Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Exposure

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I could hardly contain my smug little grin as I burst into my husband's home office. I tossed the latest draft of my essay on his desk, obscuring his computer keyboard. "Read this," I said with false nonchalance. It was good, and I wanted him to tell me so. I'd been working on the piece -- an essay exploring my difficult transition to motherhood -- for months and was finally ready to submit it to an obscure-but-promising literary magazine. This was my first attempt to reshape my before-kids career as a computer book author into more meaningful work as a writer of memoir.

He looked up, his eyes asking if this could wait. Mine answered it could not. He exhaled, and then leaned back in his creaky office chair and began to read. I waited, tapping my foot and peering over his shoulder. He was going to love this.

After what felt like an hour, he turned to face me. I expected a smile or a compliment, but instead, he sighed. His brow wrinkled with what looked like concern. Or was it disapproval?

"You want to publish this? Isn't it a bit, ah, dark?"

I felt like I'd just been slapped.

"I'm attempting to be honest," I bit back, wanting to snatch my essay away.

"No, really, it's good," he said. Leaning forward to stroke my leg, his eyes softened. "I'm just not sure I feel okay having such personal details about our family out there for the world to read.”

There. He said it. Writing about motherhood's challenges was fine, but publishing it, exposing us, was different.

He insisted he didn't want to stifle me. Oh, really. But had I considered how the kids would react to having a spotlight trained on personal (potentially embarrassing) moments in their lives? They're five and one. Do we have to worry about this now? Or how they'd feel when they learned how much their mother struggled through parts of their childhoods? I have nothing to be ashamed of. They know how much I love them.

But as much as I wanted to dismiss his concerns, which I considered to be prudish, even patriarchal, I grappled with these issues myself. I'm thrusting my kids into the public sphere without their knowledge or consent. Are their lives mine to plunder for material? What if my writing humiliates them? Or worse, wounds them?

I wanted to blame my husband for the growing knot in my stomach, but I knew he verbalized the question I'd been avoiding as long as I could: can I tell my truth about motherhood without hurting my family?

Before I had children, telling the truth was simple enough. I've always been the finder of bright sides and silver linings, so my perspective was generally positive and uncomplicated. While pregnant with my first child, my writing career flourished, my marriage was happy, and I'd never felt more vital. Once my son was born, I expected more of the same.

Motherhood marked the end of my innocence. I was prepared for the rapture and the rush of devotion that came with having kids. The insecurity, the monotony, and the isolation? Wasn't expecting those. I looked into the eyes of my new-mother friends, hoping I wasn't the only one who felt this way, but all I saw was a haze of robotic contentment.

Even more shocking was the gradual disappearance of the woman I had been before my son was born. Asha the writer, Asha the partner, Asha the self -- where had she gone, and who was this amorphous nursing and diaper-changing drone that had taken her place? The further I retreated into the invisible world of stay-at-home motherhood, the dimmer my old self became.

I attacked my trove of parenting books and magazines in search of an answer. Perhaps I'd overlooked some essential chapter or article that explained my malaise. Anne Lamott shared her bumpy mama-morphosis in her memoir Operating Instructions, which I pored over like a high schooler studying for a final exam. I loved her chutzpah and biting humor but couldn't identify with her neurotic, born-again Christian persona. The mainstream parenting press described the challenges of motherhood in diluted, patronizing little bits. Based on what they wrote, I was either a terrible mother or insane.

My son was almost a year old when my habitual late-night Web surfing uncovered early ripples in the growing wave of "real-world" motherhood literature. I found stories about women so desperate for sleep they considered swigging Nyquil at bedtime, so they wouldn't hear the cries of their nurslings. Of women who fantasized about driving away with little more than a change of clothes and a few Diet Cokes. I devoured those stories. Finally, I caught a glimpse of myself -- not my old self, but someone I recognized -- peering out from behind those words. And then it dawned on me: I, too, have a story to tell.

Using minutes stolen from sleep, I began to write: about the surprising ecstasy of childbirth, the mortal wound motherhood dealt one of my closest friendships, and the anger, which erupted with troubling regularity since I had become a mother. My thoughts, fragmented as they were by the minutiae of domestic life, felt cramped in a tight space behind my eyes. Writing allowed my thoughts to unfurl like a banner caught by the wind. The heaviness that had settled into my chest since I had become a mother began to lift.

The writing was coming along nicely, but as I readied submissions, I hesitated. After all, my only published writing until then had been about computers -- not exactly risky stuff. I considered pasting my essays into a fancy Italian journal, a gift from years before. After all, wasn't the writing itself enough? I now had a newborn daughter and could pass the journal onto her when she had her first child. Wouldn't that be lovely?

There was no fooling myself; the journal wasn’t going to cut it. Publishing my stories would place me in the ranks of women who were rewriting the story of modern motherhood so that other new moms wouldn't feel so blindsided or alone. I longed for the community of like-minded writers and readers. And, to be honest, I craved the recognition that comes with published work almost as much as the writing itself. I wanted to become visible again.

But the truth came out that day in my husband's office. Publishing my writing about motherhood had consequences I couldn't control or predict.

What had been a comforting and solitary release now felt like a selfish act of exhibitionism. I wanted to tell the world what I hadn't even admitted to my friends or family and had only recently admitted to myself. Here, in sordid detail, was evidence I wasn't always the selfless mother, the loving wife, or the self-assured woman. And I wanted it in print, nationwide? My truth, which had once felt so liberating, now threatened to drag me down.

I tried to shrug off the anxiety by telling myself this was my story and mine alone. So much of my life was already defined by my family's needs; at least I could write. Surely I had the right to construct my own narrative?

But I had to acknowledge that I wasn't the only one involved. My husband valued his privacy; how could I navigate around it and still tell honest stories? I wanted my parents to be proud of my work; how could they be after I publicized their inadequacies? I steeled myself against the doubt. They're grown ups. They can handle it. My excuses sounded cold and hard.

And what about my sweet children? They trust me to protect them, and they rely on my unconditional love. How will they react to my writing once they're old enough to understand it? I could see my son, ten years later, coolly surveying me with his slate-green eyes. "You wish I was never born," he'd say before he slammed his bedroom door. Years after that, my daughter, busy with her own baby, would send snapshots of her smiling family and tell me only the most superficial details about her life and marriage, hoping distance would protect her from a legacy of complicated motherhood.

Before I became a mother, there wasn't a single dark story in me. It's ironic that only now, when there are potential casualties, do the stories flow freely, unbidden, and beg to be told.

It was time to choose. I could silence myself and walk the manicured flower-lined path of blissful Disney motherhood. Or I could write, trudging through a dark, tangled forest, pushing the overgrowth aside as I searched for a clearing in which to rest and look upon the stars.

I wish I could say I strode into the woods, machete in hand, instead of standing paralyzed at the crossroads. I submitted one or two of my breezier essays, but they were quickly rejected: transparently superficial, the work of someone who was afraid. But I kept reading literature written by mothers who had the courage to publish their work. They reminded me that my stories were indeed mine to tell, if only I could gather the nerve. They also showed me that sharing my writing about motherhood might be one of the best ways I can honor and love my family in all its complexity and beauty.

One afternoon, while my mother was visiting from out of town, we sat at the kitchen table drinking lukewarm coffee, watching the kids twirl on the linoleum. As we chatted, she asked how the writing was going. "Fine," I said, avoiding her gaze. Not satisfied with my vague answer, her eyes narrowed. "Can I see something you've written?" Her request caught me off-guard. My mother had always been interested in my work, but I had never thought of giving it to her to read. I shuffled through the papers on my desk, tossing aside rubber bands, unopened mail, and preschool art projects, until I found a draft of a recent essay -- an examination of my hatred of housework, which included a description of her lack of domestic prowess. With some trepidation, I handed it to my mother, and she began to read. I casually sipped my now-cold coffee, trying to look relaxed, but my eyes darted to her face. As she turned over the last page, she looked up at me and nodded, her eyes bright with memory. "You captured it perfectly." She didn't appear to be hurt or shamed by what I had written; on the contrary, she was grateful to be portrayed so honestly. I smiled, silently thankful for her approval and support.

Slowly, gently, the weight of my words moved me forward. I reevaluated my work with my family's privacy in mind. I shielded my children's identities with pseudonyms. I joined a writing group and now had my own posse of supportive, talented, and, most importantly, disinterested readers.

Reluctantly, I gave early drafts to my husband to make sure he felt comfortable with what I had written. This wasn't easy -- even though, I respected his privacy, and we were partners in all other respects, I still resented the idea that he could veto my work. He did, in fact, ask me to shelve a juicy story I particularly liked, and I grumbled about it for weeks. More often he loves what I write and encourages me to submit it, even though my willingness to reveal personal details still makes him queasy.

I originally began writing to ease some of the angst caused by motherhood. Most of that tension is now gone, assuaged by time and experience. In its place is a quieter, but no less urgent, desire to share my experience through writing. The darkness, the light, the private details of our lives as mothers, partners, and women -- these are what make for life-changing literature, if we can be brave enough to expose them.

Becoming a mother was cataclysmic. Like a landscape swept by a wildfire, motherhood destroyed me, while clearing a space for new growth. My writing is testimony to that transformation, and I want to record what I have seen. What was a vast, flame-darkened field has become a meadow.


Asha Dornfest lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, son, and daughter. Her work has appeared in Hip Mama and Organic Family magazines, ImperfectParent.com, and Mamazine.com. She is also the editor of ParentHacks.com. For a look at what she’s up to, visit her at ashaland.com.


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