Discover more from Write More, Be Less Careful
some notes on running away from home
sharing the domestic and caregiving labor + that Maggie Smith essay, plus lots of good reads from around the internet
Welcome to good creatures, a section of Write More, Be Less Careful. On good creatures, we’ll round up some of the most interesting conversations and best writing on contemporary mothering. If you think your actual kids are (mostly) great but being a mom is kind of a scam, I think you’ll love it here.
And if you’re like, wait, what is this, I subscribed for writing tips and encouragement?, don’t worry, you’re still in the right place. Good Creatures is an occasional (ahem, *very* occasional, though we’ll see if I can get it together to post more regularly) supplement to Write More. But if you don’t want to receive it (no hard feelings!) this article will tell you how to unsubscribe from Good Creatures but still get the main Write More content.
So far this year, I’ve been away about as much as I’ve been home. Some of that travel has been with my kids, but much of it has been on my own, meaning I’ve left my husband at home with our kids.
In a lot of ways, this kind of travel has done more to nudge the burden of caregiving and domestic labor to a more equal place than any number of hissy post-bedtime conversations about who’s doing what and how I’m absolutely going to lose my mind if I have to handle scheduling a whole summer of camp by myself again. I love the idea of Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play deck—but for the longest time, especially when my kids were really small, the idea of buying it, doing all the emotional labor around prepping my husband to talk about our responsibilities, finding time to actually dole out all the cards—I’m exhausted even thinking about it.
Instead, I just started running away.
When my kids were 3 and 1, I got accepted to the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I’d applied to as a total longshot, without really thinking through what it would be like to leave my really tiny kids for nearly two weeks. But when I got a fellowship that paid for the whole thing, I couldn’t say no. Though I’d always traveled a couple days here and there for conference, the idea of being away for so long made me feel physically ill. My friend and colleague Emari gave me advice that I’ve passed along to countless moms since then: it’s important for your kids to see you doing work that’s meaningful, to know that you’re a whole person and not just their mom. With my husband’s encouragement, I got a plane to Nashville, and he hunkered down at home with our kids. They developed a little ritual of one oreo and one popsicle, eaten on the kitchen floor, before bedtime each night. They did just fine.
And this year, as I’ve been gone more than ever for workshops and residencies, my husband has not only kept them alive and occasionally eating a vegetable (this is truly the bar for any period of solo parenting, imo; also, it’s cucumbers only at our house), he’s also: arranged play dates, done the karate dropoff, volunteered at a whole day of Odyssey of the Mind, which required a babysitter for our other kid and a dog walker, and taken them to a dentist appointment I forgot totally about.
But it so often doesn’t work this way.
If you haven’t read Maggie Smith’s essay, The Words That Ended My Marriage, out in The Cut this past week, you should zip on over there and check it out. In that essay, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Smith lays out how the growth of her writing career contributed directly to the end of her marriage, largely because her husband resented her new fame and couldn’t hack being left at home while she traveled for readings or workshops. In a gripping section, she describes attending AWP in the months before her marriage finally fell apart:
I was having a good time — it was work, but I enjoyed it. And he was home doing my work. To be fair, I treated it that way, too. I had internalized that. He was “covering for me,” as if I were a coworker who’d gone on vacation and left my cubicle-neighbor with all my tasks while I was away. I should be thankful — and I was thankful! I should feel bad — and I did feel bad!
For a minute, I wanted to tweet it with something zippy and glib—this is why you don’t marry a man who doesn’t think you’re a real person!, for example—but decided that wasn’t fair. For one, it places a portion on the blame on women whose partners turn out to be not what they thought, or who find in the end that the deal they’d made at first doesn’t work a decade and a couple kids later. And it’s not like my own partnership is a result of more disciplined decision-making on my part. I married my husband at 26, just before we moved from Texas to Wisconsin for my MFA. (I felt like such a grownup! Now 26 sounds like an actual child bride to me!) He knew I wanted kids, and I knew he wasn’t entirely on board with the idea, but felt certain he’d come around by the time I was ready. But we didn’t talk in any real way about kids in general, much less the granular details of who’d change diapers and who’d find a pediatrician and who’d take off work when daycare called to say the baby had a fever again. I loved him, and I trusted it all would work out.
What I would say, if there’s a lesson to stories like this, where a husband feels erased or threatened by his wife’s success, where a man wants mostly for his wife to be at home and tending to everyone else’s needs, is that I’m working really hard to raise kids who see me as a whole person, not just a mom. So maybe the lesson is less about not marrying someone who behaves like that and more about not raising people who will treat their partner like this.
(I’d also add, on a craft note, that Maggie does something really well here that I’ve been thinking about recently: small scenes and pacing, so that you zoom in on the most essential moments. I’ve read a bunch of essay drafts lately that zip along at a really consistent pace, so they end up feeling like “this happened, then this happened, this happened,” and it’s all kind of flat. Maggie’s essay is short, but she slows down at key moments to let us really experience it alongside her. There’s this tiny devastating scene, for example:
Once, in a meeting in my lawyer’s office — my lawyer and I on one side of the conference table, my husband and his on the other — my husband’s lawyer used air quotes when she talked about my work.
When you were “working,” she said.
Even without a ton of description, we’ve got enough to picture the whole scene, to feel the lawyer’s condescension, the rage Maggie has to suppress. That’s what happens when poets write prose.)
Or maybe there is no real lesson here. Maybe it’s just that I lucked out with a partner who knew me well enough to know what to expect. Before I planned the trip I took to Texas for Long Devotion readings, I checked in once again to make sure it was okay for me to be gone so, so much. My husband reassured me I should go, that they’d be fine without me. “I knew who I was marrying,” he told me. “I knew you wouldn’t be a stay at home wife.”
more good creatures
I haven’t had a chance to read all of Romper’s new New Parents issue, but I love this framing. There truly is so much joy ahead.
This anonymous piece from Good Housekeeping lured me in with its rage-inducing title (When My Husband Refused to Get a Vasectomy, I Knew Our Marriage Was Over (!!)) but the beautiful writing kept me hooked:
There is not always some last straw, some glass-cracking moment, a perfectly straight line where you can see your marriage before and your separate lives after. But getting my tubes tied was about as close as you get, because I saw my husband then. A shadowy member of my family but not my partner. A man who slept through Christmas dinner, who hid my debit card while he was at work. A man who forced our kids to sit at the table and eat every last bite. Who let them cry themselves to sleep when I worked late nights at a bar. Who called me at work to tell me to come home to breastfeed our baby because he was just 6 weeks old and hungry for me. For years, I could not see past my own hunger for us to be a whole family all together or past my own childhood in a broken home or my own fear of loneliness because no one would want me.
Until he refused to get a vasectomy. And then I could see all the way around him.
I loved this essay by Kate Vieira, on DIY home renovation as a single mom, in Memoir Monday’s First Person Singular
Later I learned that “to give birth” in Portuguese is actually dar a luz, to give to the light. But by then it was too late. I had given birth believing not that I was giving a child to the light—no, sir, she was staying right here where I could smell her—but that I was giving her the gift of light, to do with as she chose. And that my mother had given the same impossible abundance to me. Light. In this way I hopped along my life, molding it the best I could with the tools I had at hand. Perhaps I would have had an easier time accepting things as they were if I had learned to read properly in Portuguese.
This essay, by Brittani Sonnenburg, in Electric Literature, has a title that could lean click-baity (I Learned I Was Pregnant Right After Publishing An Essay About Not Having Kids), but it’s full of nuance and reflection about what it’s like to write about your life while your life is in progress:
But holding the positive pregnancy test in the bathroom a few days later, even before going down to tell Alejandro, among the waves of excitement, fear, dread, and joy, I felt that old stand-by, shame. I had just gone on the record as (probably) not having kids. Now I was switching sides? And, indeed, the first person we told, Ale’s sister, after shrieking and congratulating him, asked: But what about the article?
What about the article?
In the weeks since, as I’ve found myself repeating my justification, which is nothing but a shrug, it’s made me think about the nature of personal essays as both truth-seeking and deeply contemporary: they land somewhere, for a moment. Perhaps, for the writer, that moment will stretch to the end of their life. Perhaps, as with me, the truth of that moment will be disrupted by another emerging truth, one week later. I’ve avoided setting up that meeting with my Instagram friend, worried she’ll see me as a hypocrite, a lost ally. I’ve felt similarly disheartened when childless female friends have changed their minds. It can look, from the outside — and feel, from the inside — like you caved.
But what if truth is always carving its way in us, rather than blowing us up like a balloon?
What else have you read and loved lately? Any good recommendations?
On a personal note, I’d share that I’m in the middle of a Very Big Thing, so if you’re the kind of person who believes in thinking a good thought and send it into the universe, I would love that. And we’re taking our kids on a fun trip for their spring break on Friday! I’ll update with a photo or two along the way on instagram, and I’ll hopefully have good news to share sometime after we’re back!
If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, I’d love it if you would share it or send it to a friend.
I was going to write here about the term “strategic absenting,” coined by an Australian psychotherapist to capture how some mothers do this deliberately—how being away from home can actually be a strategic move to equalize caregiving labor. But in the years since I first found that article, the author has gone full TERF/JK Rowling apologist, and we do not support that around here. The original research was a little thin, anyway, with interviews from just 10 women, and you can get the gist without the citation.