I have a confession to make.
I hate writing.
I am a writer, and I teach writing, but writing is nonetheless a consistent source of anxiety in my life.
Even right now – I got up early this morning, pumped my baby full of milk, and rode my bike into town to have a “writing date” with myself. Now I’m sitting in front of a coffee shop with a steaming mug in the hazy Oregon sunlight, typing, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic, trying not to accidentally stare at the old man with a knee brace who’s sitting across from me, reading the sports section of the newspaper.
(Tangent: I can’t remember the last time I saw someone reading an honest-to-goodness newspaper, with actual paper and ink and everything. There is something comforting about that. This guy doesn’t seem to have an electronic device on him.)
Anyway, last night this sounded like an ideal way to spend a morning. As I planned the “writing date” in my head, I promised myself that I could write about whatever I want, without giving a thought to pleasing anyone but myself.
But now that I’m sitting here, writing, I can’t ignore the hum of anxiety in my limbs and fingers, or the thought-gnats in my brain that I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to trap and squash: will this be good writing? Will I post this on my blog? Shouldn’t I be writing something important, like for The Atlantic or some other publication? Shouldn’t I be writing something that matters?
And that’s what I hate about writing. Because things quickly spiral away from “writing” altogether, towards the fickle sirens of success, notoriety – and, yes, even money.
For the past month, I have been avoiding writing altogether (except for some compulsory work-related stuff), because any thought of writing instantly filled me with anxiety. This whole morning is my attempt to wade right into the angst and call its bluff. But it’s still here, simmering.
I’ve been running from writing not because I don’t want to write, but because writing has become inextricably bound up with my unfortunate ambition to be a “successful writer” – a phrase I will put in quotes because it’s a moving target, a meaningless category that constantly shifts to refer to whatever I am not.
At one point, being a “successful writer” simply meant being published. Until I got published. Then it became about publishing a book. Until I got a book contract for my PhD dissertation, and now it’s become about publishing a book with a general readership that might even make a little money. Ideally a novel, because for some reason that’s the holy grail du jour. In my mind, I’m a hack until I publish a novel. But, BUT, I know myself well enough to realize that if I ever do publish that novel or memoir or whatever that I will feel ecstatic for a hot minute – and then I will begin to stress about the next book and whether or not Oprah will include it in her club.
Ambition is fine, ambition can be good, but my writerly ambition is a voracious, insatiable blob monster, and most days I feel like I’m chained to it in an uncomfortable metal bikini.
The other day, Michael was patiently listening to me kvetch about all this for the gazillioneth time, and he said something – the only thing – that briefly made all this anxiety dissipate. We were standing together in the kitchen, in the midst of a long hug, listening to the munchkin pound away on his high chair. I was saying some muffled words into Michael’s chest, something like, “I hate feeling like I need to be a successful writer. I just want to have a bunch of babies and be a nobody.”
“Then be a nobody,” he said. “For now, at this point in your life, just enjoy being a mom, and write that novel when you’re 50. You don’t have to do everything now.”
When he said this, I felt my body relax, and I let those words hang in the air for a moment. You don’t have to do everything now.
That’s a neurosis of mine. I’m impatient, and so is my ambition monster. I’m not good at taking the marathon approach to life. Whether it’s running or my academic career or my writing, I’m terrible at pacing myself. I take on too much, I burn myself out, and then repeat the cycle.
Why is it so hard for me to live a small, unimportant, anonymous life?
The truth is, right now, I don’t want to be the angsty almost thirty year-old clicking away outside the coffee shop, worrying about “making it” as a writer and thus sabotaging my own happiness.
I want to be the nameless old guy reading the paper and drinking his coffee in the morning sun, completely unaware that I’m even here.
Just now, after spending about thirty minutes getting Julian to fall asleep for the night, I turned on the kettle to make some tea, sat down on the couch, and typed those two words.
Then, right on cue, as if he could sense that I was on the verge of productivity, Julian started crying, and I went back in to soothe him to sleep again.
What a perfect little microcosm of what my life is like at the moment. I’m all over the place. If writing happens at all, it happens in fragments between the napping and feeding and cleaning and folding and diapering and bathing and baby-entertaining.
This post, in fact, is emerging from the primordial ooze of notes that I tapped out one-handed on my iPhone in the dark with a half-asleep baby suctioned on one boob. That is what writing looks like for me these days. That is what life looks like.
My college roommate used to give me grief about being an “overachiever,” an accusation that rankled me at the time, but I’ve recently realized that she was totally right. She had me pegged. I’m an overachiever – a condition that is fundamentally at odds with the reality of parenthood.
I’ve been running myself into the ground the past few weeks, trying and mostly failing to do dozens of things at once — to be, simultaneously, a stellar mama/writer/wife/professor/blogger/homemaker. I’m in the throes of my second head cold in only two weeks. My left eyelid has been twitching for three days straight. I’m ragged.
Ergo, I’ve decided to make some changes. First, I’m going to train my hair to go several days between washes, so it will hopefully be less obvious when I don’t have time to shower. And, second: I’m going to become a mediocre blogger. On purpose.
By that I mean that I’m no longer going to painstakingly follow the 10 Commandments of Successful Blogging (of which there are only, actually, 5).
Commandments #1 and #2: Post 2-3 times a week. Post only on weekday mornings.*
(*Because apparently only weirdos like me do most of their online reading on nights and weekends.)
This is probably my one chance in life to be a despot, so I might as well take it. Instead of holding myself to a specific number of posts for week, or specific topics, I’m going to write whatever I want to write, whenever I feel like writing it.
I can’t post 2-3 times a week. Let’s be real. My life is too unpredictable and chaotic. And sometimes, when I actually get a baby-free, work-free moment, I don’t feel like writing. Instead, I might feel like watching British crime drama from the 90s, courtesy of Netflix. (Plots were so much more thrilling when no one had a cell phone and everyone had a terrible haircut.)
No blogging schedule for me. I want to write when inspired, and when I have the time and energy to craft something meaningful. I need to give myself permission to take breaks from the blog when I need to, when life demands it of me, without feeling guilty or panicked that my readership will suddenly disappear.
Commandment #3: Find your “niche” and stick with it.
Ugh, the dreaded niche.
If a wry mommy blog married an ambivalent feminist blog in a Quaker church with an irreverent priest officiating, and a scattering of academics and celebrity gossip columnists in attendance, this blog would be the strange progeny of that union.
I used to worry a lot about this niche thing. When I wrote about being a mama, I worried that I’d alienate my readers who aren’t parents. When I wrote about feminism, I’d worry that I’d alienate the mommy crowd. When I wrote about faith, I worried that I’d alienate the feminists. And so on.
So I guess my niche is not having a niche. My blog is all over the map, because I am all over the map. I don’t feel like I belong to any one camp. None of the labels quite fit. But you know what I’ve realized? That’s probably true for many of my readers. Here we are, wandering through life, never feeling like we quite belong anywhere, and the irony is that the people around us, the ones who seem so secure in their identities and tribal affiliations — well, they probably feel like misfits, too.
I am a misfit. This is a misfit blog. The misfit blog of a despot who will write about whatever she wants and post on a Sunday evening if she feels like it.
I might write about baby poop. I might write about sexism. I might write about how depressing it is to shop for a swimsuit after having a baby. I might write about how The Bachelor is weirdly like a modern retelling of the biblical book of Esther. I might write about how I used to love my cats, but now they mostly annoy me, because my house feels like it’s teeming with whiny creatures who NEED something from me ALL THE TIME.
This is Mama Unabridged, right? Time to un-abridge myself.
Commandment #4: Promote your blog on social media.
Bleccch. This is the worst rule. The most effective, I’ll admit, but also the most soul-killing. My relationship with social media is truly love/hate. I love that it enables me to connect with interesting people and ideas, but I hate that it makes me feel like I’m in junior high again, awakening long-dormant anxieties about popularity and appearance and achievements and being part of the “in” crowd.
I have a Facebook page for this blog, and I occasionally post interesting links or anecdotes on there, but I honestly don’t do much, because I don’t want to be annoying. I know the Blogging Commandments say I should be blowing up your newsfeed with awesomeness multiple times a day, but, well, I’m too busy trying to find time to drink the cup of coffee that I have now reheated NINE TIMES since this morning. So…
Twitter is the worst. Most of the time on Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to myself in a crowded restaurant. Sometimes Twitter is interesting and useful. Sometimes it just triggers my outsider complex, which is why it can be helpful to buffer my tweets. (If you don’t know what that means, buy yourself a congratulatory drink and vow NEVER TO FIND OUT – just rest assured it is not something dirty, even though it sounds vaguely like Scottish sexual harassment. “Come on, luv, let ol’ Seamus buffer your tweets…”)
Long story short: I’ll keep using social media, but in sporadic intervals, with regular Sabbaths in between. I’ll do cameos. I’ll be that unpredictable sitcom neighbor who might burst through the door at any time, make a few wisecracks, and then disappear again.
Commandment #5: Write well.
I’m going to break all the other rules, but this one I’ll just bend. Being a mediocre blogger doesn’t mean I can’t be a good writer. I’ll keep the goal of writing well, with the caveat that sometimes I won’t. Sometimes, like right now, I’m just going to write crap and then post it. There is no muse here. There is only mucus and toilet paper – because, yes, I’m one of those people who views actual Kleenex as an extravagance.
But, in all seriousness, this is the only rule I care about. What I love about blogging is that it keeps me writing regularly, and it enables me to connect, even momentarily, with all sorts of people who—for whatever reason—resonate with what I write. That’s pretty cool. So, I’ll try to write interesting things for you to read. And sometimes I’ll succeed.
And now I’m going to break one last commandment by refusing to end this post with anything inspiring or poignant. Instead, I’m just going to end with a video of my baby laughing because his dad is waving dirty socks in his face. You’re welcome.
Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement. (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Project: here and here and here.)
The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.
The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.
I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):
Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?
Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.
She’s an attention whore.
PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…
Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …
[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.
My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.
One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.
Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.
As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”
That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.
Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.
But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.
As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.
More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.
For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.
Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.
The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.
Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.
I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.
Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.
My last post on “the mother wound” was hard to write. It was deeply heartfelt, but – let’s be honest – a little bit of a downer. I’m certainly glad I wrote it and that so many other parents, men and women, identified with what I described. (We’re in the trenches together, people!!!) That said, I’m feeling completely emotionally drained from simply existing through this past week, with its various horrors. Perhaps you can relate. So, today I’m keeping it simple and happy, folks. I’m going all Pollyanna on your ass.
Oh, and one more thing: to my readers who aren’t yet mothers but who might-be-sort-of-contemplating-going-down-that-road-one-day-maybe – I realize much of what I write involves exposing my worst parenting moments, which might be somewhat of a deterrent, so this post is dedicated to you:
A Few Things That Have Surprised Me About Motherhood (In a Good Way)
1. Poop Immunity
Right before sitting down to write this post, I was trying to put Julian down for the night. Just when he was teetering on the edge of deep sleep, he launched into a forceful, sustained grunt and proceeded to enthusiastically expel a geyser of poop that burst forth from his diaper and totally slimed his pajamas.
Non-mamas: this description probably grosses you out. But I have good news! If you’re anything like me, when it’s YOUR baby pooping, you won’t be grossed out at all. You will have poop immunity. Not only will you not be grossed out, you might actually acquire an academic interest in said poop. You might even feel a tiny thrill of curiosity when changing a diaper, a sense of anticipation not unlike what you feel on Christmas morning as you begin to unwrap the special package baby has laid for you and wonder: How much did he poop? What color will it be?
I have such powerful poop immunity that I actually like the process of washing his cloth diapers. Yes, this is totally weird. At least, I can understand how it might appear weird to others, but it seem perfectly natural to me. When it’s time to wash Julian’s diapers, I start filling the washer to let the soap dissolve and proceed to make neat piles of his dirty diapers on top of the lid. The poopy diapers get their own pile, so I can assess how much he’s pooping and inspect the color. Is it a bright soylent green? Or perhaps the ideal rich, mustardy-yellow with orange hues?
I realize that poop immunity may be compromised once Julian starts to eat solids, when his nice, frothy milk-poop will transform into run-of-the-mill gross human shit. But for the moment, it’s no big deal. So don’t worry too much about the poop thing.
[Note: poop immunity also includes pee, booger, ear wax, and drool immunity. Spit-up immunity may or may not be included, especially if it’s chunky.]
2. The Queen of “No”
Not surprisingly, I used to worry a lot about how being a mother would impact my career. To be perfectly honest, before having Julian, the epicenter of my life was work. I’d spend my bike ride home dissecting the workday in my mind, replaying class discussions and mentally assembling to-do lists. When I’d arrive home – nearly every time – I would try to open the back door with my office key. Clearly, I had a hard time not bringing work home with me. This is not to say that I did not have a rich and satisfying relationship with Michael – I did and do. But my thought life, my energy, and my identity were completely tangled up in my job. Probably to an unhealthy extent.
Because of this, I had a hard time setting boundaries with work; I said yes to pretty much everything and probably, frankly, cared a little too much about students’ and colleagues’ opinions of me.
Now, however, there has been a cosmic shift. Now, when I bike home, I pedal as fast as I can, anticipating that moment when I can walk through the door and see my husband cooking dinner while wearing a cute baby whose face lights up when he sees his mama. Now, I try to avoid bringing work home with me whenever possible, and I’ve become so adept at it that I’m constantly behind on grading.
And I’ve never said ‘no’ so much in my life! It’s glorious! Life-changing! And, because I’m pretty much always breastfeeding or pumping, I have an airtight excuse. A guilt-free ‘no’ is a beautiful thing.
Ultimately, having a baby has shuffled my priorities in a way that is healthier for me. Even though I am busier than I’ve ever been, I actually feel like I have some balance in my life and that my roots are where they should be: with my people.
2. My Muse is Back
Writing is my first love. Writing is in my bones. But going through the process of researching and writing a PhD dissertation pitched me into a creative wasteland for years. I forgot what it was like to feel inspired, to feel aflame with words and have to scramble to catch them before they turn to ash.
But just a few weeks after having Julian, I felt that spark again; I felt ignited. And — SPOILER — I started a blog. I am now writing more than I have in years. More than that: I have rediscovered the joy of writing for myself again, not for grades or for a degree or for tenure. Just according to my own selfish whims. And it feels GOOD.
I’m not saying becoming a mother will make you a writer, but it might unlock something inside you, some creative force that’s lying dormant. Motherhood is such a many-colored, monstrous, magnificent thing – you are continually rocked and dazzled by cataclysmic surges of joy and fear and hope. And all that tumult needs an outlet. For me, it’s writing.
4. I Love My Body. (Seriously.)
I worried about the body thing. Sure. I worried about getting fat and having saggy boobs and a little pooch that would force me to wear “Mom Jeans.” But to be perfectly honest, I feel more at home in my own skin now than I ever have. Or since puberty, anyway.
A few months ago, I wrote about wanting to embrace my post-baby body:
“I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.
In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.”
Weirdly enough, I’ve managed to cultivate a pretty consistent feeling of affection and respect toward my body, even though I haven’t gotten back into running, or into my favorite pair of pre-pregnancy jeans. My hips are wider. My breasts hang low with milk. My stomach peeks over the edge of my pants. But every night, and several times throughout the day, I get to curl up next to my baby while he wriggles against me for a drink of my milk. In that moment I am filled with gratitude for this body, for its incredible, life-sustaining machinations, and for the nerves that fire up my skin so I can feel his glowing warmth and the roving touch of his inquisitive limbs. In those moments, I can’t help but think: This is why I have a body. This is the texture of bliss.
* * *
There are terrifying aspects of motherhood, absolutely. There are moments of despair and paralysis and UTTER BOREDOM. But woven through those moments is joy like I’ve never known. A rich, mustardy-yellow kind of joy, with orange hues.