The day I graduated with my MFA in creative nonfiction writing, I was ten weeks pregnant with my first child. The pregnancy had come as a surprise to me and my husband, and while it was a happy one, I approached the idea of motherhood with a combination of genuine fear and uneasy anticipation.
I had zero experience with babies, and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the responsibilities of parenthood with my stubbornly independent spirit. And then, perhaps most important to me, there was the question of my writing.
I embraced the love of language at an early age. In kindergarten, as a reading exercise, my teacher asked us to bring in a box to fill with laminated words. I can still feel the magic and weight of that box — it was small enough for my little hands, but deep, with a clear plastic cover. The “word box,” as I called it, had once held craft supplies for Christmas ornaments — sequins, glitter, pom-poms, and the like — and it introduced to me the notion of decorating the world with words rather than paper and glue.
As I grew older, words were a refuge and a salve, a welcome outlet for my lively imagination. Words empowered and sustained me, allowing me not just a room of my own, but a world of my own — a place of beauty and suspense, mystery, intrigue, and adventure. There was no question that I would major in English in college with the intention of becoming a writer, and my ambitions were clear. I wanted to be known and widely read; someone who could create beautiful poetry and prose from every day moments, and inspire her readers to reflect, dig deeper, and ask themselves and others important questions.
For a time, the real world, with its demand for a real paycheck to pay real bills, dampened my aspirations. When my work as a web writer for a start-up internet company went bust, I took a gloomy job at a financial services firm and wrote poetry on Post-it notes. After two years there, I decided to leave that post to pursue my MFA — what I saw as the capstone of all my creative endeavors.
I worked a clerical job part-time while in school, and having decided to write stories about songwriters in Nashville — while living in Atlanta — I made the three-and-a-half-hour drive several times a month, sometimes traveling there and back in a day. It was one of the most exhausting and gratifying experiences of my life, and I felt squarely in my element.
This is why the nausea I felt on my graduation day was more an emotional and intellectual side effect of my pregnancy than a physical one. My writing professors were kind and congratulatory. They encouraged me to take the first year off with the baby, to enjoy the singular, fleeting experience of new motherhood, and to write as I felt able — not ambitiously, but for the love of the writing itself.
Upon reflection, that advice was just what it should have been, but at the time it felt like a consolation prize. I was irritated further by well-meaning friends and relatives, thrilled by the prospect of a baby in our midst, who would say, “Well, the great thing is that you’ll always be able to write,” but I felt misunderstood by this, too, as if my writing were somehow on par with scrapbooking or playing bridge — a pastime, not a passion.
And then, Claire arrived, and I was awash with fatigue and intoxicating baby love. I picked up the occasional tutoring job or lackluster writing gig, telling myself that any foray into the world of words was better than none at all, but the truth is that taking those jobs depressed me. They served to confirm my ultimate fear: that children would somehow steal my literary joys and poetic aspirations, that I would become a non-person, in service to others but with no definitive core of my own. The students I tutored didn’t care about the craft of writing any more than the people I was writing for cared about good imagery. I found myself dreading the work, finding it purposeless.
By the time our second child, Elizabeth, was born a little over a year ago, I’d taken an indefinite break from writing anything more than e-mails and grocery lists. Even reading, which I had once relished for the escape it provided and the education it gave me, became a searing reminder of the interior life I’d left behind.
Giving up my books and my notebooks was a solution that in some ways defused my artistic angst and simplified our family life. But still, in the void, I felt an underlying sense of defeat. Or, actually, something worse than defeat: a realization that I’d taken refuge from the battlefield in the nearest, safest meadow. I wasn’t finished with my writing life at all; I was in hiding.
To be fair, life with two children under the age of three is crazy. No one should expect to write anything clever or concise while making sure the two-year-old doesn’t have her foot poised over the baby’s head, wondering what might happen if she stomped on it.
But I had simply chosen to opt out of the artistic, bookish life all together, something that strikes me now as a smug, cowardly decision, completely foreign to the ideals I hope to instill in my girls. What I needed was not to abandon writing and reading, but to revise, at least temporarily, my expectations for its role in my life; to begin again, as with exercise after a prolonged illness, slowly and with grace.
I am too early on this journey to say what will come of it — whether or not my artistic insecurities or competitive aspirations will show up again and steal my joy, or if I can reconcile the fact that there will be days when I read nothing of worth, when all I do is play pat-a-cake and write grocery lists, and days when I read well and with purpose, when I write (even if it is just a sentence) something that makes me proud and reminds me who I am. One thing is certain: to hide from the literary life, to suggest my children are keeping me from anything good or artful, would mean that I am actually hiding from them, failing to share with them my whole self, vulnerabilities and all.
Throughout my artistic life, even before entering the competitive field of graduate school, I’ve endured bouts of deep insecurity grounded in the fear that my writing would never be “good enough,” or that if by some miracle it was, its subject matter would lack relevance. While a literary existence is something I want to give to my children for their own benefit, my girls have also given me a gift. Their presence validates and gives import to my desire to create, well beyond the realms of publishing houses and literary journals. Rather than standing in direct opposition to my writing, I see now that motherhood can become a vital, integrative part of my process, opening fields of language and experience to which I previously had no access. My children’s imaginations, creativity, and struggles, no matter how small, challenge me to process their experiences, and my own, with a confidence that feels as new and uncharted to me as my girls’ hearts and minds.
Towles Kintz entered the professional child-wrangling circuit in 2008. In addition to writing grocery lists and addressing birthday party invitations, she keeps a blog at www.towleskintz.wordpress.com. Towles lives in Nashville with her husband, two children, and their loyal dog, Ivy.