In my writing workshop last weekend, I had a bit of a freak out about respecting our kids’ right to privacy and not writing about them anymore. But those are my best pieces, I panicked. During a 10-minute free write, I wrote,
As a stay-at-home-mom whose life consists of my husband, my children, these walls, washing dishes… most of my stimulus, my interaction, my life experience that would be of any interest to the outside world are the funny things my kids say, the conversations we have about sex and bad words and God. My material comes from my husband and my children, because really, who wants to read about dusting picture frames and planning grocery trips? What do I write about as a stay-at-home-mom who won’t write about her husband and kids?
When I read this back to the workshop, the instructor’s mouth dropped open. She shook her head and I think she may have wagged a finger at me. “Oh no no no. Change of plans. We’re not doing the next exercise until we get something out of the way first. Andrea, you do a 10-minute free write about yourself without husband or children. Your prompt: ‘I’m not married and I don’t have kids.'”
I glared at her. “I don’t like this plan, Lesley.”
She smiled sweetly. “Good.”
I’m traveling. I’m in Ireland, in the green hills and pubs and stone walls. I’m at Stonehenge. Then I’m in Italy, eating pizza, sitting in the sun, riding on a bus.
But I’d be lonely. As I sat on a green hill on campus today, on my belly in the grass, with no husband, no children, just the sun and the blue sky and the buzz of insects and my miniature prompt book, I saw a little girl ride by on her purple sparkled bicycle. Her helmet was white and pink, and she looked to be maybe 7, and the sight of her made my heart ache for my daughter. It had only been four hours, and I missed her.
But I’m to write about what it would mean to me to be a woman not defined by my husband or my kids, as that is how I defined myself in the previous piece. “What can I write about if not my husband and kids?” My God, I’m going to have another identity crisis.
Needless to say, Lesley’s plan unmoored me. When I moved from the workplace into the home to raise our kids it was critical to me to maintain my identity, to not be defined solely by my roles as wife and mother, to not be lost, wandering in circles and wondering “Who am I?” when our children move away. I wasn’t one of these women I read about in Judith Warner’s piece, The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, powerful executives who gave up success and high pay and a bright future to raise families, but that doesn’t make my identity any less important. My husband and I both wanted our children to see that I am not just Mom, a one-dimensional woman whose sole purpose is to serve them, and their school, and our family. I am Andrea, too.
So why, then, all the belittling self-talk? Why, when faced with the prohibition on writing about my family, did I feel so less than – less than the high-powered execs, less than my husband, less than my kids, as if their life experiences are so much more valuable than mine, their stories more worthy of telling? Why did I feel I have no stories to offer if I can’t offer theirs? Perhaps it is the memory of the neighbor who said, “Is that all you do?” when I told her I was a stay-at-home-mom. Or the glazed eyes of a grad student at a party after she asked, “What do you do?” (those dreaded four words) and I said, “I stay home with our kids,” and she sipped her drink through her straw and scanned the room for someone more interesting to talk to.
Or maybe it was analogous to when someone says, “Don’t think of black,” and of course all you can think of is black. When I thought “don’t write about husband or kids,” I zeroed in on their significance in my life. I don’t know who I would be if not for them now, I wrote.
But as Lesley instructed at the beginning of the exercise, I kept the pen moving. “Don’t lift your pen from the paper. Do not pause. Do not think. Just write.”
But if I am to follow my son’s advice, if I am to write what I like, I am a book lover. I love words. I love the way words can capture life, can articulate feeling, can bring us together and show us – yes! There is someone else like me! I get you, you get me, I am not alone.
I continued, I like place. I like the feel of fresh air on my skin, the smell that distinguishes a person’s home, the scent of a cliff over the Atlantic in Maine, the silk of my daughter’s hair spread over her pink pillow. I began to feel grounded. Less floaty. I like people. I like the refined drawl of my aristocratic Southern Grandma. I like boatsmen who wave. I like bakers who see their craft as a means to share celebrations. Felt my Andrea-self flowing down my arm and through the ink. When I am alone, and not doing chores, I choose to read, or I choose to write. Or I walk in nature. I watch a butter-white butterfly soar up and down over violet blooms, flapping its wings excitedly in sunlight, “ohmigod ohymigod, I found it guys! I found the purple flowers!”
When the timer dinged, I wasn’t satisfied that I’d gotten anywhere. That I’d have anything to write about, or any stories to tell. Lesley instructed us to read through our piece, pick three words or phrases, and for each of those we would do a three-minute word association exercise. Okay. Easy enough. I picked “what I like,” “life experience,” and “stay-at-home-mom.” She started the timer.
I wrote, What I like: thunderstorms, islands, sand, sea, salt, sky, white puffy clouds. As I wrote, I thought, huh. I’ve written pieces about all of these things. Baking bread, color, literature, trees, rocks, thinking, smells, coffee, a good pen. Good pieces, I thought. I wrote good pieces about some of these, and I could write better pieces about more. God, the universe, pastries.
We moved to our second phrase. Life experiences: Riding a bicycle from North Carolina to Washington, DC, SCUBA diving, toting carboys of water through the woods, happy hour in Annapolis. Those were good times. Riding in boats, making marsh shoes, fiddler crabs. I’ve written about those too. Maybe I don’t depend on the kids for material as much as I thought. Attending Quaker meeting, natural childbirth, living on an island. Damn, there’s a lot here.
I started feeling good, started thinking about whether my best pieces really are about the kids and realized, nope. They are not. My best pieces have been about my own experiences, sometimes from the perspective of mother, which is a large part (but not all) of who I am, and sometimes not. And so I came to my final phrase. I swallowed and began.
Stay-at-home-mom: Mother, nurturer, loving, kind, compassionate, baker, home maker, peace maker, yeller, boring, bland, creator of life. Supportive, alone, lucky, temporary, mother, mother, love, love, tender, caring, family, trying really hard to do the best thing for our kids, opportunity to write, good at my job, funny, different from what folks expect, full of ideas, educated, intelligent, warm, big-hearted. Not boring. Interesting.
The timer dinged and I stared at my list. My identity there on the page. Not boring. Interesting. Human. A woman who who has plenty of her own stories to tell.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. For the first installment, please see The right to be forgotten.