Weeks before the birth of my son, I’d messaged a good friend — also a writer, also a mother — “So, how soon after giving birth did you find you could get back to work?”
“What do you mean?” she wrote back.
“Well, I’m working on a book, when do you think I’ll have time to get back to writing?”
“So, probably 2036.”
I put a “one line a day” mother’s diary on my baby registry. My husband saw that I did this and put one on the list for himself as well. It’ll be easy, we thought. It’s only one line a day.
Sixteen weeks later, I’m only a few entries behind. Faithfully filling out the tiny space allotted for each day, I feel good. It’s writing, after all. I think about how writing is a muscle, one that needs to be worked out.
I have a funny history with muscle — namely, that I develop it best when I don’t think about developing it at all. I played sports, which were really games plus fitness, and later gravitated toward riding my bike over running or any more exercise-y exercises.
It’s the same with writing for me. I tend to write best when I enter joyful flow. Which, given the subject of my book “The Violence” may seem odd, but joy is necessary.
With the one-line-a-day book, the joy is in the satisfaction of completion. I’ve done it; it is written. I can go back through the last three-and-a-half months and see little patterns emerge: What I’m concerned about, what’s come easy, what little blessings a smile can bring after a long night. The entries have become important to me. They chronicle the feelings of being a new mother, of venturing into this terrifying and unfamiliar terrain — all while healing from the physical and emotional experience of birth.
There are tiny gems in this book — Eurovision!! Baby R slept through 4+ hours of European song and dance. Israel won — and still the rest of the day was peaceful!
These few lines bring me back to those moments in the most Proustian of ways. I can remember bouncing the baby in my arms when he woke from his slumber, dance-marching with him to Denmark’s Viking anthem. My son had just started becoming alert, staring intently at me as I hummed along, trying to figure out what exactly one does with an infant for so many hours between naps, feedings, changings and walks. Some days the answer was Eurovision.
This, I wrote, is joy.
My husband started writing along with me. He would cheat off of my entries occasionally, and for a few weeks, we kept up pretty well.
Now, I soldier on alone. He’s about a month behind and sees no point in even trying to cheat.
“Turns out,” he said, “I have no discipline for writing at all.”
Before the baby came, I asked all the writer/mothers I know how long it took them to get back into the swing of things. One told me it took her six months. Another said somewhere between eight weeks and eight months (every baby is different). Another told me she wrote immediately, but everything she wrote was terrible (baby brain, it kills you). “I wandered around in a fog for the first few months,” my editor told me. My agent told me to take things easy, to not put too much pressure on myself.
Oh no. I wrote in my notebook — I need to get this book done. I need to get this book done. I need to get this book done. It’s just been too long.
Parts of my book began in 2007. I wrote one version of it for my graduate school thesis (finished in 2009), another to send it to agents (who all passed on it). I removed chapters from the book, let them become their own little novella in 2014. In 2015, that novella won the PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize. Which got me an agent. Which then lead to a bidding war for a revised first five chapters and proposal based on the original book. Which now had a publisher and an editor and a future place in the world. Which was documented in a contract at the end of 2015 for a book due in November 2016. I wrote another draft. I hated that draft. I rewrote the second half of the book. Researched. Researched. Researched. Got an extension on my contract. Turned in a completed draft of the book in January 2018. Posted about it on Facebook. Felt good about it. Got notes back. Was devastated. Began another revision on the most recent draft.
All this while dealing with life, which is to say: a breakup, surviving a bad year, meeting my future husband, dating him, getting married, dealing with some minor fertility issues, leaving my university job, having a miscarriage, getting pregnant again, having all sorts of complications (what up, gestational diabetes!!), and finally, this April, having a baby.
I’m okay, I wrote two days after giving birth. I think I’m okay. I’m mostly okay. I’m a mom. Whoa. I’m a mom. And I need to finish my book.
The facts of the matter are such: I am not the most maternal person; I am not the most disciplined person; I am not a particularly good homemaker or wife. I tend to think I make up for it with sheer charm, but even that can only take you so far.
I write like I exercise: in intense bursts. I will attempt discipline for a week or two at a time (dieting, writing a thousand words a day), or I’ll go to extremes (today, without any preparation at all, I’ll write five thousand words and go to spin class!!). Mostly, though, I’m driven by a pathological fear of missing a deadline, as well as a need to fit into a pair of size 8 jeans I bought in the year 2000 (one day, jeans, one day!).
These methodologies carried me through graduate school, teaching, work as a writer and various other gigs. I got the work done, generally when it needed to get done. But motherhood has complicated things.
In my heart, I knew this would happen. That motherhood would be difficult. That a baby is something that requires focus and discipline. But I also kept the refrain in my head that all kinds of people raise competent and beautiful babies. I knew I didn’t have to push myself harder than I needed to. But knowing and doing are very different things.
Also, my baby didn’t latch.
My little one-line-a-day diary has a few recurring themes. If I could form a word cloud from my entries, the largest words would be “breastmilk” then “book” then “pumping” then “feeding” then “writing” and then “failure.”
My best friend from college tells me I’m not a failure. She does this even before I complain that I am exactly that. “Breastfeeding is hard,” she messaged one morning. “Writing is hard,” I replied.
She told me that putting her daughter in daycare at six months worked for her. She felt more human, more like herself. She told me there’s no shame in formula. In hiring a mother’s helper.
Several friends echoed this when I told them of my anxieties over parenting and book-writing.
“That baby is alive and healthy and happy. Your book can wait. You’re going to be okay,” wrote another friend.
When I tell people that I’m exclusively pumping — that I log my production and the baby’s intake, that I’ve become a milk-inventory manager and supplier — the reactions have varied from empathy (“I don’t know how you’ve done it this long!”) to astonishment at my failure to adequately feed my child (“Have you tried a lactation consultant?” “Yes.” “Oh. Have you tried…?” “Yes. Yes, I have.”).
“Some babies don’t latch,” said the pediatrician. “Just keep trying. It’s a muscle. He needs to learn to use it. Or he doesn’t. And you’ll feed him formula. He’ll live.”
I woke up, my head pressed against the keyboard on my desk, my back aching from the P-shaped curve of my body and arms on the desk and chair. As I straightened up, I looked at my watch. 2:30 a.m.. Time to pump.
Halfway through the pump, I heard the baby begin to stir through the baby monitor. I disconnected and brought him what little milk I’d made. As he ate, I moved to the computer and shook the mouse with my free hand. I’d stopped mid-sentence. The word-count for the night? Fifty words. Nothing. A paragraph reshaped. Another paragraph begun. I’d fallen asleep before I’d even gotten into flow.
A quick change, a lullaby, and a few moments later, the baby slept. I reconnected to my pump so that a different flow could begin.
You can do this. I wrote in my journal with my free hand. It’ll take some time, but you can do this.
I looked at my calendar and quickly counted the months to April 2036.
When the pump was over, I carried my pieces to the sink, logged and labeled the milk and put the bags in the fridge. I checked the pantry for the supplemental formula we’d recently purchased, made sure there was enough for the next day and finally sat down for a minute on the back porch to watch the rain fall in the darkness before dawn.
I did not want to think about my garden — the weeds understood better than I did how nature and time simply move forward. I ignored the hot summer rain. I ignored my exhaustion. I sat and just let my mind wander and wonder. Eventually, I had a good thought and made my way back to the computer in my attic office. I jiggled the mouse and quickly wrote a hundred words, an idea I’d had while staring into the nothingness of the backyard.
Soon enough, my watch beeped. The schedule said it was time for bed. For sleep. For rest.
I need to do that too.
A male writer I know juggles paternity with writing just fine. He wrote on social media: I wake up early in the morning, around five or six, then I write my thousand to two thousand words a day. Then parenting begins.
A female writer responded: Parenting begins? HA. My parenting never ends.
Every parent is different. I can’t really judge if it’s harder for mothers, biological or not, than it is for fathers.
What I do know: My husband has never been asked “Will you stop writing now? How will you work with a baby?”
The same cannot be said for me.
I read Lauren Groff’s recent response when she was asked how she manages work and family.
“I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle,” Groff said. “But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”
Yes, I nodded. This.
I’m going to miss my next deadline. But only by a week or two. And that’s not too bad. I’m the only person setting deadlines. My editor and my agent are mothers. They understand. It’s hard. No one expected me to have anything done this quickly. No one but me.
But writing is discipline. It’s religion — a muscle you flex daily, an attempt at understanding the divine, a struggle for the sublime. Writing is what I do, not easily, but with work.
And there is joy in work. A joy, one could say, that rivals motherhood.
“You’re giving birth to two babies this year,” joked a friend with whom I run a literary journal, “your book and your son!”
But it’s not a joke. Labor with my son took a little over thirty hours. I’ve been laboring over this book for over eleven years.
My son laughs now. He giggles when I show him books, loves the textures and high-contrast of baby books. His laughter makes my heart swell, in a way that is painful and glorious and terrifying all at the same time. I worry for my son.
“Of course,” I told my therapist, “my son comes first. Over my writing. Over everything.”
“No,” she said, a mother herself, “you do. You come first, so you can better care for your son. And you need to write, you need to write to feel like yourself.”
I’m working on finding child care, on getting my son on a schedule, on being a mother, and yes, I’m working on the book.
Some days. Most days. Whenever I can.
The baby giggled in his bouncer, sitting up and trying to punch a dangling star.
I looked over at him. There were 30 minutes before my next pump, and he seemed fine, happy even. He wasn’t hungry. He wasn’t wet or dirty. He seemed entertained.
I sat next to him, at my desk, working on my computer — trying to finish a chapter before handing him off to his father. I saved my computer file, pushed my chair back a little and took in my smiling baby as I measured my words for the day. A few hundred. Not bad. Not bad at all.
I pulled out my little diary and contemplated what had happened that day.
I wrote today.
This, I wrote, is joy.
Adriana E. Ramírez is one of the Times’ Critics at Large. Her book “The Violence” is forthcoming from Scribner.