I close the front door behind me, wriggle toes into slippers. The house is cold and silent, discarded with the empty breakfast bowls that lie on the table. I count almost exactly six hours of stillness before I will hear the clatter of my eldest son’s feet on the steps outside. Making my way upstairs — ignoring for now the strewn pyjamas, dirty socks, stray hairbrush dropped on the landing — I continue up a second flight to my tiny loftroom, where books are stacked in teetering haphazard piles. Around the walls I have stuck photographs, postcards, and a flock of post-it notes with phrases copied in pencil. On my laptop screen, I pull up a window that shows me other mother-writers, each beginning their own snatched hour of stillness. An orange cardigan hangs on the back of the chair and I pull it around my shoulders as we sit down to write — together but alone.
Fifteen years ago, when I became a mother, I began writing — snippets of sentences in notebooks, memories hastily typed (during nap times) on a nascent blog. My boys were babies, and then toddlers, and I was trying to hold tight to the soft-limbed milky moments that felt at once achingly fleeting and exhaustingly interminable. I did not think of myself as a writer — I found it hard to think of myself as anything, other than sleepy, and in love, sometimes lonely and often overwhelmed. Mothering filled my days to the busy, bursting edges, and writing was a tiny, quiet thing, floating up into the spaces like a bubble.
Now, my children are in (or fast approaching) adolescence, and the balance between mothering and writing has changed. Several days a week, when all three children are at school, there are stretches of time that are mine in which to write. I believe myself to be a writer — I make much of my income from writing — but writing is also something that is just for me. My children gradually peel away from me — arms that once clung around my neck now reach out into the world, clutching at newness. They are in the process of stepping off, moving on, growing up, and I am left feeling oddly queasy and unsteady. As I look for who to be in the approaching hush, I find myself on the page.
In my days, and in my thoughts, mothering and writing are entwined. I protect fiercely the hours that I spend at my desk — hours so easily eroded by coffee dates, medical appointments or grocery shops — but in my head, even when I am hunting for lost school shoes or hanging rugby kit on the washing line, I am still writing. ‘A writer’ (as Shirley Jackson puts it in her brilliant essay Memory and Delusion )‘is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words’. She (a mother of four) described how she told herself stories whilst making beds and doing dishes — stories about missing socks, kitchen appliances, and ‘a whopper of a story about the laundry basket’.
When I started out — both as a writer, and as a mother — the concept of a ‘mother-writer’ was unfamiliar to me. Perhaps it didn’t exist. But for me, writing and mothering were always tangled tightly together, two of the central threads that make me who I am. Sensing a shift, I have begun to gradually tease out the writer thread, gently pulling it free. For years, I have been writing around the edges of motherhood, but on the horizon I see approaching a day when I may find myself mothering around the edges of my writing.
Thank you for reading,
PS: Rebecca Schiller’s wonderful community Mothers Who Write is the group of mother-writers that I describe — I am a devotee of their thrice-weekly writing hours, held via Zoom. The silent presence of other writers spurs me on and (by some strange alchemy) it improves my writing.
PPS: This essay was perhaps the first piece I read on the concept of the mother-writer, I also recall this one. Books about writing and motherhood that have resonated with me include this essay collection edited by Katherine May and My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud . I’m also keen to read this book of essays by Marianne Levy, this upcoming book by Lucy Jones, Milk by Joanna Wolfarth and Holding the Baby by Nell Frizzell
This was so beautiful and is the first time I've ever heard the term "mother-writer" but it makes all the sense in the world. I'm currently writing this comment during nap time, and I have two hours ahead of me of uninterrupted time to write until the mothering begins for the rest of the day. When you spoke about your kids growing up it gave me a pit in my stomach, knowing that my own will quickly grow right before my very eyes. What a sacred time mothering is. Thank you for sharing this.
Beautifully written. 'Gently teasing out the writer thread' , a lovely image. My 2 boys left home 20 years ago. It is a slight wobble of the boat, but, with your writing habit embedded, I feel you'll float on the bobbing waves. Thank you for your words.