The Heartbreaking Ingenuity of the Mother-Writer

Olivia Campbell Explores What It Takes to Balance Art and Parenting in America

That Great Male Authors require long periods of uninterrupted seclusion to think and write is a literary-world given rarely questioned. The one I think of most is J.D. Salinger, who built a cabin in the woods a quarter mile from his house to have a quiet place to work away from his family. A sacred workspace is a perfectly reasonable request; many writers continue to favor the remote cabin or backyard shed as the perfect environment in which to produce their best work. The problem is that Salinger used the cabin to avoid all his other responsibilities. He stayed there for weeks at a time, leaving his wife to raise their two young children alone. But she also had to take care of him, bringing him sandwiches so he didn’t starve.

If a woman writer behaved like that, chances are she would be maligned as neglectful, monstrous. Instead, in parked cars, closets, and bathrooms, writer-moms search for solitude.

“You can’t be precious about writing if you have kids. You can’t be fastidious or fussy. You can’t always write at the cool coffee shop. I applied for a NEA grant at Burger King: They had free wifi and an indoor children’s playground.” said Alison Stine, a disabled author and single parent. “I wrote two dissertations with a baby strapped to my chest. I wrote my most recent novel draft during my son’s remote school Zoom meetings. My first novel, Road Out Of Winter, I wrote at the local skatepark, where my son belonged to the skate club.”

The first thing I did when I got my first book deal in 2018 was secure daycare for my 2-year-old son three days a week. Before that, I didn’t have enough time for my freelance journalism work to make enough money to be able to afford daycare. See the circular nature of the problem? I’d spend my days trying to fit spurts of work within my son’s schedule: writing during naps, interviewing experts via phone with a baby strapped to my chest, popping on a few Hey Duggee episodes and praying the snack requests would slow in frequency.

Three days of daycare was a great start, but many evenings and weekends were still spent hiding in my bedroom while my husband attempted to delay the inevitable banging on the locked door. When the pandemic hit, my historical nonfiction book, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, wasn’t quite finished, but my daycare was. I was back to trying to work around my child’s needs full-time. (Not to mention overseeing my two older kids’ virtual schooling.)

We have this heady image of authors penning their books while sitting peacefully at oversized hardwood desks overlooking vistas of lush trees or skyscrapers. But if you’ve read a book penned by a woman with young children recently, there’s a significant chance it was written while hiding, losing sleep, or using inventive distractions. (Or even all three.) When I posted on social media looking for stories of writer-moms hiding to get their work done, I was inundated with responses. Many writer-moms are also juggling full-time jobs. Pandemic lockdowns threw in yet another monkey-wrench. What impressed me most about the responses was the level of creativity. Moms are wily, persistent creatures.

“You can’t be precious about writing if you have kids. You can’t be fastidious or fussy. You can’t always write at the cool coffee shop.”

“I have twins who just turned 5 and I have written three books in the last two years. Hiding in the bathroom, sitting in the bath, in my office, in the car, in the small rotten shed, in a cardboard box, and in a little space I created between the back of the shed and the fence,” said Dr. Pragya Agarwal, author of (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman, SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, and Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race. “It was hard, especially during lockdown. They somehow still manage to find me.”

Jennifer Williams Bardsley wrote Good Catch in a tent trailer parked in her driveway. Melissa Guida-Richards wrote What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption hiding in the bathroom or on writing on her phone with her two young boys close underfoot. Lynn Melnick spent January 2020 to March 2021 writing I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive while hiding in the hallway, pantry, and bathroom. Georgina Cross, who has written three suspense thrillers and has three more coming out next year, turned her home’s basement storage area/tornado shelter into a makeshift office space. There are now three closed doors, a set of stairs, and a white noise machine separating her and her kids.

“Shoutout to my beloved Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard, which resides under the passenger seat of my car,” said Catherine Bilson, author of nearly a dozen historical romance novels. “The majority of my writing has been done with that keyboard attached to a succession of phones and tablets, as I sit beside a swimming pool or cricket pitch.”

Constraints also have benefits; many writers said having kids helped them stick to a schedule, focus, and be more productive. You don’t have time for writer’s block when you know you only have two hours of naptime to work. Several moms credited their careers to their children being good sleepers. Others spoke of switching to short story or poetry writing instead of attempting a novel after their kids came along because the length fit better into the spurts of writing time they were allowed.

It is a blessing and a curse that writing is something you can do anywhere. Cars seem by far the favorite refuge. Bunmi Laditan, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Julia Fine, and Diane Zinna are known car-writers. Heather Frese, author of The Baddest Girl on the Planet, has it down to a science: “I’d drive around to get both my kids to sleep, park, power nap in the front seat for 20 minutes, then sit in the car with my computer and write!” Bathrooms and closets are also apparently filled with hiding writer-moms. Fitness centers—when they come with childcare—are another favorite. And did you know some moms can work while breastfeeding? Stacy Bierlein edited Tod Goldberg’s story collection Simplify by attaching manuscript pages to the edge of the Boppy pillow that was cradling her newborn in her lap.

Erin Khar wrote her debut, Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, a memoir about her 15-year struggle with opiate addiction, with a 14-year-old and a newborn at home. “I worked wherever I could. I wrote a lot of it while breastfeeding. I would prop my laptop on the corner of the Boppy. I wrote some of it in the bathroom hiding from my kids,” Khar told me. “I don’t think that people understand the particular emotional exhaustion that comes with the territory of being a mother-writer. The book I was writing required me to revisit some of the darkest moments of my life and sometimes it felt jarring to shift back into the world I am in now.”

Of course, writing isn’t just sitting in front of a computer or notebook. It’s also thinking, reading, and having life experiences that inspire you. It can be easier to do these other parts while caregiving, but not always. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to sort out structure issues or plot storylines while your preschooler berates you for playing action figures all wrong.

“I definitely know the pain of trying to concentrate on a scene while someone’s narrating the complete adventures of Thomas and Friends,” said Brianne Moore, author of All Stirred Up and Bright Young Thing.

“It’s to the point where I hide in plain sight. Why is mom under a blanket sitting in the middle of the sofa? Writing on her phone in Google Docs while in her invisible forcefield,” said Ashley Franklin, author of Better Together, Cinderella, Xavier’s Voice, Not Quite Snow White, and essays in the collections Once Upon An Eid and What We Didn’t Expect.

“I wrote most of my first book on my Notes app pushing a toddler around the freezer section of the supermarket (it was a very hot summer) and while keeping half an eye on him at the park,” said Jessica Anne Friedmann, author of Things That Helped. “I’m writing my second book by completely disengaging my brain when met by a stream of Pokémon facts and just murmuring, ‘Uh huh… yep… wow, that’s interesting!’”

I see four issues converging to keep mother-writers from getting time to themselves to work: the undervaluing of writing (especially that done by women), the minimization of women’s writing as a hobby, the underestimation of the labor involved in childcare, and the cultural expectation that mothers dedicate themselves and their attention to their children alone.

Moms are wily, persistent creatures.

“It’s so damn hard,” said Khar. “I often feel like I am failing at both because I can’t really give either the time it deserves. And so much of writing involves unpaid labor, just as parenting does! Even when I am not writing, I am often occupied with thinking about what I’m working on. And then I feel guilty about that.”

For me, guilty feelings also surface anytime I have time to myself and don’t spend it writing. When I was a freelancer trying to make ends meet, the pressure to always be composing my next pitch in my head, to use any kid-free time on work, was immense.

“I’ve been writing with kids around since my oldest was 5. She’s in college now. I’m tired,” said Lilah Sturges, trans mom and author of several books in the popular Lumberjanes series. Sturges discussed the dilemma of being a mother with creative impulses in Fiction Advocate: “I know several brilliant, creative women who are currently feeling at their wits’ end because all of their creative projects are on hold while they raise babies. And to add insult to injury, they punish themselves for even wanting to work on their own projects. … I don’t think men understand how hard it can be for mothers to ask for things for themselves.”

This isn’t a new problem, of course. As a single mom raising two young kids, Toni Morrison got up at 4 AM to write The Bluest Eye. Maxine Hong Kingston would give her kid a full bag of marshmallows to buy herself 20 minutes to write. Around the same time that Salinger was absolving himself of child-rearing duties, Shirley Jackson was writing circles around him and mothering four kids. (17 books!) She favored early mornings, naptime, or post-bedtime for working, but also frequently shooed her kids outside and tried to keep an eye on them through the window while at her typewriter. Neighbors occasionally had to return the ones who wandered too far.

Women writers have always been up against the expectation that they can do it all, all at once. Male authors are lauded as disciplined recluses for closing themselves away to write; women are praised for juggling writing and family simultaneously. But you can’t have it both ways. Either writing a laborious, worthwhile craft requiring time alone or it’s not, no matter the writer’s gender. “How does she do it all?” society muses while staring at the bedraggled mom-author clutching her book in one hand and her baby in the other. By having no work-life balance or boundaries. Losing sleep. Hiding in pantries. Getting increasingly angry by the lack of support. By nearly drowning.

Many moms said they got the sense it was socially unacceptable to ask for help with their kids so they could write. Writing residencies and retreats number in the hundreds, but there are less than a dozen that specifically support parents.

“As a single parent, I have every excuse to stop writing, and I have written with zero support: no tenure track or any full-time job, no big advance, no childcare, no co-parent,” said Stine, whose latest novel, Trashlands, will be published in October. “If I gave up writing, I would not be a good parent because I would not be a complete person.”

Hearing from so many moms, and knowing I was only scratching the surface, was both inspiring and enraging. I am furious that parents don’t get the support and space they deserve to create art. But I’m inspired that none of them let that stop them from creating. Just imagine how many incredible books, essays, poems might exist if we gave mom writers the time and space they need to create, to be creative. What if we recognized that they deserve this just as much as everyone else; that they don’t want to be doing it all. We shouldn’t be impressed by the lengths moms go to to write, we should be aghast that this is the way things are.

“I think survival as a writer who is a parent … requires a determination that the rest of the writing world could learn from,” Stine said. “We have to make our own path any way we can, and try to hold the thorns back for the ones who come after us.”

Olivia Campbell
Olivia Campbell
Olivia Campbell is the author of Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Cut, Smithsonian Magazine, HISTORY, The Guardian, Atlas Obscura, and Aeon, among others.





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