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Brittany: Fly Anyway

There’s something about that line that speaks to me.

Lately, I’ve found myself having a near-obsession with birds. Not real birds, but folk art birds. The kind in profile, that are painted and embellished, and look as unlike real birds as it is possible to get. During my latest trip to Asheville, my grandmother insisted that I go through all my great-grandmothers old craft books. And in them I found pattern after pattern for these birds. Bird statues, bird mobiles, bird appliques, bird sculptures, paper birds, cloth birds, clay birds, wood birds… It was like some kind of sign, because I had previously spent hours scouring the internet for folksy bird patterns and came up empty handed.

I don’t know why I’m so drawn to the birds, except that they’re colorful and friendly, a little quirky, and make me feel happy. People who know me well know that I’m a deeply grounded sort of individual. I dislike flying — literally and figuratively. If you had to describe me in zoomorphic terms, I wouldn’t be a bird. And maybe that’s where the attraction lies.

I read an interesting interview today about Lady Gaga’s new tattoo. What, I’m sure you’re thinking, does that have anything to do with the conversation topic? Bear with me.

First of all, I like Lady Gaga’s music. It’s catchy, fun, better than some other options on the radio. But Lady Gaga herself? I hadn’t given her much thought, to be perfectly honest. But according to the article I read, this is what she recently had tattooed down her arm: “In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” It’s a quote by Rainer Marie Rilke. I’ll admit I was a little impressed. I don’t really have a thing for tattoos (although I could probably be persuaded to ink a 1940s pinup to my bicep as a conversation piece), but as a writer, I can’t think of anything more appropriate to permanently etch on myself. And then she added something else in this interview that I can’t quite get out of my head. The article said “Rilke’s ‘philosophy of solitude’ spoke to her. The New York native called solitude ‘something you marry, as an artist. When you are an artist, your solitude is a lonely place that you embrace.'”

We talk here a lot about the demands on us as mothers, about how we’re pressed for time and space and energy to write. But one thing we don’t talk about is the inherent loneliness that comes with our chosen occupation. Recently, on my personal blog, I wrote about how being creative and near-mental illness go hand in hand. Part of that is likely due to the fact that creative people have deep, complex inner lives. As such,we’re driven by the compulsion to write (or create) that Rilke speaks of, and soon live mostly in our creative mind. Add to this the loneliness that is inherent to motherhood and you really do have to learn to embrace the solitude or you lose yourself in it.

Which brings me back to the birds…

I said it once before, but it bears repeating. Creative mothers are like caged birds. Our children have clipped our wings, our families, and the sheer domesticity of our mothering lives have become our cages, as have our responsibilities, and financial obligations. We can’t escape from any of it, but then again, maybe we don’t want to. Motherhood was a conscious choice we made. As was following the creative path. And yet we all yearn to fly around. See the world. Live in it a bit.

But ironically enough, life isn’t so free and easy for birds either.

They spend an inordinate amount of time caring for their young. According to a birding website at Cornell University, “Sitting on a nest may look easy, but it involves more trade-offs than meet the eye. When birds sit on eggs, they are not simply relaxing. They are regulating the temperature of the clutch… Although most people think of incubation as a warming process, birds may need to cool their eggs by shading or moistening them in hot environments. For example, one pair of Black-necked Stilts at southern California’s Salton Sea made 155 trips in one day to soak their belly feathers in water to cool their eggs.” It went on to say that, “Incubation requires a balance between sitting on the eggs to maintain their temperature and leaving the nest to refuel by foraging. Incubation thus involves a series of trade-offs: a female gains energy by leaving the nest to forage, but she must expend energy to rewarm or cool the clutch after returning.”

Isn’t that an apt metaphor for the life of a creative mother? And what bird, or mother, has the time to carve out time for relationships with all that traveling back and forth? Sitting on her nest, creating life, is not different than one of us being holed up alone in her studio/office/corner of the sofa working on her latest project. I look at birds differently now. Sure they like to hang out in flocks and travel the world, but when parenthood enters the equation, they are as tied down, lonely, and exhausted as any of us.

I think back to Cathy’s most recent post, where she described the temporary nature of parenthood. And I think of the yearly cycle of nest building, baby hatching, and nest leaving I witness each year in my own backyard. My boys are bigger now than they were yesterday. Soon they will fly away from me. Soon I will have plenty of time for free-flying and writing. But I will not want it. I will want my boys back.

Maybe I am more like a bird than I thought I was. And maybe I should look to the bird as a symbol for the course my life will take. Right now is my time to hatch my clutch, but soon I’ll have to fly anyway.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. brittany, what an amazing synthesis of all of our recent ideas and what you have going on in your life, too, with your boys in their first real stages of independence.

    you hit on a few points strongly for me when you spoke of the essential loneliness of both mothering and of the creative life; the equation of motherhood to the nesting bird, which looks easy, but is more exhausting than probably anything; and when you said you will not want your boys to fly away, you will want them back. i think that is a large part of the reason why i took one last chance at it ten years after my first two.

    the bit from rilke is so essential to the dichotomy i feel every day, as the scales of balance tip from mother to writer all day long. for instance, right now i am contemplating the above, while c is clinging and crying, and s is screaming for me to come and negotiate a treaty between him and k from the garage where they are playing who knows what. as much as i want to be left to my own devices to create, or even to have a dialogue about it, i also want to be available for the needs of my children. therein lies the crux.

    and i believe the reason miranda started this site.

    August 13, 2009
  2. amy #

    I keep thinking of my chickens who are just now laying eggs and one of the older ones sits on them sometimes. She is called broody when she does this as she thinks they are babies and she has to take care of them. Then I go out and grab them out from under her and eat them! I am sure there is a weird metaphor there. 🙂
    This is a great post and comforting to me. I think part of what I am missing I find in some of the creative mother’s words here. I don’t know women who are mothers and stay home trying to balance the children and home and art all at once. It sounds impossible but I don’t think it is.

    August 13, 2009
  3. I’ve read through this a couple times and even wanted to sleep on it before I commented. The two clips below are what brought about my hesitation.

    “We talk here a lot about the demands on us as mothers, about how we’re pressed for time and space and energy to write. But one thing we don’t talk about is the inherent loneliness that comes with our chosen occupation.”

    “Creative mothers are like caged birds. Our children have clipped our wings, our families, and the sheer domesticity of our mothering lives have become our cages, as have our responsibilities, and financial obligations.”

    Most things we talk about here I can at least find a grain of relation to me in them, but these two things I honestly couldn’t. I’ve been thinking about why that is and could think of two main things. First maybe because “writing” as you guys do is not my thing. I know I’m a good writer, but I don’t consider myself a “writer” in the sense that many of you are. I have no desire to write a book, play, novel, short story, etc. Is that why I’ve never felt that “inherent loneliness” you mention, Brittany? Not sure. I definitely have the demands on motherhood, and then some, working a full-time job outside the home while being a mother and a creative woman. And maybe that’s why I don’t experience that loneliness…that connection to the outside world…yet, I envy you that have the luxury of being able to stay at home with your children (yes, go ahead and shoot me, but I do see it as a luxury because I simply cannot financially afford to swing it..wish I could.)

    The second clip I referenced above deals with that “cage”. While I just referenced the “financial obligations” part, the rest just doesn’t sit with me. I don’t feel caged in the least bit. Rather I feel blessed. We did make the choice to become mothers. And I don’t think any of us would change that for anything in this world. I went through 8 years of very expensive and emotionally draining infertility treatments to have my girls. i don’t know, i think that maybe because i’m not a “writer”, i’m definitely not as cerebral as you guys are. i see things as they are and take it as it comes. i have dreams, like we all do, and one day i’ll get there, but i can’t remember the last time i felt lonely and, far from feeling caged, i think my children have freed me to experience a new and better world…one that i couldn’t have imagined before they came along.

    i love your very last paragraph, brittany, and i think that’s the best way to look at this experience. for me, motherhood has not compartmentalized my life. it is not this phase that too shall pass in time. it’s a lifelong dream, and i plan to relish every second of it in whatever form it takes…good, bad, happy tears, sad tears, sheer frustration, whatever. it’s all part of the journey.

    August 17, 2009
  4. kelly, you are onto something about the writer/aloneness connection, but while i used to feel very lonely about it, now, i just enjoy the aloneness. if that makes any sense…and i think brittany does, too when she can be alone to write.

    in your usual creative work, i’m sure you can get a groove on, in the jewelry making or playing around in photoshop, etc, sometimes with your girls around and sometimes alone. writing doesn’t really work that way. it’s important to have plenty of alone time for the thought to break through to the deeper writing. it’s not really a hands busy kind of art where your mind can then wander. although when i used to do a lot of ceramics, i found that in keeping my hands occupied, i could wander in thought which enhanced my writing efforts. but this was all prekids, pre-continuous interruptions.

    as for the balance of work/kids/creativity, i admire your energy to do it all the way that you do, but i must disagree on the being home with the kids being a luxury. i do very much appreciate that i am home with my kids for the time being, but it has always been for me a can i work now or can i be home now? weaving of the two. i’ve never made enough of a living wage to pay considerable day care expense when i have worked out of the home, or when i did, my special needs son was unable to stay at any daycare facility for more than a few weeks without considerable effect on my job before he was school-aged. and when i last did make a living wage at only one job, i moved to a different state, where i have been offered less than half of the previous state’s earnings for the same work, which is intensive, and for the same dollar i could work at walmart and have less meaning in my work, but a lot less aggravation, too, and frustration that they will not pay me what i am worth. this also brings up how little special education is valued in this state, which is another headache altogether that i feel from both ends: as a parent dealing with getting her child’s needs met and as a professional who can’t support her family enough because what she does is not considered valuable to the state’s education dept.

    on the flip side, there is much to be said for interacting on an adult level day in and day out and how that affects creativity. i’m starting to get that a bit more even at home, with k turning into a young man…adult connections and conversations outside of the home make an enormous difference for the interplay of my own thoughts in my head and the ability to make the interseting connections that make me want to write.

    i think also, when it came to my post about the transitory nature of child development, i got wistful about it, but i really think i was saying what you said at the end of the above comment, that it’s all the journey, for your kids and for yourself.

    I also am very much thinking about how brittany is home with two little guys barely preschool-aged, and what that does as mind numb-er and can totally feel her going through the day in and day out of the physical, emotional pull between the boys and the boys on her and how incredibly taxing and underappreciated and lonely that feels. there is a huge difference in mothering under-school-aged kids and school-aged kids. the language level alone…

    i could go on, but while i do really appreciate that i am at the moment able to be home with my toddler, and the boys while their home during the summer, i would really like to be able to contribute to the family income as well as have a life outside of my kids, where people look at me and see someone besides ‘a mother’ as there is so much more to me of value than that. not that i am in anyway disparaging those who do do consciously decide to be home with their kids.

    I would alos like to be able to get the sundry things fixed on my van without having to beg the funds off my husband or cut too much into the family budget so that we can have two roadworthy vehicles.

    August 17, 2009
  5. i think this is the one area where work outside-the-home moms and stay-at-home moms have to simply agree to disagree. it is the age-old discussion and difference of opinion. i know i’m pretty much the odd man out here as the one regular contributor (as far as i can tell anyways) that works full-time outside the home…not in her creative business. i’m not saying that stay-at-home moms have it easy…that’s not the type of luxury i was referring to. i can only imagine how difficult it can be. however, the one luxury that stay-at-moms have that working moms don’t is time. it may not be the time you’d like to have, but it’s time with your children, stressful or otherwise. i drop my girls off at school at 8am and don’t see them again until 6pm monday-friday, year ’round. i miss all those little things that maybe you guys take for granted…the rushing to catch up with the train because the little guys like trains, the digging up vegetables in the garden and baby c grabbing them and running away with them. that kinda stuff. i’m sure it’s a huge juggle at home as well. but at least you have those moments where you can stare across the room and see that sweet little face and feel the wonderment that it’s brought to your life. and not just on weekends when you’re trying to catch up on mountains of laundry and grocery shopping and chores that you couldn’t do earlier in the week because you were at work all day.
    no, i fully understand that stay-at-home moms aren’t sitting around eating bonbons all day. i know it’s work. but i’d trade you in a heartbeat.

    August 18, 2009
  6. I appreciate your saying that, kelly. either ‘choice’ is a hard one that entails giving up a lot that is of value for every woman. throw creative work in there and well, that’s why we’re here to discuss it all, good and bad, ups and downs. how many balls can we juggle?

    again i beg the question why this doesn’t seem to come up for men in the ways that it does for women?

    August 18, 2009
  7. I’ve been in Asheville since Sunday morning and have missed a really interesting conversation here.

    Kelly wrote:

    I have no desire to write a book, play, novel, short story, etc. Is that why I’ve never felt that “inherent loneliness” you mention, Brittany?

    Possibly, but only because writing is a lonely lifestyle.

    For example: You make jewelry. You interface with the people who make your supplies, right? (I seem to recall you saying someone else makes your glass beads. Do I remember correctly?) And then, as you make your jewelry, your girls join you with their own projects, and you become the hub of your house. When your jewelry is finished, you take it to sell at craft shows, or sell it on the internet, and get immediate feedback from others as to whether it’s good or not in the form of sales. You can win people over with your bubbly personality and get to see their eyes light up as they spot something you made that they really love.

    Writing is different. Aside from an exchange of pleasantries with the guy who rang up my laptop, I don’t really have reason to talk to anyone about my future writing projects. And then, I have to carve out time when I am not needed as a mother to write in complete solitude so, like Cathy said, the words will bubble up. Constant interruption and noise is the kiss of death for a writer’s concentration. Instead of being in the center of the activity in the house, I try to remove myself from it as much as possible. Then, if I’m working on a novel, I spend years working on the same piece of writing. None of my friends wants to hear me talk about the same thing year after year after year, so I’ve learned to just keep it all to yourself. When you belong to a critique group, you’re giving your work up to a group of people to hear their criticisms. Critique group meetings with other writers can be heartwrenching affairs because we all have a lot of time and ego invested in our writing, and even the smallest criticism hurts when you’ve poured your heart and soul into it. Then, when it’s finished, you send it out into the world, and never see a person’s reaction to your writing. If you’re a typical writer, you face impersonal rejection after rejection. If you are published by some miracle, you never get the opportunity to watch someone’s reaction to your work. More written feedback, if you get anything at all.

    And as for feeling caged, when you’re already a lonely person (and I was born lonely–no siblings, no cousins, no father, you get the drift) and are misunderstood as a child for being cerebral and talking like an encyclopedia, and then get no attention for anything in HS except for your writing abilities from a select group of English teachers, and then go to college and study language, which requires hours upon hours of time spent reading or writing about your reading, and honing your craft, again in silence, and then you graduate and work a typical English Major-y job, at a desk, working in silence, and spend your free time doing more writing in silence, and then stay home with your children and realize you have no friends to do anything with after all these years of working in silence, you fully realize what a lonely life you’ve choosen for yourself. And how nearly impossible it is to break free. I’m who I am. And outside of my home and family, I don’t have a truly close relationship with anyone.

    Part of me likes it like that because I really feel uncomfortable socializing when I can’t hide behind my written communication comfort zone. But then there are people like you, Kelly, who are happy, who have rich full lives with a huge cast of friends, and the type of life I can only write about, that makes me question what’s wrong with me.

    August 19, 2009
  8. brittany, nothing is wrong with you. what you are pointing out as a difference of personality between you and kelly is not a matter of defect.

    i can point to circumstances that shaped me into the lone writer’s life, too, but ultimately, it is who we are at the core that presents itself in our creative endeavors. i like quiet, i like to be loud and sociable, too. i know you love to dance your arse off as much as i do, brittany, so not all of you is the life in solitude.

    it may be what feeds you the most and what is what is hardest to come by right now being home with little ones and all their needs, which you elaborated above. there is certainly nothing wrong with you!

    August 19, 2009
  9. whoa! i second what cathy said. there is absolutely nothing wrong with you, brittany! when were you here, you seemed to me like a perfectly pleasant, interesting, fun person to be around. as different as you think we may be, i think we hit it off quite well! 🙂

    having twins, i know first hand that we all come out wired a specific way. my girls are the ideal study in the whole nature vs nuture debate….they came out of the same womb 4 minutes apart, have lived in the same room in the same house with the same parents, have gone to the same daycare/preschool/school in the same class with the same teachers…and yet are incredibly different in personality. those personalities we are born with do shape us. hell, i remember reading on my fourth grade report card that “Kelly is a very social child. She needs to learn to concentrate better.” Telling, huh?

    Brittany, you mention that you see me as happy with a full rich life with a huge cast of friends….that’s because that’s the part of my life i choose to share. it’s my choice to always put my best face forward and choose to be happy. sure, i have incredibly bad days, but rarely do i share them publicly. those are my own demons to battle. no one’s life is all wine and roses. my parents have six marriages between them, and my own mother committed suicide, for pete’s sake. imagine what that does to a daughter’s sense of self. we all have our crosses to bear. and i think it’s all those different experiences and different ways of looking at the world that makes the world so interesting. all in all, while some people can be surrounded with friends and rolling in the dough (though as someone working in education and married to a construction worker, i’m certainly not one of them) that doesn’t make them happy. happiness is a choice.

    I went through a very dark period after I lost my mom and then miscarried my first set of twins two days later. but ultimately, i realized that i’m the only person responsible for my happiness. though maybe we can’t stumble upon a pot of gold at the end of a little rainbow, we can still choose the life we imagine for ourselves. i believe it’s all in your attitude and how you play the cards you’re dealt.

    have you looked into playgroups in your area? i’m sure there are other stay-at-home moms that feel just as isolated and lonely as you do. have you thought about ways to reach out to them? i know you mentioned you are uncomfortable socializing, but maybe just taking the first step and reaching out to someone else could be a start. you’re a great writer. maybe you could start another blog for mom’s there in your area to come together and share stories, trials and tribulations. leave flyers about it in places moms frequent to get the word out. you have talents to share….all your doll making and the other crafts that you’ve mentioned here. just like i have chosen to be happy, you have to choose to reach out if you don’t want to live a lonely lifestyle, writer or otherwise. i don’t think anyone ever truly WANTS to be lonely. but it does take someone to have the courage to step forward and reach out to others to bridge that loneliness gap. i think you have what it takes to be that person.

    August 20, 2009
  10. I’m just now getting caught up with this conversation — too interesting to pass up.

    I wonder if maternal age has anything to do with some of this stuff. There was a time in my life when I didn’t “have” to work outside the home — it was me, my three kids, hanging out with friends, going to playgroups, having last-minute dinners together when our husbands were working late — aside from an occasional part-time gig, my “job” was being a mother and taking care of my home. I wrote “for fun” when I had the time. I intended to “become” a writer but that desire wasn’t burning a hole in my heart (yet). I didn’t feel torn into a bunch of separate “parts.” My days were full, but not full of agony over too little time. (I should also add that those years of calm were well before the advent of the great sucking black hole known as the internet. Coincidence?)

    Later, I began to flex my professional muscles and developed a freelance career. Interfacing with other adults became important to me. Developing an identity as a capable professional was important to me. I had a lot of learning to do, and a lot to prove to myself.

    But now, I’ve done all that. I don’t have anything left to prove to myself. I know what I need to do, even though I don’t always know HOW to do it.

    Brittany, I too was an only child, raised by a single mother. I do think that I spent too much time alone as a kid, because my inner narration wasn’t always that supportive, if you know what I mean. But oddly, it was only recently (and this sounds funny coming from a woman with 5 kids) that I have an intense need for solitude. Those moments when I get cranky and short with the kids? It’s not so much that they are pushing my buttons, as it is that I need to have a half hour completely alone. (This is where running serves quite nicely.) But all through my 20s and 30s, I never consciously realized that I actually NEED time alone, regardless of what I’m doing during that time.

    I’d say that at this point my focus is more on “how can I get more time by myself” rather than “how can I connect more with friends/loved ones.” I could be at home all day with my kids — teenagers and little ones — and never for a moment feel lonely for adult company or mental stimulation. I think, for me, it’s “been there done that.” It’s in the bank, and I can draw on those reserves when I need them. Of course, I love spending time with my friends, but I can go without, for long periods of time, and not feel at a loss. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t experience the frustrations of motherhood being at home full time, because I do still struggle there, as we all do, but I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on anything so long as I was making time for creativity in a regular way (at night, early morning, naptime, whatever).

    Being with other people is an important part of defining who you are. Other people serve as a foil against which you figure out what resonates with you, and what doesn’t. I know that I have made conscious decisions about what kind of person I am or want to be — or don’t want to be — based on my interactions and friendships with others.

    I loathe to sound like the older, preachy school marm, but at just a few days away from turning 40, I think that there is a certain peace in knowing yourself that comes with the milestone — even though I always resented “older” women telling me that when I was in my 20s and 30s. I can’t imagine feeling lonely, just as I can’t imagine ever feeling bored. (What does it really feel like to be bored? I can’t even conceive of such a thing!)

    I do feel, as Kelly writes so beautifully, that we have a choice in EVERY MOMENT: at peace, or not at peace? We know that people have the capacity to overcome almost anything. In the crudest of terms, whatever happened to you yesterday can only affect your ability to be happy today IF YOU LET IT.

    Choose peace. Chose what pleases you. Breathe and follow that little trail of magic — you know how to find it.

    Don’t waste time worrying about what’s wrong with you. There isn’t anything wrong with you. Just embrace the moment, and let your SELF be the guide.

    September 6, 2009

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