Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Participant Observation

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I get most inspired when I am being held down on a bed by my nipples with no pen in sight. Pardon the pun, but nursing really gets my juices flowing. I often lay in the dark with baby Jiro at my breast, ideas spinning, and the computer -- relegated to a "time-out" -- tempting me from the corner. If I get a really good idea, I try to repeat it in my head over and over and over again in the hopes that I can remember it long enough to write it down. As I switch sides nursing, I think, What would Satchel do all day if left to his own devices . . . What would Satchel do all day if left to his own devices . . . I'm in a constant state of production -- formulating ideas, writing them down, typing them up, putting them together in my zine, and looking for other places to publish them.

I rarely go directly from good idea to computer. I need to jot down ideas and benignly neglect them for a bit. I keep a little Japanese notebook in my purse, but even just recording the thoughts can be a massive undertaking. Over the Christmas holidays I had ten days off with my children and sick husband. Essay ideas were popping into my head every few minutes -- I could hardly keep up. Trying to hold a thought between changing diapers, carrying on a conversation with a toddler, and doling out medicine was tough. Why am I here? I thought as I reached for my purse. The ideas often followed me out the door. While on food and medicine runs, I furiously made notes at red lights. Once I got home, I scribbled in the driveway until my cell phone rang. "Um, are you coming in?" my husband asked. "You've been out there for 30 minutes."

If for some reason I am separated from my notebook, I scrawl notes on my hand. Recalling a scene from "Toy Story 2" in which Buzz Lightyear reminds Woody to look at the name "Andy" on his boot, my two-year-old usually wants a piece of the action. "Put letters on me!" Satchel pleads.

Speaking of my two-year-old, I don't think I'd have much to write about if it weren't for him. Now that Satchel is talking, I am constantly stealing his material. When he looks out the window and says, "It's darking." I think How can I work that into an essay? Watching him navigate the world, or even just the playground, makes me long for 30 minutes alone with my computer. The day that he took a bagel from a homeless guy was both frightening and thrilling -- after determining that he hadn't been poisoned, I ran home and cranked out one of my best essays yet.

I am also guilty of using my children for experimental purposes. Satchel's favorite pair of shoes happen to be red and sparkly and from the girls' department. My husband was mortified when I bought them, fearing that Satchel would get teased if he wore them in public, but I was secretly hoping for an essay on defying gender roles. You know, in addition to just making him happy.

Some ideas are not content to be recorded in the notebook. In their "outside voices," they holler at me from the pages, demanding to be shaped into an essay. When this happens I take advantage of the fact that my littlest, Jiro, sleeps next to the computer. I can close the door under the guise of getting him to sleep and peck away (uninterrupted) at the keyboard long after he has dozed off. If that doesn't work, I try and get to the office a little early and start writing before the ideas have a full-blown temper tantrum. Other ideas sit quietly until I find myself bored on a Friday afternoon looking for something to do . . . Maybe I should write about my husband's love affair with Jon Stewart now.

Once I get something coherent on my screen, I find that I need instant feedback, just like my toddler. Thanks to the Internet, this is usually possible. Depending on the content, I will either post it immediately in my live journal, on a message board, and/or in an email to a fellow writer. In my undergrad writing workshops I relished hearing my classmates' reactions to my stories. After college, I was content to narrate my adventures to friends over drinks, easily eliciting laughter and praise. I don't have a lot of people sitting around telling me what a great mom I am, so publishing an essay on my mothering is a way to find validation. I certainly don't publish every piece I write. Oftentimes I am content to get a few comments from online friends saying, "I can relate."

I started my zine as a much needed creative outlet. It not only guarantees that I'll have at least one place to publish my own writing, it gives me a reason to talk to other mamas on the playground, in the grocery store, or in cyberspace. It takes commiserating about sleepless nights and discipline issues to the next level. I find involving others in my creative endeavors immensely satisfying. When I had Jiro, my playgroup became a mama writer's group -- five women, some nursing babies, some bouncing toddlers on their hips, others pacing around scattered toys, everyone desperately trying to keep their rough drafts out of reach. I really like this image of your -- ooh, yes, look at that! -- husband asleep on the sofa -- ooh, yes, look at THAT! -- with his headphones on!

If I didn't have 44 pages of a zine to fill every three months, I don't know if I would have ended up with such a great group of talented mamas at my fingertips. When I get a break at work, I send out emails to make sure my regular contributors have my next issue in mind or I scan my friends' blogs and online journals to see if anyone has some interesting raw material. I'm not afraid to give out assignments, beg, or stalk my friends if necessary. I know you haven't slept in weeks, but do you think you could write about how the cry-it-out method could only exist in post-modern society?

Longtime readers and newly pregnant friends also provide a constant stream of interesting work. Occasionally I will reprint essays and cartoons from other mama zines. The submissions I get are almost always print-ready, requiring very little editing on my part. When editing is necessary, the pre-existing personal relationships I have with most of the contributors makes it easy for me to offer constructive criticism.

By the time I get ready to drop the zine off at Kinkos -- usually on a lunch break -- I feel sick to my stomach. The person behind the counter sees a stack of papers. I see three months of breast milk, sweat, and tears. I watch closely as the person on the other side of the counter circles the appropriate boxes on the order form. These need to be double-sided, I say with authority. I numbered the pages so it will be easy for you to get them in the right order, I say as nicely as possible while being totally ignored. And can you please make sure the cover image is centered? I ask pleadingly as the worker rolls his eyes. Once I pick up the finished product -- a really big stack of paper -- the nausea subsides, and I feel a great sense of pride in having pulled it off once again.

The zine has become a family affair. It has given my husband and me something to collaborate on other than what to make for dinner or where to go on the weekend. He is an incredible artist who wouldn't make time to draw anything if I didn't continuously prod him to do my covers. This prodding involves a lot of brown-nosing (You are so talented! I love that idea!), deal-making (I'll make dinner! I'll give the kids a bath!), sulking (I thought I'd be at Kinkos by now!), nagging (Why are you watching the news? Don't you have something else to do?), and in extreme cases, the offering of sexual favors (Wink. Wink.). Satchel has started assisting me with the stapling. Let me do it! Let me do it! Jiro goes to sleep early while I stay up late affixing mailing labels and stamps.

This constant state of production has added a reflective element to my parenting that might not otherwise be there, or at least easily forgotten. Recording my thoughts and feelings, the experiences of my children, and gathering the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of other parents and their children allows me to both be in the moment and outside of the moment. In my anthropology classes we called it participant observation -- participating and observing at the same time. I wouldn't have it any other way.


Stacey Greenberg , the creator of the zine Fertile Ground: For People who Dig Parenting, lives in Memphis with her husband and two sons. Her writing has appeared in Hip Mama, Clamor, and on Mothering.com. She writes a monthly column for Philosophical Mother and a daily blog.


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