Unbalanced: A Tale of Motherhood

 

 

I’m just going to say this up front: I’ve never balanced work, life, writing, and family. I don’t know how to do that. The only thing I can tell you about in this post is how NOT to do that. I can tell you about my belief that striking such a balance is impossible, and how I’ve always been grateful that I never had to try.  

I’m always the last to chime in on our topics. When I chose Friday as my day, I never really considered that…that I might be doomed to simply repeat all the stuff everyone else has already told you. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing, because I feel confident that the amazing women who already wrote about balance this week have provided our readers with some great stories and advice, so the burden to be helpful won’t really fall on me. Phew.

I’m not sure I should admit this on a public forum, but what the hell—I’ve never placed a great deal of importance on my career. Maybe this is just because I’ve never really been a planner. I don’t write that way, and I don’t live that way. I studied fine arts in college on something of a whim. I just wanted to try it. I loved it, but I’m not sure I was all that good. From there, when I was turned down for the two or three MFA programs I applied to, working toward an MA in art history seemed like a logical next step. This was something I was good at. But right at the time that I was finishing up my degree in Montreal, I married a man who was living in the United States and didn’t intend to leave. I decided to live there with him, even though it meant moving to a small city in Michigan where having a master’s in art history wasn’t going to come in very handy. And it didn’t even matter, because when I first moved, my visa only allowed me to live in the US, not to work. Soon after I finally obtained a work visa, I became pregnant with our first child.

I’d been filling my time during that first year in Michigan by painting and writing. I put on a little show of my artwork at the local university, and I published a chapbook of poems (see Michelangelo and Me). But here’s the thing—once my son was born, I put all that stuff, my creative life, on a back burner. I didn’t even think about it. He was four months old when my poetry chapbook came out. He’d just been getting the hang of sleeping through the night when he began teething, and it all went out the window. I had no idea a baby could experience this much agony from cutting teeth. Nothing helped, despite the pieces of well-meaning advice I gathered from everyone I knew, that piled up around our apartment like all our neglected laundry. He cried much of the day. He cried much of the night. He cried in my dreams. I used to walk him for hours. I used to strap him into his car seat and go for drives, circling the city because the motion and the vibration of the engine helped soothe him. I used to push him in the stroller, around and around our apartment on winter days when it was too cold to go outside. I used to hold him in the kitchen next to the running dishwasher because the noise of it calmed him, and if it didn’t, at least it drowned out his screaming. 

My chapbook publisher had sent me some handy tips about local libraries, book stores and radio stations being great

Baby Nate, me, and Pumpkin the cat. This was a common position for us

places to approach as part of the publicity I should have been doing for my book. I imagined myself, unwashed, clothing stained with spit-up, trying to promote my book at a local store while my baby howled, strapped to my back. I didn’t even try. I let that book sink into poetry oblivion.

To be honest, I’d always wanted to be a stay-at-home mother like my own mom, if life worked out that way for me, and I stopped writing without really giving it a second thought. I know writers and other creative types aren’t supposed to be like that. We are supposed to yearn. Our lives are supposed to be incomplete if we aren’t creating, following our bliss. A friend of mine once commented, when I finally landed an agent and explained to her how long it might take to sell my book, that in fact my agent might not be able to sell it at all: “Wow. I guess you really do write because you have to.” But that’s not strictly true. I don’t have to write. It’s not like breathing. I just write because I enjoy it. 

Creating and raising little humans is damned exhausting, though, and when you are doing it almost completely alone, far from family while your husband is at his job, there is very little left over for the creative well. We had another baby two years after the first, a little girl. Both children were wonderful and amazing and challenging. I wrote maybe two poems in eight years. 

Mural I painted on Nate’s bedroom wall in our first house–one of the ways I used spare time, and my art degree
Baby Rachel and me

This wasn’t just because I lacked time. Parents at home do have some to spare, even though they have to drag screaming toddlers everywhere they go and often use nap time to do great things like laundry and cleaning toilets. The problem was, I had no idea anymore how to use what spare time I might have to make anything. I was too tired, both mentally and physically. I know most writers would tell you a different story—how they wrote while their kids were at ballet, how they woke up at five in the morning to write, or wrote while their partner was giving the baby a bath. It just wasn’t like that for me. Maybe if I had started a book that was important to me before having any kids, I might have been inspired to work on it no matter what, and I would have found a way to carve out time. But I’ve never been very good at multi-tasking. Once I had children, I did children. I don’t think, if I had tried to write, that it would have been very good. I just didn’t have a whole lot left over.

The upside of the stay-at-home mom thing was that I had no particular job waiting for my return when my kids finally went off to school. As when I first moved to the States and couldn’t work, I could do what I liked. And I started writing again. 

I still don’t know how to balance. My family comes first. Even exercising in the morning usually comes first, for me. But because I have no other work now, I can find time to write. When I’m not running to the store because someone lost their protractor or mysteriously outgrew their shoes overnight, when I’m not shopping for food or Halloween costumes or birthday presents, or planning parties or taking my kids to parties or taking them to soccer or swimming or karate or gymnastics, when I’m not making beds or folding laundry or calling the plumber/electrician/school principal/dentist, or picking up someone who was sick that morning at school, well, then I write. That’s how I do it.

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Martine Fournier Watson is originally from Montreal, Canada, where she earned her master's degree in art history after a year spent in Chicago as a Fulbright scholar. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. The Dream Peddler is her first novel.

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This article has 8 Comments

  1. You’ll never be sorry you lived your life the way you did. To quote an ancient, wise man, “To all things there is a season…”

  2. I found myself nodding along to this entire post. More than a few times I’ve been grateful that I had an agent before I had any kids, because I would never have been able to gather together enough energy to keep going on my own. Writing was such a drive for me pre-children, but after… they come first. They just do. We’re raising tiny humans and that takes so much mental energy, as it should. But also I’ve come to appreciate what a luxury it is to just have time to think.

  3. Yes, that was very good timing on your part! And I think I felt that the time before they went off to school would be short (but feel LONG), and so very finite. I just wanted to be with them and soak it all up, then worry about what’s next when things got quiet 🙂

  4. This was so refreshing to read. I’m glad you’ve found success with your first novel AND that you have made your children a priority. You’ll never regret it. We can always go back and edit our work, but there are no do-overs on kids. When we were planning my youngest daughter’s wedding, she said she hoped it didn’t interfere too much with the novel I was working on. I said “I hope I’ve always shown you that you’re more important than the writing.” Nobody enjoys words on paper more than I do, but my rule is: only love stuff that can love you back.

  5. Thank you! This is so well-put. I completely agree—there are some things that are just more important than work, no matter how wonderful and fulfilling that work might be. There were definitely times, when my kids were little, when I wondered if having no “balance” in my life was the best thing for them. Was I the best mother I could be when I wasn’t working toward anything else and so rarely got a break? But I don’t regret a thing. They are hours, days, years we can’t get back once they’re gone.

  6. I know we haven’t seen each other in years but know that you are all in our thoughts, we love you and are extremely proud of you

    1. Aw, thank you! That means so much to me. It’s hard to be so far away from family, but at least we can connect through things like this. Such a sweet surprise to hear from you!

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