A dream deferred (or surrendered?) to motherhood

While marking the one year anniversary of An Adequate Mom this week – a big thanks to all of you who stop in now and then – I thought I’d talk about something that’s haunted me for quite a while now.

In a strange but telling coincidence of timing, Lily was conceived within days of my return from two weeks at an artist colony in Lake Forest, Illinois called Ragdale. I’d earned a place there, during the competitive summer months, on the basis of a book manuscript excerpt that I’d submitted with my application.

Writing a book had been what my life had seemingly always been pointed toward. The first thing I remember saying in response to the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, posed by my grandfather while I, at age five, dried dishes in his kitchen, was, “An author.” (Yes, I later claimed “Avon lady” and “veterinarian” as career goals, at a time when playing with makeup and animals held great appeal, but I eventually came full circle. Good thing, since I never came to wear makeup in day-to-day life.)

I loved books and stories from the get-go. Once, when we’d driven the seven hours to my grandparents’ home in Clay City, Indiana and arrived late at night, my parents had told me it was too late for my grandfather to read to me. So what did I do? I waited until it sounded like everyone was asleep, grabbed my ragged copy of A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh,” and woke up my grandfather to read to me. The ritual was one of the main things I looked forward to in visiting my grandparents, and I wasn’t about to be cheated out of it because we arrived at an untimely hour – something completely out of my control.

A couple of years later, I sat at our family’s kitchen table with our humming blue electric typewriter, and I typed out, word for word, pages of various Nancy Drew books I had read. I liked playing at being a writer, and pretending I was in the act of creation rather than merely copying text.

In elementary school, we were charged each year with writing an original story for a Young Authors program, with books we made by hand with shelf paper pattern covers, and I always took the task very seriously, writing painfully (and now hilariously) autobiographical melodramas about awkward, insecure young girls who harbored unrequited crushes and struggled to make friends.

I dabbled in bad poetry in middle school and high school, like any self-respecting wannabe writer; and after being accepted into U-M’s Residential College, I declared my major to be creative writing. Sadly, this mostly meant that I signed up for one-on-one tutorials with a professor who did little more than correct grammatical errors on my terrible stories, so I wrote schmaltzy pablum and a crazy-bad pirate story (yes, that’s right, a pirate story), all the while hoping I was getting better just by virtue of writing often.

Not surprisingly, I was shot down by the five prestigious, what-was-I-thinking MFA programs I applied to my senior year, and then worked as an office temp and a video store clerk for a combined 70 hours a week to support myself in Ann Arbor. Later, I worked at a Barnes and Noble and audited a nighttime writing workshop at U-M, finally getting a real taste of where I stood writing-wise. (My story about a depressed man who committed suicide by setting his house on fire while waiting to be ungulfed in flames was a real page-turner.) The criticism was constructive but blunt, and I began to see how much work lay ahead of me.

But on the dubious basis of hearing from a friend that Athens, Georgia was like Ann Arbor except warm all year round, I applied to a masters program in English at the University of Georgia, hoping to wheedle my way into the creative writing concentration. After being accepted in the general English program, the department’s Dean, during my campus visit, conveyed that he thought I’d been accepted into creative writing program, too; so although I never received anything in writing about this concentration acceptance, I left my new boyfriend Joe (yes, we go back that far) and my family and my life behind me in Michigan to go to UGA – only to find that, in fact, I’d been rejected from the creative writing concentration. (I’d of course, while introducing myself in classes, stated that I was part of it – leading to some pretty profound humiliations later on.) When I pressed the creative writing director for feedback, so I could improve and re-apply, he finally called my submissions “juvenile.” Ouch.

But I re-applied, and whether out of pity or because my writing really had gotten better, I was accepted. Not that I ever felt legitimate there. But eventually, this led me to an MFA program at Penn State. Once there, I realized again, while in workshops with a number of more skilled, and in some cases much younger, writers that all this effort and focus might come to nothing.

For writing is one of those maddening, soul-killing or transcendent – sometimes both on the same day – pursuits where, at some point, you realize, “I could spend my whole life working at this, and studying with the very best people that I can, and it still may all come to nothing.” A tough truth to face. I’d given it my best shot, but by my last semester, I grew depressed and questioned whether it was time for me to just give up the ghost and figure out a new path for my life. Maybe it was time to grow up, already, and take a good, hard look at my abilities and shortcomings.

Of course, that’s the precise moment when I learned that my story “Under the Influence” was chosen by the PSU writing faculty for a nomination for the annual “Best New American Voices” anthology. That in itself was validating and wonderful, giving me just enough hope to stay with it. But then the story was actually selected for inclusion – by no less than Joyce Carol Oates – and I thought that maybe I’d finally made significant progress.

Yet it’s not like literary magazines accepted everything I sent then – far from it. My publications were few and far between. But my desire to write a book was still intense, so after repeatedly telling people about my experience driving an author I’d never met around the country for a book tour, unpaid, only weeks after my wedding, I got inspired to start writing a book about it. (See the prologue and first chapters in the right-hand margin under “Pages.”)

I wrote the book little by little, in the mornings before heading in to work my part-time job at The Ann Arbor News. And it was with an early, completed draft that I applied to Ragdale (and other artist colonies who passed me over) and had the fantastic opportunity to shrug off the daily responsibilities of life for two weeks and focus on pounding out a good revision, making micro and macro level changes.

Strangely, while I was there, I did my whole “I don’t want kids, the idea of pregnancy and motherhood freak me out” dog-and-pony show, despite the fact that Joe and I had been in protracted, thoughtful discussions about the possibility of having a child for months by that point. I think that after years of saying the same things on the topic, my responses were reflexive, in a “this is what I always say” way. But I also think that I was also airing out these ideas one last time, to see for myself it they’d indeed started to ring hollow.

For as I struggled with getting published, and enjoyed my unfettered life by seeing lots of theater and films, traveling, and reading books, I started thinking that it all felt a little empty. (Not that this is true for everyone, by any means, but it’s how I came to feel.) I started to think that no matter how informed or cultured or worldly I was, what would that all matter at the end? Would this be enough to make me feel satisfied in the coming years?

So after spending nine months (no joke) compiling my first creative, book-length work, I spent nine months building a little person that, naturally, turned our lives upside down.

But while pregnant, I got busy trying to push my book out of the nest and into the world. I crafted a query letter, sent it to carefully researched agents that might be interested, and I got a few requests to send the first 50 pages. Everyone ultimately ended up passing, though, until days before my due date, when one agent asked me to work up a book proposal.

Really, the agent wanted truncated summaries of each chapter that wouldn’t be too detailed but would capture the book’s voice and major events. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s hard work – work I wouldn’t get to for a while because Lily was born soon thereafter. But at the end of my maternity leave, I arranged for Lily to start daycare one week early, so she could get acclimated with shorter-than-usual days while I labored to pound out these summaries.

And I did it. But the agent responded with suggestions for significantly re-working the proposal, and in that moment, I was going back to work and negotiating all that comes with adjusting to this completely new phase of motherhood. So I couldn’t do it right then.

Consequently, my book, my lifelong ambition, has since languished. And I struggle sometimes to come to terms with this reality.

Did my decision to become a mom mark a moment, in essence, when I said, “This doesn’t seem to be happening for me, even though I gave it my best shot”? Maybe. As I mentioned, though I was occasionally getting stories published in literary journals here and there, I’d hardly reached a place where my writing was being sought out. Despite years of study and my best efforts, a future as the new Anne Tyler or Nick Hornby didn’t seem to be in the cards for me, and I certainly felt like I needed to recognize this.

Not that I’m hopeless about the future or the potential of my book manuscript. I still have hope that I’ll get it out there, that I’ll get it published. And certainly, if I still had the burning desire to pursue it, I’d be using the few spare moments I get here and there to re-work that proposal. But instead, I often spend those moments writing on this blog, which is what I’ve felt most passionate about writing over the past year. This is partly because writing about experiences provides me with important insights and perspectives I otherwise wouldn’t have – something about the process forces you to think things through more completely – and because I want Lily to have this family record. But it’s also because I feel like this is a slightly downgraded, but still satisfying, version of my original dream – and maybe it will even lead me to the book I’ll write next.

After all, I have many people who have started regularly checking in to read what I write. Sometimes, hundreds read a single post, which has to equal, if not surpass, the number of readers I had for stories that were published in small literary journals. And seeing how many blog visitors I have on the best days feels marvelous – like what I always thought publishing a book would feel like, albeit on a more modest scale.

So did I surrender my ambition when deciding to be a mom? I know everyone would like me to say “No, I’m plowing ahead, and damn it, I’ll make that happen.” But of course, one of the things that makes the decision to have a child so difficult is that you have to, by necessity, take a good, hard, long look at where you are and where it appears you’re going.

I’m not saying that when you become a parent, you have to entirely surrender your dreams; but some editing, or re-envisioning, might be in order. Because of things both in and out of our control, we’re constantly evolving, changing beings, and our ambitions have to adapt to the shifts in our lives.

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4 thoughts on “A dream deferred (or surrendered?) to motherhood

  1. Sandra F says:

    Yes, amending. Some days are easier than others. The hours I spend rocking my girl to sleep are not wasted, but I certainly would get more articles out in the world if I didn’t. But, most hours I think that I don’t care, that the time I spend with my kid are more tangible.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      I often have to remind myself to re-align my thinking. Yes, I’d love to finish what I’m writing right now, but I only get so much time with Lily, and that has to take precedence. It’s hard, though, because the stop/start nature of trying to write in spare moments works against my nature, and how I normally prefer to work.

  2. Sheila says:

    Thoughtful as always, Jenn. I’m a little farther ahead than you (and Sandra, hi!), and I can say that the beginning of schooling for my kids has meant a subtle shift back toward a life that includes things like writing (and deep, slow breathing!). It’s a very different writing life than it used to be–much more fragmented and, of course, subordinate to the myriad unexpected kid needs that often arise. But, some days it’s also more productive writing simply because I know I don’t have that much time.

    In any case, congratulations to you on a year of provocative, thoughtful, funny and important writing!

    • Jenn McKee says:

      Thanks for all the support and kind words, Sheila! The weird thing is that I do feel reasonably productive, writing-wise, in terms of what I regularly post here. It’s just that time spent on the blog is time that’s not spent on my book – this thing I put a lot of time and effort into already – and so I feel a strange sort of guilt about that. Like I abandoned one child entirely for another…

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