Wrestlers: Thoughts on Writing as a Mother
And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”–Genesis
As writers, or any artist, we are constantly wrestling not only with ideas, concerns, and obsessions, but also with limited time in which to write, and the necessary space and time in which to concentrate and let our ideas expand. There are bills to pay, jobs to attend, various obligations, and of course, the nagging concerns of the body and domestic duties. So even when we are grappling with how to think about something or come to terms with it in our art form, trying to shape it into a solid form, we are interrupted by the daily concerns of simply living: eating, bathing, working, driving, cleaning up the after-effects of living. The act of living, it seems, is antithetical to making art. When I was not married and without children, it was easy to simply sit in the same spot with a snack and some water and simply write for hours, uninterrupted. And it is true that some mothers may do this anyway, the children screaming or hungry in the background. They are necessities that must be attended to; whether that is yourself (or historically, a mother or a wife), they need to be tended to. For male writers, these things are usually done by women, giving them freedom to write. While he was writing “Walden Pond,” Henry David Thoreau, whose concerns were about living simply and self-sufficiently, sent his laundry home to be laundered by his mother.
But the concerns of living—the parade of tasks that never seem to end—are, for better or worse, part of what makes us human, and because of this, should not be separated from our involvement in art. In fact, it makes us aware of living and the concerns of living and gives us themes and conflicts with which to write. This includes motherhood, or especially so. The artist, the essential wrestler looking for the names of things, does not live in a vacuum. As a mother of three young children, I have found that motherhood enhances my ability to work as an artist. There is constant pressure that is both invigorating and exceedingly frustrating; there is never enough time or space or quiet; there is always a minor or major disaster about to happen; there is constant need, voices, invasion of privacy. It could easily drive a person mad if they hold onto conditions of perfection. And, indeed, some mothers who are artists should leave their children because they are not cut out for both; they can’t reconcile the two without abusing their children, without hurting themselves. The only way to reconcile the two is to let go of ideals; to let go of the myth of a good mother or a good writer. But since there is no ideal, and in fact this is what writers explore—that liminal space of imperfection in life, where there are no straight answers—this overwhelming circus of a house is the perfect place to ask questions and to practice at life and art.
In other words, if we can do this, we can write successfully. (Successful is just a term to mean practicing, learning and trying to do better. No one arrives anywhere—ever–there is no golden trophy at the end; we can gather that from the failure of poems and stories we read in prestigious journals or novels that are best-sellers that fail to reach us as readers—not because of our own lack of imagination, but because of the writer’s own.)
If art is about practice and creating a thing that embodies experience, that enacts experience, then we have to live and work. Motherhood is work just like anything else is that requires you to act for the benefit of yourself and others, even when you would rather lie in bed all day. Without it, the world stops, or you live under a bridge and starve (or someone else does on your account.) Surprisingly to others (but not to me), most of what I learned so far about being a mother comes from my own father, not an artist, but a banker. For thirty years he rode the bus to work, he walked in 100 degree heat to the bus stop in the morning, sometimes he would even pass out from the heat on the way home. He worked his way up from a mail room clerk to a vice president when he was still young, with a young family. He did it because he had a limited college education but wanted to learn about banking, because he has a passion for math and business and also wanted to support his family in the best way he was able to. This is why I write—for myself and for my three children. I am compelled to write for selfish reasons, but also because I want to understand what my experiences mean, what questions arise, and how to approach them. For me, this involves being a mother and as I grapple with the questions of motherhood, it benefits myself, my children, my family.
The wrestling part involves doing do it without hurting anyone—without abusing, without committing suicide, without self-harm, without substance abuse—things that have been known to afflict writers and fill the pages of many a memoir about parents who were artists or about an artist’s own experiences. I don’t think you have to be an artist or a woman or a person of color (which matters a great deal as an outsider who is given less opportunities for education or support) to understand this. It is universal. Women just have more experience taking care of others and women of color have more experience doing it with less resources. On a day-to-day basis, the mix of efforts can feel impossible. That is why it must be done—to raise children who thrive, to create art that is meaningful and can, hopefully, reach other people. Ultimately, it comes down to our need for human connection, the reason behind anything we do besides our own base need for survival.
So what does this actually look like? It means letting the floors get dirty, letting the laundry go sometimes, letting the baby scream for one more minute because you are lost in a thought that you are trying desperately to understand. It means making dinner while helping your daughter with homework, while making sure the baby doesn’t choke and the 3-year-old is comforted because she is upset to the point of passing out—all while you are thinking, deeply and fully, about a writerly concern of importance to you, which you will throw yourself into headlong and lustfully when everyone has gone to sleep. Or on your cell phone while waiting to pick up your daughter from school, or on a scrap of paper. Or you might hold a button that your daughter lost and you find on the way to the car, hold it all day so you can remember a train of thought that you want to get back to later. This living amid chaos is not singular to mothers, just a working environment that all working people who are artists—professors, doctors, engineers, executives, construction workers, brick layers, janitors, fast food workers—must deal with.
Writing and creating art is not a form of escape, although once I thought it was. At my first job, at 15, I had to clean the restroom floor of a go-cart arcade on my hands and knees. It wasn’t demeaning, only a lot of work since it was rarely cleaned and extremely dirty. I read and wrote in between customers, long letters to my boyfriend which was merely practice at writing rather than professions of love. I read formulaic books by C.K. Williams about betrayal, abuse, survival. I want to get the fuck out of here, I remember thinking. As a Latina in a low-income school (despite the fact I was in a gifted program my whole public school education), I saw education, particularly reading and writing, as my only form of escape for social mobility. I didn’t want to end up like people I saw daily, who seemed intelligent, creative, secretly driven, but were still cleaning toilets, hailing heavy loads to trucks, ringing up customers at the dollar store. I don’t mean to degrade anyone who does this for a living—sometimes it is our only option or just what chance brought us, or we actually want to do these things—but for me, I wanted to be able to do something that involved my thoughts, the nature of my thoughts, the struggle with my thoughts, and my conversation with others about those thoughts. Motherhood was jarring when I had my first child because it reminded me of cleaning toilets again, on my hands and knees, straining against shit and tiredness to get things done. It was only when I began to write again, at first for selfish reasons—to simply express myself—that I discovered that work, especially when it involves the care of other people, can drive your imagination and thoughts more than sitting in a silent room, a patient or a dependent, while you contemplate for hours how to cut off your own ear. Artists don’t have to be distraught or violently depressed, but they can be uncertain or troubled with ideas–that is just human experience. Working hands are helpful to artists; they give you context with which to work. The way I came to that conclusion– that rocking my child for hours while she screamed was not antithetical to art, that waking up every two hours to feed her, scribbling nonsense during the day in a daze–is a whole other story. That is, actually, a whole lifetime of writing that I am faced with now, every day. I might be able to get to it.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a Jewish Mexican-American writer living in Houston, Texas. Her debut collection of poems, Fuego, was published in March 2016 by Saint Julian Press.