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October 25, 2008


A lovely essay, and of course, yes, besides sleep deprivation, love is another reason new parents don't write. But I think, too, about the way interest and energy--not like tired vs. awake energy, but political/spiritual energy--is siphoned off by the kid. When I'm pregnant or newly mothering, kids and babies and birth and my family and all that kind of stuff are first and foremost on my mind. I just don't care that much about anything else. I want to read about children and women and birth, etc., and I want to think about it, and sometimes I want to do political action around it or write essays about it, but unless I want to write poems about that (which I don't always feel like doing), I just don't have so much literary interest outside of that sphere. Ya know what I mean?

I had no literary interest in any sphere for a few months. The parent-sphere is, I agree, all-consuming, physically. I couldn't focus on a page. I worried that my writing had gone away. But it hadn't. I know writers who, after they have babies (I'm talking about both men and women), keep on with their projects, hellforward. I think that's respected. I respect it, even if I don't understand it. It was better for me to be wrecked and to come back, to let myself be affected by it. Even to risk (though I didn't think of it that way at the time) losing the writing.

Love, indeed. I'd like to add that for me the love I felt for my daughter when she was newly born was so transformational that not only did it keep me from writing for a while, when I got back to it, I was a different writer.

During pregnancy, I clearly recall thinking that becoming a mother would take adjustment, surely, but I hoped it would be minor, and I'd be "back to myself" in a few months. The fear I felt was for the unknown: by having a child I knew I would change, but how, exactly? If I would stop being the me I knew, what me would I become? Would I know her?

Now I hear my pre-baby self in the assured speculation of people who don't have kids, speaking about what they will be like when or if they become parents: "When I have a kid, I will still travel," or "Sure, I'd take my baby to poetry readings." The truth is, none of us knows what will be possible when we take that leap into parenthood.

So it’s understandable for the outsider to read the arrival of a new baby as the end of the new parent’s life. In fact, isn’t it just as reasonable for the new parent to feel this, and to be terrified by it?

For me, this is where the rage you write of came into play. Yes, exhaustion, yes extreme and unrivaled love. But also a great fear and anger about this strange, new person I was becoming, full of passion and commitment, but unable to work except in service of my baby, unable to think except about her, and most profoundly, unable to write. It was frightening to be so changed.

I agree: frightening.

I'm always thinking of the experience of parenthood in terms of passing on some part of it to people who aren't, or aren't yet, parents. The deep, crush-like love is a point of entry for anyone: not only the feeling, but the bad writing and not-writing that happens. The rage — I don't know. I've never felt rage like the rage I felt in the first months of parenthood. I haven't yet found a way to get it into a poem. To get the essence of it, which is being robbed of yourself. The self murdered, maybe? The terror of having been so changed: I haven't written that poem yet, either. My first poems are about the trippiness of being with an infant, the weird sense of time that happens.

I’m also thinking of Plath’s poems “Child” and “Metaphor,” wherein she casts herself apologetically: “This troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without a star” or tragically comic: “I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.” These are images of the self in response to baby, the self negated, as something smaller, less than human. One could find rage in that, but the poems don’t strike me as angry. Detachment is there, maybe rejection?

Then there’s “Morning Song,” with its title adjective a sonic sister to “mourning.” She writes: “I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind's hand.” Is this lament, or rejection? Rejection tinged with lament? It feels like she stops short of rage by rejecting her role as mother. The poem manages to end in celebration: “And now you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.”

I think the self robbed is an apt idea. What would push one toward rage is perhaps not knowing whether the self will be returned. One thing I have been wondering is how particular this dilemma is to artists.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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