Motherhood & Words

D will be home tonight. He’s been gone for ten days with his new job. I doubt the timing, with Zoe just four weeks old when he left, could have been any worse, but there was nothing we could do about it, so he went.

Stella missed him a ton. Yesterday morning, she was watching The Lion King, and she had gotten to the part of the movie where Simba’s father dies. I was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, when she appeared and clung to my leg, crying, “When is my dad going to come back?” Tears streamed down her face. I felt awful.

I missed him because I love him, of course, but I also missed my partner, my co-parent. You don’t want to know how pissy I was by the end of each day. (Hats off to all the single mothers our there.) I’m exhausted, and all I can say: he owes me, big time.

But the time up north with my mom was restorative (even with all the snow) and it jump-started my reading-mind again. While we were up there, I finished Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father, which I had started before Zoe was born. I liked it very much. Cooper, a middle-aged gay man, is an unlikely writer to be featured on Mother Words: Mothers Who Write, but I have to mention him because I love his writing. I should have included him in my post last fall on writers who rock dialogue. He’s got it down, and in this memoir, the banter between him and his father is wonderful. I can hear it. I can feel it. I also love his essays, which have been featured in Best American Essays, and his memoir, Truth Serum. His sentences are tight, his details alive, and he’s funny, darnit. I laughed out loud more than once reading The Bill from My Father.

I also read some of Grace Paley’s The Collected Stories, which are wonderful for voice, and for minding me how important it is to tell women’s stories, to give voice to our lives. Who can argue with this, from “Debts”:

“It was possible that I did owe something to my own family and the families of my friends. That is, to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.”

Isn’t that what we are trying to do: tell our stories as simply as possible in order to save a few lives?

The third thing I read (in the car on the way home from the cabin, even though I should have been sleeping) was Jon Hassler’s My Staggerford Journal. It’s not a book I would have chosen on my own. My mom, who is a huge Hassler fan, checked it out from the library. She knew Jon Hassler a little, maybe from the years she worked in a bookstore in St. Paul, and when I was young, we would sometimes run into him at the public library in town up north because his cabin was not far from ours.

Anyway, I tore through the book. I love reading about successful writers who didn’t begin writing until their forties. I love reading about how many rejections they received before being published. I hold up their accounts as proof that there is hope for all of us. I also love reading about writers processing their works in progress. I loved the notebooks at the end of Suite Française, and I loved this short journal for the same reason: how wonderful it is to see a writer work out character and plot, muck around in the confusion of a book half-written.

The thing that struck me most about this journal, however, was how incredibly male it was—how incredibly male Hassler was. He had children at home when he first began to write fiction. Granted, they weren’t infants or even young, but they were still there in the house with him. Yet, he was able to take off for a week here and two weeks there. He spent his evenings and weekends writing as far as I could tell. Apparently his wife did all the grocery shopping, all the cooking, all the home stuff. And I thought again how no one ever asks published male writers how they balance fatherhood and writing. This is a standard question I ask of women writers who are mothers, and most reply that they cobble together twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there or get up at 4 am and stay up until one am to finish a chapter after the kids are in bed and the laundry is done.

In January, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kathryn Trueblood, who wrote a wonderful novel The Baby Lottery. (I plan to write more about this here, but you can also read my review of the book on mamazine.) When I asked Kathryn how she balanced motherhood and writing and teaching she said:

“I don’t think balance is the right word to describe what my life has felt like over the years—chaos is more appropriate. I negotiated my tenure-track salary on the phone as my daughter clomped around the house in high heels, flushing the toilet over and over again. But this has taken a toll on me. As women, we are really programmed to take care of other people, but we often forget to really take care of ourselves. Now I have more realistic goals and boundaries. I’m taking a break from novel-writing right now, until my oldest graduates from high school.”

I can’t imagine that Hassler experienced this need to balance writing and fatherhood. From his journal, it appears that writing was his first priority. In the introduction, he admits this. He put his writing before his family, and even says that his marriage couldn’t survive his writing career.

How many writer-mothers do this?

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. kristenspina on April 14, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Lovely post! Very thought-provoking. I’m glad to hear your time at the cabin was restorative. Hope all is well.

  2. Shana on April 14, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Hi Kate! Shana here (MN Poetry MFA 2006) Anyway I discovered your blog last year when pregnant, forgot about it until last week and am happy to rediscover! This post brings up a ton for me right now as I’m married to a writer and here we are with 4 month old daughter. . since he is in school and I am nursing of course my writing time is what is really on pause, it is sometimes a struggle! So thank you! Also congrats on girl number two!

  3. Andria on April 14, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Great post, Kate.

    I know I, for one, am someone who can not write while I have small children at home. Not to place undue blame on them; not to sound like a martyr. Only to say that I’m an obsessive enough writer to fear that if I even start — like an AA member taking that one drink — I will not be able to stop.

    So I admire like crazy women such as yourself — who can write and read and be so intelligent with a preschooler and a ONE-MONTH-OLD in the house. You’re a “lifer,” Kate — you’re a writer for the long haul. You’ll be your own Hassler but with an intact marriage and a wonderful family — and THAT’s because you’re a writer/mother, not in spite of it.

  4. Andria on April 14, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    p.s. My last sentence may only be true if Donny doesn’t take any more 10-day work trips…. ha, ha…. 🙂

    Thanks again for your post.

  5. kate on April 15, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Andria,thank you.

    Shana,congratulations on your baby girl! You’ll write again, though I so often feel as if I won’t, and then I panic.

  6. Bernice Burks - Sista GP on April 15, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    hi, first visit
    I found you by searching for other writers. Your post expresses a lot of what I am feeling now. I completed my first material last year which developed into a novel. I am working on getting it published while working on the next one. My hubby is an over-the-road trucker and we have a 6-year old son. Life is difficult when his hometime is only every other weekend and I have a full-time job.
    We have been staying with my mom for the last few years after we practically gave up everything material after we lost our jobs after 9/11. We thank God that we are in a place now in our lives that are able move into our own home again next month after over 4.5 years.

    I met someone recently that has encouraged me to write more, so I started a blog. I hope I can keep it up.
    Your post signifies that there are others out here working through similar situations. Thank you.

  7. Emilie on April 15, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    I can sympathize; my husband will be going on a trip (though not as long) soon, when my newborn is four weeks old, and I’m not looking forward to it. I do have to remember that single moms face this life every day, but times like that sure make me grateful for my husband.

    You’re inspiring me to pick up a book again. These past couple of weeks have been all Oprah and Real Simple. Anyway, I’m glad to hear the fog seems to be lifting for you … a little at a time, right?