Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Evolution of A Muse

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The developing muse:

I have a great story idea one night as I try to go to sleep. But there is no paper of any kind in the room, no writing instrument nearby. I'm eight months pregnant, too big and too tired to get up, so I tell myself I'll remember it in the morning.

This is what I remember in the morning: that I had a story idea the night before. No searches in my cranial hard drive are able to retrieve it. I did not write it down: therefore, it does not exist.

I must, must, must write things down.

I start a pregnancy journal and leave it in my bedside table drawer. I want to remember how it feels to be heavy with another life inside of me, the responsibility and care I feel for something I can't even see and someone I know so little about.

The muse is born:

After we bring our sleeping newborn daughter home from the hospital and set her on the couch in her car seat, and after the dogs have sufficiently sniffed her, we have that "Okay, now what?" moment some first-time parents recall.

I stare at her and wonder what I'm supposed to do now. My exhausted husband has already fallen asleep on the couch next to her. My new job description must be in one of my baby books. But instead of looking through the books, I find myself propelled to the computer, where I start to write her story, recording the first hours and days of her life, the way new motherhood makes me feel.

Whenever motherhood is too overwhelming or too quiet, the love too amazing to hold within, when she sleeps and I can't, I write. I write for her, so she'll know what I felt. I write for me, to remember my journey.

The muse exhausts:

Sleep deprivation makes for esoteric poetry and illegible journal entries. Writing comes in starts and spurts and it's difficult to sustain a thought or idea, even though the muse inspires me. I write when she naps, but it's not so much real writing as it is the jotting down of words and phrases on the proverbial paper napkin, even once on a disposable diaper. Mostly, I write on the back of old Yahoo! driving directions that litter the car and diaper bag, those many maps and directions I printed out to get me to a park, a museum, or a playgroup member's home. The writing is a sort of mother-shorthand I later transcribe to my computer.

This mommy job isn't as easy as I thought it would be. I'm constantly guessing, consulting books and more experienced mommies, and I feel just like I did my first year teaching: not sure, a bit off-balance, but loving it and knowing I'm doing something incredibly wonderful. My writing takes the form of lots of questions and responses, as if I'm writing a Q & A interview with myself. Will she ever sleep through the night? Of course, they all do. All of them? Will that include mine?

I write at night in the dark when I should be sleeping, keeping the lights off so as to not wake the baby or my husband. In the morning, I find words are layered upon words.

The muse speaks:

My daughter is two. She is a poet, unknowingly masterful at allusion and metaphor.

"The moon is a sleeping ball," she tells me on our night walk and points up to it, full and round, low in the sky. As if that isn't enough to make me want to run home and write it down, she says to the night sky, "Come down, down, down, moon, into my arms, and I will hode you." She reaches both arms skyward, stretching her tiny palms up towards the huge white orb that bathes her small face in its glow. I want to freeze this moment in time.

I write in a manic bit of insomnia. I discover, through writing about it, that she is my moon -- in orbit around me, close and full like the moon was that night. I publish the moon piece in a local parent publication. I paste the printed piece in her baby book and show my daughter her name in print. Several phone calls and e-mails arrive from mothers who have read it. They are sending copies to friends; they hope that's okay. I save the messages for a long time as concrete proof that I am a writer.

At the annual neighborhood picnic, I'm introduced to a new neighbor who has a son my daughter's age. She's a writer who has sold a fantasy novel, a completed book that has an actual publication date. I tell her about my little essay. I don't feel like a real writer now.

Later that night, my daughter tries to dress herself. "No, Mommy. Go away. I can do it!" She pushes my arms away dramatically as she attempts entry in her one-piece pajamas, confusing the arms for the legs, writhing with frustration on the floor when she is twisted in the fabric like a pretzel. "Help me, Mommy! I am inside out!" she screams through tears, and I go to her from my not so distant orbit. I help turn her right side in, gently guiding her left arm in the proper place and letting her find the right sleeve herself.

I decide I am a writer, that I must go and write it down.

The muse is restless:

As I sit down to finally write after so many long months of not doing so, I have to remove from the computer keyboard a stuffed animal named Domino, a hefty Dalmatian who is resting upside down with an entire roll of scotch tape wound around his middle. The tape is also wrapped around the mouse. There are a dozen Post-it notes with swirly hearts and asymmetrical drawings stuck on the monitor and the surface of the desk, a pink barrette attached to a pink ribbon, and a small white plastic horse, all of which inhabit what is supposed to be, and what was long ago, my writing space.

In my writing group, before I had a child, we discussed our Zen-like approach to clearing the clutter around us before we could truly focus on writing. Now I laugh out loud at that thought. I must write amidst the distractions, with the continuous and concrete reminders that I have a young child. Perhaps, if I can become one with the clutter of her childhood, I can still focus on my craft. But it is a challenging task and something I cannot yet master.

The writing life and mothering life are so similar: both are unpredictable, isolating, and pay poorly. With both, I try to follow gut instincts, I constantly revise ideas and expectations, and I have to be creative in the isolation of my peers -- there's usually no one around to say, "Hey, that was well-done!" These are two professions where critics abound.

"You're a bad mommy," my daughter tells me when I explain that chocolate pudding is not a choice for breakfast. And then I go to write and my own critic tells me the writing isn't flowing, it's clogged, backed up. I'm way out of practice, but I try to write anyway. My husband is watching my daughter; it's the only time I'll have.

My daughter is screaming that she wants me, not her daddy anymore. Breakfast time has passed, though she still hasn't eaten, and I'm tempted to give in to chocolate pudding (there is protein in the milk, right?). Laundry is piled as high as our dog. We're out of O.J. and low on milk. I don't have the time or energy to be a writer. What made me think I did?

The next day, I find out an essay I wrote almost a year ago will be published, and I'll be paid close to $300. My daughter is in the story, of course. She's there when the editor calls to tell me the good news. "Terrific," I tell the editor. "I'm so glad you liked it." I yell to be heard over my daughter's whining. After I hang up, I explain to my daughter why I'm doing the Twist when no music is playing in the room. "Well, I want to write a story," she says; this dance of excitement is something she desires, too. She tells me a tale of a unicorn and a cat and a girl. I grab the fat orange felt pen from her art supplies, and I begin to write it down.

The muse is unpredictable:

I write a lot since my daughter is more independent now. She has many friends and playdates, and her formerly workaholic father is now home with her. He shares much more of the parenting and has taken over the exhausting role of Head Question Answerer. He is more qualified, since most questions are of a scientific nature. What's the difference between a comet and meteor? What are eyeballs made out of? He makes me write them down.

I send more pieces off to magazines and anthologies. I start a column. I write while she happily entertains herself crushing flower petals to make perfume. I stop my writing to help her catch butterflies with the huge gold lamé net her father has made for her. White flutterings bounce and hover from bush to bush like fairy wings.

She has her first loose tooth. The tantrums come -- periods of intense frustration and neediness. It's not pretty or easy. I don't write much of it down. There are the jokes she makes up and songs she sings of butterflies and old vine swings that I record in writing, but I miss her free-flowing thinking out loud, when she told me everything she was thinking, all the time. She's more reflective now; there are private thoughts that she doesn't want to share. This should come as no surprise. I taught middle school, I know all too well that my days of knowing her every thought are numbered. I just didn't think it would happen when she was only five and a half.

I find myself writing about loss, about the changes that are taking place as my muse struggles with growing up. Graduating from preschool made her cry, and I don't know if she's worried about starting kindergarten; she's not talking about it, not asking any questions. When I bring it up, she doesn't say much.

I write about her growing independence being wonderful to witness; I feel some relief that she no longer needs me in the constant way she has before, but I miss the easy ways to comfort her: nursing, picking her up and rocking her, rubbing her tiny back. Her babyhood is over. I'll never again carry her strapped in the front pack, her head resting above my breasts, her heart beating on top of mine as she falls asleep, connected, cocooned.

The summer is punctuated with days of bliss among the steadiness of her intense frustration. I so want her to open up to me. Is she wondering if she'll ever see her preschool friends again? Is she afraid that kindergarten won't be so fun?

One summer day, I drive her to the playground of what will be her new school. We run around through the redwood grove and kick high on the swings to the top of the canopy of branches that frames the cool blue sky. That night she says, "Mommy, I'm very confused about something."

Ah ha. Finally. Here it is; my answers are ready for what I think she needs to ask.

"Maybe I can help," I tell her and push the mail aside and invite her into my lap. She climbs up the tall kitchen barstool and wraps her arms around my shoulders.

"Mommy, what it is that I don't understand is -- what is the difference from a quesadilla and a tortilla?"

I try so hard not to laugh at my expectations, or trivialize her question. I don't want to risk future conversations when she might actually need me to help navigate deeper issues of confusion. "Cheese, Sweetie," I answer. "A quesadilla is a tortilla that has cheese inside of it."

"Oh," she says with furrowed brow, her head nodding as she files the explanation in the Mexican food section of her brain. She smiles and climbs off my lap.

And then I go and write it down.


Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.


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