How to Write After Giving Birth

By Anne Liu Kellor

Categories: Alum Experiences, General, Writing Tips,

You fear that once you have your baby it will be hard to write. You have been spoiled for so long with so many uninterrupted hours. How will you adapt to working in snippets, a half hour here, hour there? You know that this is how other mothers do it, how they manage to hang on to their identities as writers, manage to get anything done. That said, you are prepared to give up writing altogether for a while. You are trying to lower your expectations so that you will not be disappointed. You are trying to be realistic.

Before giving birth, you are gifted with three blessed weeks at Hedgebrook. You know that this is your last chance to make great strides in your work before life with baby takes over. You know that life with baby will take over. But in the meantime, you have this last opportunity to just write, without even having to check email or cook. You worry, briefly, that you will be too pregnant to want to be away from home, too pregnant to climb the stairs to the loft, too pregnant to care about writing. But instead you are more productive than you have been in years. You write all day, take walks on the beach, join others in the farmhouse for dinner. At night, you steal away from their comradery and laughter, back to your cottage to work. This is what you are here for, no need to justify or explain.

The baby comes on time, but it is a long and difficult labor. You want a home birth but you get a cesarean. You need time to heal and come out of your medicated haze. Your baby is healthy, but gassy and fussy. He sleeps best on your chest where you wrap him in tight. Soon you discover that you can type at your desk, leaning back in the chair while your baby is strapped in. You begin to write again, spewing out anything, everything. So much has happened, so much has changed. You have never felt so raw and vital. You have never felt so tired.

Weeks, then months pass. You keep writing in short bursts whenever you can—a journal entry sitting in the sun on the porch, a blog entry spat out in an hour. You no longer have time to worry about being perfect; you are thrilled just to be writing at all. You want to capture this blur of days and nights before they are gone from your memory. It is hard to focus on anything that is not in the present. It is hard to speak in complete sentences. But you have nothing to prove, no classes to teach, nothing to worry about except your baby. Your job is to be this baby’s mother, this baby’s food, this baby’s transition from womb to world. Nothing is more important.

Months four through six, you fly solo day and night; Monday through Friday, your husband works on the road. Weekend mornings, you either sleep in or  go to the café and write. The first time you do this it feels scandalous. Your breasts are full and soon will leak, but from the outside, you are just another woman, writing, alone. You can’t believe how long it took you to start claiming this time. But you still keep your phone on the table just in case, making sure the ringer is on. As the time approaches when you said you’d be home, you start packing your things, already gone. By the time you are home you are practically running, ready to swoop that baby into your arms where he belongs.

As your baby grows older, his sleep gets worse—not better, like most people say will happen. Your baby has gas, food allergies, issues. He wakes every hour or two, screaming and needing to be bounced, nursed, soothed. His cheeks turn bright red and grow scabby and infected. You go on an elimination diet to figure out what you are eating that ails him. Eventually, you start holding him again for his naps. Even though “they” say you should stop doing this at his age, you know that this is the only way that he will sleep for longer periods, and sleep is so important. Quickly you come to cherish this time when you are forced to just sit there, with a cup of tea and your journal, a book, the phone, and a glass of water at your side. An hour and twenty minutes to indulge in sweet musing. To write lists, devour novels, jot down thoughts as they arise.

Around eight months, for the first time you have a real deadline. You must present the project you have (not) been working on for a grant. This is the same project you worked on at Hedgebrook, the project you have not touched since. This is “serious” work, work that requires editing, words that require lyricism, work that requires time and space and distance. You book a venue, make a flyer, create an event. You decide on three sections to excerpt (rewrite) and read, then send them to your long-distance writing group, which thank god still exists. They remind you (as they always do) that there is more work to be done. You are thrilled to be involved in the close editing process again, excited to put yourself in the public eye, but also scared. It’s been so long, and you’ve grown so comfortable in your singular role as mother, not needing to answer to any other part of yourself.

As the deadline approaches, you start working again at night. Soon you discover that this fires you up, and that you can’t go to sleep afterwards. You need down time to just sit there with a glass of wine and a book or the TV, time to decompress. If you try to skip this, you might lie in bed awake for hours. It drives you crazy that you are so tired, yet you can’t fall asleep. You cry when you know that your baby is going to wake soon, perhaps right after you finally start to drift. You realize that it is worse when you try to circumvent the cycle, so instead you try to embrace it. Negotiate. Tell yourself you don’t mind being up alone a few more hours, that you’ll try to fully enjoy this time if in turn you could please, please, be asleep by one o’clock. Okay, three o’clock. Just give me a few hours sleep, please. You try hot showers, chamomile tea, toast, more wine, pot, yoga, Calms Forte, music, meditation, the Twilight series, Facebook. And then, there are the mornings where you just say fuck it and make a new cup of tea. Caffeinated. In the back of your mind you start to suspect that your deadline is causing your insomnia. You start to remember how tightly wound you can become, how much you both love and hate to be on stage. When the event is finally over, you are relieved to just be a mother again.

At ten, then twelve months, your baby still is not a good sleeper, still wakes every two or three hours through the night. Sleep deprivation is the new normal, and although you don’t feel mentally deficient, you realize that you are indeed when you step outside your home and open your mouth to talk to another. You start to fear that you will not be able to return to your larger projects, much less teaching, in a long time. First you need more time to yourself. You long for consistency, the promise of a schedule, important dates with the page that can and will not be broken. It’s an old story: you long for other people to understand how important it is that you write. You used to demand whole days, or at least chunks, to feel like you could fully dive into your work. Now, three hours just to write (no errands, no dishes, no phone calls) feels divine, yet somehow is still so elusive. You ask your mother and husband for more help. You are constantly negotiating for more time.

And yet– you have also learned that you can take advantage of an hour if that’s all you have. Out of necessity, you have learned how to shorten the procrastination process, turn on the computer, open a document, bypass the freehand, get straight to the work. Your desire to write is strong, perhaps stronger than ever. Motherhood has given you so much to reflect on; motherhood is allowing you to appreciate time. You must work harder now than ever at asking for what you need. You must declare your work as important– even if, especially if, it does not bring in money. It was important before, and it is essential now. It’s what keeps you happy, curious, animated, alive.

Of course, your baby does this too– times a thousand– this is a given.  But you still need this other part of you, your other baby, your work born of your solitude that you want more than anything to dive into, then resurface, and hold forth for another.

3 Comments

  • Louise McKay
    6:26 PM - 16 September, 2011

    My guy is 7 and 1/2 months right now, and it’s great to read this… it is so hard to find the right balance between work and baby and “you” time. We all cobble our lives together in different ways and I think there are truly not enough hours in the day to achieve the “right” balance at this point, but we shift and adapt and compromise and then the baby changes and we shift again.

  • H.
    8:36 PM - 16 September, 2011

    Truly great article. I am reminded that having loads of time to write is a privilege. Thank you for sharing your heart and Soul in words.

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