Late last year I wrote about funky shame-place I was in, career-wise. Plans for a new novel felt stopped at every turn; I was rejected from a mentorship opportunity, denied an important grant. Worst of all, my own enthusiasm for the story waned. Everything was saying not this, not yet.
So I let go. I put the project aside and performed another revision on But For the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars. I reread Joan Didion, Jowita Bydlowska, Elizabeth Gilbert, Harold R. Johnston, Cheryl Strayed, Alice Seabold. I felt a stirring, something new. I met with my mentor and friend – the midwife of my stories, we joke – and told her I was considering a break from fiction.
“Do it,” she said. Why not turn the voice that resonates with blog readers to literary memoir? “But what would you write about?”
That was the question, I said. Writing about childhood includes a cast of loved ones apprehensive about appearing in a book. Only nine years into the thick of it, marriage and/or motherhood is too fresh.
“Think about it,” she said. “And send me something – anything – by February. You must keep writing.”
So I spent Christmas with my questions and New Years Day with words by Anne Lamott. My eldest daughter celebrated a ninth birthday, and a small miracle happened regarding my readership. Still, I searched for that elusive-but-so-close idea.
And then I read Mary Karr.
Tell the story, she said, but wait ten years.
And it dawned on me – where I was exactly a decade prior, that time I’ve carried with me since, as clear as yesterday. A time I’d written about only once but to almost immediate success; the essay* sending reader’s emails to me still:
“Thank you. I thought I was alone.”
I thought about 2008:
The time that was not planned,
When I was not ready, barely willing
A time of impossible choice, of anxiety, isolation, aching loneliness
A time of insecurity, a loss and lack of home, a move from mother/father/siblings/friends, from all I had ever known
A rented basement without bathroom – morning sickness into a kitchen sink – the landlady who told me I was a whore when I told her “no”
A shotgun wedding in an empty living room, a round belly buried in lace, the struggle to turn you and me to us
Three terrifying diagnoses: a time of facing fear head-on
The rapid/painful/magical change in body and heart and soul
The pregnancy that made me a writer and a mother
That transformed me from girl to woman
with self-guarded agency and a clear voice,
with strength and vision and unapologetic demands
It’s time to tell the story, I realized.
It’s time for a book called Kicked.
And now, thankful, I’m hard at work.
Below is not the whole story. It is the short essay mentioned above and the first thing I ever published. It was written in 2008, when I was twenty-two and afraid and eight months pregnant with my first child. I would not write again for three years. In 2011, when I was twenty-five and well and five months pregnant with my youngest child, I submitted this essay to a writing contest on a whim, because the contest was being judged by one of my favourite authors, Ami McKay. The essay won YMC’s 2011 Voice of Motherhood Competition and I promised never again to abandon my craft.
Please be gentle. It is difficult to read my own early work, but I give you this piece is unedited because for all its amateurish faults and immature voice,
I love the girl who wrote it.
*The Joy of Being Kicked
My life changes momentously. Just after my twenty-second birthday, at the start of an exciting career, a year from my wedding day, I shakily hold a test strip showing one more line than expected. PREGNANT.
Along with shock, I am mortified to feel a strong mix of rage, guilt, and pity. When sharing “the news,” the excitement of my mother catches me off guard and I am unable share her joy. I reject my fiancé’s touch when he reaches for my belly. My emotionless face clearly makes others uncomfortable.
Why am I not ecstatic? Do I lack heart, a soul, all maternal emotion? Do I not know how others so want children only to be denied? How can I be so ungrateful?
A fantastic liar, I feign joy to please those who demand it. My life is not mine anymore, I‘m just an incubator. My craving for cigarettes, wine, sex with abandon, even caffeine, is inconsequential. The fact that I constantly check myself for blood with both dread and hope is perverse. I know to bury these repulsive truths; instead, I smile as I turn down drinks, make a habit of publicly stroking my not-yet protruding belly, and try my best to seem content while others congratulate the father-to-be and inquire about the condition of my uterus.
All self-identity disappears; where has my confident, feminist self gone? The reproductive system that is to be either worshiped or controlled is working against me, and I can’t “choose a camp.” I am far from embracing my female power to create life, yet, I do not regard the life-filled cells in my uterus to be parasitic, to be less worthy of life than myself.
While believing in choice for others, abortion is not one for me. The first trimester of my pregnancy is the loneliest time of my life. Dangerously dehydrating nausea and fatigue ravage my body, sheer jealousy rips through me while my partner continues life unaffected by pregnancy’s discomforts, and the bitter, self-directed rage that consumes me when my friends plan their futures is tangible. Worse than this, unbearable pity for my unloved child shakes my entire being. I spend nights clutching my stomach, shaking, sobbing, “I’m sorry, Baby. I’m so sorry.” No child deserves such a mother.
Some compare the first trimester of a pregnancy to climbing a mountain; for me, the metaphor of climbing implies too much determination, progress, hope. I am crushed under an Everest. Five months pass, and, at my lowest, I am kicked. My unborn daughter gathers all the strength she has in her small body and, “OH!” As if she turns a switch on inside me, unimaginable love bubbles in my core, surges through my veins, springs from my eyes, and causes my heart to overflow. For the first time in my life, I cry tears of joy. I have not been so alone after all. I really am “with child”- better yet, she is with me.
As she draws nourishment from my body, I draw strength from hers. Her kick is a revelation. I realize that my identity is not limited to the plans I had, or even what I believe in. I am not what I feel at any given moment; I am the sum of my decisions. I may not have been ready, I may not have been happy, but I am not a coward. I did what I knew was right, despite its hardships. I have integrity.
Motherhood does not make me perfect; hormones rage, I miss my pre-pregnancy jeans, and I sometimes mourn the ability to make plans without thinking of someone else. Occasionally I feel more like a girl in trouble than a competent mother, but I know I‘m ok, because she gives me all the strength I need.
I may not have realized it, but I did succeed that mountain. And the view is breathtaking.