This post was inspired by a friend whose struggles made me want to try to put down what I wish I had known when I was going through the babies and toddlers years. In that sense, maybe it’s more of a letter to my past self, because everyone is different and our circumstances are different–some of us have more obstacles than others. I had a couple of obstacles. Others have a huge stack of problems.
Looking back, I can write off an entire decade of my writing life as lost to the rigours of parenthood. When I had my first child I had already published three SF novels and three fantasies. My fourth novel was drafted. I was thought by some to be a bit of a rising star. Then I had my first child, and a bunch of other things happened in my life that were hard. And everything stalled.
I want to pause here and say something about the ‘you can’t have a writing career and babies’ line that’s been fed to some women. Clearly this is untrue and objectionable. But nor is it fair or reasonable to expect a person to produce at the same level and quality as before while under the burden of parenthood. Expecting that leaves writers who are taking care of babies swinging from a hook. The blessing and the burden of parenthood may be ordinary, but it’s not light, especially if there are other circumstances that make life hard that are happening at the same time.
I thought, going in, that I had the best of all possible worlds: I could work from home and take care of my kids and still generate income. And it’s true—if I’d been working 9-5 I doubt I’d have been able to have more than one child for all kinds of logistical reasons. So I can thank writing (and the NHS) for the fact that I’m able to have three. I know how lucky I am.
But this is about writing, not about the economics of having babies. I had the best of both worlds, but on a day to day basis it often felt like the worst of both worlds. I had to ignore my kids a lot in order to get work done, so I felt guilty. Yet I could never escape them and interact with other adults because writing all happens inside your head. As for the inside of my head: I was known as a writer of ‘cutting edge science fiction’ (my contracts actually specified that). But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write the way I wrote before. I didn’t have the time, the space, the resources on any level. I was drained to an almost pathetic level, and this went on for years.
I took failure really personally. It had to be my fault. I mean, what was I, a walking cliché? Apparently yes. I can tell you that each time I was pregnant I lost all ability to think deeply and my drive to produce evaporated. Does this happen to all women? No. But it happened to me. Does that create a valid excuse for me and my gender to be dismissed? No. In fact, I challenge anyone to write books of the quality of Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn while in the throes of pregnancy and breastfeeding and the attendant sleeplessness and erosion of selfhood (because that is what happened, at least to me–I evaporated into the role of caregiver). Those books might not represent the best that is in me, but when I look back at the conditions under which they were written I have no issue with my performance.
I ended up writing off a decade of my working life to babies. Between 2001 and 2011 I was fumbling in the dark. I didn’t write well and I was only there for my kids half as much as I wanted to be—I felt inadequate on every level, every day. Ten years of brain fog and frustration—frustration, because I certainly wanted to be writing. I can still remember how badly I craved a straight shot at a piece of work.
In 2011, my writing career in ruins, I went back to university and I’m still there four years later, struggling for a BSc in a new field. I’m not quite there yet, but my head is above water now.
My head’s above water because my kids are older. I have my brain back. I sleep. I mean, I actually sleep. There were years and years where sleep was like the fucking Holy Grail. When you don’t sleep you start to forget that it was ever any other way and you live in the shallows, just getting by. I thought I was done for, intellectually. I thought it was over.
It’s not over. I’m only just getting started here.
In the midst of everything my family and I went through in those ten years, if I had known I was going to be OK and my brain would return and I’d come through stronger and wiser with all faculties intact and with a deep sense of appreciation of life’s gifts, if I’d known that despite the bumps in the road my kids would be fine, then maybe I’d have saved myself a lot of tears. I know I’d have saved myself a lot of thrashing and guilt, the desperate grasping at trying to do the impossible. In hindsight, I wish I could have climbed down off that hook.
But I bought into the lie that I had to be Superwoman.
I wasn’t. I’m not. I never will be.
It’s a lie.
The truth is that you muddle and you laugh as often as you can, and you accept that you can only do what you can do.
When I was going through all this, the person who reached out to me frequently was Kate Elliott. She kept encouraging me. It meant so much that my throat is closing, just remembering.
So I want to say to you—and you know who you are, specifically, but all of you reading this who may need to hear it—please cut yourself whatever slack you need. Paradoxically, life will work better in the long run if you can just take it easy on yourself. You don’t have to beat yourself up. The world will do a real good job of that. Be as kind to you as you possibly can.
Hang in there. You will come through. Hugs.
[title edited to reflect the fact that people become parents at all ages]