Early morning, the hour before dawn, and I sit down to write as I do each day after rising. The house is silent behind me, but beyond the window the city shifts on its foundations. Robins, trees moving in an invisible wind, the dark shapes of houses silhouetted against a glow at the edge of the horizon. It is spring now, and light returns to the hemisphere after the long season of darkness.
My little daughter sighs in her bed, asleep again after a pre-dawn feeding. Like me she is an early riser, but I have learned that it is possible to buy more time to write if I settle her back into sleep instead of sitting up with her, as we did in the early months, listening to the city sleep or stir. When she wakes again, I will change and feed her and then we will tumble together on the chesterfield, exploring the shapes of ideas until Peter rises and takes over for the day. It is Wednesday, and because I have papers to grade and a lecture to prepare for this afternoon, Katherine will see me only in passing.
In recent months, especially since Katherine’s birth, people have often asked how I find time to write. The truth is that I do so very much as before. I write best in the hours before dawn when the silence of the house is broken only the wind pushing against it or by the smaller buffeting of a cat batting at my ankles. If the pace of my work has slowed, it is because I am no longer able to sustain the orgies of writing that would keep me at the computer until late in the morning or early afternoon, when I would emerge blinking and bleary-eyed to announce the completion of a piece, a page, or sometimes merely a paragraph.
Peter’s schedule is nearly opposite, which is why he has taken the late shift since Katherine’s birth, staying up until one or two in the morning to feed or comfort her while I sleep. This is one reason why neither of us goes out at night anymore, and should also explain why evening telephone calls sometimes receive a surly response. We are both tired. I am tired because the pressing need to finish this book sometimes makes writing more a marathon than a creative act. Peter is tired because he shoulders more than his share of the burden of care, and because his own intellectual projects strain to be written.
At the same time, we are both conscious of having an easier time than most parents of very young children. We have gone to great care to arrange our life so that we have the liberty to do as we choose. We live frugally (as this co-authored essay on urban scavenging should attest). We teach part-time in order to maximize our time with Katherine. We have supportive family, and a grandmother who spends time with Katherine on a daily basis. Although we are both novices at parenting, Katherine is undeniably an easy child. She cries infrequently, is wonderful on outings, and has a sweet and gentle disposition. It is true that she has never slept through the entire night, and that eight months of pumping breast milk have made me wonder if formula would have been so horrible after all, but the daily pleasures of watching Katherine discover the world make these challenges seem small.
There is a narrative, strangely persistent even in this era, that a woman must choose between parenthood and an engaged, intellectual life. I do not refer here primarily to the corporate world, where women who become parents are still shoved routinely into the “mommy track” if they are not heaved overboard entirely. Nor am I thinking of mothers in the academic world, who are still disproportionately likely to be denied tenured status and to withdraw from PhD work before completing it. I refer, instead, to the literary world, where — despite all evidence to the contrary — motherhood is narrated as an obstacle to creativity.
Around the time Katherine was born I read the essays in The Mother Reader (Seven Stories Press, 2001). One after another, writers as diverse as Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood wrote of their ambivalence about motherhood. Nearly every writer in the anthology documented the costs of motherhood: the challenge of finding time to write, the loss of social standing, the problem of absent fathers, physical and emotional exhaustion. Around the same time I read Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001). Wolf’s discussion of the machinery of western birth practices was disturbing, but not as much as her account of mothers who had once been writers, professionals, graduate students, shuffling invisibly around suburban playgrounds while their husbands pursued their own career paths without missing a step. Wolf wrote of these women’s self-effacement and their growing resentment. Mothers, it seemed, faced an uphill battle not only to be seen as writers but to be seen as people at all.
A few mothers do write of the ways motherhood and creativity are linked. In a review of Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s book, Second Class Citizen, Alice Walker observes,
it is here that Adah [Emecheta’s protagonist] makes the decision that seems to me impressive and important for all artists with children. She reasons that since her children will someday be adults, she will fulfill the ambition of her life not only for herself, but also for them. The ambition of her life is to write a novel, and on the first day she has her oldest child in a nursery and her youngest two down for their naps, she begins writing it. (from Walker’s essay in The Mother Reader)
Walker concludes her essay by suggesting that Emecheta’s work “causes a rethinking of traditional Western ideas about how art is produced,” particularly the way western culture “separates the duties of raising children from those of creative work.”
Walker’s essay resonates with me because I read it while writing an essay called “The Word Made Flesh” published (under the title, “Pregnant with Meaning”) in the summer 2008 issue of Spacing Magazine. It was the last piece I wrote before Katherine’s unexpectedly early birth, and hardly surprisingly, the essay discussed representations of motherhood in Toronto literature, including Katrina Onstad’s How Happy to Be (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), Patricia Peason’s Playing House (Random House, 2003), and Margaret Atwood’s story “Giving Birth” (originally published in Dancing Girls; M&S, 1977).
The purpose of my essay was to argue that birth changes the very character of the urban experience. I concluded,
As these narratives suggest, few things are more powerful or vulnerable than the pregnant body and the life it carries, except perhaps a city in the throes of its own creation. Like a city, the pregnant body is an affront to autonomy and selfhood and a challenge to mortality. Both rend the landscape and leave it almost unrecognisable: buildings heaving themselves out of the soil as dishevelled and loud as newborns. As the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen writes in A Breakfast for Barbarians, pregnancy simultaneously accelerates and inverts the order of creation we are familiar with:
this city I live in I built with bones
and mortared with marrow;
I planned it in my spare time
and its hydro is charged from a blood niagara
and I built this city backwards and
the people evolved out of the buildings
and the subway uterus ejected them –
For i was the I interior
the thing with a gold belt and delicate ears
with no knees or elbows
was working from the inside out.
Like the act of city-building, the process of birth has become increasingly mechanized, clinking with steel instruments and pulsing with electronic devices. Both, however, have their roots in the soil: silicon fused into glass in the same way that carbon presses itself into the diamond of an eye ; red clay moulded into brick like the firm flesh of the newborn. The trick is to remember these organic origins and to find our way back to them.
But I was not speaking only of “the city in the throes of its own creation.” I was also referring to acts of creativity and intellectual engagement. Because in all truth I do not see that there is a great difference between the creative act of thinking and writing and the equally creative act of biological reproduction. Moreover, I do not believe that one can even be sustained without the other. How can a world persist where we reduce ourselves — or others — to mere bodies or mere minds? And I do not find satisfactory the claim that it is acceptable for some people to be engaged in the world while others perform the bodily service of bearing children (i.e., the old “Man does / Woman is” claim articulated but hardly invented by poet Robert Graves).
It is not that I think every person should become a parent, or would claim that childbearing enhances one’s creative capacities (although I do think such an argument could easily be made given that childbirth, perhaps even more than other life-changing experiences, broadens one’s sense of meaning as well as being). It is that being a parent — a mother, especially — should not be narrated as an alternative to having an engaged, creative life, as if one must choose one or the other or be crippled by both.
I wanted to have a child for the same reasons I write: because I can, because doing so is the source of great personal joy, because there are things I hope to contribute to the universe of discourse. And it is not that becoming or being a parent has been easy, any easier than it is to write. But in the end, gestating a book has been eerily similar to gestating a new life. It is arduous, exhausting, perilous and uncertain. But in the early hours, when the sun arcs toward the horizon, writing becomes an act of creation that mimics the birth of the universe itself. And it is at these moments that I am reminded most vividly of the birth of our little daughter, whose full name means “pure light.”
[Please note: this post has been recreated from back-up files. Regrettably, any comments posted to the original version have been lost.]