Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Writer Duck


Cole hunkers in his car seat, refusing to get out of the car. I glance around the All Saints Episcopal Church parking lot. Ry, strapped in his stroller next to me, waits, holding a bottle half full with my breast milk. His fingernails need to be cut, and I smell a poopy. Maybe it's just a bad fart. No, that's definitely more than a fart. I fish in my large purse for a stray diaper, my hand passing my journal, hoping it wasn't one of Ry's explosive squirt-up-the-back-poops.

"Why don't you like church?" I ask Cole. He's been complaining for the last month or so.

"You were gone so long, Mommy," he said last Sunday. "I felt like you were never coming back." Wherever we go, he clings to me. At the grocery store or the park, he attaches to my leg.

Now, his face does the crumble thing.

"I won't be gone that long," I say, already estimating how much time I have. How much time can I keep them at the church daycare? How long before Cole decides that Mommy is never coming back?

With that steadfast look he sometimes gives me, it's as if he suspects that once he and his younger brother are secure in the church daycare room, with their free (and trustworthy) childcare providers, Mommy ditches her progressive church and finds a quiet place to write. Two lovely uninterrupted hours, or even three (there are the early and late services, and adult learning classes offered in between) if I really push it.

I'd been drawn to All Saints Episcopal Church by their "God, Mommy, and Me" group, which met each Friday. I began attending when I was in the last trimester of pregnancy with my first son and continued to attend well after the birth of my second son, twenty-eight months later. As a new mom, fervent discussions concerning bowel movements, sleeping strategies, and teething babies -- in a room swarmed with mothers, babies, and toddlers -- helped alleviate my gaping need for advice, community, and companionship. The group aided me through the profound transition of giving birth to both my sons, and through the head surgery of my firstborn at five months (including two weeks of homemade meals provided by the moms, delivered to my doorstep).

The Mommy group naturally led to church, and the least I could do was to give their church an open-minded and enthusiastic try. Episcopalians seemed even-keeled, well-dressed and kind, gay and straight, not afraid to think. I was especially impressed that All Saints had a lesbian minister. My only experience with Christianity had been the Orange County Rick Warren variety, and the discovery that more like-minded versions existed was thrilling.

I made a determined effort to become an Episcopalian at All Saints; along with the church services, I attended Covenant I and Covenant II classes, which were time consuming and intensive, aimed at educating members. I found I liked the liberal politics and the sense of community, but I continued having trouble crossing the "Jesus died for my sins" line, and I didn't feel the power of the Eucharist. The church titled me a "continuing seeker," and encouraged me to keep attending. But I was starting to feel uncomfortable. When I expressed my qualms to a minister, he said, "If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck," indicating that, despite my reservations and doubts, I was indeed a duck of the Episcopalian ilk.

What he didn't understand -- and what I intuited -- is that I'm a writer duck.

Writing has always been a compulsion. I've been keeping journals since the second grade -- there are stacks and stacks of them at my house -- and by the time I was in high school, I'd decided that I wanted to be a writer as a profession. In journals, I write my way back into a sense of comfort and belonging, and sometimes even appreciation. When I can't write, I feel desperate, like I don't fit in my skin. I'm the type of writer who feels shameful if I don't put in the time. How can I call myself a writer if I don't write?

Having children required me to make the most of my time, to forge through imaginative droughts. For instance, I was never a morning person, but if I only had two hours in the morning to write, I became a morning person. I thought about my novel while changing a diaper; my short story simmered while I lathered a head; stepping on a squeaky toy in the middle of the night inspired a descriptive sentence. And with a toddler, a breast-feeding infant, and limited funds, I needed to be creative in finding the means and time to write.

Not long after my conversation with the minister, something happened on my way to the church service: After dropping the boys off at the church daycare, instead of walking toward the line of people entering the church, I stood for a moment, staring around me, everything lit up with sunshine and goodwill, and all I could think about was the pen and journal in my purse. And then I was jog-walking back to my car. Once inside, with the car door shut, I hunted down the pen and spread my journal across my lap.

I wrote about the smell of Ry's spit up -- a light rosy sweet smell, a little putrid but comfortably familiar. Why, I wondered, did my own children's bodily smells rarely bother me while the thought of changing the diaper of someone else's child repulses me? I wrote about the humming noise Ry made when he breastfed: a rhythmic and paced mmm mm mmm that lasted up to five minutes. I wrote about my lack of sleep, how I leaked milk, and how I did the dishes and laundry as if that would make everything better, as if that would give me some control -- which it actually did. I wrote about seeing street people muttering and laughing to themselves, and feeling nearer to them now that I had kids. Everything seemed achingly profound and permanent:

I can't see beyond the present, and the present is so large -- so big and beyond reach. No wonder people are afraid of babies and children -- intimidated by pure life. It's almost the same as recoiling from death, pretending it's not real or doesn't somehow apply to you. Looking at a baby can be just as terrifying and exciting.

After my spontaneous and eager writing break, I knew that this would become an ongoing practice -- Vroman's coffee shop, a few blocks away, became my unofficial office for the next two-plus years of Sundays. I wrote a large chunk of my first novel (unpublished and mediocre, but necessary) at Vroman's while my sons were at the church daycare.

"Wasn't that a beautiful service?" moms would say when I picked up my kids.

"Mm-hmm," I'd say.

My church/writing charade went undetected, except for the daycare workers, who saw through it rather quickly, probably because my drop-off and pick-up timing were less precise than the other parents; and I didn't quite fit the mold: instead of co-mingling with parishioners, I often stayed and chatted in my rudimentary Spanish with the daycare workers, while they shared with me their snacks of graham crackers and apple slices. But they were sympathetic, and not once did they confront or question me, understanding -- perhaps by the difference between drop-off Mommy and pick-up Mommy -- that whatever I was doing was necessary and beneficial.

Protective of my new-found church writing time, I decided not to tell my husband. He was skeptical about my religious ardor and probably knew all along, but telling him wasn't in my favor in terms of child-duty negotiations. He's a painter, which has its benefits: just as I would never expect him to stop painting, he won't ask me to give up writing, won't equate my lack of financial success as a reason to stop. The downfall is that neither of us craves a steady job, and we both yearn for the time to practice our art.

I didn't even tell my friends, but then I started to feel guilty. When I confessed to my close friend and barometer in my navigation of mother guilt versus personal needs what I'd been doing, she said, "Don't worry about it -- you're having your own kind of spiritual experience."

And she was right. I needed to write.

My ability to see the world and put it on paper had been enhanced because of my children. Often, while they were at the church daycare, I wrote about them: the gorgeous creases between Ry's wrists and the beginnings of his arms (Tolstoy describes baby arms so distinctly as ". . . so fat that they seemed tied with string."); how when Cole's feelings got hurt, his body fell in on itself, like he was crumbling from the inside; Ry's sturdy legs in a sort of reckless cowboy stance, when he pulled himself to a stand after his bath, his uncircumcised penis like a fat finger.

Now that my kids are older and in school, I have more time to write and don't need the church daycare. I worry sometimes that my kids associate church with abandonment (but I worry about everything when it comes to my kids). Once in awhile, I'll half-heartedly suggest that we go to church, and they always say "no." A very strong "no." When they spend the night with their grandparents, they attend a Christian church, the type I've always stayed clear of. My sons are ambivalent about attending Sunday school (essentially church daycare) while their grandparents worship, and they only perk up if given a reward. Last time, Cole got a lollipop because he answered a question right. When I asked him what the question was, he said, "I don't remember, but the answer was God."

As for me, I no longer belong to a church and haven't gone to one in years, but I still get fliers and emails from All Saints, as if someday I might be back. I'll always remember how my pen and journal pulled me to my car, instead of to the church service, and the relief I felt when I opened my journal and began to write. Writing, for me, is akin to prayer and meditation -- necessary for a spiritual life, a means not only by which I find my way, but also decipher which direction to take. On the page, I'm constantly trying to assemble and make sense of this complex cosmic puzzle, and it's where I can truly feel myself breathe. And although I was being deceptive by not attending the church service, I believe that All Saints would not condemn me for the years I pretended to attend. "Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here," All Saints asserted at every service. It was my first experience of a truly loving and inclusive church, and I think of them with gratitude. But more than church services, what I needed in those years, both as a writer and as a mother, was time to write, and by giving me that, All Saints did provide me with spiritual nourishment.

Victoria Patterson is the mother of two boys, Cole and Ry, ages 11 and 9, and lives in South Pasadena, California. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Drift, her collection of interlinked short stories, in June 2009. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various literary journals, including the Southern Review, Santa Monica Review, and The Florida Review. For more information, please visit her website.

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I agree that your "deception" was no sin. In mothering, every inch of you is so public, every bit of love and attention claimed. It is good and healthy to have something sacred to keep, cherished and secret, for yourself. No mother guilt required.
I love every word of this essay. It is a blessing indeed to love your work so much. I think an hour of uninterrupted writing time is a holy hour indeed.
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