A regular column on poetry and motherhood
Part Two: The Secret Reason Why New Parents Don't Write
Shortly after I finished a Stegner Fellowship, some years ago, a former workshop poet and I were trading news about our colleagues. One of them had just had twins. "Well," he said, "that's the end of HER life." A mean-spirited comment for sure, but I forgive him because he had no idea what he was talking about (it's not his fault; maybe no one without a baby could imagine it), and because I've become more philosophical since becoming a parent.
What he was talking about, besides writing, was: applying for grants, taking big literary administrative jobs across the country on short notice, going to residencies and conferences, et cetera. He meant that she was off the landscape, like a cactus at Los Alamos after the Trinity blast.
It's true that people raising young kids don't have a lot of time. But that's not why they don't write. The reason they don't write much, at least at first, is that they are in stupid, staggering, consuming love.
It's late, you're up holding the baby, your wrists are sore from holding the baby so his head won't fall backward and snap off, but you don't notice. You don't notice because you're studying the curve of his lips. Your free hour (there are free hours, and fifteen-minute periods) is all infused with joy, a narcotic bliss tinged with a fresh and alarming sense of danger and mortality. A good thing to write about, maybe. (Sometimes someone gives you the break you've been dying for and takes the baby for ten minutes — then you might not write because your wrists are throbbingly sore.)
Pretty soon the baby is older and crawling and you can't stop watching the way his knees propel him forward, and everything in the room takes on a different scale owing to this new proportion, and the sounds he makes are like moths batting themselves into the furniture and into the deadly hot light and you spend your time mostly keeping him alive, and in your free hour you stare out the window and think of the sounds he makes.
As for the jobs and conferences, the new parent is not a cooked cactus in the poetry landscape. She is like trinitite, the radioactive green glass the sand at Los Alamos turned into. In other words, still there, and with a long half life.
But being in love, and that disruption of one's writing life, is something any writer can empathize with, even my erstwhile poet-colleague.