How Raising a Child Is Like Writing a Novel

All stories are about transformation, even the ones that aren’t. The passage of time inevitably brings about transformations big and small, obvious and invisible. As a writer, I seek out change in my stories; as a professor, I urge students to pay attention to it. Though I was ambivalent for years about having children, the allure of transformation is what eventually led me to become a mother. Beneath my ambivalence was a quiet hum of curiosity; few things in life, after all, both promise and threaten to be utterly transformative.

But like many female artists, I was afraid that having a baby would sap my ability to think, create, write. For years I’d pored over the multitude of stories about how parenthood—motherhood, I should say, and seemingly never fatherhood—was incompatible with creativity. There are the material issues of time, energy, sleep, and money. More terrifying were the existential ones: whether the selflessness expected of mothers is compatible with the single-mindedness needed to write, whether motherhood is inherently in opposition to art. The canon that argues they are incompatible is deep and wide, including Cyril Connolly’s famed “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” and Jenny Offill’s narrator in Dept. of Speculation: “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.”

Was that true, that to make art, one must never concern oneself with the mundane? Intuitively I resisted this. My experience has taught me that the mundane is fertile territory for imagination, that what we see as mundane can tell us more about ourselves and society’s values than it does about the supposedly mundane thing itself. And indeed there were women writers whose work I loved, some of my idols, for whom children were not a creative death knell but rather a source of expansiveness, possibility, and wonder: Toni Morrison, Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso. Manguso’s words, in particular, stayed with me. She writes: “Before I had my son I was convinced that motherhood would ruin my writing and cause a profound loss of self that would never be compensated. My old self is indeed gone, but I perceive the world more carefully and more lovingly than before because I am more aware of the effects of love and of time on an individual person. And I am more aware of the limits of love and of time.”

[Read: How motherhood affects creativity]

I held her words close as a talisman throughout my pregnancy. Then my own son came along, kicking and screaming, strong of will and lung. As soon as his slippery body was placed on my exhausted one, I started to cry. I didn’t understand why at the time. My intellect—which thus far had been so reliable as my primary means of navigating life—could not fathom the flood of ferocious, all-consuming love that could and would break me.

So this was the transformation I had wanted. It was followed by the surreal twilight zone of the early postpartum months. My husband cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, walked and rocked into the wee hours while I breastfed up to 15 times a day. Our son—colicky, energetic, strong-willed—would not be soothed. Our families were on different continents. I was also teaching fiction workshops virtually, trying to complete the last two weeks of the semester before winter break. It was difficult in all the ways it’s said to be. But it was also exhilarating and joyful, the way that a complete upending of ordinary life can be. It was oddly liberating to feel entirely at sea, to be forced to live minute to minute, to think I had it right—whether “it” was a feeding schedule or a sleep routine—only to be utterly confounded at the next turn. Humbled, crushed, full of fear and awe in the same breath, oh, like any new parents, there were times when we felt brought to our knees.

[Read: Becoming a parent during the pandemic was the hardest thing I’ve ever done]

And the biggest surprise: Even at my most optimistic, I had conceived of parenthood only as being in service to creativity. What I found, however, was that the intensity of this care was a creative act in itself. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic, puts it this way: “When I refer to ‘creative living,’ I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

Curiosity over fear. It is a frame of mind that, as a novelist, I was intimately acquainted with. To write and rewrite the hundreds of thousands of words necessary to produce a novel requires a suspension of disbelief, a narrowing of vision to the present moment, an openness to the unexpected, an acceptance of likely failure. So, too, with caring for a tiny human being. Both brought sleepless nights, an overwhelming sense of impossibility, the panicked feeling that I simply will not be able to do this, the bone-deep conviction that I must.

Writing a novel is an act of faith. Throughout the years-long process, I would feel stymied by my own inadequacy, laziness, shortness of vision, paucity of words. Sometimes my failure was felt in every sentence. In my early days of writing, I thought that meant something was going wrong, that I should stop. Now I know that those feelings often mean I’m stretching the limits of my understanding and ability, which is what makes for interesting work. As Joe Fassler, who has interviewed more than 150 authors, writes: “Novelists are masters of one skill primarily. Their genius lies in an ability to suspend their skepticism over the long haul, to persist in the belief that—no matter how hard things get—the work is meaningful, and worthwhile, and will one day pan out.”

It is true that this stubborn belief has seen me through the most difficult moments of my writing career: financial worries, years of nothing but rejections, entire drafts that I had to abandon, weeks of isolation when I didn’t talk to another human being aside from my husband. And in those bewildering days of early parenthood, I found myself reaching for that belief over and over. As new parents, we search so often for some external validation, some authoritative guide that will save us from the terror of feeling our way through. But the advice on topics as varied as breastfeeding, sleep, and developmental milestones is contradictory and deeply personal. The same is true for writing; any craft advice generally proves suspect when applied to specific novels or stories. Back in graduate school, I’d often ask my adviser if she thought this or that strategy for writing my novel would work, to which she’d always shrug and say: “It might! You’ll have to write it to find out.” I thought of her a lot in those early, newborn months.

[Read: Can creativity be learned?]

With parenting and with writing, sometimes the despair vanishes as quickly as it comes, replaced by buoyant exhilaration, the feeling of catching the wind after paddling for hours and being borne lightly upon the waves. When I realized that my son was crying not because he wanted to nurse, but because he wanted to sleep; that he loved going to cafés with fans that twirled slowly overhead; that when he started eating, he particularly adored food that was long and stringy (asparagus, green beans, potato strips); that anything that brought him joy—objects with wheels, books that played music—also had the potential to make him cry, because he simply couldn’t get enough. In these tiny observations I found a truth both mundane and profound: We write our stories as they are lived, moment to moment. There are no shortcuts, no generalizations to get us through, only the joy and challenge of each instant. Novels require attentiveness to their particular shapes and rigors. They cannot be forced into the containers of generalized creative advice or the writer’s preconceived notions. Children, too, fiercely resist generalization, and are prone to confound and surprise, but would we want it any other way?

It can be easy to lose track of the bright current of magic running through the everyday chaos of parenting a young child, just as it is easy to forget, while deep in the long, often discouraging process of writing a novel, that creating art is one of life’s biggest privileges and joys. It’s natural to crave control and ease in the face of any undertaking as enormous and important as parenting or art-making. But it can be humbling, freeing, beautiful even, to relinquish that desire and just pay attention to what is. There are no certainties in any creative act, be it the writing of a novel, the raising of a child, or the building of a life. Therein lies the immense terror; therein lies the immense beauty.

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