Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled “Where mom-at-home meets working-mom” has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).
It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.
I was asking myself some tough questions.
**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?
It’s funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I’m pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).
What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?
Now there’s a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it’s not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It’s a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it’s not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it’s not either/or. How could it be?
What’s gotten cancelled out is other things I didn’t expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week — the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven’t canned a thing this summer; probably won’t. I don’t have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I’d like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I’m alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can’t be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I’d miss — full-on time with my children — I don’t, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.
But here’s a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn’t even qualified for jobs I didn’t want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.
It’s been a decade since the famous (infamous?) “Opt-out revolution” article was published, interviewing women who’d given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I’m not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can’t remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren’t we all in this together, I thought?
I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn’t appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.
Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same “opt-out” women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? (“The opt-out generation wants back in.”) Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly — she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.
Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can’t feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can’t answer them, especially the last one, but that’s why they’re so fascinating.
**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out?
Because it isn’t all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We’re not without resources — I’m not without resources. That’s what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn’t want and for which I was not qualified.
Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs — ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.
It’s a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.
I sent this pair off to buy something for lunch, for the second time this week. They went to Vincenzo’s and got sushi and soda pop. CJ ate a blue frosted cupcake before they were even home. “We tried the free samples!” (On Monday, I let them go to the grocery store to get something for lunch and they returned with: Corn Pops, Cap’n Crunch, mini chocolate chip cookies, and three cheese buns. I think I see improvement?)
Fooey is doing tennis camp this week, which is why she’s not been involved. (Side note: she’s been working on filling in a journal all about herself, and had this to say on the page with prompts about her parents. “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my mom is the way she … HAS NO STYLE.” And: “The one thing I hope I never inherit from my dad is the way he … HAS NO HAIR.” My attempts to defend myself were met with scorn. Well, justified perhaps, because that kid has style.)
It feels like a day for black and white.
Here is my desk, right now. On the left, see the syllabus I’m working on. In the middle, my BlackBerry, which flashes whenever I get a message (very distracting, but I must like being distracted; text me, please!). On the right, this week’s calendar full of to-do lists and daily events not to be forgotten. And on the computer screen, a message to my editor with the revised version of Girl Runner attached. Yup! She’s gone off. I’ve sent her on her way.
Kevin, who has been my first reader for as long as I’ve had a writing career, stayed up past midnight reading the new draft, and told me this morning that he couldn’t put it down. He offers the following blurbs: “I felt like I was running in Aggie’s shoes over a 100-year race.” And “The book had the perfect combination of pace and depth, just like the 800 metres.” And: “Normally I can read only a few pages at a time. I read half the book in one sitting.” As he’s obliged only to say good things, for the sake of our marriage, you might think this input is highly suspect, but I’m going with it. It’s been a summer of intense and sometimes crazy-making labour, and I can’t do more without a serious break from the material. And my editor is pleased to have it back on her desk again.
And now I give myself the respite of a week or so, before the madness of the fall schedule begins, to be quiet, peaceful, breathing, playing, and not working. Tall order.
One last thing. My next post is going to be about everything I’m excited for this fall. It really and truly is. Because there is so much coming in and now that I’ve sent the manuscript I can breathe and sit back and look at it all. And rest my head. And say thank you.
Well, we got one home from camp. Albus has returned: freckled, dirty-footed, exhausted, and craving his screened devices. It’s been an odd two weeks without him, and a portent of life to come. He’s already twelve years old, and given that I left home when I was seventeen, my sense is of us entering a different stage of parenting, of trying to figure out how hard to hold on, and how much to let go. I intend to do a lot of both. For example, our ten-year-old, who is quite enormously tall, asked to snuggle with us the other night. She just needed to be hugged and held, despite her long legs and muscular shoulders and ability to make me hot lunches.
I’m serious about the hot lunches. She’s made me several this week, thinking up a menu, preparing it, presenting it on a plate, and knocking on my office door. I could get used to this.
The fourth week of our summer holidays is coming to a close. This week has been cool, and marred by ridiculously noisy street-work going on directly outside my window, occasionally causing my entire office to vibrate in such a way that ear plugs become quite useless. It’s also been a tough writing week due to the work that I’m doing. I will come through this and look back on this time fondly, I’m sure, as I always seem to do, but it’s a grind. Instead of entering directly into the book this morning, I skimmed my FB feed, making all kinds of connections and discoveries (or so it felt; nice when procrastination takes on a purposeful aura).
* First I read an article on success by a young tenured professor who believes in giving, doing favours, taking time to do one thing and go deep, and making strong connections. I also appreciated his point that the most highly successful people, whatever their fields, were rarely the most outstanding performers as children, and that in fact it was their motivation and grit that set them apart.
* Which leads me to a blurb I read next explaining why creative people are often eccentric. This is science, folks! Apparently, creative people (and eccentrics) experience cognitive disinhibition, which means their brains fail to filter out extraneous information — I assume this includes sensual and aural information, in addition to the collection of random facts about celebrities while standing in line at the grocery checkout. It’s the ability to process this excess of information without becoming overwhelmed that leads to fascinating breakthroughs. But it can also inspire peculiar behavioral traits. Like Bjork wearing the swan dress at the Oscars, according to the blurb — which was awesomely cool, I thought.
Okay, so stay open and make connections and get gritty.
* I took an online assessment to determine my “Decision Pulse.” It’s quick and easy, and I usually avoid these things like that plague, which shows you how determined I am to be distracted this morning — to open myself to vats of cognitive disinhibition! I make my decisions, according to this quick and easy quiz, based on 1. Humanity 2. Relationships 3. Achievement. Apparently, I don’t care about safety or security at all. (Sorry, family!) I think by “Humanity” the test means humanitarian impulses and the desire to serve a greater good. Which sounds lofty, and may or may not be accurate, though I do spend time each day praying that the work I do will help in some way. That it will heal and nourish rather than hurt.
* Finally, I guffawed with enormous appreciation as I read Anakana Schofield’s brilliant and hilariously written take-down of the shallow, missing-the-point-entirely publicity machine that one steps into when one publishes a book. Anakana is the author of Malarky, which I’ve given to my husband to read right now, and she’s damn funny, and doesn’t seem to care who she’s offending (which is a trait I would dearly like to grow into, but haven’t yet). She’s out in Vancouver and we’ve never met in person, but have enjoyed some back and forth via email regarding exercise habits and, yes, readings and publicity and such. She’s put her finger on something really critical here, too: that it seems everyone wants to be a writer, but no one wants to be a reader. (Consider the proliferation of blogs!) What book publishers should be doing is nurturing readers; and what every writer knows it that public appearances inevitably turn into mini-sessions on “how to be a writer.” But it’s readers writers need, isn’t it. People who love books. People who find solace in words. People who soak up a story, who think about the characters afterward and worry for them. People like me, actually. I love reading. Books are like old friends, companions, sparring partners, comforters, moral compasses, inspirations, teachers.
With that in mind, I’ll turn off my distractions and step into the book I’m making, hoping it will ultimately offer both escape and comfort to a reader like me, sometime, somewhere, somehow.
This morning I got on my bike and went to the “county” track meet (ie. a bunch of schools competing, including both of my two older children’s).
The 800 metre start, girls, ages 9-12.
She ran most of the race in lane two. Oops. “Did you know it’s shorter if you run on the inside lane?” “What? Really?!” A real-life math problem.
A hard-run race. I think she was a little disappointed with her end result, but every race is a learning experience. And she ran her heart out! Proud mama.
Tug-of-war. Not so many photos of this child. I was picking up a please-don’t-embarrass-me-mom vibe. Which I get. I’m so sympathetic and can totally feel it, too. Of course I’m going to say something dorky in front of his friends! I remember this age so clearly myself and instinctively want to give him space. Then I wonder: am I giving him too much space and he won’t know that I care? You know?
Then I got on my bike and went to the kindergarten picnic.
We shared our sandwiches (his idea).
The kids performed songs. When it was time to say goodbye, I got so many kisses, so many hugs; it was hard parting. Such a different stage.
And I got on my bike and went back to the track. (My ankle doesn’t hurt on my bike. Yay! Plus I’d forgotten how fun it is to cycle around the city.) Kevin had arrived in my absence, live-texting me results of events I was missing. We both got to watch the relays.
Then I got on my bike and went home.
Found, yesterday, amongst the masses of work brought home from school.
“Who? Carrie Snyder: Author of the GG nominated Juliet Stories and, my mom.
“What? I can learn alot from mom including work hard and you can acheive anything, follow your dreams, or whims depending on which you have. Nothing is really that impossible if you really want it. And are willing to pour your life into it.
“Where/when? At the book launch in 2012, when the story became a book.
“Why? Writing a book with four kids is not easy. The Juliet Stories took seven years to write. It takes an amazing woman with great patience to do that. She sets goals and acheives them. Aside from that she is a very happy person with a big family and a big heart. She is also a runner and marathonist and triathlete. If you don’t think she is successful, I would like to hear what is.”
I don’t know what life is all about, except that it’s for living. Yesterday was a down day. The puffy ankle wasn’t helping. I was feeling pessimistic. I was remembering that the nature of being a writer is being dissatisfied. That’s what gives you the push to keep creating. It’s a sense of needing to do more. I was remembering that I write out of a painful mixture of confidence and doubt, and that it never seems to become easy (not the writing itself, which is frequently joyful, but everything surrounding it). And then I found this. My child was mirroring back to me things I couldn’t see or appreciate for myself. I hope to mirror to my children the same: love and belief and admiration.
Opened the fridge this morning, looking for an egg, and suffered a flicker of regret at turning down a new career path (ie. midwifery; perhaps the egg twigged it). I remember blogging last winter about wanting to escape out from under the expectation that my writing would need to earn a living (even a modest living) — a sweet dream of writing for pleasure, while pursuing work that would be very different indeed. I blogged about the writer’s cycle of survival, which involves filling out many application forms, a cycle that feels like one is perpetually asking for help. How exhausted I felt by the cycle. How I hated asking for help.
And yet here I am, several months on, willingly filling out more application forms.
It doesn’t feel like I’m asking for help, just now. It feels more like an elaborate gamble, which is how my writing life feels, in truth. My maternal grandfather was a gambler. He loved the horses. Like most gamblers, he probably lost more than he won, but he talked a big game. I think of myself as essentially cautious — hey, we’ve lived in the same house for a decade and I never try anything new with my hair — but that may be partly illusion.
When I consider the choices I’ve made in my life, the risks I can stomach, the hope I can generate against slim odds, the faith in the race, I’m not so far removed from my gramps. When it comes right down to it, I’m pretty much a gambler at heart. Or maybe it’s at gut rather than heart, the gut being the location of much of the gambler’s decision-making. It feels right, or it doesn’t. That’s as clear as it gets for me.
I have the gambler’s ability to look forward rather than back. Or elsewhere, rather than here. I separate myself into possibilities, hiving off rejection, stepping free from what isn’t to be with an energy that may flag but oddly doesn’t seem to deplete. I just finished reading Aleksander Hemon’s collection of essays “The Book of My Lives,” and he writes in his final essay something that rings true to my instincts, to what I know about why I write, too: “In my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives. I’d cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me — they did what I wouldn’t or couldn’t.”
My agent tells me, gently, that very few fiction writers survive on their writing alone; most have other jobs. I know this is true. I did very much want to develop a different and separate career, especially one with security, but the truth of it is that my writing hours are essentially full-time as it is, and I am also in the thick of it with my four kids, and there isn’t time or space or energy to add a third parallel life into the mix without sacrificing one or both of the other two occupations.
So I’m back to gambling.
But more precisely, I’m back to the imagination. This is a gamble both literal and figurative. I gamble every time I send a project out to be assessed, in hopes it will find favour and win support, and that process I could take or leave, quite honestly, except that I can’t and I won’t because it’s in support of the larger and more profound gamble to which I see I’m truly bound, and that is the wild, wonderful, risky, ever-creative, potentially illuminating, grace-filled gamble of making something from scratch, of writing more lives than I could ever live. How could I give it up? What wouldn’t I do to keep this gamble going?
It’s unsteady ground, and it has its practical limitations, as Hemon goes on to express heart-rendingly in the same essay, but it’s familiar. It’s known. I know here. I am suddenly reminded that I used to listen rather obsessively to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” the summer that I was ten, and we were living with my aunt and uncle in Tennessee, before moving to Canada. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.”
No counting shall I do.
I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.
I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.
I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.
Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.
Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.
The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.
I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.
A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.
The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).
What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!
I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.
The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.
I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.