Zoë: Breaking the Silence
Many of you will resonate with this moving portrait from guest blogger Zoë Purdy, a freelance writer and editor. Zoë lives with her husband and three children in Toronto, Canada.
“I’ve been thinking, and I don’t want to be a mother when I grow up,” Sofie announced gravely one day when she was about three years old. “Oh, yeah?” I answered. “Well, you get to decide, of course, but you don’t have to make up your mind until you’re an adult.” She nodded, the relief evident on her face. Sofie is my middle child, cheerful and smart, stubborn and quirky.
“Babies are cute and stuff,” she went on, “but if I have one of my own then I’ll have to take care of it.” “True enough,” I agreed. “And you don’t think you’d enjoy taking care of a baby?” Sofie has always been gentle and empathetic, and of my three children I think of her as the most nurturing. She is the one who wants to bring every ailing insect and earthworm home to be nursed back to health. When our youngest was a baby, Sofie eagerly suggested ways to soothe her when she cried: nursing, cuddling, feeding her an ice-cream sundae, covering her in stickers. It surprised me to hear that she didn’t find the idea of motherhood attractive. “It’s just that there are so many other things that I want to do and if I’m a mother, I won’t get to do them,” she explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
I protested, of course, forcing myself to sound enthusiastic despite the ache I felt gathering in my chest. I told her that being a mother is only one part of who I am, albeit a very important part. There was absolutely no reason why she couldn’t do all those incredible things she imagined and have a baby. I believed what I was saying, but I know that it fell flat. This is why: as a parent, how I engage with life and who I am fundamentally as a person have far more impact on my children than anything I actively try to teach them.
Over the next days and weeks I returned to that conversation again and again. Something bothered me and it wasn’t that my daughter’s vision of her adult life didn’t include children. If she ultimately decides that parenthood isn’t for her, I won’t object. No, what really bothered me was this: my daughter found my life unappealing and I really couldn’t fault her for it. I had let myself be swallowed whole by motherhood and I had barely noticed. When had I given up on doing gratifying and important work myself? When had I decided that it was enough to raise other people who might grow up to do interesting things, to make their own valuable contributions to the world?
Three-year-olds are fickle creatures. You could ask Sofie what she wants to do when she grows up and get a different answer every day of the week. I’m sure that I too entertained a variety of career fantasies as a child, but one thing has remained constant throughout my life: my love of the written word. I have been devoted to writing and books for as long as I can remember.
My mother tells me that I dictated stories to her before I could read and write. Later I took to carrying around a small notebook just like one of my favourite storybook heroines, Harriet the Spy. As we rode the bus I would jot down notes about the other passengers and then spin off into wild speculations about their lives. At school I was known as a daydreamer — I was always busy putting together stories in my head, making up characters and sticking them into different scenarios to see what would happen.
I was a shy child who was constantly told to speak up at school. Whenever a teacher read my writing for the first time, they always remarked with surprise that my voice was so strong and clear. In writing, I was able to try out other lives, to get out of my own head and inhabit someone else’s. It’s not that I was unhappy with my particular circumstances or with who I was; I simply wasn’t content to experience everything through only one set of eyes when books and my imagination gave me the ability to live and to feel so much more broadly and deeply.
I felt a kinship with the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Matilda. I almost cried in recognition when I read these lines: “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”
As I got older, I never gave any thought to whether I could make my living as a writer. I always assumed that I would find a different way to support myself, but I never doubted that I would continue to write. It was a part of who I am, as basic and incontrovertible as the colour of my eyes.
When I graduated from university with a degree in English literature, I had no firm plan for what would come next. My boyfriend Erik was working on his PhD in chemical engineering at the time, and he spent his days in the lab developing a novel method of aerosol sampling. We joked that our relationship represented the meeting of Arts and Science. While there are plenty of good things to be said about a liberal arts program, it doesn’t prepare you for any specific occupation. Engineering majors become engineers, while English majors become… Englishologists? Baristas? My fellow graduates were all heading off to teacher’s college and law school in droves, but I hadn’t applied to either. I already had a full-time job at a bookstore. While I didn’t envision myself in retail forever, selling books certainly beat selling coffee. I decided to take a year to work and figure out what to do next.
I cast a wide net, sending out resumes and applications to anything that looked remotely appealing. I was particularly interested in a Master of Fine Arts in writing and literature. Spending a couple of years in an MFA program doing nothing but writing and reading was incredibly appealing. Even better, for the first time in my life I would be in the company of other people who thought that these activities were not only legitimate but also important. It was a way to put off adult life and its responsibilities a while longer. There was scholarship money available, and undergraduate teaching or editorial internships could offset the costs further while providing work experience. It wasn’t entirely impractical. I put together my portfolio, rustled up some reference letters, and summoned the courage to send in my applications.
The acceptance letter came that spring, the day after I found out that I was pregnant. Erik and I had agreed that we wanted children, but in that vague way you talk about things that are too far away to feel real. This, however, was real. When the shock wore off, we welcomed the idea of a baby. The timing wasn’t perfect: we weren’t married, we had no money, and Erik was still a student himself. The MFA would have necessitated moving across the country — so for now, school and motherhood were mutually exclusive. I turned down the offer. I told myself that I was postponing it rather than giving up on the idea entirely, but then, as if on cue, I stopped writing. As my belly grew, I imagined my creativity being channeled into the new life within it.
That autumn just after the new school year started, I gave birth to our son. Max entered the world in dramatic fashion, an accidental homebirth. Erik remembered only one thing from our prenatal class and it turned out to be highly relevant: newborns are extremely slippery, and you must keep a firm grasp on them if you don’t want to drop them onto the floor. So on that sunny fall afternoon we went from being two individuals to being a family of three. The world turned upside down.
The early months of Max’s life passed in a milky, sleepless haze. Every day of that cold first winter I would bundle Max into his carrier and go for long walks through the city. We would stop at cafes where, for the price of a cup of coffee, I could spend a quiet hour or more. While the baby nursed and napped in my lap, I read novels or scribbled in a journal. I wrote about the details of my day. I jotted down grocery lists. I watched people come and go and made my private observations. But I couldn’t get into the right headspace to write fiction, and I missed it terribly.
By the time my maternity leave ended, Erik had graduated and was working. His salary more than replaced what I had earned as a bookstore manager so my decision not to return to work was a relatively easy one. I became a stay-at-home mom. In short order I was pregnant again, and Sofie was born just after Max’s second birthday. Two years after that, we welcomed our third child, Lucy, to the family.
I have never been a fast or prolific writer, but I had always written fairly steadily. The extended silence I entered into during my first pregnancy didn’t feel like writer’s block; it was as if the creative impulse had just been turned off. That narrative voice that had run through my head from the early days of my childhood had gone quiet. The rare time that I tried to revive an old project or start a new one, I felt hopelessly distracted and divided. The journals I kept during those first intense years of my children’s lives are a catalogue of fears and frustrations.
I love my children like crazy, and yet I found (and still find) much of the day-to-day work of parenting exhausting, boring, and thankless. The other women I met at the park or ran into at the library never gave voice to these feelings and so I assumed that I was alone, that I was uniquely unsuited to the life of a stay-at-home mother. “It’s the hardest job in the world, but also the most rewarding,” these mothers intoned again and again, and I bristled every time I heard it. Mothering is without a doubt both hard and rewarding, but there was something buried in the sentiment that bothered me. The work of parenthood is largely unvalued in society and yet is also romanticized. Whenever I told someone that I was home raising small children, I could expect to hear a variation on the theme: Wow, that must keep you busy — hardest job in the world! It was sincere and well intended, but it felt placating, almost patronizing.
I knew that there were many other parents who desperately wanted to be able to stay home with their children but couldn’t. I felt lucky to have had the option, yet when I compared the cost of day care (times three) to what I could earn in the workforce it didn’t feel like I really had a choice at all — I would have brought home next to nothing at the end of the month.
Shortly after our second child was born an offer of freelance work fell into my lap. A colleague from my days at the bookstore was looking for someone to edit a book review magazine and called to ask if I was interested. Boxes filled with publisher’s catalogues and books for review soon began arriving on my doorstep. I read throughout the day and wrote the reviews at night. In the morning, I snuck out of bed hoping for a quiet hour to spend with contributors’ work before the children woke. When I factored in all of my reading and writing time, I was making pennies an hour. But I could do the work from home and make my own hours, which meant that we didn’t need anyone else to help with child care.
One day I opened a box and found a book called Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood sitting on top of the pile. It is a collection of personal essays from a diverse group of mothers, some established writers and others who were just starting out. All these books sent out into the world like ships on the sea, indeed. Finding a community of mothers who will speak (or write) frankly about their experiences is so incredibly helpful. I hope that every new mother will discover her own version of this community. Whether at the local playground or online, they share a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
I want to say that I had some sort of epiphany and got my voice back, but that wasn’t exactly how it happened. It is an ongoing struggle, a daily negotiation. Of course, creative practice and mothering are not the only things I am trying to balance. There was our son’s autism diagnosis when he was a toddler, my own diagnosis with an autoimmune disease during my third pregnancy. Our family of five has long since outgrown our little city apartment, but we’ve made the decision to live on one income for now so it’ll have to do. There are always meals to cook, bills to pay, messes to clean up. There are the important decisions and the endless smaller ones: all that maintenance involved in living a life.
But here’s the thing: if you really want to do something, at some point you’ve got to stop complaining that the conditions aren’t right and just get on with it. If not now, when? My youngest child, Lucy, is two and steadily gaining her independence, walking, talking, giving up diapers, and finally (finally!) sleeping more than a couple of hours at a stretch. The answers to the questions I repeated so often in my journal are slowly becoming clear. Will I ever come back to myself? Will I ever have the time and space to write seriously? The answer to both is yes.
I know how immensely privileged I am to live in a time and place where it is even possible for me to just get on with it. Women did not write the novels, plays, and poetry that make up the literary canon I studied in school. The odd exception to that rule — Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot — were women who remained unmarried and childless. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries this has changed dramatically, at least in the literature coming out of the developed world. Globally, the contributions of all women, and specifically of mothers, are largely still missing. There are the writers who are actively silenced by their governments, and then there are all those who never come to writing at all due to poverty, illiteracy, and a variety of systemic barriers. Even here in Canada and the United States there are many mothers who have a far more difficult time finding the time and space for creative practice than most of us reading this will. If you are parenting alone, if you work long hours just to scrape by, if you and your children don’t have a safe place to live, then maybe creating art just isn’t going to make it onto the list of priorities anytime soon.
As for Sofie, who is now five, if you ask her what she wants to do when she grows up, being a mother and writing books may or may not appear on the list. I know that my version of a good life may not look exactly like hers, or anyone else’s for that matter. I don’t need, or even want, to show my children that it’s possible to “have it all.” What I really want them to learn is that if something isn’t working, it is possible to make changes. I’m getting there. I’m muddling my way through it, and I have my children in tow.