Friday, May 27, 2011

Happiness is Not A Point of Negotiation

Your insomnia is a gift from your darkness calling, Wake up! Wake up! Let yourself feel what  is churning inside of you. –Anne Liu Kellor, Facebook status update, 5/19/11

You know when you’re going along thinking you’re fine, and then all of a sudden you realize you’re not? I’ve been experiencing this recently. The last blog post I wrote was all about patting myself on the back for finding balance, patience, acceptance and perspective in the midst of never having enough time to do the things I most want to do—and I meant all those things that I wrote as I wrote them. But then the very next day I found myself unable to sleep until 3 a.m., and the night after that I didn’t sleep AT ALL. What is going on? I asked myself. I didn’t feel stressed about anything in particular, I’d been getting plenty of exercise, I went to bed at my usual hour, so why couldn’t I go to sleep?

The last time I’d had a bout of insomnia was back in November during the weeks leading up to my 4Culture reading, during which I needed to find a venue, advertise, tailor excerpts from my project to read (which ended up being more or less like writing three new short essays), and force myself to work on this in any spare moment I could find. It was exciting to have a deadline again, to organize and host what would be my first solo reading, and to cast myself back into the identity of a writer, but it was also stressful. The writing I do for this blog is not stressful, because there are no deadlines except for the (loosely) self-imposed, and because I don’t worry so much about it being “perfect.” I know people read it, but I don’t have to see their reactions first-hand. So suffice it to say that when the reading was over I was relieved to go back to my relatively stress-free life (besides the daily demands of mothering)-- and I started sleeping fine again too.

What I’ve realized from this most recent round of insomnia is: I desperately need more time to write. The few hours a week I manage to get most weeks is not cutting it. I long to actually sit at my desk regularly again, and not have it littered with Cedar’s clothes and unpaid bills. And just writing for this blog is ultimately not enough. I’ve got whole books I’ve abandoned—one finished in search of a publisher, and one that is still in relative infancy—and I don’t know how much longer I can go without working on them.

What I’ve realized is: I’m not happy right now. I’ve tried hard to be accepting of this “break” from my former writing life due to the demands of motherhood, and I’ve been pleased with my ability to adapt to working in short bursts of time, but that doesn’t mean that there has not been some part of me who has been longing, pining—and now, desperately yearning—for more time. Time that allows for sinking into a more meditative space. Time that allows for re-reading old drafts so that I can remember the voice and story that I was working with. Time to stew, time to edit, time to research and submit. Time to actually feel like a writer again. Time to reassure myself that it will not take years of Cedar’s childhood to pass before I re-enter what I’ve long considered to be my life’s passion, practice, and vocation.

It is hard. My husband and I live on one income-- his. After we moved to Seattle and before I got pregnant, I was starting to find venues to teach through here, along with a few new writing mentees to work with one-on-one, as well as some volunteering gigs with writing and youth. I was hardly making any money, but I was making connections and building on the same writing and teaching path that I’ve been carving out slowly now for years. At the same time, I was trying to finish my Heart Radical manuscript. I knew that if I ever hoped to get a teaching position in a college, that I would need to have a book published.

My husband and I had many conversations about the choices I was making. I wanted him to understand how my commitment to writing was both my passion (i.e. I need to keep writing or I will shrivel and die) and related to more practical teaching and publishing goals (see, I’m not just a dreamer, I’ve thought this through). He supported my dreams; after all, he was a creative, artistic person himself. And yet, now that we were married and sharing expenses all the way and talking about having kids and no longer living the hippy lifestyle we once did in the cabin on the acreage in Olympia, he no longer seemed quite as supportive as before.

And why not? We were doing okay financially on one income, due to the fact that I’d inherited a house in Seattle with no mortgage. But mostly I think he was, understandably, envious of my lifestyle. What it came down to was a sense of equity, and his idea of me sitting at home reading and writing and dreaming all day, whereas he had to get up and go to a real job. He liked his job and it was intellectually challenging to him and helping him grow in many ways, but still, it was not akin to his passions, like fly-fishing or making music.

Of course, I saw this all a little differently since he wasn’t exactly planning to build a career based on fly-fishing, and since I have never considered writing to be just a hobby. True, I hadn’t yet made it big with publishing. And despite a successful two-year run of private classes I led in Olympia, I wasn’t exactly a stellar entrepreneur in the teaching department. But I was stubborn, damnit, and determined to keep writing and teaching writing. I would buy all my clothes at Value Village (which I do anyway), drive an ’88 station wagon, never eat out, forego all luxuries. I was good at living simply in the service of “working” less so that I could write more. I’d spent years at this practice.

We had some tense conversations, but ultimately, I convinced him that it was important for me to stay focused within this “career path” and not just go “get any old job” which would neither help us that much financially nor help my resume. With all the traveling and contract jobs I’d held, I’d kind of pigeon-holed myself into a very narrow job market, jobs that pretty much only existed if I invented them myself. Help Wanted: freelance creative writing teacher.

Flash-forward to now. Now, we have a fifteen-month-old, two car loans, a big dog, a fat cat, and a tiny one-bedroom cabin that is badly in need of an addition. We are doing fine on Matthew’s income, but we certainly aren’t saving much money—whether for immediate needs, for Cedar’s future, for our house, or for a retirement (what’s that?). Since the kinds of jobs that I could get as a freelance teacher or, say, working with children are not going to bring in near the salary that my husband now makes, it makes sense that he fulfill the traditional role as bread-winner, and that I stay home with Cedar. The cost of childcare would not make it worth it for me to work-- that is, if you only consider working to be about making money.

Enter my dilemma. I love staying home with Cedar. I know plenty of moms who cannot make this choice and who surely envy all the time I get to hang out with my son. I know that he is growing fast, and that when he eventually goes to school, I will get back some of my own time. I am grateful for my husband’s support, and for his willingness to take on the “professional” role, even when this is still a relatively new role for him to play. I am willing to let go of so much of the time I used to have to write, to pursue teaching gigs, and to edit works of nonfiction. I have been willing to let that all go in service to my son and our family. A part of me has even been relieved at times to let all the “career-striving” stuff go and to just sink into this alternate reality of mother, caregiver, servant, Goddess. I know why the goals and awards are important, but they are not why I write. I will always have just pure writing to come back to. There is no hurry. I can pick up where I left off. Right?

Sort of. All of the above is only partially true, while another part of me has been starving. Frustrated. Angry. Sad. And finally, now, fifteen months after giving birth, I feel the need, undeniable, to claim more of what I need. Time to myself. Time to write. Three hours a week is not enough. (Right now, my mom watches Cedar about four hours a week, but so much of that time gets eaten up by errands and chores. Matthew then watches Cedar on the weekends, but a couple hours away is usually all I get. I could ask mother to watch Cedar a bit more, but she is not willing to commit to more than just an afternoon a week for now, and psychologically it is important to me to KNOW that I can count on a certain day and time each week. It is too tiring to negotiate week by week.)

So what to do? The simplest solution: we need to hire a babysitter. Once a week for a few hours. That’s all. We can afford it, if we decide we can. It’s that important. For no one in this family will be happy if I am not happy. I am the mother, the bill keeper, the house cleaner, the diaper buyer. I am the nurturer, the researcher, the plan maker, the story weaver. I declare my work to be important, even if it does not bring in money. I didn’t spend fifteen years of my life discovering the writing path as my path only to let it drizzle away quietly. I am willing to learn how to get by on WAY less time than before, and yet, this willingness has its limits.

My husband wants me to be happy. He understands, especially after talking to me, that I need more time. He understands (to the degree that he can) how Cedar clings to me, needs me, saps me, and how this all-enveloping experience of motherhood for me is different for me than what fatherhood has been for him. I live and breathe Cedar every day, every night. If I enter the room, he goes to me—like a moth to a flame, as Matthew says. The only way I can take a break in this household is to physically leave, or else Cedar will find me. I go to a café most weekends and write for a couple hours, but then I reach a point where I am hungry and need to come home, and even if I could easily sit down, print out what I’ve written, edit, and keep writing for several more hours, my time unfortunately stops the minute I walk in the door. It is a rare hour where I am home alone, and even then, it is near impossible to not want to first run a load of dishes or eat or sweep the floor or do some other quick task that usually is done as part of a speedy juggling routine with Cedar clinging to my legs.

I’m not sure if an additional three hours a week will be enough to motivate me to pull out those old manuscript drafts, but at very least, it will allow me to keep up more with this blog, and to delve into some of the more complex and emotionally charged subjects that I often don’t have the energy for (especially not if I want to actually post what I write, for some of the more tangled and messy stuff I spew out in these quick writing sessions do not make it into cyberspace). But this is a start.

Like all good mothers do, I’ve sacrificed a lot this year for my son, for my family. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how gracefully I’ve adapted, how natural the transition has been. Motherhood has been hugely fulfilling for me.

But I am also learning: I have my limits. And I am remembering: I am a writer, and if I am not writing then I am not happy. And I need to be happy. This is not a point of negotiation. This is infinitely more important than any future-oriented goals. This is where I draw the line.

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