Writer, Mother, Both, Neither
On Childcare, AWP, and Leading the Triple Life
I saw them in the backs of crowded auditoriums, standing and rocking their cooing babies, and in the great booksellers’ hall, racing after toddlers: parents, mostly moms, caring for their children while also attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the country’s largest and most-anticipated gathering of writers, writing teachers, and independent publishers. It was my first time at the conference, and also the first time I’d left my two-year-old daughter for more than a night. I missed her, of course, and thought of her often, especially when I saw other mothers holding or tending to their children. But I did not envy those moms, who I knew from experience could only half-listen to the panels and readings, one eye on the exit in case their babies started to cry or call out. “She has her own rhetoric,” one mom told me ruefully in the hallway, nodding at the babbling three-month-old strapped to her chest. “But the panelists have worked so hard to be here, and you don’t want to mess that up.”
Before I had my daughter, I thought often of the increasing loneliness I felt as a childless woman, as the families of my friends and relatives grew. I have loved becoming a mother, and I love my life as a writer-teacher-mother, but I see now the loneliness that afflicts you on the other side. In particular, the loneliness of the working mother or working parent who accommodates our broken child care and parental leave system. A loneliness that comes not from leaving your child, but from trying to make hard, sometimes impossible-feeling work—organizing child care, paying for child care, and working through the times when there is no child care—invisible.
I looked in the glossy AWP catalog, which listed every panel, reading, and event, for a mention of child care, but found only a brief suggestion that parents should ask their hotel concierge for recommendations. I thought of my graduate students, booked into a Los Angeles motel one would later describe to me as “perfectly nice, but I’m glad I’m not staying there alone.” I thought of single moms and dads, and the challenge we all experience trying to sustain a writing life. Certainly many writers at the conference could not afford concierge-level hotels, or the time it would take to interview and choose a temporary, out-of-town sitter.
AWP is not responsible for our national child care crisis, of course—not responsible for the fact that the care of children under the age of five or six (six!) is left largely to parents to find, fund, and manage. But I thought about child care, its scarcity and expense, throughout my time at the conference, every time I saw a mother duck out of a panel or pace the hall with an infant—and then, later, all the times when I didn’t see those mothers at all.
* * * *
When my daughter was seven weeks old, I started a new job at a university. It was a visiting position, teaching writing to undergraduates while also working on my next book. The university was almost three hours from my house, and if I’d known anything about newborns when I accepted the position (at that point, I wasn’t even pregnant), I might have thought twice about my plan to travel back and forth each week with my daughter and husband, between our house and the guest residence the school provided. Beatrice turned out to be a great traveler—she mostly slept—but we often stopped at a Trader Joe’s on our route so that we could shop for groceries and so that I could nurse her. The store’s bathrooms were private, with a padded chair and a changing table and a long mirror on the back of the door. I remember looking into the mirror as I held my nursing infant and feeling proud of how efficient I’d become: I could change her, nurse her, and shop for my weekly groceries in less than an hour.
After the reading I gave at the university, on a cold night in January while my husband was working out of town and my mother was helping me with the baby, I brought Beatrice, wrapped up and sleeping in a sling, to the wine-and-cheese reception. My daughter wasn’t invisible—I was wearing her—but the cost of caring for her while also teaching and writing was something I tried never to show anyone.
I hired a talented sitter to care for Beatrice while I taught and held office hours, but everything else—grading, planning, writing—was done in the scraps of time I could manage. We couldn’t afford much more than the eight or ten hours a week we paid our sitter, and I also felt guilty about leaving Beatrice for longer than a few hours at a time. I felt guilty all the time, in fact—guilty for not writing enough, for not teaching well enough, for not being with her every waking moment. Guilty, and also lonely, because I was always either working or doing childcare.
When the semester ended and we moved back home I got another visitor job, at another university. By then I was able to afford more help: about 25 hours a week with a part-time nanny, while we waited for Beatrice to be old enough to attend the daycare we’d chosen. I no longer felt so guilty, but I do remember trying not to let the strain of child care, or the fact that I was sometimes working while doing childcare, show. To my employers, I wanted to appear fully invested in my job—and I was. To my family (particularly my mother, who stayed home with me and my brother when we were kids), I wanted to appear fully committed to Beatrice—and I was that too.
But no one else, aside from my husband and our caregivers of course, is particularly invested or committed to making child care work for my family. Certainly not our government, which offers the lowest level of regulatory and financial support for working families in the developed world: parents are guaranteed zero weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave, and once children are in daycare or preschool, the government help is minimal. Yearly, I pay $5,000 of Beatrice’s child care costs pre-tax, through a dependent care spending account. I can deduct some of the rest—a fraction of the more than $12,000 we spend in total each year. The lowest-income parents are sometimes eligible for subsidies or vouchers, depending on where they live, but enrolling their children in quality daycare can still consume a third (or more) of their total income. Out of necessity, low-income parents are also far more likely to enroll their children in unsafe and unlicensed home daycares.
I’m lucky that my employer provides some support, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Though 12 weeks of paid maternity leave is better than nothing—what most Americans get—it’s still less than the guaranteed paid leave in Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, and Spain, to name just a few countries. My university also offers a subsidized daycare and preschool. But the daycare is off campus and so small, in comparison to the size of our school, that Beatrice has little chance of getting off the wait list. Because I often teach at night, and my husband usually works into the evening hours too, for more than a year we made do with a combined daycare and nanny situation—I’d drop her off in the morning, head to work, and the nanny would pick her up in the afternoon. Twice a week I picked her up from the nanny’s at 7 pm, and we’d have dinner around 7:15 or 7:30.
I don’t think Bea was harmed by our cobbled-together child care arrangements, but I’m not sure that I came through that time unscathed. In the early days, when I had only a few hours to work each week, I remember literally running to the studio I borrowed from a neighbor in order to maximize my writing time. Later, when Bea started at her daycare, I felt like I was always hauling things—snacks and diapers and clothes, plus Bea herself—in and out of the car, into the daycare, out of the nanny’s house. I got a ticket for parking outside of the narrow lines in the parking deck at work and wrote what I now assume was an unhinged complaint, featuring the heavy breast pump I lugged across campus. I remember opening the parking ticket dispute form and feeling happy just to have someone I could safely complain to; I was forgiven with a warning.
Certainly it was my choice—and a source of pride, even—to take my daughter to daycare, to carry her things from one place to the next, to pump milk. But it also felt, in a strange way, as if I did those things in secret, like drawing attention to the difficulty involved would be rude, ungrateful, unseemly.
And so anything that acknowledges, unbidden, the challenge of working while also caring for a child feels enormous to me. The day after Mother’s Day this year, I dropped Bea off at her new school, and the director handed me a pink gift bag with “Beatrice’s Mom” markered across the top in black. “This is for all our moms,” she told me, pointing to a selection of yogurt, fruit cups, and granola. I was so stunned and grateful I started to cry.
* * * *
The most challenging aspect of managing child care, I think, is feeling like you are on your own. On your own to find care, on your own to make sure it’s safe and loving, on your own to pay for it. Or on your own to take care of the children yourself, while you try to work.
Writers have it easier in many respects. I am free to write at night, after Bea goes to bed, or very early in the morning, before she wakes up. As a teacher at a university, I have a lot of freedom too—I can schedule my office hours when I like, and I can plan, read, and grade papers whenever it’s best for me. I can take Bea with me when I travel, as long as I bring someone else to watch her. But the flexible nature of almost all of my responsibilities can make them feel all-consuming; also, the fact that my job is flexible tends to make me what Andrew Moravcsik, the husband of Anne-Marie Slaughter, calls the “lead parent.” Moravcsik, a professor at Princeton, is lead parent in his household; I am the lead parent in mine. In the families I know with creative writers who are also mothers, the mother-writer is always the lead parent.
Last fall I invited a writer and his editor into an undergraduate creative nonfiction class. I knew the editor but not the writer; when I introduced myself and thanked him for coming, just before class, he exclaimed: “Belle Boggs! You’re the writer who breastfed her baby at Duke!”
I felt my face go hot, picturing what I assumed he imagined—me sitting in the front of a classroom with an infant at my breast. “No!” I said, looking around to make sure the undergrads hadn’t heard. “That wasn’t me,” I insisted, confounded by how he’d gotten that idea.
Later I thought about it, and I realized that he was right. Technically I had breastfed Beatrice at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I co-taught a weeklong summer class in nonfiction, though it was in a private apartment and not a classroom. The program let me borrow the apartment for a week, so that a babysitter—one of my former students—could stay with eight-month-old Beatrice while I taught. On breaks I’d run to nurse her, cuddle her, sing to her.
The fact that I could teach the nine-hour-a-day class at all was made possible by that apartment, and by a stipend that the Center added to my pay: enough to cover the extra cost of babysitting. I’d forgotten about that part too, I was so focused on keeping my other role, as mother, invisible. I wanted the other writers to see me only as a writer and teacher, not as someone who needed—and was getting—help.
* * * *
Writing is a full-time job. So is parenting. So is teaching. It’s a “triple life,” to borrow the phrase Tillie Olsen applied to writing, mothering, and work. Many of us do these full-time jobs concurrently, and others of us would do them—and do them well, adding to the lives of students and readers and fellow-writers—if only we had more help.
Some people have found Olsen’s Silences old-fashioned, outdated, excessively pessimistic, but for me it’s another place where I have felt my difficulties as a childless woman writer, and now as a writer-mother, acknowledged. Her central message, that people with urgent things to say were silenced and are being silenced, still feels deeply relevant to me, never more so than since I became responsible for another human. But I also wonder: what can I do about these silences, other than bring them up in my writing classes and work against then in my own writing?
Not long after I returned from AWP, my friend Courtney Fitzpatrick, who is both an evolutionary biologist and a new mom, posted a positive note on Facebook about a scientific conference that offered child care, on-site, to all of its participants. She said that in her field it had become common for conferences and scientific research societies to offer child care services and subsidies for members and participants who have caregiving responsibilities. “I feel very strongly about it,” she told me over email. “I applied for one of the subsidies, and just the fact that they offered it engendered increased loyalty to the society from me.”
This year, AWP responded to requests for on-site child care with an open letter to participants. “AWP has been asked many times to provide on-site childcare at the conference,” the letter reads. “We are sorry we cannot provide this service at this time. Though the staff and board of AWP are sympathetic to childcare needs, we believe each parent should have the ability to thoroughly investigate a childcare provider’s qualifications directly.” The letter goes on to describe the costs and legal risks of offering child care, including the possibility that a child could be hurt and a parent might sue.
One of the previous child care requestors was the poet Sandra Simonds, who in 2012 circulated a Change.org petition directed at the conference: Accommodating on-site daycare is important in order for participants with children to fully engage in the conference without the burden of securing childcare off-site, her petition begins. Most of the participants coming to AWP are not familiar with the city in which AWP is held and do not know how far the off-site providers are from the conference location. Further, it would give peace of mind to participants to know that their children are in a facility at the conference itself. Whether these parents are part of a panel, reading, or attending the book fair, the more engaged participants are, the better the conference will be for the entire AWP community.
Simonds’s petition garnered 250 signatures and a call from AWP’s conference director, Christian Teresi, who told her the same thing participants were told again this year: it’s risky and cost-prohibitive. Simonds points out that the conference is much larger now, with higher fees than when she first attended. Now that her two children are school-aged, she says that travel is easier, but she remembers the early days acutely.
“Those years were so hard,” she said. “It’s a feminist issue, obviously, because most of the younger children are attached to the mothers. One way to increase inclusivity would be to make child care available for all participants.”
In a recent interview on the New Yorker’s website, the writer Lauren Groff expressed her frustration with the way our society treats writers who also happen to be mothers. “The questions I get most at readings or in interviews are about being a mother and writer, when I’m expected to do this this sort of tap dance of humility that I have no desire or ability to dance,” she said. “I think people are mostly kind and don’t know that, when they ask these questions of women, they are asking us to perform a kind of ceremonial subjection—that we’re not allowed our achievements without first denigrating ourselves or saying, with a sigh, ‘Yes, that’s correct, I’m a writer and a mother, and it’s so hard, and, no, I don’t do it well.’ The truth is, doing these things is hard because being a good parent is always hard, but the difficulty of parenting is separate from the difficulty of work.” She makes a good implied point about the double standard—men are likely asked these kinds of questions only rarely, if at all. And the suggestion that one can’t experience success and happiness in both motherhood and a writing career is deeply offensive (and consistently proven wrong by so many women writers, Groff included).
But for me, writing and motherhood intersect at a crucial fulcrum, which is the question of child care: where to find it, how to afford it. The last time I went on a book tour, I was not a parent, so I have no idea how often I’ll be asked about what it’s like to balance motherhood and my career. If I am, I’ll be honest: when I’m working I’m fully focused on the work, but getting there is harder than it should be. I want to be more transparent about the challenges I have as a professional and a mother, the challenges I’ve seen my friends experience—from workplace discrimination after the birth of a child to the suggestion that “money for child care” is not the most compelling arts grant request. I don’t want to miss out, or see any other parent silenced or excluded.
Each afternoon at AWP, I noticed that the babies and toddlers had disappeared: nap time, I guessed. Meltdown time. I missed a whole day, myself: I was too worried about being away from Bea, and so I left late Friday night. On the long flight home I imagined solutions to the child care dilemma—some impractical, maybe, but others that sounded possible. What if we signed up to take turns watching each other’s children while we attended our chosen panels and readings? Or what if writers’ older kids offered babysitting services, supervised by volunteer writers? Couldn’t AWP seek sponsorship of an on-site day care center? (The Pampers Playroom. The Antioch Low-Residency MFA Children’s Center.) What about subsidies to offset the cost? (MLA offers participants up to $300 in reimbursements for child care.) Even a room set up with cribs and mats and toys would be an improvement: a place to collapse, a place for your child to rest or nurse or play (AWP does offer a lactation room). A place to meet other parent-writers, to strategize, to commiserate—a place to feel less alone in the enormous responsibility of writing, teaching, and parenting.
But there’s another, even more important reason we should expect more help from our profession’s signature conference. Working parents require affordable, accessible, quality child care options. By expecting more for ourselves, we make this argument on behalf of all parents, and we get just a little closer to the equality we surely want for our children.