March 22, 2019
That’s what I call my kid’s birthday. Because really, on that day, Mom has something to celebrate, too.
As a mother, I’ve had my moments of pride. But no one’s perfect. For example, what kind of mother would tell her five-year-old, “Don’t interrupt me unless your eyes are bleeding.”? A parenting book will probably advise you that it’s not a good idea to threaten a child.
Yet when Mom is in a creative fog, interrupt her at your peril.
Spoiler alert–it worked. She quit asking for a juice box/game of Chutes & Ladders/help with making a cave for her trolls/practice jumping rope/advice on cleaning Sharpie Marker off the refrigerator door–or any of the myriad concerns of a five-year-old. And I–then a young mother, teacher and newly-published author–did indeed get my writing done for the day in a state of blissful silence. Every work-at-home writer with kids can relate to this moment–being on deadline, caught up in the white heat of creation and desperate to get the story out of your head and down on paper.
Not a spoiler: I love my daughter–my heart, my only child–to distraction. From the moment she was born, I regarded her as a magical creature, a fairy-child given to me by supernatural forces. Some women talk about the pain and terror of childbirth. I remember none of this. I just recall the dizzying joy of holding her, of knowing she was mine.
But sometimes, I just needed her to be quiet and I didn’t always tell her diplomatically.
One day, I emerged from my creative fog to the acute sensation of something is wrong. The house was too quiet. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows the peculiar quality of a too quiet house. There is nothing peaceful about it. This eerie vacuum of silence is the deafening sound of impending doom.
Most days, our house rang with the clamor of doors slamming, dance party music turned up loud and left on, “Chopsticks” on the piano complete with made-up lyrics, and a running stream of dialogue from my only child, who had a lifelong habit of narrating everything she did. In third person. Silence was not normal.
In a mother’s imagination, the world can come to an end in a split second. That’s the amount of time that passes between the realization that you haven’t heard a peep out of your child for far too long, and the gut-deep knowledge that said child is lying blue-faced on the kitchen floor, suspended with her dungarees caught on the jungle gym or drowned in the birdbath. In that split second, you suffer the tortures of the damned, imagining the calamities your helpless offspring has endured while you weren’t paying attention. People wonder why Sylvia Plath put her head on a folded tea towel in the oven while her children slept in the next room. Most work-at-home people have their theories about what drove her to it.
After a panicked search of the house, I found Elizabeth busily putting the finishing touches on a drawing of a girl with curly yellow hair, and bright red teardrops of blood streaming from her eyes.
And not only had she created a devastatingly literal picture of my parenting; she had published a book of her own. I could only hope it wasn’t called Mommy Dearest. While I was struggling with a few pages of my novel, my pre-literate child had written a story, illustrated and self-published it as a book.
Did I melt to the floor with remorse? Ply her with Gummi Bears and extra hours of bedtime stories? No, I puffed up like a tick with pride. Why? Because I felt like a patron of the arts.
Elizabeth made her book out of discarded manuscript pages and the cardboard from a cereal box, stapling it all together. She’d included a copyright page and a title page. The story, written in random letters strung together, was sophisticated beyond her years, giving me a glimpse of a gifted, budding writer. If I’d spent the past two hours guiding and abetting her play, would she ever have created such a thing? Was I right? Was I wrong?
When you’re in the moment, you don’t judge.
I’m not recommending child neglect here. But I do think being overly attentive has its hazards as well. I doubt you’ll read this in any child-rearing book, but I believe there is immeasurable value in showing a child your determination and passion for your art. The smartest, most intuitive creature in the world is a small child. When you issue a threat about bleeding eyes or hair on fire at her, she understands what you’re really saying. And I didn’t only browbeat my kid with threats. I told her other things, too. Like the fact that there are fairies in the yard. Don’t let people tell you those glittering, zooming creatures are dragonflies. They’re fairies. Believe it.
As far as I knew, the art and craft of writing held no mystique for my daughter. It was simply the thing mom did when she was “working.” So I thought, anyway. Then one day, when Elizabeth was about eight, she parked herself beside me as I wrote. By this age, she was capable of sitting still for whole minutes at a time.
I write the first draft of my stories in longhand, using a particular fountain pen with a clear barrel so you can see the ink cartridge inside. After my daughter watched for a while, she asked, “Where do all the words and paragraphs come from?”
Without thinking, I replied, “They’re all here, up inside this pen.”
She studied the pen closely. “I’m gonna need to borrow that pen.”
This is one of the best things a child does–reminds the grown-up to believe in the magic.
This is the balancing act of the working mother. When you’re home with a small child, you get to play all the time. But remember, a child doesn’t see playing as play. It’s simply the thing they do, from the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep. So don’t be surprised if your adored, lavishly played-with child grows up and tells you she doesn’t remember you playing with her. Ever.
That five-year-old is grown up now and has a child of her own. I’m not sure what part of the past she will associate with her childhood. The big hair? Leg warmers? Please God, not the shoulder pads. She’s a gifted, natural writer. In her lifetime, she’s interrupted me many times. To date, her eyes have never bled. So far so good.