On Facebook I recently described my partner Alan as a domestic god. I was referring to how much of the domestic and parenting load he shoulders when I am writing a novel to a deadline.
He does all the washing and tidying and shopping and cooking while I sit at the computer moving words around. I emerge to spend time with our six-year old daughter Amelia, before Alan puts her to bed. I miss Amelia when I am writing intensively and I know she misses me. ‘I haven’t had much Mummy-time lately,’ she said plaintively the other day.
The tension between parenting and writing (or any creative practice) won’t be news to anyone who tries to combine the two. English writer Cyril Connolly famously said: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
When I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book A Man in Love, I was struck by how bluntly he expresses boredom with being primary carer for his baby daughter (who - he makes very clear - he adores) and his searing desire to be in his office writing instead.
He writes: Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy … I always longed to be away from it.
I recognise the tension he describes between writing and family responsibilities but I don't recognise that longing to be away from parenting ‘duties’. And I don’t think it’s a gender thing; I know there are plenty of women who chafe to get away from the kids to their writing or music or painting.
I always have the sense of juggling writing and parenting (not to mention the small matter of other paid work). And it’s true that I’ve occasionally fantasised about the writing lives of my childless friends (or friends with older, independent children). I’ve pictured those friends getting up and writing first thing in the morning while I am packing a school lunch and I’ve imagined them working in that lovely first flush of the evening as I am pulling together a quick dinner and calming a tired kindergartener.
But I don’t resent mothering and its demands – not even a bit. Yes, that may be because I’m partnered with someone who carries his share of the load, and more than his share on occasion. It may be because Amelia is a late-life, much longed-for IVF child and every day I feel – in a visceral way – gratitude for her presence in my life. It may be because we have only one child. Or it may come down to something as simple as personality and inclination.
In fact motherhood has given my writing a great deal. I used to procrastinate getting to the desk, but not since Amelia was born. When I’m not sprinting to a deadline, I generally have only kindy hours to write, and sometimes I’ll grab a few hours on the weekend while Al and Amelia are out bike riding or at the beach. Limited writing time creates powerful focus. I’ve never been so efficient.
Motherhood has also given me greater insight into a fundamental – and to me – fascinating relationship, that of mother and child. And now that relationship finds its way into all my writing, whether I plan it or not. It seems to be one of my core fascinations, as is the vulnerability of the child, and the vulnerability of the parent in the face of their love for their child.
And – quite simply – motherhood and family life has made me happier. It gives me a sense of meaning, and a sense of being of service. I love the chance to see the world through a child’s eyes, and come back to an appreciation of the small and ordinary and sensual world around us: an ant carrying a huge crumb, rain running down the window, the taste of mango ice cream. When I combine all that with some time to write, I am completely fulfilled.
Which is not to suggest that parenthood-and-creativity is the path to fulfilment for everyone. I know people who struggle with parenthood, and others who simply have no desire to become parents. I know of writers who have made the decision not to have children because they want to focus on their writing. Many great artists of all kind throughout history have either had few domestic responsibilities (men, by and large) or have not had children (Virginia Woolf is an example).
I think one of the main difficulties is that most creative work requires a clear head, some time for reflection, and time to head down blind alleys. That’s hard at 11pm, or in the twenty minutes before the kids wake up.
When teaching writing I often encounter women – talented, thoughtful women – who find that their ‘hobby’ of writing always comes last on list. Many resign themselves to waiting to write until their children are older.
So while I wouldn’t call the pram in the hallway the enemy of my writing, there’s no doubt parenting has challenged me as a writer. It’s reduced my writing time, and probably reduced my output. But those are a price well worth paying for the joy of mothering.
This article first appeared in Daily Life on 28 June 2016