama sisters. Aren’t they Romanovs?). Time compressed in powerful ways. Reading Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to my daughter one day, I remember turning to the copyright and seeing the date, 1902, and thinking, with a welling ache in my heart, all the boys who hear this story will be killed in the war. And because I have spent the entire Obama administration living in the Wilson administration, and on the battlefields of France, on Friday I said goodbye to the Obama years with a different perspective than my friends and neighbors. Because I have been living so close to world war, the instability of our government feels even more intense, more dangerous. Yet there is also something in being in touch with the long view, which amounts to the fact that we human beings have been through a hell of a lot in our short reign of terror on this earth. This thought gives me not comfort, but courage, for whatever is around the next bend.
The total immersion in the world of my novel, while so intellectually engaging and stimulating, came at a great emotional cost. It was lonesome and often felt ludicrous to justify being so preoccupied with something so ethereal, a story of my own whims and invention. And as the years wore on and I became more and more invested in it, the crafting of it only became more painful. I had both my babies without drugs, with the midwives at the pioneering homebirth center, the Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, and the pain of natural childbirth was indescribable. Yet in the years since I have said many times that I would sooner give natural birth again ten times than write another novel.
There are the lost days—weeks—months in which I neglected my book so much that I missed my two characters, Charles and Billy, so intensely that it was as if they were going on with their lives without me. For the thousandth time I would stumble out of sleep to my crying baby girl and think with a pang in my heart, how are my boys?
And then there was the reverse of this. When I was finishing my final draft, actually sleeping some nights out in the shed, I was so out of touch with my family that my husband took over every household responsibility. In the last days of it my one-and-a-half-year-old son came down with an excruciating case of hand-foot-and-mouth disease. I came in to the house one night at 2am and heard him crying, and I rushed to his crib and picked him up and automatically rocked him and mumbled not his name but the name of my character, Billy.
Moments like this, I questioned my decisions. It felt as if I simply did not have room for it all—my characters and my family, the personal and the political—in my heart. I still question these decisions. Usually a voice in my head kicks in that says, don’t worry, the sacrifices are worth it: in the end, you are doing this all for them, your children. But it is more complicated than that. The truth is, it often feels like I am doing it for myself alone. For my own sanity, and for my own soul, and for my own personhood, and to continue the trajectory of my own life, not because of being a mother, but in spite of being a mother.
There’s the crux of it, for me. Here is a page from my notebook, from the days when I was deep in what I think of as the Novel Chasm, unsure if I was ever going to get out of it:
I have a supportive husband who also happens to be a good cook. I have daycare, babysitters, and frozen pizzas. I have, thank you, Virginia Woolf, not only a room of my own but actually an entire backyard shed of my own, and although it is unheated, unplumbed and full of spiders, it is quiet, and wired up. I live in an age in which (despite the complicated economic and environmental implications of the practice) I can order essentially anything I need, from socks to salt to toothpaste, with a few clicks of my computer mouse have it delivered to my door.
What all of this adds up to is that I have time, as fragmented and hard-won as it might feel. I do have time, though the culture we live in is organized to give the illusion that I don’t have it, that I never have enough of it. And because I do have time—because I happen to sit in the privileged seat of a 21st-
Now, in early 2017, with America’s future—the world’s future—so fraught, so precarious, so uncertain—with women and men marching all around the world simply demanding their presence be acknowledged and their voice be heard and the sanctity of life be honored—the importance of this responsibility has increased ten fold. I resolve to stay engaged, in spite of the personal costs. Like my characters Billy and Charles, I will keep wrestling with those two competing forces of democracy, personal freedom and social responsibility. And I will keep looking in the face of war. America’s war of 1917—the war of my novel—suffused the very bloodstream of this country and forever changed us, and the world. America’s war of 2017—the war of my lifetime—has been waged so long and has manifested in so many insidious ways that it is difficult for me to contemplate. Yet it is the war into which my children were born. As much as I can’t bear the idea, it is in their bloodstream. For the sake of that one fact alone, I must keep it in the forefront. That is my responsibility not as a writer, but as a citizen, and as a mother.
Today, looking at the photographs of marchers around the world, I cried. I could only think, I want to continue to add my voice, in whatever small way, to that chorus. And it is so hard. In fact, I write this very piece on time stolen from the bedtime routine, from which I had to wrest myself in spite of the children’s protests. It feels nearly untenable, the unanswerable question of my life: how to have enough guts to be a writer and a mother at the same time?
A few years ago, when my daughter was two and a half, she came across a photograph of me sitting at my writing desk in the midst of yet another revision, from the era when she was an infant and I was stealing out to the shed to attempt to work in the moments between her 90-minute nursing intervals. In the photo there are precarious stacks of paper all around me; pages strewn on the floor, in my lap. I am wearing my fingerless gloves and two moth-eaten sweaters and ripped jeans; my hair is messily piled on top of my head. It looks like a hurricane has blown through the room—and in many ways, that was how I felt at the time: completely buffeted, confused, exhausted, unmoored. My daughter is a precocious child, a normally calm and sturdy soul, but when she saw this photo she burst into hysterical tears and screamed, where am I in this picture? Where am I in this picture?
I picked her up. I wiped the tears from her face. Oh my love, I said. I wish I knew.
Feature image: The Menin Road, Paul Nash (1919).