The People Writer-Parents Need (Besides Their Kids)
Brian Gresko and Polly Rosenwaike Talk Writing and Parenting
The connections between parenting and writing run deep. Character is developed. A world built. Decisions get made by both gut and intellect. Precise language is deployed for a particular end. For both writer and parent this requires an enormous emotional effort, more than it’s possible to anticipate at the outset. Work that, in our capitalist culture, is not recognized as a job. Maybe because they’re so alike, these acts of creation are typically envisioned as rivals, one taking from the other. In fact, they’re more like complicated friends, with as many points of intersection as divergence.
In recent years, a few literary books have focused on parenting as a topic or theme, and what’s funny is that two came out of my MFA thesis writing group. During our final semester at The New School, I was working on a novel I’ve since given up, while my friend and classmate Polly Rosenwaike wrote short stories. Her pieces were sharp, the prose elegant, the characters poignant and full of life, but I can’t recall a single one about a mother or mother-to-be. Cut forward a decade, and both of us have kids and have written extensively and unflinchingly about parenting. In my case, that’s in essays and an anthology I edited about fatherhood entitled When I First Held You. For Rosenwaike, it’s her debut collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, in which each story tackles a facet of motherhood, from struggling with fertility to postpartum depression. As soon as I finished it, I contacted Rosenwaike, eager to talk more about the rich tapestry of motherhood her stories weave, and to hear about the echoes and dissonance in our very different experiences.
Rosenwaike lives in Ann Arbor with the poet Cody Walker and their two daughters, and in addition to her fiction she’s written book reviews and essays, taught creative writing, and does freelance editing. In a shared document online, we talked about her collection, along with the challenges of both writing and parenting.
Brian Gresko: I absolutely loved your collection, and was so impressed by how thematically consistent it is. Each story deals with motherhood in some way, and yet the twelve stories cover a great variety of experiences. How did this book come about? I’m especially curious to know how intentional this theme was, or whether it was something you noticed in your stories over time and decided to lean into.
Polly Rosenwaike: After my story “White Carnations” was published in The O. Henry Prize Stories, a blogger criticized it online, pointing out that in my bio I’d said it was “part of a story collection in progress about pregnancy and new motherhood.” He led off the critique with, “I am always a bit suspicious of stories cold-bloodedly written to fulfill a scheme, preferring rather stories that seem to spring from something obsessive that the writer discovers in the process of writing.” As an unknown writer, it was a bit of thrill to have a stranger comment on my work, even though he didn’t like it. The day that cold-blooded scheme occurred to me, a great sense of relief came to my fuzzy, warm-blooded mind. Now I could assign myself tasks instead of casting about aimlessly for story ideas: I’d need one about miscarriage; about postpartum depression; about a couple for whom the prospect of having a child, and then the child itself, is a source of conflict. I was obsessed by these things in my own life—as I had two miscarriages, and gave birth to two daughters, and tried to get used to being called “Mommy.” The reality was messy in many ways; I was glad to have the architecture of the fictional collection to cling to.
BG: The idea of assigning yourself creative tasks resonates with me. At this point in my life, I juggle a variety of roles: I’m my son’s primary caregiver as well as a freelancer and teacher. I fit creative writing in around the margins of parenting and paid work—it often feels like a luxury, one that’s becoming harder and harder to afford. Giving myself deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, is essential for me to get anything done; it helps me hold myself accountable.
You’re a writer and a teacher and your partner does the same. Can you talk about your writing practice in this context, and what it looks like? How regular are you when it comes to writing?
PR: My partner’s writing practice is to tap out a daily poem in about twenty minutes (sometimes less!), and then share it with me and a few poetry friends. Mine is to sit protectively hunched over my computer, in case anyone’s trying to look over my shoulder at a story before it’s done, which can take years.
I enjoy the feeling of productivity and competence that non-writing work—teaching a class, editing someone else’s book—gives me. With writing, because I’m so slow, I’m continually trying to be okay with the feeling that I’m wasting time. It’s helpful to have a regular schedule for wasting time, during the calm and optimistic weekday hours while the kids are in school, but certainly long stretches go by when I’m not writing. I always return to it eventually, though, and I’ve come to accept that the advice to just get a lot of stuff on the page at dependable intervals will never work for me. I’m going to keep sitting quietly, when I can, deliberating and tinkering as if each word I put down is precious, and then when that proves not to be true, I’m going to start all over again with my time wasting.
BG: In my early years as a stay-at-home parent, it was just me and my son for at least eight hours a day, five days a week. When I got together with other grownups, it was in the guise of a play date for the kids, or crossing paths at the local playground, so of course parenting would be a big (or the only) topic of conversation. As much as I needed and appreciated the parenting friends I had, my world felt so small, entirely defined by this wonderful human being I was keeping alive. In part for my mental health I began attending literary events, which wasn’t hard—I’m fortunate to live near many great bookstores, in a city full of inspiring artists and opportunities, and with a partner who had no qualms about staying home at night, recharging with quiet time, while I re-energized by hanging out with people who saw me as not just a parent, but a writer too.
What’s it like for you in Ann Arbor? Do you feel part of a community of writers there, or is that something you feel necessary to your sense of self and well-being?
PR: Like you, I have a bunch of parent friends to talk with about funny kid anecdotes, and meltdowns, and dark nights of the parenting soul. I’m always looking for more writer friends. I do have a writing group here, which is helpful for keeping me energized and on-track. With the Helen Zell Writing Program at the University of Michigan in our midst, Ann Arbor is host to a number of fantastic literary events. Unfortunately, the Zell readings are right smack in the middle of my kids’ pick-up time. But I do get to attend some bookstore events in town. I read the NYTBR review of Jennifer Traig’s Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, just out this January, and was surprised to learn that she lives in Ann Arbor. A local writer who’d published “a fascinating narrative, tracing the long history of mistakes and reversals and cultural presuppositions that have structured our most intimate relationships”—how was she not my pal? I went to her reading at the lovely Literati Bookstore, and introduced myself, and we have a lunch date pending. So I’m trying.
BG: Speaking of community, one thing I see online is that the women who juggle motherhood and publishing post and write about their experiences, and there’s an amazing sense—at least to my outside eyes—of support and camaraderie. I know of something similar among the dads who blog on the Internet, but I don’t often see it happening among the literary men who have children. In part I think this stems from women generally having deeper friendships with one another than men do. And in part I think many men, even self-aware enlightened men who read, still struggle to publicly embrace the role of fatherhood, or see it as something worthy of writing about, because society has taught them that’s not what men do or how they behave; it’s too sentimental. When I put together my anthology, I imagined that there were other men out there like me who would jump to read thoughtful, sensitive essays on the subject, but for the most part I hear from women (when I hear from anyone), and when the book launched it was mostly women supporting it, for which I was grateful though also surprised. It turns out I don’t have a great sense of who I’m writing for, except myself. Did you think about readership when writing these stories? Does that idea have any value for you, process-wise?
PR: I would love to see more men writing about fatherhood. After my older daughter was born, when confronting my new-mother status from any kind of thoughtful, nuanced perspective felt impossible, I turned to wonderfully funny and tender books about fathers of young children—by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nicholson Baker, Chris Bachelder—and wrote a piece for The Millions on the subject. I cringe a bit reading the first sentence of that piece now: “Since my daughter was born . . . I’ve been wary of books about motherhood . . .”
I wonder if that initial wariness—which I’ve gotten over in spades—somehow speaks to your comment about men avoiding writing or reading about fatherhood. Overwhelmed by the physical and emotional struggles of giving birth, breastfeeding, round-the-clock infant care, I found myself rebelling against my biological role and the gendered expectations that come with it. As Rachel Cusk says in A Life’s Work, which I read and cherished when I’d gotten over shunning motherhood books, “I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves . . . . As a mother you learn what it is to be both martyr and devil.”
I was jealous of men’s privilege to escape what I saw as certain burdens of motherhood that stem from both biological realities and social constructions. But these constraints can of course negatively affect men too, as you point out. It’s more socially acceptable for women to have certain kinds of conversations or seek support to help with the difficulties of parenthood. I really appreciate what you’ve done for literary fatherhood with When I First Held You and your other work.
As for the question about readership, there’s the humble answer and the grandstanding answer. I set out to write stories to please myself, to express emotion, to wrestle with problems of character and language and form. I don’t think too much about how others might take it, except maybe my partner, who’s my best and fiercest reader, once I let down my don’t-look-at-what-I’m-doing shield and ask for his wise response. But of course I want everyone to read my book, now that it’s out there: People who have children; or think they might one day have children; or think, god no, I’m not having any children. People who love short story collections and people who are suspicious of them. Women, men, babies.