Friday Column: Rewriting Motherhood: Why Career and Home Do Balance (at Least, for Me)

(Today we have a guest column from novelist Jennifer Epstein. Her first novel is The Painter from Shanghai, recently published by W.W. Norton.)

To say the last seven years have been eventful for me is to master the understatement. Over that span of time, I’ve had two daughters, completed my MFA in fiction, written several freelance pieces, perfected my forearmstand, and (just about) made it to the ten-year-mark in my marriage.

Oh, and I wrote a novel. A 400-plus-page historical epic set in China and Paris, at the cusp of World War II.

OK—I’ll admit it: I love the way saying that tends to floor the people around me (that is, unless they too are novelist moms—and several are). I love the fact that many seem to think it’s some Herculean feat; to write and mother at the same time (not to mention all that other stuff). I love it when they ask me—in semi-awed tones: “How on earth did you manage both?”

My response—accompanied by the prerequisite self-deprecating laugh—is usually something along the lines of “I’m not sure. But I lost half my brain cells in the process.” And this, actually, is true. In past months my maternal Alzheimers is striking worse than ever; I’m perpetually double-planning or entirely forgetting playdates; losing my credit cards only to find them (surprise!) in my wallet; losing entire days simply trying to catch up with the endless queue of unanswered emails.

But there’s something else that’s true, something that also surprises people when I tell them: that brain cell issue aside, writing a novel actually works really well with motherhood for me. At least, it did for the first one.

I’m aware that this assertion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that  career and children just don’t mix. That whatever your career path, pregnancy will at best make it bumpy (no pun intended)—if not block it off altogether. One would think that in the arts, at least, expectations would be less dire; after all, most artists make their own schedule. But when I began The Painter from Shanghai this was not the consensus at my writing workshop.

It was Natalia—a loud blonde Pole, childless (of course) and thrice-divorced—who voiced what everyone was thinking: “Are you crazy? You’ll never be a writer now!”

I mumbled something to the effect that it would all work out in due (again, no pun intended) time. But as an argument this felt tepid—even to me. I’d been struggling with the idea of my book for a year already, daunted by my subject (a Chinese prostitute who became one of China’s pioneering post-Impressionists), unorganized and hesitant, unsure of my right to write the story. I had no idea at all how I’d bridge the chasm between the insecure writer I so clearly was at that moment, and the selfless mother everyone expected me to be.

What didn’t occur to me in those early, hungry days was that the demands of a newborn would both open up both hours and motivation for working I’d never considered (post-feeding, 5 a.m., for example); hours that I’d find my muse surprisingly present—despite being so exhausted I’d sometimes doze off at the keyboard. Writing, I also found, provided a perfect intellectual counterlife to the mind-numbing physicality of early motherhood: I was never more ready to dive into an opening paragraph then after singing “Wheels on the Bus” for two hours straight, and I was never more ready for Barney than after banging my brain against a page of dialogue that simply didn’t work.

Even the time constraints—counterintuitively—worked in my favor. Faced with such a dearth of free time that I spent a whole week crying over it (or perhaps that was just postnatal hormones), I developed a system of almost militaristic organization, working from five a.m. to nine a.m. every morning, while my husband (who, mercifully, has a director’s late-start to the day) fed, dressed and dandled Katie. I added on additional hours—or, sometimes minutes—while Katie napped. Which was often, as she was a lousy sleeper at night. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, and something that I—prizing writing time over Ferber-perfect sleep habits—did little to try to correct.

It didn’t all exactly work like clockwork. For one thing, Katie’s nap schedule was erratic, so I rarely knew my writing schedule throughout the day. I therefore had to be “on” all of the time.  In the years before motherhood this would have been unthinkable; like many writers I was a bit of a diva. I needed a certain mood to write, a certain set-up, a certain light to create.

As a mother, however, I couldn’t indulge in such luxuries. I carried my computer and my history texts with me in the stroller, and pulled into the nearest café whenever my daughter dropped off. Oftentimes, I ended up deleting everything I wrote. Oftentimes, indeed, it barely seemed written in English—which is perhaps not surprising, given my perpetual state of sleep-deprived psychosis, my deep immersion in Chinese literature and history . . . and of course the brain cell thing (did I mention that?).

But even these “failed” days didn’t bother me as much as they once might have. For as I watched my daughter grow and develop, in increments and in leaps, walking, falling, crying and walking again, I learned to take a longer view of my own work. And I had infinitely more patience for myself as a result.

A year after Katie’s birth I returned to Columbia. I had deep bags under my eyes and baby fat on my belly, but about a dozen very rough chapters of my novel. These  were received encouragingly by my mentors and classmates—even Natalia—and so I ploughed on. My second daughter was born in 2004; the book’s first, full draft in 2006. It was bought by W.W. Norton and nine other publishers, and was published in March of this year in the U.S. It has, to my delight, been received very favorably; Vogue calls it “sparkling,” the New York Times “vivid” and “luminous,” the South China Morning Post “refreshing” (all things that, to be sure, I certainly didn’t feel myself during the writing process).

These days life is easier; Katie is in school until three, her sister Hannah until noon, and we have enough money for some limited sitting. I’m getting much more sleep, and my prime working hours tend to be from the far more civilized hours of eleven to five. P.M., I should note.

That’s not to say maternal/writing balance isn’t still wobbly at time. Katie (now seven) did lambaste me recently for missing every field trip in her short school life to date. “You’re always writing,” she complained. “You act as though your computer is more important than me.”

But she also brought my novel in for show and tell, and announced to anyone who would listen: “My mom writes books.” And as she shepherded the glossy volume from hand to small, sticky hand, the look of sheer pride on her face was just about the best review that any writer—or mother—could ever hope for.

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