On Writing, Parenthood and Trying to Stay a Little Wild
Laura Cronk on the Ways that Her Children Have and Haven't Changed Her Work
A friend and mentor, from a family of nine, recently said, “No more babies. Books now.”
She gave me an amazing gift when I got married 11 years and two babies ago: a red patent leather purse with a giant (working) clock on the front.
I’m always late, never know the time, want to be chic, but am not quite. This gift carried a message, one I puzzled over but couldn’t quite figure out. It made me feel inadequate. But it also made me proud. Proud that I could attract a gift that was so bold and strange, a wedding gift that was all for me.
Was the purse saying, “Fuck it! Enjoy life and enjoy love!” Was it saying, “Just because you’re a wife doesn’t mean you can’t carry a lipstick red patent leather purse with a giant clock on it.” Was it saying, “Be on time for once.” Was it saying, “You can find your way, here is a compass, a bright red patent leather purse plus a giant clock.” Was it saying, “I see you and somewhere deep inside is the woman who could pull of carrying this purse.” I just don’t know.
I could ask her. I think she’d give me a knowing yet flirty look and not quite answer the question. She’s not married. She didn’t have babies. She’s written lots of books.
* * * *
I was out to dinner with a couple of writers. One of them brought out his phone to show off pictures of his new puppy. It was a very cute puppy, but no cuter than other very cute puppies. The thing that got me was that the photo was a close-up of its face, looking expectantly into the camera. It was about as far away from the camera as a baby is when held in the crook of your arm. Though I haven’t nursed a child in a couple of years, I felt an unmistakable response. I could have nursed that puppy. Because they were writers, I told them. “That puppy is so cute I could breast feed it!” It was not the most celebrated comment of the evening, but somehow we got back to talking about books and writing.
I would like to have four babies. Or five or six. I would love to continue having babies to hold on my hip, strap to my back, hold in my arms while they sleep. I would love to continue having babies that grow bigger into children who run over and sit down on my lap and rest their heads against my chest and say nothing and then jump up again to play. Having babies is the only thing I’ve never felt ambivalent about. What I need to do for my children doesn’t cause me existential grief. It is clear, and it is often difficult, and I do it.
I have also always wanted to write.
The pieces of identity that I believed were necessary for making art were what I began to obliterate as soon I moved into prime art-making age. Of course, it’s the age that is prime for everything else. The purse clock was ticking away.
I got rid of my freedom, my solitude, swaths of psychic space.
But the wildness. The wildness I thought I needed to make art and that I worried I would kill in myself by marrying and having children never left me. The animal parts of motherhood are my favorite parts. They are both the hardest parts, like giving birth, and the simplest. Pulling my children close to me is a reflex, unthinking and gratifying. I am a lioness, a mother rat, any mammal who knows to keep her kittens’ or pups’ bodies near her own. When they’re young, it’s the answer to every question. My husband asked my son why he loves me so much. “Because she’s warm,” he said. Proud lioness, proud mother rat.
* * * *
If I hadn’t become a parent I’d be waiting. Maybe for something I couldn’t name. It would get in the way of my work. It’s not this way for everyone.
My girl walked in about half an hour ago. “What are you doing,” she asked.
“Working on a piece,” I said, not looking up.”
“A review?” She had just learned to write reviews of things in second grade.
“No, an essay.”
“How do you write an essay?”
“Um, I don’t know.”
They’ve never really seen me writing before. I’ve felt a kinship with Adrienne Rich who said, “Poetry was where I lived as no one’s mother, where I existed as myself.” But guarding my privacy is getting in the way of getting things done. I’m trying something new. Opening the document and putting things down as they come to me and I happen to be home.
* * * *
A friend was thinking about writing an essay about coming into maturity as a writer and how that might be connected to being a parent. Or he was just thinking out loud about it, and I said he should write an essay. What was he saying? Something about both the indignities of parenthood and the responsibilities hastening maturity for writers. Becoming a parent isn’t the only way to immerse oneself in serious indignity and serious responsibility. But it certainly is one way.
I have another writer friend who doesn’t want to have children. She thinks consciously about channeling her mothering energy. I like this idea, that we all have a protective and powerful part of us that can leap into action and feeling, but that doesn’t require a specific child.
* * * *
I used to hate any piece of writing that was about writing.
Fanny Howe was a teacher of mine and I remember she said that to keep writing you have to be willing to lower your standards. It was a particular comfort coming from her. But why do I need to keep writing?
There are many satisfactions in life that don’t depend on making art. If I gave up writing what would happen? I would feel that I lost the fight, but to what or whom? Patriarchy? Capitalism? My 7th grade gym teacher? And what exactly would happen to me? Though logically I know that I would still be the person I am, I have the unsettling feeling that my true self would vanish, evaporate.
When I decided to get married, I thought I was courting this abyss. It didn’t make sense, but my fear was real. I confided this in my friend and mentor who is one of nine children, who hasn’t married and has written lots of books. Perhaps the red purse was a stay against vanishing.
I haven’t vanished and I haven’t given up the fight. I probably have lowered my standards, but really, I think I’ve changed them, or let myself be changed. I used to hate any piece of writing about writing. But, hey. Now I think subject almost doesn’t matter.
* * * *
“Why do you say ‘I don’t know’ so much, Mama? You say it every day. You even say it about things you know the answer to.”
“I don’t know. I guess I do do that.”
Thinking about it, I probably say “I don’t know” to my children 20 times a day. Sometimes I say it immediately and sometimes we talk through a question for a while. When we’ve exhausted all I know about why beetles don’t sting I land on “I don’t know.” Sometimes I say it because trying to explain why our eyeballs don’t have bones after fielding a string of related questions makes me feel exhausted. Sometimes I say it because I prefer the unknown aspect of a thing to the known aspect. Do I know how to write an essay? The part of me that doesn’t know is the part of me that I need the most right now.
I could have taken a minute to explain the very basics of writing an essay. That’s what I should have done, rather than leaving her with nothing. My children’s work is learning. I could have said that essays are a way of playing with an idea to discover new things about it. They would understand that. Playing is also their work.
Sometimes when my children are playing with their friends in the neighborhood park, I catch a glimpse of them that I’m not supposed to see. I’ve come home from work and they don’t see me walking down the path toward them. They’re deep in plotting something that makes complete sense to them but is indescribable to adults. Recently this happened, that I was suddenly there. My daughter looked up at me and her face was feral. I saw an expression of hers I’d never seen before, that she can’t produce in the presence of adults. Deep in her work, her wildness. Proud mother rat, having made the arrangements that led to that moment.
* * * *
How do we get there? Nathan Englander said at a reading that he spends a minimum of three hours a day writing. He said it takes at least that long for him to get to that “wild, dissociated place” that he needs to be in to make the best of his work. Following the path far enough out that you don’t recognize it anymore.
Hettie Jones told me when we were chatting in the office one day that she was always writing while children swarmed around her house, they were part of the energy of it. Her children knew they could come to her at any time while she was writing. She had to do it that way. She needed to be her children’s mother. She also needed to write. She got paid to write books and needed the money That vision of her writing as a young mother is a tremendous comfort to me and is the opposite of what I’d always imagined writers writing looked like. Her generation had to imagine it for themselves.
There was a study about mother rats being better hunters than other rats, both male and female. I read it in a Japanese self-help book that I’ve since misplaced about climbing mountains one step at a time.
I like the possibility that a biological change could just happen to make me more fierce. But maybe the thing that makes the rat more fierce is her pups whining to be fed. Is there a study that proves mother rats are the most prolific artists?
My boy just walked in. My back is to him and he’s on my bed hopping and rolling around, wanting my attention. “I know how snakes get around without any feet or hands. Because they are slippery on the bottom. I can do it like this, want to see, Mama?” I turn for a moment and see him as he holds his arms to his sides and scoots on his stomach across the bed. “Is that how fast snakes go?” he asks. I want to say “I don’t know” but instead I say “Yes, I think it is how fast they go.” He does it again and again.
* * * *
How do I, in the midst of practical life, cut a reliable path into the deepest part of my imagination?
What if the path is the route I walk every day?
What if I could rule the sidewalks in all black and a red patent leather purse clock? Knowing that the impossibility of pulling it off is part of pulling it off?
* * * *
I moved with my family from the city to a quiet suburb. Two children is a very good number of children. I walk on quiet sidewalks through a park every morning to take them to school and then to get to the train. I emerge from underground to walk New York City sidewalks to my job. Moving to the suburbs I thought I would grieve my own youth or the crazy energy and feeling of possibility of living in a city. But so far I have just felt at ease.
When we had been in the new house six weeks, I was going through boxes. I had packed the red purse and brought it to the new house. In a fit of misguided efficiency, I pulled it out and put it in the give-away pile. Keep things that you use, I had been thinking, things that don’t cause conflicting feelings. But I didn’t get the give-away pile out fast enough and my daughter found it. “Oh, mama!” she said in awe, “Where did you get this purse?”