I Am Always Hungry When I Write
On motherhood, writing, being selfish, and doing it anyway
This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places our politics and personhood meet. This week, I wrote about ambition, motherhood, selfishness, and freedom. If you value this newsletter, please subscribe.
When I write I get hungry. I like to stack piles of little shortbread cookies on a plate near my computer and nibble them in between bursts of writing. Sometimes it’s bits of cheese and pepperoni. When I was getting my master’s and working full time, I would get large bottles of Diet Coke and bags of Swedish fish and write until 2am. Then, I’d wake up at 7, and start working. I’m older now. So the snacks are more like a pile of tortilla chips or Ritz crackers. Rarely sweet, often salty.
The hunger overwhelms me. And in inglorious bursts, I’ll stuff my face, then write. And write. And if I type fast enough, let my brain sail away far enough, then I am gone.
My friends and children understand that sometimes I leave. My body is here, but I cannot anchor myself to reality. I forget about bills and appointments. I ignore email. Recently, my water almost got shut off, simply because I thought the bill was on autopay and didn’t pay attention.
I wonder if the food and the hunger is an anchor. I wonder if it’s my body’s way of trying to maintain some grasp on reality. To remind myself I’m not just a mind. That I am flesh and a body and people need me. And people need me. I am a mother. And before that I was a poor college student. And before that, a big sister. I’ve never been able to fully let go of my tie to reality. Something – kids, poverty, marriage – has always tied me to the ground.
At every point in my life, there was always something to be washed. Someone to be fed. A floor to be cleaned. A chore to be done. Something and someone is always needing me.
I read a lot about writers and artists. The ones with sheds. The ones who disappear into cabins in the woods to take long walks and think deep thoughts. Or the ones who simply let the floors dissolve into dirt while their minds whirl away elsewhere. Even though I know for so many that freedom is hard won, I’m jealous of them.
I’ve tried it. With my first book, I wrote it in a month. I left my children, then 4 and 6, and disappeared to a residency at St. John’s in Minnesota. There, I hid among monks and crowds of students, and wrote, every day, words and words. It’d put a stack of research on the right side of the computer and as I moved through it, I’d stack it on the left side. I don’t know if I’d do it again. Not until my kids are grown. Still, I don’t regret it.
I did it, not from some supernatural feat, but because that was the only time I had. I had been researching the book for two years before that. But I was the primary caretaker for my kids. I had one in kindergarten and one in part-time preschool, and I was still freelancing to pay for the babysitting I needed to go on research trips. And it still wasn’t enough. “Just quit,” my husband at the time told me.
There was a reasonable argument to be made for quitting. I hadn’t been paid enough for the book to justify the work. Childcare cost more that I could ever earn. Gas cost so much. I was barely breaking even. These arguments were made, over and over, in marriage therapy sessions. After all, people needed me. And I never knew what to say, except, I had to do it. I felt like if I stopped, I’d never start again. It’s like when I ran my first half-marathon and I was struggling and I thought about walking. But I realized if I stopped running, maybe I’d never start again.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I read a writer, someone whose name I don’t remember talk about how you write as a parent – you forsake your chores, you live out of a laundry basket, you get help, nachos every night. Who cares about the lawn? Who cares about the matching socks? You write. You steal every moment.
That was my philosophy. I wrote on my phone in the park. I wrote while Curious George played. I wrote at 4am and 2am. I wrote while I pumped. I wrote while I was supposed to be cooking. Sometimes I am maniacal. Single-minded myopic. In a man, this would be called dedication. I read chiding blog posts about how moms should put down their phones and cherish their children’s every moment. I read how parents were too screen addicted. I felt awful, but I kept writing, tapping away on my phone. It wrecked my marriage.
When I got the opportunity, I left for one month in 2017 and wrote a whole book. And every night I talked to my kids and they cried because they missed me and didn’t understand why I was gone. My son was sick when I left, and I pushed and pushed to get his father to take him to the doctor, and finally when he took him in, he had walking pneumonia. And that same child fell while playing and went to the ER for a split lip and a black eye. And even though my son does not remember, I do. It feels like an indictment. I was so selfish, so self-absorbed, my children got hurt. And where was their mother? Wandering among monks in Minnesota. Looking at the stars and talking theology on long walks with someone she will never see again.
It’s a tired trope now. The grizzled, white male cop, the one who is a bad dad, but talented. He saves the city. He’s divorced or divorcing. His patient ex-wife, still in love with him, takes the kids when he can’t, reminding him that they need him. He is a hero.
This character exists for women. Sort of. She’s in Mare of Easttown or The Fall. Women who are lost in their ambition or their work, or simply just leave their lives. But they are not heroes. They are complex. It’s all we can talk about: the woman left. The woman left. Critics and essayists write about how the woman left. Is she good? Is she bad? We like it so much better when a woman stays. We like it better when at the end of the story she finds her family, finds a man, finds peace.
Not since post–World War II America have women seen themselves forced out of their jobs at such a rate. Although jobs data shows there has been some recovery, it’s still happening. It’s no coincidence that this is happening alongside one of the largest rollbacks of reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade was decided. The force of our culture is to push women back into their roles.
Books and television shows tell little girls they can be anything. We praise a brassy, bold little girl. Then, when that girl grows up, she’s told to tone it down.
I wonder if we do a disservice in telling little girls this lie. I think of Simone de Beauvoir, who was not told she could have it all; in fact, she knew she couldn’t. So, she didn’t. She didn’t marry. She did adopt a daughter, it was complicated. But she was never promised anything else, was she?
I finished a draft of my third book last week. In some ways it felt easier to write than the others. For one, I didn’t have to shoehorn myself from my life and write like a house on fire for a month. I didn’t have to write between 10pm and 2am, like I did for the second book, juggling jobs and bills and mounting debt. This time, I was still juggling jobs, but not as many as before.
But I did have to break my life apart to write it. Once, someone told me some books would ruin me, while others would put me together again. I think I am getting back together again.
Was I selfish? Was I self-absorbed to do all this? Yes, and I don’t care.
I’m so tired of bending my body around a life that was never made to fit me. Instead, I want to remake the world to fit around me.
“Sometimes, we have to destroy the things we love, in order to find a way to be free.”
I want to write more stories. I want to lose myself again and again in long narratives. I want to write stories that will take me away from my kids, who are older now but still get sad when I’m away too long. But people need me. The hunger keeps me grounded. The macaroni meals. The nacho nights. Sometimes, when I let my mind drift too far away, the laundry piles up and my kids will complain about too much take-out. Recently, I had to get up early in true dirtbag-mom style and do a panic-run to Target for birthday cupcakes, only to find that the kids’ stepparent had provided some from a local bakery. This is great. I was relieved. And I was so grateful. But the comparisons of the offerings were not lost on me.
But if this was the price of my freedom, not being the good mother, I was okay with it. And in some way, I was proud because it takes a lot of work to raise kids and work, and now my kids have three adults who love them. And also, I had a good mother. A mother who used to make us bread and refused to buy it from the store. (For a while at least.) A mother who bought her 8 children milk fresh from the dairy, who homeschooled, didn’t let us watch TV, and gave us natural peanut butter, decades before the whole-food movement. And while I appreciate that work and love her dearly, I know a little about what it cost. And I think I would have rather known a woman who was free.
But maybe my daughter will say the opposite about me. Maybe she will say, I wish I had a mother a little less free.
Daughters are always good at both seeing their mothers and completely missing the point.
More and more women are forgoing having children. More and more women are dropping out of the workforce. And more and more women are no longer dating. In a time of the rollback of reproductive rights, the lack of a social safety net, and the gaping loss of 1 million Americans dead have changed our appetite for the traps of domestic life, even while every cultural and political force is working to push us back in.
The solution is (as always) codifying rights for women into our laws and society. Build a social safety net. Provide paid parental leave. Subsidize childcare. That’s the answer. No amount of TikTok hacks or parenting books can make you a better mother and better at your job. No number of good camps or tutors or stunning SAT scores can save our daughters from the world that we’ve created.
I get so frustrated with the culture war and the subsequent hand wringing over whether women can have it all. Of course we can’t, you won’t let us. But also, women have been working and having children for centuries. I read biographies of suffragists and artists and doctors and writers, who just did it. Who didn’t wait for permission. Who were okay with being selfish. Who had no choice, but to push forward.
Sometimes people ask me how I write so much. Because I have to, is always the answer. I have to pay bills and this is how I do it. Writing is a profession. I get up and do it everyday. No one asks and HR manager how they manage so much. They just do it and so do I. Maybe we’ve made this all a little too precious. And maybe that preciousness of art is just another cultural force designed to make us feel bad about it all. I don’t feel bad.
And also, what else can I do but light my home on fire? Burn it down and start all over. Sometimes, we have to destroy the things we love, in order to find a way to be free.
I think this about marriage. No matter what, it was a trap. No amount of therapy or chore lists was going to ever save me from carrying the bulk of a burden that wasn’t mine to carry. And once I was free, I saw how the 50/50 custody schedule showed me so clearly what I had been missing out on, and I was angry, how equality involved breaking down the very institution I was told would save me. Salvation is often a prison.
In a wonderful essay about artists and marriage, Thessaly La Force had this to say about how so much cultural admiration is laser-focused on artists and writers who died too soon:
“Our adoration for them comes with a lament for lost potential, the brevity of their lives a metaphor for what so many women feel has happened to their own existence — that art can’t always come first, that a man, a marriage, children and home can subsume their own identity to the point of suffocation. It is never as often as we would like that a beautiful and brilliant woman steps away from her assigned role of helpmeet, of mother, of daughter and muse. So we celebrate the ones who we believe — on some artistic plane — were set free.”
I am not waiting for death for freedom. So, I write with cookies by my desk. My body anchored to the earth. My mind in the air. The laundry undone. My book complete. Some part of me will always be trying to be free. Some part of me will always be a hungry earthly body.
You can order my first two books here through Bookshop.org, or through your local independent bookstore. (You can also get them anywhere else, but I like to push independent booksellers.) I’ll let you know when my next book, This American Ex Wife, will be ready for pre-order. And subscribers will get to see the cover design first.
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