“My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — it gives a lovely sight!” ~Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is from one of my favorite poems. I always loved this line especially. Back in the day, my candle really didn’t burn at both ends. In fact, it was a slow burn from one end, as I dilly-dallied about, being an “artist”, getting “creative”, waiting for inspiration to strike and writing in my journal obsessively. Sometimes, things like the line from this poem mysteriously resonate in life because they are a foreshadowing of what life will be later on. I’ve always believed that my intuition is smarter than I am, and if I could just steadfastly follow it, my life would make a lot more sense.
Right now, as a mom of two, working as an artist with an insanely busy (and hence out of town) husband, my candle really, truly, 100% is burning at both ends. In fact, I had to pry myself away from the beautiful chaos just to write this. I pried myself away but guiltily so. Shamefully so. Motherhood guilt is intense and pervasive. I find that the old saying about mothers having eyes in the back of their heads is true. My eyes and heart never stray far from the home fires, no matter how busy I am or much I am enjoying what I’m doing. There is always this dull, parallel beat that my heart follows.
At first it was hard to reconcile that things would never be just mine and mine alone again. But now, this consistent familial heartbeat is a comfort. It keeps me balanced, it keeps my perspective in order and it keeps me from dilly-dallying, soliloquizing or worrying too much about my creative choices. Being a mother has in fact forced me to trust my instincts more. That said, I can never seem to find enough time. I can never seem to create an ambience of peace or silence. Everything I do is done to the chorus of “moooommmmmm”!!! A friend who doesn’t have kids came over a few weeks ago. At one point she looked at me and said, “It so loud here, how do you get anything done”? I looked at her dumbly and said, “I don’t know, I just do”.
Miranda Hershey said, “Sometimes it seems like our culture celebrates the divide between being an artist and being a mother, pondering the absurd question of whether it’s actually possible to be both.” It’s true. Before I became a mom, this question lurked in my head like a spooky villain, tempting me to stay childless for fear that my creative life would be over. Boy am I glad I shooed that villain away!
I admit that I began to write this article around the time that the film I Don’t Know How She Does It came out. So clearly things don’t move swiftly over here. I kept seeing ads for this film and became quite curious, desperate even for any small bit of advice, any small tip, be it from a big Hollywood production or no, on how she really does it. You know those working moms who seem so together, who “have it all” and never forget to pack snacks, wipes or tissues? Well, I never made it to the film, so the eternal question continues to burn. It strikes me, however, that the target audience for this film probably didn’t make it to the theater to savor whatever advice SJP has to throw over to us. As curious as I am, I don’t have time to go see this film! And I imagine most women yearning for an answer to this question won’t have the time either. One thing I know is that on the nights that I’ve nailed down a sitter, the one thing I’m not gonna do is spend a big chunk a change on my beloved sitters to go sit in a movie theater. If I’m going out, I really want to go OUT! Drink with the girls, go on a romantic date, dance, live it up, paint the town red. my love for films is the one thing that has suffered most at the hands of becoming a parent.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf said that women who want to write ought to be given the freedom to travel — and they must have plenty of idle time for daydreaming and creating. That was very progressive talk for the 1920s. And while it isn’t exactly earth shattering today, A Room of One’s Own is still considered a major milestone for women writers. Partly because of this thought, I’d always imagined that this was the only way to work.
I used to loll about waiting for the muse to whisper. I would stare off into space or contemplate my naval for hours, thinking that patient waiting, hours spent adrift, were the only way a good piece of work, a good idea, could ever materialize. I had all the time in the world to wait in the quiet, waveless sea to catch the big one, ride the wave of a great idea, then wait patiently again for the next wave to hit. I believed you couldn’t quickly summon a good idea, but that patience, struggle, and self -doubt were the only way to get there. It’s true that sometimes the best ideas of my life strikes amidst all the chaos. I try with all my might to hold it in my mind, to keep it clear and present, but somewhere in between making breakfast and a bag lunch, somewhere in between phones calls and bed time stories, the idea disappears or loses it’s shine. It’s rough to lose a great idea. Something that made my heart flutter at conception is flat and meaningless by the time I sit down to write. Yes, this happens. And it’s hard and it feels unfair and, for a moment, I mourn my old life and my journals and my endless free time, and my all-consuming solipsism or prayer to the temple of “ME”.
A few years back, I realized I hadn’t written in a journal for years. YES, for years! I used to write religiously in my teens and 20s. Trying to figure myself out, work through my demons, analyze what could possibly be so wrong with me. It hit me that I no longer wrote in my journal because I was busy living my life. This is in no way diminishing the good spiritual and emotional work that some serious journal writing can do. But for me, I don’t know when I will have time to write in a journal again. Maybe this blogging is my new journal! My point is that I work when I can now. If I have an hour, I finish my work in an hour. If I have a day, which is rare, I now savor the day and work more slowly. I suppose the upshot is, I’ve become a lot more efficient as my “me time” has diminished. And when people ask for my minimal insight on the universal question of “How Does She Do It?” the simple answer is: you rise to the occasion. You do it all because you don’t have a choice. You do it because there are small people depending on you to do it. I no longer have the freedom to “f**k off” all day and truthfully, at times I totally miss it! BUT I still get it done. And when a free day presents itself, I can still loll about like nobodies business!!!
The remaining conflict, for me at least, lies in how to do my work when the wee ones want some attention. I do the bulk of my “thinking” work from home. I try to pack it in when I know they will be “busy”. This all comes back to the mom-guilt question. This is something I’m still working out and plan to write more about. I don’t know how much of the nagging guilt is something I create on my own. I don’t know how much of it is me, or cultural, or learned, or passed down from generations when women really weren’t able to “do it all”. It could be residue from the past or it could be in each woman’s genetic make-up. Any which way, how do I explain to my kids that I’m working, and that this fact is not a denial of them or a rejection of them? When my daughter gets upset because I can’t give her the attention she wants, do I cave out of guilt or do I calmly try to explain? How do I deal with the guilt that this brings up for me? Am I not doing her (and eventually my son) a favor by not giving in to all their wants and not always trying to save them? Isn’t the bigger, important goal to live my own dreams, live a satisfying, fulfilling life so that I can, in turn, be a happy, fulfilled, inspiring momma for them? This is the last key in the big equation of work and motherhood. It is something I will continue to explore and that will most likely change as my kids grow and as I grow. .
What I’m coming to find is that I find ways to get my families and my own needs met because I have to. One rises to the occasion like never before upon becoming a parent. My other realization is that I HAVE TO keep working. Not only because it makes me happy now, but also because our time with our kids is shorter than we know. A mom of older kids said to me the other day, “They leave by the time they are 12.” I hope this is an exaggeration, but I imagine that it’s true. My daughter is only four but the intensity of her need for me has already, to my sadness at times, lessoned. My kids will always need me to some degree, but I bet it will never be to the same degree as it is from ages 0-5. This said, my work, my personal life, my friends, my marriage, are all things that I need to stoke the flames on constantly. I want to be making art, theater, film and beauty well into my twilight years. To me, this means forging through this rough period and finding a way to balance it all. Our time as family together, under one roof, is so short lived. So maybe it’s ok if I measure out my time for now. The flip side to all of this is that because this time with my kids is so limited, I need to be fiercely present for it. I need to prioritize. I need to always put them first, just not to the extent that I am not personally satisfied. All the above is both a salve to my anxiety as well as a provocation. The fact is, I DO WANT IT ALL! I want a family, I want happy, well loved kids, I want a thriving marriage and I want a satisfying, successful career. And you know what? I don’t think it’s too much to ask for!
Sarah Sophie Flicker