It was 9:30 at night and I was driving north on a quiet road, hooked to a cell phone. My 6-year-old son, Lucas, sleepy and tearful, was on the line.
Do you love writing better than me?” The asked.
Peering into the darkness, I increased my speed. I had just walked out in the middle of a blue-ribbon publishing panel so I could be home in time to put Lucas and his older sister to bed.
“I love you and my work,” I explained. They’re two different kinds of love. Mommy has lots of love inside.”
I listened to his shortened breathing. “It’s just like your hockey,” I went on. “You love hockey so much, but you also love Mommy.”
For the moment, Lucas seemed content. Now I was the one feeling off-balance. I hadn’t expected to be explaining Freudian concepts of love, economic freedom and work to my first grader from the shadowy womb of the car. The need to write and the need to mother were on a collision course that evening. The clash seemed particularly jarring because it came amid the holiday season’s heightened expectations. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and my children were looking forward to their upcoming vacation in Florida with their father. I would miss them, but I welcomed nights of uninterrupted writing time.
Their flight was scheduled for Friday afternoon. Most of my week was filled with odd computer problems and evening writing events — all of them promising to be interesting and stimulating. As usual, I did mental gymnastics, trying to figure out how to vault to my writing events and still stick my landings at home.
I forced myself to make choices. I’d forgo my ongoing fiction class; I’d attend a new screenwriting workshop. But the real crunch came with the publishing panel, scheduled for Thursday, the night before my children were leaving.
I planned an early, cozy dinner together and arranged for the children’s favorite sitter. On Thursday morning, however, my daughter woke up with a horrible, hacking cough, and I left work early so we could go to the doctor. At 10, Elissa considers doctors’ visits a fate worse than losing telephone privileges. Her mood was bleak, and when she was diagnosed with bronchitis, she turned sullen. We waited for a prescription for nearly an hour. When I was curt with the pharmacist, Elissa ducked down the nearest aisle, embarrassed.
Our cozy dinner became a hasty affair of some good homemade soup and half-eaten sandwiches. The sitter came and I rushed out to the publishing program with promises of being home in time to read bedtime books. In one coat pocket I held my notebook and pen, in the other, my cell phone.
In the university auditorium, immersed in the world of writers and book lovers, I felt energized and inspired. Behind me, I saw my former journalism professor, author William Kennedy. I got up to greet him. Unexpectedly, he invited me to join him and the panel member — agents, editors, publishers — for a drink after the workshop.
It isn’t often that I’m invited out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and other top literary people. It was an entree into the mysterious and intimidating arena of publishing. In my fantasies, I heard laughter and witty repartee. I saw my smiling, well-read self sharing revelations with these pundits of the written word. I felt new relationships blossoming.
I could also picture my children at home, waiting for the sound of the garage door to open and me to sail in.
“I can’t,” I said to William Kennedy.
Ironically, the biggest message from the panel seemed to be about the importance of networking and making contacts. By 9:15, when I knew I should be on the road, I started to think more about that invitation.
Phone in hand, I ducked into the nearest bathroom and called home. My daughter sounded fine. But then Lucas took the phone.
When are you coming home?” he asked, his voice unnaturally highpitched.
“I thought you’d be sleeping,” I said, trying not to convey my disappointment that he wasn’t. “Aren’t you tired?”
Kristin, the sitter, said she would lie down with Lucas and try to calm him. But I could still hear him whimpering.
“I’m on my way,” I said.
During the 15-minute drive home, my thinking was reduced to that of a first grader. Life isn’t fair. Then a new thought took hold: Perhaps I could put both kids to bed, convince the sitter to stay and rush out again.
I called home once more, fearful that by the time I got there, Lucas would be asleep. The fear emanated from opposing parts of me: from the mother who wanted her son to know she was going to be there for him, and from the writer who didn’t want to forgo an opportunity.
And so I spent the drive home talking to Lucas, trying to keep him awake until I could hug him. I told him about running into the author who wrote the children’s book he loves, Charley Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine. I mentioned friends’ houses I passed along the road, trees that resembled giant monsters — anything to keep the conversation going.
And then: “Do you love writing better than me?’
By the time I clicked open my garage, the world of writing, writers and publisher’s seemed like a distant fantasy.
My daughter was reading in bed. “I’m glad you’re home,” she said. I kissed her forehead and promised to read another chapter to her.
But first, I lay down with Lucas. I listened to his breathing and felt the warmth of his body. I smelled his newly shampooed hair. It was one of those moments when everything should have been clear — but wasn’t. I tried to convince myself I was where I should be and where I wanted to be. The rest — publishing, networking, marketing — would somehow follow.
Or would it? Writers who are mothers always have to make choices, and they aren’t necessarily choices that advance their writing, or their mothering. “Tell me again about the poems you lost and the babies you saved,” poet/mother Laura Apol writes in homage to another poet and mother, Lucille Clifton. “Tell me you couldn’t replace the children, tell me you could replace the poems; please tell me that he because 1, too, have poems and children and some days they play side by side, tossing back and forth while I listen; some days they fight to the death.”
My daughter often complains about my lack of complete attention. In the rolled-eye way. of preadolescents, she says all I ever do is write. Her perception amazes me, since it is the one thing I never have enough time for, and most of it I do late at night, long after she’s asleep.
In a more pointed manner, Lucas has accused me of having the audacity to write while attending his 6:30 a.m. weekend hockey practice. How he manages to see me scribble while I’m huddled high in the bleachers and he’s busy chasing a puck, I don’t know. But I do know that the urge to write is often incurable, and like other less desirable addictions, it has a way of taking over one’s fife, motherhood notwithstanding.
After Lucas fell asleep, I watched him for a long time. Then I read with Elissa and held her until she fell into her dreams. Sometime after 10, when they were both in a deep sleep, I asked my patiently waiting sitter if it was possible for her to stay, and headed out again. I felt foolish, but my literary opportunity still beckoned.
I sped back downtown, heading for a popular local pub where I’d heard Kennedy often goes. When I pulled up, my heart was pounding. I stood outside for a few minutes, debating on whether to go in, and then, mustering my nerve, I just did.
My eyes scanned both sides of the front room. I walked past the hostess, college students and others. I reached the back room. There was no Kennedy, no post-publishing panel get-together, no opportunity.
The next morning, I called a friend and we discussed bad timing and good mothering, all in the context of the writing life.
“Lucas can go on a fabulous trip and come home with tons of Disney paraphernalia and a dozen stuffed animals,” my friend said, “but his mom gave up an evening with William Kennedy for him. What does that tell him?”
When Lucas called from Florida several days later, he had lots to tell me about his plane ride, Mickey and the man-o’wars at Coconut Grove. Alone with my books and my computer that holiday week, I tried to do as much writing as possible. There were no invitations to anything that had to do with writing or publishing.
I’m still plugging away — at my novel, short stories, essays and a screenplay. I like to think that one day some or all of these will make their mark somewhere. I try not to think about the words that will never get written or published.
My friend likes to believe that in about 12 years, when Lucas is studying Ironweed or Very Old Bones in college lit, he can tell his classmates about the night his writer mother chose coming home to him over going out with William Kennedy.
Talk about fantasies. It is more likely that my son will remember that I was the only mother who wrote during hockey practice.