A few years ago, I got my hands on a terrific book that exemplified my struggle with writing and mothering. Edited by Patricia Diensfrey and Brenda Hillman, The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, is the kind of text every woman-writer — and especially every mother-writer — should possess in her library (Wesleyan University Press, 2003). The Foreword of the anthology introduces Tillie Olsen, who investigated the concept of gender and creativity among women. In her research, she specifically compiled a running list of successful women writers, all of whom were childless. Her list summarized the idea that writing and mothering did not go together – not because the two shouldn’t, but perhaps because the two couldn’t, since both writing and mothering are time-consuming and laborious acts.
The Grand Permission functions as a concrete and resilient bridge that brings both the mother and the writer together to function as one. Its purpose is to arm women writers with “permission” to have access to both roles: mother and writer. The fact that women could only focus on one is as problematic for Olsen as it is for those of us who are women who want to write and to mother. Why must we choose when male writers seldom have to choose between writing and fathering?
This anthology brings together a collection of women writers who unravel the complexities of identity and roles only women contend with. As a matter of fact, this book challenges the limitations once forced upon female writers. Motherhood offers a sea of inexplicable emotions, language, and experiences that enhance and represent the essence of the writer and the value of her written work, especially since it has never been quite addressed as it is today. Women, just by virtue of the fact of being female, cannot quite capture the intricate and complicated experience of motherhood unless they have had children, no matter how exhaustive their imagination and creativity. Not really. Not realistically.
In this book I found phrases, instances, and experiences that I could understand, and I didn’t feel quite as alone. I found myself in a world of isolated mother-writers who voiced the angst and bittersweet exhaustion that comes with striving to excel in both roles: “Each performance [mothering and writing] is a hard-won process… Each act of writing or mothering stuns by the immensity of its hidden archaeology… [each] can transform our sense of the real, even as they are incomplete, imperfect, and impartial” (Erica Hunt 11). In choosing to write and mother, we are entrenching ourselves in learning about our limits and our horizons, even while we are accomplishing both as part-time vocations.
In “Motherhood and Poetics,” Maxine Kumin reveals the guilt she felt first when she abandoned writing for children, and later, when consumer magazines judged the likes of her for picking up a pen and writing instead of making Halloween costumes from scratch for her kids. She reveals, “I was almost convinced I was short-changing my children, a bad mother daring to nibble around the edges of an actual career” (7).
How many more working moms, writing moms, feel the pressure when they give birth to books instead of more children, or decorate poems instead of cakes, or give up the role of PTA mom for more time to write? There is guilt in all of these choices we make – especially when we choose our writing over our kids. It is as if we are saying that we choose ourselves – our needs – over the needs of our children. And this is the recipe of bad mothering for many, including ourselves, since we have been conditioned by the same cultural beliefs that narrate our roles and limits in the public and the private spheres of society.