Writing During Naptime, a Parent’s Practice
Katie Gutierrez on the Hard-Won Lessons of Motherhood
I spent my twenties in no rush to get pregnant. I had parlayed my college internship at People magazine into a job, and when our bureau closed, I hustled to make a freelance income. I worked while earning my MFA, and one of my freelance clients eventually offered me a salaried position. By the time I was 31, I was executive editor—and hadn’t written a word of my own work in years.
I struggled with the decision to step back from the career I’d spent a decade building in order to write again. But my husband and I were trying to conceive, and, embarrassingly, I still believed the “pram in the hall” myth: if there was any time to write a novel, it was before a baby came. I found out I was pregnant the same month I signed with my agent. The need to finish—and sell—my novel before my daughter was born became all-consuming.
I didn’t even come close.
The early nights felt like this: the peaceful lull of skin on skin, puffs of milky breath. My mind wandering, circling, ruminating. My body—unfamiliar and reconstituted, still bleeding. I felt scraped open, raw, exquisitely receptive to the world. Sometimes I thought, I am somebody’s mother. The thought shook me, rendered everything else unrecognizable. I sparked with creativity.
But by the time my baby was four months old, my fear had been realized: I hadn’t written in nearly half a year. I cried at the kitchen table, exhausted from her bad sleep and unpredictable naps and the guilt of feeling as though something was missing.
Then, one day, she napped. And then she napped again. Over time, it became two naps a day, at least an hour each. During those finite windows, I chose writing over my own rest, over cleaning, over exercising, sometimes over dressing or eating. It felt like a delicious secret.Twitter was where I discovered I’m part of a nap-writing tribe—one of many writers researching during a 3 am breastfeeding session, or following the mind’s bizarre midnight wanderings to unexpected inspiration.
As I tried to find my rhythm, Twitter became an unlikely source of inspiration. It’s where I discovered I’m part of a nap-writing tribe—one of many writers researching during a 3 am breastfeeding session, or following the mind’s bizarre midnight wanderings to unexpected inspiration.
“For me, having a child felt so bizarre and otherworldly,” says Kate Hope Day, author of If, Then, in which several neighbors see visions of themselves in alternate realities. “It’s a very strange time that’s ripe for storytelling that takes reality and tilts it.”
Julia Fine, author of What Should Be Wild and the forthcoming Goodnight Nobody, a postpartum ghost story, agrees. “Even in those first few weeks, I knew the immediate postpartum experience was ripe for psychological horror—the solitude, the sleep deprivation, the way everything is totally different and heightened but also really boring and mundane.”
Day, who had never written fiction before her son was born, says, “If your everyday is so much of the same, it can feel isolated and constricted. Writing becomes a release valve; stepping into this other world that can be anything you want it to be.”
One of the things I loved about Day’s If, Then was its sense of danger, of wildness, encroaching on domestic spaces. It feels to me like an apt metaphor for writing as a mother, and for writing about motherhood, which has long been dismissed or relegated to “women’s fiction” or “domestic fiction.”
“When you’ve become a new parent, it does not feel small,” Day says. “It feels as momentous as some geological change. It feels like the most dramatic weather. I was trying to externalize how big these domestic moments feel when you’re in them. In this sense of wildness young children have that they can also bring out in you.”
“Having children definitely brought an urgency to my writing,” says Andrea Williams, an author and journalist who published her first novel, a co-written project, six weeks after her youngest child was born. “It’s added a nuance and depth that didn’t exist before.”
Melissa Rivero began writing The Affairs of the Falcóns in 2011. She had her first child the following year and her second in 2015.
“There was concern that I would never finish the novel because I had all these obligations,” Rivero says, “one of them being a full-time job, and the other that I was already a mother.
“Before I had my first kid,” Rivero says, “I would get up at five am and write. I loved waking up to this blue light. The city was asleep. I loved going from one dream state into the next. Once I had [the kids], forget it, you never know what the night’s going to bring—croup, fever, the five am wake-up for two hours. I had to say no to a lot of things. I had to choose my writing.” And, she continues, “I was determined to finish Ana’s story. And I couldn’t have done it without having my kids there.”
There are many reasons new parents—usually mothers—stay home with their babies, ranging from physical to emotional to financial.I was afraid I would lose an essential part of myself by becoming a mother. In fact, that part has been strengthened, bolstered, revived.
“If I’d worked as an adjunct,” says Day, who has a Ph.D. in literature, “it wouldn’t have been enough to pay for childcare, so while we were in a very fortunate position to live off what my husband was making, I had to stay home.”
Williams recalls writing while she was “laid up with stitches after my fourth C-section and nursing. I finished in six weeks, mostly because I needed the cash awaiting my completion,” she says.
For those from marginalized backgrounds, balancing financial obligations with writing and parenthood is particularly challenging.
“In non-white families, specifically,” says Williams, “it is highly unlikely that a single income is supporting the whole household. The racial wealth gap is insidious and impervious and it touches every single part of our lives, especially the lives of black folk, even if we’re just trying to do the mom thing and simultaneously write a book. Because, inevitably, we can’t just do the mom thing and simultaneously write a book.”
In Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, Adrienne Rich writes of the conflict she felt between being a poet and being a mother: “For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape . . . a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motions can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.” This freedom of the mind, Rich suggests, is not possible if you are “maternally with children all day in the old way.”
Nor, I would add, is it possible if you are balancing an additional job on top of motherhood. But knowing my writing time will end before I’m ready has made me a bolder and more productive writer. It has made me more imaginative, not less.
“If you stare at something familiar long enough,” Day says, “it will become strange. Kids are great for that.”
“Yes,” Fine adds, “it’s hard to be an artist and a parent, but not any harder than it is to be an artist and homeless, or an artist working three jobs, or an artist with chronic illness. It’s taken me almost two years of motherhood to realize that the aspects of parenthood I’d been conditioned to believe were hurting my writing were actually helping it. This myth of the artist’s life as a solitary, bohemian existence is so poisonous.”
I was afraid I would lose an essential part of myself by becoming a mother. In fact, that part has been strengthened, bolstered, revived. If “writing is renaming,” as Rich said, there is no clearer access point than by joining a new child in looking at the world. Leaves on trees become tongues. You can feel the earth spinning.
I finished the first draft of my novel three days before my daughter’s first birthday.