Mothers Who Write

This October marks the first year anniversary of The Bees’ Knees Blog. I am overjoyed that my blog “baby” has survived (under my random and chaotic care) to celebrate its first birthday. Like any parent, I have felt joy and despair as I realize my strengths and limitations in creating a shared public place. I have learned a lot from this experience and hope to continually grow as the parental unit of this little blog.

To commemorate this blog’s first birthday, The Bees’ Knees would like to celebrate mothers who write.

A major reason I write is to make connections with others; I write poems as though they were the message in a bottle that will save me from isolation. One of the better connections I’ve made is with E Victoria Flynn and the other women who make up the writing group “Mother Writers.” “Mother Writers is an online group of women who support each other through the challenges and rewards of being a mother who writes.

The essays posted this month are the thoughts and feeling of “Mother Writers.” I have found strength in their passion for family and words. It is my hope that you have a similar reaction reading these essays–and as one human experience weaves itself into another until we are all held in the quilt of empathy.

Best Wishes to All,

Nicelle Davis

For more information about “Mother Writer” please visit: http://www.shewrites.com/group/motherwriter?xg_source=activity

Mom’s Who Write: Susan Bearman

Writing My Way to Motherhood

by Susan Bearman

Two Kinds of People (http://2kop.blogspot.com

Mother Writer? Writer Mother? For me, it’s a chicken or the egg question. When you become a mother, you figure out pretty quickly how to write good nonfiction: medical histories; notes to counselors and teachers outlining everything they need to know about your child; letters to kids at camp; notes in lunch boxes; so many permission slips and forms that your fingers start to bleed. Writing — whether you like it or not — is part of motherhood.

I was a writer before I became a mother, but motherhood changed my writing along with everything else in my life. When my twins were born 16 weeks prematurely, I couldn’t be much of a mother to them. At 1.5 pounds each, they were cloistered away in isolettes and attended by teams of caregivers who were far more important to their survival than I was.

The parent support group at the hospital issued us keepsake journals, so I wrote. Initially, it was my way of tracking the day-to-day, minute-to-minute, life-and-death roller coaster that was their experience for five months on the neonatal intensive care unit. I recorded minuscule weight gains measured in grams; I noted each medication and procedure; I tracked which nurses and doctors were on duty; and I wrote down my questions — hundreds of questions.

As the days and weeks wore on, I found myself chronicling more than just their medical progress. Those journals were the place where I transformed myself from terrified bystander into the mother of these remarkable beings.

I wrote how shocked my husband and I were that no one congratulated us on their birth: “Whether they live for 90 days or 90 years, these are their lives and we intend to celebrate.”

I wrote about my worst nightmare: “What if we keep them on life support and they live only a few days or weeks knowing nothing but pain?”

I wrote about my helplessness: “I sit at this wicked electric breast pump for hours every day, sucking out a few ounces of milk that we have to freeze because their digestive systems are so immature that they can’t even get mother’s milk yet.”

I wrote about how one triumph always seemed to lead to the next crisis: “Today they turned down Molly’s oxygen levels and talked for the first time about her going home, but then they told me that she has retinopathy of prematurity and will probably be blind.”

I wrote about their incredible will to live: “Isaac has turned the corner from his devastating infection. He’s become a local hero and staff from all over the hospital have visited him to say ‘Way to go, Ike!’”

I stopped writing when we took them home from the hospital. I had no time to write. I was busy being their mother. Today they are 18 years old and healthy — ready to write their own stories. But this is the story I was meant to write. I think it’s time to get out those journals and get busy.

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Mothers Who Write: Beth Winegarner

“Up! Up! Up!”

By Beth Winegarner

“Up! Up! Up!”

That’s my 17-month-old daughter. She has pushed a chair into the middle of the kitchen and climbed up onto it, and now she is asking to go higher.

She just learned to say “up,” and what it means, a couple of weeks ago. Now it is her favorite word, repeated 50 times a day. A request. A demand. To be picked up, held higher, made taller, and – rarely – to be helped down.

As a writer, I often wondered what her first words would be, and how she would use language as she began to discover how it worked. Before she could use her mouth to talk, we taught her sign language;  her first word was “milk,” which is signed as though you are milking a cow and giving a thumb’s-up at the same time. Being able to request a few quiet moments with mama’s milk is still one of her favorite things, though these days she’s as likely to sign as to pat my chest and say, “boob!”

In the beginning, it seemed she would use words to get her most basic needs met. After “milk,” she learned to sign “more,” “eat,” and “banana.” It seemed fitting that she would focus on this kind of communication. After all, if you were new in a world whose language you didn’t speak, the first thing you would want to be able to say is “I’m hungry,” “I’m thirsty,” “I’m tired,” “I’m cold.”

But she had more in mind than simply making her needs known. She continued to expand her vocabulary of signs – mostly so she could take note of the world around her. Early on she learned to sign “cat,” due to her love of our cat – and “gentle,” which we taught her as an antidote to the rough way she often shows that love.

Her first spoken words came soon after, and they seemed more like expressions of passion than anything else, and not easy ones, either: “shoes” and “cheese.” It was some months before she learned to say “Mama” and “Dada” or, her preferred terms, “Mommy” and “Papa.” Nope, “shoes” and “cheese” were utmost – the peak where the twin slopes of her enthusiasm and vocal ability met. After that, she took to pointing at objects and asking “that?” over and over, prompting us to name the item in her crosshairs.

She has learned many signs and words since – and most of them are this latter category. Certainly there are things she’d love to be able to say that she simply can’t, either because we haven’t thought to teach her the sign or because her mouth and throat can’t form the words. But of the ones she has picked up, the majority are words for things in her environment: trees and flowers, the noises of animals, babies and doggies, fruit and fish.

Most recently, she has been studying the alphabet like a pre-law student cramming for the LSAT. She brings me her alphabet book, or a set of ABC blocks, dozens of times each week. Something inside her is telling her that this is important, and within a couple of weeks she has learned how to say almost every letter. She claps when I sing the alphabet song, and signs “more” to request encore performances. Oddly, this makes me think of Kali, the violent Hindu mother goddess, who wears a string of 51 skulls around her neck – each one representing a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.

This is where language is born, this interplay of parent and child. The parent, keeper of letters and words, guesses (or is sometimes prompted for) the words the child wishes to learn, and repeats them until the child echoes back. Vocabulary tumbles out, a brew of need, fascination, and ability.

This process has mirrored my writing life, particularly my work as a poet and as a journalist. In those roles, it has been my job to search for the right words and assemble them in a way that expresses what the reader, until reading them, has not been able to express. I am oddly comfortable with the process of leading an audience, whether it’s a toddler or a community, to the language I hope will help them say what they need, what they love most, what they are feeling. I am also oddly comfortable with the idea that this is an imperfect process; I will not always pick the perfect words, and I will overlook some of them altogether because they’re not part of my vernacular.

Someday, my daughter will be able to say almost everything she feels, thinks, and dreams. She will teach me words, ideas, and emotions that I didn’t know – or had forgotten. She will also choose not to share some of those things with me; part of fluency is knowing what not to say. Until then, “Up! Up! Up!” – we will keep learning how to use language together.

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Mothers Who Write: Chandra Hoffman

DAWN CHORUS

by Chandra Hoffman

My mother-in-law died in the early hours of August first, while the East Coast birds sang their dawn chorus. It was her favorite time of day, and as we drank tea and watched the sunrise, my family took a teaspoon of comfort in that, that her spirit might be soaring and dipping with the swallows, calling out with the wrens and the finches.

Cheryl and I had planned to write a children’s opera based on this birdsong phenomenon; she brought her flute whenever she visited, because she had to practice for her concert schedule, but also so we might get serious about this opera project. She would do the music, but,

“You’re the writer,” she told me.

She always rose with the sun. When she was at our house, it was to make recordings of the birds and chicory coffee and memories with her grandchildren. When we took our annual winter vacation to the Cayman Islands, she was the first up, reading an entire novel on the screen porch, waiting for me to lumber out of bed and join her on her next morning ritual, a walk of the entire Seven Mile Beach, collecting sea glass. At her home in Buffalo, she spent her winter-dark morning hours in the bathtub on the phone, talking shoes and thrift and art with her sister, an even earlier bird on the West Coast.

My mother-in-law and I were well-matched from the moment her son introduced us—high energy, creatively hungry, lovers of vegetables and words and walking. At that point, she had already endured breast cancer for two years, diagnosed at an untimely thirty-seven. Her cancer was a third person in our relationship; someone hunkered down in the backseat behind us, lurking predatorily. We were good at addressing it when it reared up, but even better at ignoring it.

It was a happy day for us all when five years after meeting, her son and I married, when I started affectionately calling her Cherry, when she gave me a heart-shaped antique silver necklace because I was “the daughter of her heart.”

When we were together, we took occasional breaks from Scrabble and walking marathons. If we weren’t cruising thrift or shoe stores, we were crunching rice crackers and carrot sticks, composing children’s stories and contest winning poetry, scribbling them on index cards we kept tucked in her dictionary. If she was in Buffalo, where she was the director of UB’s flute program or preparing for concert performances from Southern France to Carnegie Hall, we spoke on the phone daily. She talked with my husband on his hour-long commute to work, to me as I washed dishes and folded laundry, and then the capper, several hours doing knock-knock jokes and stories with our young sons in the evening.

When she visited, she welcomed my children’s early morning companionship– tidepooling on the beach washed in sunrise, stories in the kitchen, breakfast picnics on the porch with the birds serenading, while my husband and I slept in and counted our blessings.

If it truly takes a village to raise a child, she was our village’s sage. The majority of our beach walk and phone conversations became about ‘our boys’, her son and grandsons, analyzing their behaviors and theories. She sent me beautiful journals, ads for writing contests and articles on motherhood. I have one from her on the concept of ‘thumos’—male energy in young boys that I have worn thin, copied for all my friends with sons.

Once, faced with a crossroads in our lives, the house we rented going on the market, deep holes in our resumés that reflected our early wanderlust, I asked Cherry’s advice.

“You’re a writer,” she told me again, and I laughed. Our son was a full time job, born with challenges that required several hours of expensive specialists a week, my constant devotion.

“No, no,” I told her, “I need to do something that makes money.”

She insisted I send out the stories we’d been playing with, things I’d dashed off and sent to her for her keen editing, her economic and whimsical way with words.

“Where would I find time?”

“Get up in the early morning, put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry, and write.”

Instead, I started an event planning company, despite her constant affirmation that I was a writer, despite the fact that her very existence proved a woman could be both a successful mother and artist.

Her cancer moved, breast to lymph to lung to brain. At her encouragement, I applied to a school in California for my masters in creative writing. The same day I was accepted, I learned I was pregnant, this time with a daughter.

“How can I do this?” I sobbed to her, meaning get my masters across the country with three kids under the age of five; meaning, be a mother to a little girl?

“Early mornings,” she told me. “Get up before they do.”

I resisted. She had told me for years that she had no sympathy for her college students who came in whining that they didn’t get enough sleep.

“Get over yourself!’ This was one of her favorite sayings, delivered with emphatic affection. “I haven’t slept through the night since I had Jonathan at nineteen!”

“What about the other, being a mother to a little girl?” I whispered, because my relationship with my own mother was often turbulent.

“Think of our relationship as a model,” she told me frankly. “Love her like I love you.”

I finished graduate school, my novel manuscript as my thesis. I had a daughter I named Piper, which means ‘flute player’, because though we all denied it, we were losing our Cherry. In June, she went in for a treatment that injected chemotherapy directly into her tumor-riddled brain and suffered a massive seizure, the beginning of the end.

I finished my novel that summer as she died slowly, still resisting rising in the early mornings. I watched my sons struggle to comprehend their loss, too early an introduction to death. I ached for my husband as he lost the woman who was as much his best friend as she was mine.

In the hospital, Cherry had promised me she would haunt us, afterwards, and she did. That summer, we were constantly visited by dragonflies, alighting on the shoulder of my son while he canoed on the pond, sitting on my knee at the beach and buzzing about us as we planted three cherry trees in her memorial garden. On the morning after my novel sold, I stepped outside at dawn to see not one but dozens of dragonflies swirling overhead.

How did I finish that first novel and start my second?

I set my alarm for 5 am. It’s not pretty. In the winter, it is worse. My house is cold and dark and my bed is warm and full of people I adore. But I tug on the knee-high baby blue fluff momma furry boots Cherry bought us both on her last Christmas and I put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry and I get started.

Spring and summer, it’s better. I sleep with the windows open so I can hear the birds, often waking ahead of the alarm to turn it off, slipping out of the bed that by morning is a tangle of children’s limbs and loveys and cats and snoring. I sit down with my tea, and my computer, serenaded by the hum of the washer and the beautiful chorus of the birds that my mother-in-law loved.

And I write, because she taught me, you can be a mother and an artist, but you have to get over yourself, and you have to rise with the dawn chorus.

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Mothers Who Write: Christi Craig

The Whole of Me

by Christi Craig

Mother and Writer. There are days when, like opposing forces, these two sides of me sit miles apart. They each refuse to accept the presence of the other. When I turn to write, I feel the pull of my children; when I go back to my children, I feel an unyielding persuasion to write.

“What’s the point?” I ask myself, exhausted from the struggle of trying to keep both identities in balance. Still, despite my frustration, I refuse to give up on either: as a mother I can’t, as a writer I won’t.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood lists several reasons that answer the compelling question: why do it? The answers that resonate with me trace my own journey to becoming a Mother Writer.

“To set down the past before it is forgotten.”

As a new mother, I recorded details: of birth, the first day of school, and the first tooth lost. Details alone, though, never conveyed the rise and fall of my emotions. A date stamp would not remind me of the out of body experience I had when my daughter was born. A picture alone wouldn’t express my own anxieties about sending my son to school. And marking the day the tooth finally fell out wouldn’t hint at the number of days prior when repeated negotiations to “let mommy pull the tooth” failed.

I wove details into stories, so that I might remember the power behind each moment.

“To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn’t be ‘a writer’ unless I actually did some writing.”

Writing about life with my children reignited my love of storytelling. I looked back at my stack of old journals and a well-worn spiral notebook filled – when I was fifteen years old – with stories of girl meets boy.

I always wanted to be a writer, and I realized that to become one meant I had to take action. So, I started a blog, I submitted stories to journals, I shared my secret with others. I became a Writer.

“To cope with my depression.”

Lord Byron said, “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

My bouts with depression, though never debilitating, distract me from life. Being a mother pulls me back into the moment. Writing helps me stay there.

“To bear witness….”

To bear witness to my children that in the midst of life, of being whoever we are that day – mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend – we do not have to suppress our creative selves. In fact, embracing my creativity enhances every aspect of my life.

I don’t earn money as a writer or a mother, but each of those daily experiences makes up the whole of who I am.

~

*Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Anchor Books, 2002, p. xx. Print.

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