Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Fallow: Remembering that Before Birth Comes the Cave

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I remember when my daughter was younger and I was seeing a wonderful therapist named Lucy who asked me, "When is your day off?"

"Well, I don't teach or write on the weekends," I told her.

"I mean, when is your time off from mothering?"

It shocked me. It had never occurred to me. Why shouldn't mothers get time off? What kind of worker never gets time off? Why had I never felt I could take time off?

Both writers and mothers have jobs that don’t have regular hours. We also have jobs that entail a great deal of stress – writing blocks, tantrums, low wages (or no wages), lack of support, isolation, and the sense that we must always be mentally and emotionally available. It’s exhausting and draining work.

For these very reasons, we need time off.

In my column this past year, I have been examining the metaphors from nature that can help us in our writing and mothering. Just as there are seasons of planting, fruiting, and harvest in our human and creative lives, so too do we need a fallow season.

Wise farmers know that a field cannot produce season after season. There must be a time for the field to lie fallow – resting, replenishing minerals, gearing up for new growth.

We can learn to lie fallow, too.

The United States is one of only four countries in the entire world that doesn't offer paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child. The other countries are Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and Liberia. Liberia was founded by former slaves; maybe it's hard for them to stop working. Maybe it's hard for us to stop, too.

When Canada increased its parental leave from six months to a year, the increase in children's health was so dramatic, they considered raising the leave period to eighteen months. They ultimately decided against it, for fear that women (who are usually the primary caretakers of young children) would suffer from being out of the workforce for so long. But the point is that six months-- six months-- makes a huge difference in the ability of children and parents to bond, connect, learn, and be healthy in the world.

So workers need time off to mother. And even mothers need time off, too.

Once I attended a panel at Duke University that featured some of the editors and contributors to the wonderful book, Mama, Ph.D. The audience was filled with successful academic women – women who mother, write, teach, and rarely take time off.

In the discussion, the question of self-care came up. I raised my hand and shared that I had decided to keep my daughter (who was then in elementary school) in an afterschool program instead of rushing to pick her up at 2:30 every day. “It helps me get work done so I can focus on her in the evenings,” I said. “And sometimes, I use the time to take a nap.”

There were gasps. The audience was completely silent.

The pressure we put on ourselves to keep going even when we are exhausted, overwhelmed, and drained is enormous.

Think about this:

- one half of all Americans get no paid sick leave

- 80% of all food service workers get no paid sick leave

- for the bottom 80% of the American population, there has been no increase in income since 1970

- the top 1% of Americans earn 23% of the national income

- in the past 14 years, more Americans declared bankruptcy each year than graduated from college.

So I started taking time off as a mother. I take naps. Or I take a whole Sunday in bed to read. And a couple of times a year, I check myself into a hotel for a night or two and take long baths, sleep, read, and dream.

My friend Amy once told me, "When you told me years ago that you took time off as a mother, I thought you were lazy. But then time went on and I realized I did it, too, but not in a conscious way. I would get so exhausted and depleted and angry that from time to time I would fall apart and my husband would have to take over. So I thought, why not do it consciously? Why not say, This is my time off, and actually enjoy it?"

At first, this may feel impossible because the stress we feel -- the number of hours we are forced to work to keep our jobs, the insecurity we feel about the economy, the growing inequality between the rich and poor -- is a real and present danger to our ability to co-create change.

Yet it is in our power to make a conscious choice to change. And the irony is that working less will actually make you more productive. You will exercise more, eat more home-cooked meals, garden more, drive less, and have more time to connect with people. Real people, not cyberfriends.

A 2009 Harvard Business Review study found that workers who worked a 40-hour week (as opposed to 55 hours) and spent weekends offline and away from work outproduced the group that worked longer hours. They had an easier time setting goals, seeing their priorities, communicating with co-workers, and enjoying their jobs. In short, they had an easier time co-creating their lives.

Remember that before a child’s birth, she spends nine months in the cave of the womb. Your writing, your mothering, your work, and your creative life need times in the cave, too.

This year, instead of making a resolution to do something, resolve to do less.

Here are a few suggestions for lying fallow:

-When you have a big project or event coming up (deadline at work, child’s birthday party), schedule time to rest before the event. Put on some music, turn off the phone, and get into bed.

-When you start to resent everything (the email from the editor asking for revisions, the request for more Goldfish), give yourself a movie date. During your child’s nap time or on a weekend, watch a movie that is silly, stupid, and hysterical. Let yourself laugh.

-If your kids are not yet in school, ask a friend to take care of them and go to a park by yourself with no cell phone. Walk, dream, journal. Pay no attention to time. Get to know the sound of your own inner self again.

-Give yourself a day off in the middle of the week. No Internet. No errands. Read a book. Put the book down. Get into the bath. Cry. Let yourself feel the feelings you keep in all the time.

-When things are particularly stressful, schedule small acts of self-care. Prepare a special snack for yourself (you do it for the kids every day!) that you can enjoy at work. Listen to an audio book in the car after dropping the kids off. Get up 30 minutes early and do one or two yoga poses and then write in your journal.

Remember that fields must lie fallow regularly to remain fertile. The farmer doesn’t say, “You had your fallow season last year, remember? Keep producing.”

When we give ourselves these small and regular rests, our work will improve. Our children will sense the joy in us again. Our partners will notice that we are emotionally present. And our creative self will sparkle with possibility.

The extent to which you feel resistance to this idea is a sign of how much you desperately need it. So here it is: I give you permission. Go rest.


I invite you to submit a creative nonfiction piece of 800-1200 words that illustrates your resistance to and need for rest as a mother writer. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by February 3rd. Be sure to put "Birthing the Mother Writer: 6" in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.

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I love this piece, Cassie! Thanks for your insights!
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