Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Writing After the Storm


In 2008, I sat across the living room from my then-boyfriend, Mike, who I knew would one day be my husband. My hand hovered over my laptop keyboard.

"This is it," I warned him. "You know what this means, right?"

"Yes," he encouraged me. "Do it."

I pressed Enter and sent in an application to a month-long writers retreat in France. The ripple effect meant I was quitting my corporate job so I could be a writer. It meant that if Mike and I were to be married, he would be the sole income provider, and that eventually, I might fulfill my dream of writing stories and raising babies.

Before I left on my retreat, Mike proposed. Two months after I came home, we were married. Eighteen months later, I was pregnant with twins. Between the day I quit my job and the day my children were born, I wrote two novels and a handful of short stories.

I didn't realize that once the kids arrived, the "raise babies" part would be so consuming that the "write stories" concept would fizzle away. There was no writing while they napped, because that's when I collapsed into sleep, too. There was no writing when Mike came home from work because there was bath time and dinnertime and wine time.

There was no writing when they went to preschool because depression set in from so much raising babies and so little of anything else. Even moving to the suburbs and buying a house with the dreamed-of backyard didn't fulfill me. It left me friendless and alone, desperately missing the buzz of city life.

Instead of going out for walks and people-watching, we stayed home, our neighborhood of hundred-year-old houses an eerie, silent ghost town. I regretted my decision to move, and instead of being the active suburban mom I had imagined I would be, I lay on the couch or hid in the bathroom to cry, certain that the rampant storms inside of me would never clear away. I could barely make it through the day taking care of the kids, let alone pursue my writing.

I was convinced I'd never write again. I unfollowed writing blogs, literary agents, and publications I aspired to appear in. I packed away my writing books in a dark closet of a spare bedroom. I stopped telling people I was a writer—a badge I had been so proud to wear and that took tons of courage to flaunt—and told them I was just a mom. I was consumed by this fog for two shaky years, convinced that I had accomplished all I ever would.

Mike is Lisa Katzenberger's husband.

Photo by Mike Bash

But once my children turned four, I noticed that they were more independent. The days were less exhausting and more fun. Our monotonous routine took on some variety. My spirits lifted and my energy grew. Most importantly, my private time returned. After playing outside with the kids, shuttling them to preschool and back, running errands, dragging myself to the gym, I could send the kids to play in the basement and I could sink down at my computer instead of sinking into sleep.

By this point, I had addressed my depression through medication, and I had recovered time and strength. I knew that if I didn't remain in control I would spiral downward again—who knows how far—into the depths of self-loathing. I needed something to reignite my passion for life outside of motherhood, and writing was the answer.

I was afraid to dig back in, as my first foray into writing for publication had not been very successful. I had had a handful of short stories published, but my novels—simple stories of family, love, and friendship—could not secure an agent. Working so hard at something I loved and getting nothing in return had frustrated me. But when I thought about my children and what I wanted to teach them about tenacity, I knew I could not give up. I wouldn't want my daughter to quit gymnastics just because she fell off the balance beam one too many times or my son to give up T-ball because he kept getting tagged out. I had to pick myself up and keep pushing forth, both for my sake and theirs.

I didn't write at first, but I quietly stalked my old haunts. I returned to my favorite spots online to see if they still existed, and found that the literary world was right where I had left it. But this time I discovered a new point of entry.

Years ago, before I was ever pregnant, a writer friend of mine suggested I write for children because my stories were always so innocent. I can see now that my manuscripts didn't have enough conflict and my protagonists were too nice; at the time, however, I didn't take the advice as kindly as I should have. But her words echoed in my ears as I dipped my toes back into the writing waters and began to swim around in children's literature. Raising preschoolers, I was knee-deep in oodles of picture books and a regular at our local library's story time. I started to study children's books and became enamored of stories told in 1,000 words instead of 100,000. The story arc, the characterization, the lovely language all beckoned me from those beautiful books. It finally clicked that writing for children was a perfect way back into my literary life.

I began to write while the kids entertained themselves. But worry struck, more quickly and painfully than a bolt of lightning. Was I neglecting them? What kind of woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mom and then lets her children play on their own while she pursues her own interests? I chided myself. We should be doing crafts. I shouldn't let them watch one more show on PBS so I can finish a draft. It shouldn't matter if a story is speaking to me right now. I should wake up early and get my writing out of the way first so that I could focus on the kids for the rest of the day.

These accusations of selfishness—solely of my own making—constantly danced around the back of my mind. But as it turns out, the kids didn't miss me, and I became a stronger mother because I was pursuing my passion. My patience increased. My sense of accomplishment skyrocketed.

I have always been an ambitious person—excelling at school, succeeding at my career—but raising children did not provide the feeling of achievement that came with reaching other goals. Child-rearing felt natural, a basic part of life that everyone in the world should be able to handle. But writing felt like a different skill, a talent. So with every new draft, my depression lifted and my energy returned. Instead of wanting to hide upstairs and cry, I wanted to write. Instead of skipping the kids' gymnastics class because I couldn't bear to be around other moms, I brought my laptop and wrote while I sat in the waiting room. I was doing something not everyone could do, and that gave me back a sense of identity.

When I was so invested in my children, in only being a mother, I became a one-dimensional person, and it didn't sit well with me. I am busier now—writing, exercising, even working part-time from home—but I feel better now that I describe myself as a mother, a writer, a consultant, an editor, and a runner. I have become more whole.

In nine short months the kids will begin full-day kindergarten. I'm conscious that this is my last chance to spend significant time with them before school and soccer and Scouts gobble them up. Moms say this all the time about these early years with their kids. Once they go to school they're gone! Go to the zoo as often as you can! Spend time with them while they still like you! Make memories! Plaster it all over Facebook to show what an awesome mother you are!

But my son is already wiping off my kisses. I've covered every inch of the local zoos, children's museums, and playgrounds a zillion times. I needed those outlets when my children were very small—leaving the house simply to survive the day—but the outlet I need now is to write. I do not regret that I am pulling my focus inward; I reflect back to my children a happier mother and a more pleasant person. And hopefully, they are gaining a sense of independence from each uninterrupted hour of pretend play in the basement, each afternoon spent riding their bikes up and down the driveway while I work on the picnic table.

It has been just a year since I've returned to writing, and I have a handful of picture book drafts in the works, with a couple of manuscripts out on submission. I've dug up old short stories and sent them along to literary journals; one was published recently. I'm building a new community of writing friends, and increasing my confidence that, yes, I can write stories and raise babies.

But I realize now that I got the order wrong. I needed to raise babies and then write stories—about them, influenced by them, in spite of them, because of them. I needed to pause in pursuit of my dream—both to care for my children while they were very young and to fight against the thunderous storm inside me—but I couldn't afford to let the dream disappear.

Lisa Katzenberger is a picture book writer and author. Her short stories have appeared in Jenny, PoemMemoirStory, The Genre Wars Anthology, and Foliate Oak. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and boy-girl twins. Lisa is a former fiction editor for Literary Mama.

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ALL TRUE!! Writing is a journey and no matter how you come to it, leave it, come back to it, your experiences make the writing better, stronger; and that feeds forward into making you a better, stronger writer. Good luck on your journey. It's a rough road paved with lots of "not yets" and "No, thank yous" but all it takes is one "yes."
Thanks Veronica. I had no idea when I started writing that I would be traveling down such a winding road. But I've learned so much in the process.
I often feel that writing is a futile effort. A book coach told me, "maybe this isn't the right time." My son is a toddler. I feel hopeful after reading this essay. Lisa, I would love for you to write about your depression, because I think a lot of stay-at-home mothers experience this, but don't talk about it.
Stephanie, I'm so glad this spoke to you and you have found hope. The depression I experienced was bad, but I think looking back it was worse because I didn't address it with anyone besides my husband. Had I been more open about it, I'm sure the fight wouldn't have been as tough. I encourage you to keep writing! It is hard but important work. Keep going.
I relate to so much of this! Thank you for sharing your story. A Room of One's Own doesn't exist for mamas. But if you can carve out thirty minutes here and an hour there, it might be just enough time to create something amazing. Thank you for reminding me!
I found this so helpful and inspirational. Recovering from delivering a healthy baby (thank G-d) but terribly bored. After reading this I'm hopeful for future productivity! Good luck to you!
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