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Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Mothering and Writing and Finding Yourself -- Guest Post

Being a working mum with three kids doesn't leave much time for hobbies. Pride of place, and number one on my priority list (after the essentials) has long been my tuba, but with a lot of support from my husband and my friends, I recently managed to squeeze in another over the last year.

I'd had experience as a parenting blogger, but I'd never tried writing fiction. Some of my friends joined a Survivor-style writing competition, and I thought I'd give it a try. My goal was only to last through the brutal cuts of the first ten weeks, but somehow I survived through 38.

They say "write what you know", and while I aimed for variety, there was one thing that came through clearly in many of my pieces: motherhood.

It's trite, but true; motherhood changes you. There is something so visceral, so universal about the experience that it speaks true. Lives literally pivot around it, and that provides plenty of ground for dramatic exploration.

An early piece was for the topic "Chekhov's Gun", and while I wrote it mostly as a set-up for a terrible joke, there were plenty of moments inspired by my time as a nursing mum to twins, and in particular the six-week growth spurt that saw me feeding for 16 hours straight.
As if in response, Ella stirred, stretching and grumbling, a promise of trouble that threatened to grow. Jeremy cradled her closer and automatically started the swaying bounce that he'd learned over the last six weeks. She turned her head towards his chest and started mouthing her hand. "I think she's hungry." 
"She can't be!" Charlotte said, collapsing exhaustedly onto the couch. "I've been feeding her all damn day! I'm not a bloody cow." 
"I know... but look," he said, tilting his daughter so that Charlotte could see her searching mouth. "She looks hungry to me." 
"Fine, then. You feed her." Charlotte looked away so he couldn't see the tears forming in her eyes. He knew that tone of voice, though, the tone of tiredness, self-doubt and worry. It had become all too familiar lately. 
"You know I would if I could," he said, trying desperately to find a tone of sympathy that wouldn't be interpreted as patronising through the endless fug of exhaustion they were operating in. He worried about Ella, but he worried about Charlotte more. Ella had both of them watching out for her, but Charlotte only had him. He refused to think about who was looking out for him.
We soon had to write for "scare quotes", and this piece was drawn largely from the early ultrasound in which I found there were two little black blobs. I was still getting my head around writing fiction, with believable characters and dialogue, a challenging enough lesson that I kept my stories in familiar settings.
The white-coated technician looked at her and grinned. "Just what I said, there's two in there! You're having twins. Congratulations!" 
Jamie's laughter turned to sobs, gasped exclamations of "Twins! What are we going to do?!" and back to laughter again.
A few weeks later, I was ready to embrace a new challenge, and took on a story in a fantasy setting. I submitted an expanded version of the story to a publisher, and was absolutely delighted when it was accepted! It appeared in the Wings of Air edition of Latchkey Tales.
The birds were just starting their morning song when her mood changed. I knew it was close. She got so antsy, and ripped her shift off and swiped it across her sweaty face. I'd never seen her naked before. It was shocking, her belly so full and round, almost visibly dropping with each ripple of tightness. I had a flash of vision that one day it could be me, distorted and bloated, hurting and stretching, and winced. 
She turned her back to me as she crouched, leaning against the wall, straining as her body worked. The skin on her back shone strangely in the firelight, almost iridescent, darkening along her spine. She had no joking words now, just a moan like a stag in rut. Fluids gushed as I rushed to grab a clean sheet, and I carefully supported my sibling as they slid into the world. 
I'd never been at a birth, but I'd seen plenty of infants. No baby is pretty when new. They're blotchy, spotty, and shaped by the travails of their passage. But this... this was something else.
"Crabs in a barrel" prompted me to write a piece topical for the time, about a disease spreading through the United States, and the choices a mother might have to make.
She avoided the TV, preferring to maintain a facade of normality. Noah leaped at the chance to have fish fingers for dinner, and his bath had a double helping of bubbles in it. She laughed as he crowned himself with bubbles, and then made a Santa Claus beard that exploded when he sneezed. 
David arrived home early, as Noah and Kayla were mopping bubbles off the bathroom wall. His footsteps were hurried, and the front door slammed behind him. 
"It's spreading," he said. He didn't have to say what "it" was. "They might quarantine. The cellphone towers are already down." He looked at Noah, draped in a towel and watching him with wide eyes. "I'll get him dressed, you get your things together." 
Kayla dashed into the hallway and stood there for a moment in stunned fear. It was actually happening. Could they get out? Should they? Where would they go?
Our first open topic genuinely stumped me. I had no idea what to do, and so, in desperation, I turned to writing about a modern family... who just happened to be Greek gods.
"We used to be so good, you and me. We could be ourselves! Who am I now? I can't be the goddess of silence when all I do is yell at the kids!" 
Hypnos yawned. "I know exactly what you mean. It feels like... it is eight years since I had a proper sleep." He shrugged. "It is hard. I just keep telling myself that it's not forever." He looked half-seriously at her, his newly-grown eyebrow arched. "It's not forever, is it?" 
Heschyia laughed. "They'll grow up some day," she said, then froze, stricken by the thought of what a teenage Eris might be like.
Writing for "The future outwits all our certitudes" brought to mind memories of birth plans, obstinacy, and naivety, and resulted in another story appearing in Latchkey Tales, for The Morning After.
My desire is pain. I can spot my next meal a mile away; they're the ones who come waddling in, armed with birth plans, and empowering mantras they've practised for months. You can practically smell them, though that might be the rescue remedy drops and raspberry leaf tincture. 
There was one just a couple of days ago. Heather, her name was, and the hovering, solicitous husband was Ben. I saw them stumble in together just after lunch, pausing to breathe through contractions. The uncertainty on their faces marked them as first-time parents. Perfect. 
They were guided to my birthing room, and I hadn't even introduced myself before she brandished a birth plan at me. I skimmed it rapidly; no IVs, check; labour to proceed at its natural pace, check; no pain relief to be offered, check; no extended monitoring, check. This was going to be good.
Even stories about dragons featured pregnancies.
Months passed. The humans built shelters, and started to accrue tools and experience that made their hunting trips more successful. The budding settlement prospered under M'rtaka's watchful eye. 
The humans grew healthier, but the belly of the speaker grew faster than most. When M'rtaka spoke, the speaker's stomach would jump and twitch, stretched and extended by something inside. 

One night, when the moons shone bright and full overhead, the nocturnal stillness was broken by groans. The groans became screams; the screams became silence; the silence became a chorus of wails.
Towards the end, I was tired. So very, very tired. I was juggling children, work, housework, and band commitments, as well as writing, week after week after week. It's hard to be creative when you're tired, especially when your precious evening writing time is eaten up by your five-year-old daughter sobbing for hours because she doesn't know how to sleep without sucking her thumb.

That exhaustion fuelled a deeply personal piece. While this particular piece is still significant to me, there is one line which I think describes my life, and that of many women who are trying to do too much.
Her sleep debt was a carefully balanced budget, and she had to meet the payments.
I'm behind on my payments, and the interest is due.


Donnelle Belanger-Taylor is a mother and writer and made it to one of the final rounds of The Real LJ Idol.

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