Becoming a Mother-Writer: Notes on Reconciling the Personal, the Professional, and the Political

by
Namrata Poddar
2.16.22

Most of us, at some point in our writerly lives, have read with hunger the canon of books on writing, meaning how-to books about the process of becoming a writer penned by the Great Authors, white and/or male. Stephen King’s On Writing, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running are a few that come to mind. This canon urges the aspiring writer to develop a writing discipline, to hone the tools in one’s toolbox—a classic male metaphor for craft—and to use both sides of one’s mind, unconscious and conscious, in the process of creation. Writers in this canon often confess that they write because they want to write, but they rarely mention the conditions of possibility that allow them to write. In other words, for these writers, desire and agency in becoming a writer are seldom, if ever, mediated by factors of race, class, caste, gender, ableism, or, in general, one’s position within the larger forces of history. 

Once, I loved the how-to canon, and even today I see it offering valuable advice for aspiring writers. Although now that I’m forty-three, an American citizen who grew up in the so-called third world, a brown “emerging” writer who has been writing and publishing for a decade and half, releasing a debut novel at “too late an age” and celebrating my three-year-old’s progress with potty training within a global pandemic, the canon often reads to me like a training manual dropped from Mars. Or, to use a homegrown analogy, the canon reads like a rhetoric of the American dream, promising citizenship within the ivory tower of Literature to anyone who will work hard and master the rules of the game, aka craft.

I’m hardly the only one who finds that the canon upholds a myth of meritocracy and universalism. In recent years, other mother-writers, predominantly white, have exposed what truly allows the Great Male Authors, with or without children, to succeed professionally. For instance, in her piece for Literary Hub “The Heartbreaking Ingenuity of the Mother-Writer,” Olivia Campbell talks about J. D. Salinger, “who built a cabin in the woods a quarter mile from his house to have a quiet place to work away from his family.” She adds: “The problem is that Salinger used the cabin to avoid all his other responsibilities. He stayed there for weeks at a time, leaving his wife to raise their two young children alone. But she also had to take care of him, bringing him sandwiches so he didn’t starve.”

In other essays published by the Paris Review Daily, Longreads, and Literary Hub, we hear mother-writers struggling to secure a space where they can write “with the door closed,” to echo Stephen King, and access the solitude often prescribed as a prerequisite to good writing. Instead mother-writers write in their cars, bathrooms, closets—that is, when they aren’t writing while breastfeeding, or typing notes in their phone while grocery shopping with a baby strapped to them, or while doing any number of domestic chores rendered invisible by a capitalist patriarchy. Even if narratives by writer-mothers don’t name it, they underscore a persistent erasure of reproductive labor, and care work at large, that births the human race and sustains our communities—labor that COVID-19 forced the planet to acknowledge as “essential work,” as Jordan Kisner articulates well in a February 2021 New York Times Magazine article  titled “The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew.” Women’s shouldering of this labor underpins the silent assumptions of the canon of advice on writing. 

Unlike cis male authors who often talk about writing through an assumed identity of the “universal” individual, Anne Lamott mentions her writing life as a single mother in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995). However, motherhood’s impact—physical or mental—on her creative aspirations never takes the spotlight within the book. In comparison, Pulitzer Prize winner and mother of six Louise Erdrich is more open about a mother-writer’s struggle with pursuing a career and self-preservation within her memoir of early motherhood, The Blue Jay’s Dance (HarperCollins, 1995). Erdrich even makes a long list of respected women writers who had children and who published substantially only in recent history (George Sand, Sigrid Undset, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Mona Simpson, Jane Smiley, among others) and who didn’t have children (Jane Austen, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, among others) and concludes that “reliable birth control is one of the best things that’s happened to contemporary literature…. [I]t is only now that women in any numbers have written literature.” While I nodded in agreement here and admired the book for its lyrical, astute observations, I also yearned for it to offer mother-writers like me a clearer blueprint to negotiate the personal and professional demands of my life with a better understanding, if not more ease. 

For instance, when Erdrich wears her baby and shows up day after day at her rented work space, across from the farmhouse where she lives with her family, I wondered: Who pays for the “room of her own”? Who takes care of her other children and related domestic chores, especially since I struggle with balancing work and domestic labor involved with one preschooler? As important, what about sleep deprivation or backaches caused by regular baby-wearing? Beyond meditations on a history of sexism and stifling gender roles that I relate to, neither financial nor psycho-physiological challenges seem to affect her as she shows up routinely at her desk as a mother-writer. 

Of all the works I’ve read by mothers about sustaining a writing life, I relate the most to Camille T. Dungy’s 2017 nonfiction book, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History (Norton), even if our intersectional identities are shaped by different geopolitical and historical contexts, and I’m aware to not equate our struggles in a simplistic way. Guidebook is a story of a Black writer and early mother who straddles full-time teaching, writing, and speaking gigs while managing multiple sclerosis and facing constant microaggressions in navigating the predominantly white spaces of the American academy and art world. Moreover, because the author-narrator cannot hire full-time childcare, given its exorbitant costs, and because her husband—whose potential income she needs to supplement hers—is finishing up a dissertation, she takes her baby on several flights each month for speaking engagements that allow Dungy to cover her bills. What I relate to deeply within Dungy’s book is a rare attempt to nuance the degree of exhaustion, physical and mental, that mother-writers endure while negotiating different personal and professional roles, mediated by the intersection of race, class, gender, ableism, history, and geography. Not surprisingly, unlike Erdrich’s memoir on writing and parenting, Guidebook doesn’t show Dungy in the process of writing “with the door closed,” even if the book opens with her time at an all-white artist residency where she struggles to access the promised “unmolested psychic space” in order to create art. Instead, much of Guidebook focuses on her multitasking as a Black mother with a deep awareness of history, an early mother but a more established writer, with credibility within a literary world and previously published books. 

To echo the title of Dorothea Brande’s famous book, I return then to the idea of “becoming a writer.” And I share a personal story for early mothers who are also early writers who have been writing and publishing for years but who haven’t yet published a book that allows them to show something as work within the industry and access better financial support through teaching, editorial, or speaking gigs. Before I proceed, I want to clarify that by “early mothers,” I do not refer solely to biological mothers who gave birth to their child, but to all women or gender-fluid or nonbinary people who see themselves as mothers to very young children who, unlike older children or teenagers, are a lot more dependent on a caregiver for their basic needs.

In 2018, when I found out I was pregnant, I left my position as a lecturer at UCLA despite conventional wisdom offered to me by both the writing and brown immigrant world to not quit my day job. My baby was due on my fortieth birthday, and I’d spent a good chunk of my life postponing becoming a mother and a “creative writer,” or someone who writes for a broader readership rather than an academic one. Living paycheck to paycheck for much of my professional life was mostly responsible for this deferral, even if my immigrant status in the United States, conditional on full-time employment; my indecision about which country I wanted to eventually call “home”; and an insufficient support system in what seemed like a radical life transition had enough to do with this postponement too. In my mid-thirties, I married the man I’d been dating for a while, decided to put down roots in California, and applied for permanent residency, and while I continued to teach thereafter, over my pregnancy I did have access to a stable income for our family of nearly three, thanks to my husband. In other words, I had the enormous privilege of risking professional single-tasking and writing without undertaking other jobs, at least until I eased into motherhood. Within a couple of weeks of saying goodbye to teaching, I signed a contract for my debut novel with a reputed indie press in India—a sign of the universe’s support of my decision, I told myself. Over the course of my pregnancy, I would revise and finish a polished manuscript for my Indian publisher. Also I hoped that speaking gigs and other teaching opportunities would present themselves, once the baby and the book were out in the world. 

As my belly grew I prepared the support system I’d need for the personal and professional transition ahead of me while staying grateful to my partner for his financial support. I read books on new parenting, had conversations about the same with other parents and mother-writers, took lessons with my partner on labor and nursing, and swapped services with a doula and a prenatal yoga instructor for care toward my changing body and for working through my anxiety around labor, postpartum healing, working with sleep deprivation, and more. At the same time, I worked on my manuscript and took up freelance writing commitments—essays, features, interviews—that would help create visibility for my voice and sate the desire to reach a like-minded community that has always fueled my work. Besides, not having to work toward creating visibility as an emerging writer within a white supremacist art world is its own kind of privilege, one I associate with generational wealth, white or caste privilege, the large publicity budgets of the Big Five, a secure day job with a monthly paycheck, or a combination of these factors that often go hand in hand to represent the “universal” aspiring artist in the canon on writing. 

Despite my preparation—material and sociopsychological—for becoming a mother-writer, my son’s birth in 2018, my manuscript’s completion in 2019, and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 left me with a crushing experience of isolation, one that made me simultaneously crave solitude to write and long to escape the loneliness of my life as a mother-writer. A pre-COVID quarantine imposed by my fourth trimester—one that included heavy sleep deprivation and nursing round the clock along with domestic chores that increased tenfold with a newborn—became more challenging to endure due to deadlines for my book’s completion and a goodbye to social interaction with colleagues and students in my teaching life. 

The isolation of new motherhood and my writing life felt particularly jarring as my husband resumed work after two weeks of paternity leave because we needed to keep paying our bills as a family. I found myself confined to the more traditional gender role in which I would write or work remotely from home and raise a child, for the greater part. When early parenting, sleep deprivation, our demanding work lives, and social conditioning toward gender roles put tremendous, sustained pressure on our marriage, my partner, a healthcare professional with a monthly income, an office outside of our house, and a roster of ailing patients could justify his fatigue and need for rest to us and our shared communities in ways I never could with my highly underpaid, remote job involving “wordcraft” within a capitalist patriarchy. Migration added another layer to my new identity as a mother-writer and the power dynamics of heterodomesticity. My husband, for instance, was born and raised in greater Los Angeles, where we live, and was surrounded by family and friends he grew up with, unlike me, who left family in India for a new home on the other side of the world. As a new dad my partner could replenish through the comfort zone and unconditional help of his loved ones in ways I simply couldn’t as a daughter-in-law because trust and support here come with a set of expectations with which brown sons and sons-in-law rarely deal.

That said, as a first-generation American who lives oceans away from her own family and not within an easy driving distance of her SoCal friends, I see myself among the luckier ones. After all, my mother flew in from India to help us with our newborn while I healed postpartum. Once my mother left, my husband covered the bills for a part-time nanny, an exorbitant expense that we chose over our health insurance, and my family-in-law offered additional help so I could complete my fiction manuscript and sleep through the night at least once a week. I’m enormously grateful for this village of a nanny, a family-in-law, and my partner as a co-parent, all of whom helped with child-rearing and my pre-COVID writing life. Yet this gratitude coexisted with my constant guilt at not contributing enough toward our family bills and relieving my partner’s professional labor, even if I did work constantly outside of child-rearing with editing, writing, freelancing, and eventually resuming my teaching at UCLA, only with the meager pay rate reserved for early writers and nontenured faculty. 

While I juggled the completion of my manuscript and freelancing with the relentless physical and emotional labor of early motherhood, I became the poster child of privilege for many in my brown family—Indian and American. Middle-class American citizen, family-in-law who helps babysit, part-time nanny, a single child, a husband playing provider while I wrote stories for “work”! What is this writer-mom whining about?

To a degree my single mother, a former academic who’d published books and raised two children while working three or four jobs, who had it way rougher than me in a middle-class India (read: poor by North American standards), understood my struggles amid the socioeconomic privileges I had access to, more so with my migration to one of the world’s richest economies. Most of my brown loved ones could not, however, attune to my struggle as a mother-writer. Factors of race, class, and migration played into this absence of genuine empathy. For instance I’m the first of my generation in my family and family-in-law to pursue writing as a professional path and the first to live continents away from immediate family. To undergo a radical life transition without the support of one’s community within a driving or flying distance of a couple of hours is unimaginable to most of them. Besides, the professional pursuit of writing and motherhood are both demanding forms of labor, not an eternal source of pleasure—another idea that seemed foreign to my people. Of course a global socialization into gender roles in which “good girls” naturally love caregiving and domesticity has something to do with the communal apathy I experienced. What added to the latter was that motherhood was an easier story for my family in India, cushioned by paid domestic services that are a lot more affordable for middle-class South Asians than for middle-class Americans. On the other hand, for my Indian American family with a working-class background, mothers had it much rougher than I currently do, as they raised multiple kids while working full time in physically demanding jobs. In this context I can hardly blame my people for their emotional unavailability on my path as a mother-writer, even if filial loyalty strongly connects us. 

And so I learned to seek emotional support elsewhere and found much of it in a world of social media and virtual hangouts. It was my online community of middle-class mother-writers with children in diapers—mothers who did not struggle at the urgent level of survival with food, clothing, and shelter but who constantly struggled to feel seen or heard and to justify their labor or exhaustion within a capitalist patriarchy in which “work” is perceived in paychecks and published books. Moreover, immigrant mothers of color understood my petty quips like the longing for homemade food in difficult life moments as unconditional care extended by one’s family, or later, the fear of losing loved ones in a global pandemic when India hit the highest infection rates in the world, or later, the actual loss of loved ones whom we grieved as migrants, away from our families in a pandemic and without a sense of closure to our relationships. 

So much of the existing canon on becoming a writer is about upholding a moral stance over a systemic one in the creation of art: the pursuit of work ethic and solitude, and a muzzling of the inner critic as the touted pathways to the promised land. We’ve only just begun to debunk the myth of meritocracy within the literary world known to be notoriously white, cis, straight, male, and upper class or caste in its fundamental assumptions of not only what becomes art, but as much about who becomes and how one becomes an artist. Through my story I see also how ableism pervades the how-to canon, how a “normally” functioning physiological self is simply assumed in narratives about writing, by mothers or others. If writing is firstly a literal, embodied act, then the creation of “a vivid and continuous dream,” to echo John Gardner, requires a replenished mind and body that comes from regularly sleeping through the night as well as an “unmolested psychic space,” to echo Dungy, that comes from not struggling on a daily basis with physical and mental well-being. 

Surely no one writes from a centered self or optimal work conditions every day, even before the conditions of a global pandemic. But with or without a pandemic, early writers who are also early mothers and who neither come from generational wealth nor have access to full-time domestic services write from an acutely pulverized inner self almost every day. In other words my point isn’t that moms alone struggle with accessing the right conditions for the possibility of creation but that early writer-mothers write from a place of a highly fragmented, spent self on a consistent basis while being goaded to self-erasure for the same by a global domestic and work culture. 

In early 2020, amid one of the most emotionally and physically demanding phases of my life, I finished my manuscript. With my son’s graduation to toddlerhood, the promise of seeing friends and visiting family in India seemed to return. But then COVID-19 became a global threat, and I was back to the seclusion I was desperate to exit. What differed this time was that socio-physical isolation and its toll on mental health and productivity became worthy of global empathy. Cyclones hit India. Editorial layoffs at indie presses led to the termination of my contract with the Indian publisher and, with it, the freelance opportunities a published book could produce. Over time I reshopped my manuscript in the U.S. market, where those who acquire and edit books are known to be 85 percent white. I lost track of the number of encouraging rejections I received for my manuscript, even if it was a contender for three literary awards conferred by reputed presses, and I eventually found an Asian American publisher for my book. Soon I signed with a literary agent, resumed teaching without the security of a renewable contract, took on more freelance gigs to support that income, and helped with our family bills. I enrolled our son in day care in 2021. To access steady childcare for a fixed number of hours per week was, hands down, a game changer in my mental and overall health and, consequently, in my path as a mother-writer.

As I write this essay, I’m proofreading the galley of my debut novel, reaching out to peers to coordinate book events, soliciting blurbs, teaching literature classes, maintaining an active online presence, freelancing, and curating conversations with other writers, in addition to parenting and nurturing my personal life. The cover design for my book was recently finalized, and the first round of blurbs has started coming in. With an income, however modest, from freelancing and teaching, and a galley to hold in my hands, I’m already noticing a shift in my life as a mother-writer: I can now claim my space and time more easily for work. I have to explain my need to recharge less to the folx around me.

As for the debut book that will “legitimize” my transition from a writer to an author, I hold the galley in my hand whenever I feel the weight of a capitalist patriarchy—it comes in so many forms each day—that questions the existence of my labor. From the time it was conceived as journal entries to the time it will be released, this novel took seventeen years, a book I sold for a three-figure deal. I owe everything to my Asian American publisher and editor for taking a chance on my work. 

Did I just write the Great American Novel, one that took years to finish and that explores a history of the nation state and the human condition at large? I wrote the contrary, in fact. Then why did this journey of becoming an author take almost half my life? Here is an essay for another day, one that will explore beyond race and gender, the slippery notion of class and its relationship to geopolitics, or a staggering gap in resources that distinguishes the first world from a third. In short, though: Like many women of the global majority, especially those from the third world, I had to learn to see art-making as a professional possibility, and then trust my own voice and vision within a system that’s built to systemically erase the former. The path to decolonizing my mind of what art is and who gets to earn the label of an artist has come at an immense material and emotional cost, one I’m no longer sure I’d pay if I knew beforehand what it entails for people like me to become an author. Or maybe I’d pay it willingly if there was a canon on writing that helped aspiring writers of the global majority prepare for the road by exposing the myths of meritocracy and innocence, or what Cathy Park Hong describes in Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020) as a systematic “deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, based on the confidence that one is ‘unmarked’ and ‘free to be you and me.’” 

Still, in addition to motherhood, the highest gift and privilege of my life, a huge fulfillment on this road to becoming was the self-validation I found when I first read the galley of my book, Border Less, the surreal feeling of sinking deeper into my vision of who I might be. With its fragmented form and its engagement with power via a public sphere, and a private sphere that’s rarely seen as worthy of “serious” literature, in my novel I also loved holding a lineage of brown border-crossing mother-writers over a lineage of cis white or Brahmin men, even if borders dividing literary legacies are dubious after a point. Lastly, in this journey of becoming an author, I loved discovering that while I’ve never been the writer who writes solely for herself, I was writing all these years, firstly, for me. 

 

Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction, serves as interviews editor for Kweli, and teaches literature as well as creative writing at UCLA. Her work has appeared in publications including Literary Hub, Longreads, the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Catapult, and The Best Asian Short Stories. Her debut novel, Border Less, will be released in March from 7.13 Books. She holds a PhD in French literature from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Find her on Twitter, @poddar_namrata, and on Instagram, @writerpoddar.