in which someone is wrong on the Internet, and I spout

Watch out -- thar she blows! wikimedia

Watch out — thar she blows! wikimedia

Have you seen this cartoon?

Yeah, I know. When someone is wrong on the Internet, trying to convince them (or anyone) they’re wrong is tilting at windmills. But for some issues close to my heart — like working parents, or poetry readings, or now, The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and aΒ  Mother: Have Just One Kid — I can’t help myself. I just have to pipe up.

And here’s the thing: I’m not even going to try to convince anyone (including you) that anyone’s wrong. I just want to say what I believe. So, here I go:

First, can we agree that the editors at The Atlantic probably chose a headline that was sure to get people’s hackles up? Okay, now that we’ve agreed on that:

Can we stop? Can we stop pretending there’s a secret to being a successful mother-writer? Can we also stop pretending that the secret to being a successful mother-writer is access to affordable childcare and a partner who shares equally in parenting (although I admit this would be pretty sweet)? Can we also stop pretending that being a successful mother-writer is harder than being a successful mother-anything-else? Can we also stop pretending that it’s harder to be a mother-writer than a not-a-mother writer, or a not-a-mother anything else? Can we also stop pretending that there’s a secret to being a successful writer, regardless of motherhood status?

(We will not stop pretending that generations of institutionalized and cultural ideas about women’s roles at home and in the workplace still influence women’s lives because we’re not pretending about that. That’s been pretty well-documented, and we’re working on it, and let’s not stop working on it.)

Would some examples be helpful?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a non-mother writer who’s caring for a chronically ill spouse or an aging parent?

Is it harder for me — a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for my friend who cares for her adult brother with severe mental illness to find time for her life’s work?

Is it harder for me — yes, still a mother of three — to find writing time than it is for a writer who has the *Secret Number* — one — child, who happens to be a special-needs child?

I’m thinking no.

Is it harder for me — who just said to her children, to quote Joan Didion: Shush, I’m working. Why don’t you ride your bikes to the park. — to find writing time than a mother of one, who has no playmates on standby? I don’t know, but I kind of don’t think so.

So first off, can we agree that life is very life-like and we all have responsibilities and relationships that tug us away from our life’s work from time to time? Mother, not mother, writer, not writer. Et cetera.

Okay, moving on:

Do we all need better access to affordable childcare, eldercare, family-care? Yes.

Should we all have partners who share equally in parenting and household-running? Probably. Personally, I’m not waiting around for that (although I am trying to influence the next generation in my very own family). My husband, though very supportive in many ways, works a job that requires many hours and lots of travel — he is simply not here to do half of the child-rearing or household-running. Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to be the way upwardly mobile jobs are going in this economy, and I can’t change it in time for it to be different in my near future.

Can we now get back to the question of The Secret to Being a Successful Anything?

Friends, there is no secret. Not for being a successful writer or anything else. There are only two things:

The first is to define success for yourself. If I define success as winning the Yale Younger and then directing the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, I’ll never be successful — I’m too old for the Yale Younger and I haven’t the credentials for academia. Lucky for me, I have my own idea for what it means for me to be a successful writer. Would that success be obtained more easily or quickly if the particulars of my family situation were different? Possibly, but I will never know. We all have one life. This is mine. I’ve never believed that you can have it all — especially not all at the same time — so I’m doing the best I can to have the most important things as I go along.

The second is to be bound and determined. No matter how many kids. No matter if your house just burned down. No matter if your cats are sick, or your spouse is sick, or your job is requiring extra hours right now. Find a way to do your life’s work, whatever it is that you feel called to. There will be bleak seasons, there will be long slogs. There might even be months or years where you’re just only keeping your foot in the door. Yes, you will have to sacrifice. Yes, this requires discipline. No, it is not worth losing your health (physical or mental) over. But find a way.

End of spout. Forgive me. Amen.

14 thoughts on “in which someone is wrong on the Internet, and I spout

  1. Thank you for your wonderful spout, Molly! This reminds me of Mary Oliver’s Poem, “The Summer Day”…and the burning question she asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You are finding your way, and you are a wonderful example to your kids and to those who are blessed to know you!

  2. Thank you. And there is no need to ask for forgiveness for letting ‘er rip. Go you.

    I think about this all the time, what the definition of writing success is for me, and how it differs at various times of my life and how it might evolve in the future. I’m on the cusp of big change (baby girl #2 is due it two months!) and have all sorts of often conflicting emotions about myself as a mother, professional-outside-the-home and writer.

    The “bound and determined” thing is true. But I’m still learning to balance that when it infringes on sanity, like you said. So for now, I’m working on being okay with less writing in order to stay on this side of the sanity line, and my choice to do that in order to take advantage of baby time while it lasts.

    At my job, we have what we call and MVP – Minimum Viable Project. You scope out the ideal scenario for a certain project and dream up what you’d like it to look like when it’s done. After you come up with the dreamiest concept of the end result, you factor in the realities of budget, time, resources, bandwidth of staff and sketch out the Minimum Viable Project. What’s the very least we need to complete to hit the lowest but most important goal? Every item is examined. Is it *necessary*? No? Chop it.

    You put Ideal and MVP side by side with a scale in between, and usually you shoot for and something in the middle – something that makes sense with desires/goals/realty. Right now, with a 3-year-old, job and pregnant belly, my definition of success isn’t so much in between. It’s the “Poetry MVP,” which means reading a few poems a day on the bus and doing some writing and scribbling notes into the blotter, also often on the bus. My bus rides! Who knew a thing could be such a source of peace and rejuvenation. Weird, but true. No one needs anything from me when I’m on the bus. There’s no laundry to put away when I’m on the bus. I do not have to help anyone potty or wipe away tears or urge anyone on the bus to eat some peas. It’s awesome. Later, I’ll move toward “Ideal” and that’ll be fine. πŸ™‚

    • I love the concept of a Minimum Viable Project. As writer, I think about my fundamental unit of work — the smallest thing I need to get done to feel like I’m living the life I’ve claimed. For me it’s my routine of morning reading and writing.

      Bus rides! Yes! The perfect time/place for poetry at your stage of life. When my kids were tiny, there were a few years when I barely wrote at all — maybe two poems a year. Life has its seasons. Good for you that you’re thinking this over, and finding a way to keep poetry alive in your life.

  3. Keep it coming. I am buying what you’re preaching… The concept of the Universal Success just pulls us all into a swarm of self doubt. Live!

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