In this series of guest posts, I have asked a number of writers and editors to share the price they pay for pursuing their creative passion or what they sacrifice–whether that is money, time or lost opportunities. It might be how they pay the bills that writing doesn’t, or how they juggle working for a living or raising a family with the time it takes to write or edit. The people who have contributed have shared their personal stories in the hope it might help those new to the scene manage their expectations, or help others dealing with similar things realise they aren’t alone. You can read about the inspiration for this series here, and if you want to be part of it please let me know.
Life haggles with us all, and we all must negotiate multiple and ever-changing treaties with the people who surround us. In my case it’s a partner, a toddler, a cat, parents and siblings, in-laws, friends, and a dayjob. Nothing too out of the ordinary there.
Before motherhood, I’d tried a range of lifestyles: first came studying (more than) full-time for two degrees simultaneously; then working full-time, which, after my study load, I found to be marvellously rich in free time in comparison; then I deliberately found a part-time job in order to prioritise my writing. That was a bit of a golden period, as I had sufficient free time to write a lot and even attempt some semblance of a social life as well. But all my friends were working full-time and had incomes to match, while my income wasn’t enough to allow me any financial independence, let alone freedom; their careers were progressing while mine first stagnated, then deteriorated. It could never last.
These days, I spend 3 days in the office and 4 days dancing to the whims of my tiny overlord, aka my two year old daughter. Writing time is snatched of a night, during her (unreliable and ever-shrinking) daily nap, and my workday lunchtimes. It’s utterly ludicrous.
And this is good in comparison to the last two years, which I spent at home with my daughter. During those years, I all but lost my writing to motherhood.
Babies are born; mothers are made–and childbirth is the gentle part of that making.
I thought I was prepared for the transition. There would be sacrifices–no comedy festival outings or movies or live music for a while; my writing dates would need to be curtailed; sleep, precious sleep, would be lost forever. But I was sure I would find a way to sidestep or surmount the obstacles of child-rearing because that’s what people do. They adapt. They keep going.
What I didn’t realise was that, through a combination of practicalities and leftover traditions, society has but one place for new mothers: out of sight.
I found myself cut off and shut out from the world I’d known, the world of routines and social interaction and contributing to corporate productivity. At first I tried to maintain some glancing form of contact, as if I could pretend I was still part of what I’d left behind—but I never had anything to contribute to conversations beyond a blank look or, worse, a muttered apology as I turned to deal with my child’s latest interruption. Basic necessities such as haircuts or dental appointments became logistical impossibilities. All my time vanished in caring for a person whose needs were simple, but uncommunicated, and endless, and of no great interest to the world at large. I woke and slept and ate on somebody else’s schedule, a schedule which aligned with … well, nothing and no one. Suddenly, my times of need veered wildly out of sync with my friends’ availability. The whole of it was isolating in the extreme.
All I wanted to do was write my way through it, even if just a hundred words a day, even fifty. Always before I’d been able to retreat to writing, to create worlds through which to focus and filter this one, to purge from my head the myriad perspectives and viewpoints I can see in every happenstance that I might at least start the day unhaunted. But motherhood took my alone time, and my sleep. That in turn took from me my thinking time, and so it also took my writing time. The one session a week I could wrangle was inevitably a panicked affair, the words I hadn’t yet scraped out of my brain already paralysingly overdue. I lost count of the number of times I wept because I wanted to write but must instead try to snatch at sleep, only to rise, thirty minutes later, unslept and unproductive, and face the whole cycle all over again.
When I told the maternal health nurses about my frustrations, about my growing desperation and my rapidly declining mental health because I couldn’t write, they would make cooing noises about how nice it is to have a hobby, and they’d give me a commiserating smile and say some things just had to wait.
I have never felt so erased, nor so unheard, as at those moments.
And in the end, despite trying everything else available, their “solution” (dismissive and unsupportive as it was) proved the only tactic which worked for me: I waited. I waited for my daughter to grow old enough to spend more than half an hour, then more than an hour, then a glorious two hours, away from me. I waited until she was old enough to let me not accompany her on her walks with her father. I waited until she was old enough to attend childcare. I waited until she slept through the night (in her way), until I could sleep again and so reclaim some of my own physical and mental health.
Gradually, so slowly, the words came back to me. More than two years after she arrived to define my life, I’m beginning to feel the slightest bit like my old self. As I write this, she is currently out for a bushwalk with her father and grandmother, while I sit at the hotel, three days after I dragged her across the continent to launch my latest book.
Before becoming a mother, finding time to write was a simple, if difficult, matter of balancing logistics: money enough to pay the rent against time enough to write. Now I have her, if I’m not with her I miss her and I don’t want to miss out on her. Now, choosing to write means neglecting her, and choosing her means neglecting my writing, and it pretty much always feels as if there’s no right choice, they’re both wrong.
But somehow, with a lot of guilt on my part and a lot of acceptance and trust on hers, we’re starting to make it work.
Deborah Kalin is an Australian author based in Melbourne. A student of Clarion South 2005, she is the author of the Binding books (Shadow Queen and Shadow Bound, published by Allen and Unwin), and her short fiction has appeared in Postscripts Magazine and ASIM and twice been nominated for an Aurealis Award. An original voice of Australian fiction, her work has been described as “striking, infuriating, endlessly surprising and wonderfully disturbing” (Aurealis).
Her latest book, Cherry Crow Children, a collection of long short stories for those who like their fiction with hidden edges, is now available from Twelfth Planet Press.