Motherhood and Writing: An oxymoron?

I am, without the shadow of a doubt, a happier, better, less restless mother, when I don’t feel axed into surrendering my own song

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:26 PM

There’s no glorifying it: writing, in practical terms, appears inimical to parenthood. When it comes to efficiency, concentration, guilt-free blocks of time — it’s a pipe-dream. Toss into the mix, a pandemic— two years gone and most of us are ready to throw in the towel. P. G. Wodehouse’s endearingly honest dedication in The Heart of a Goof, validates the juxtaposition poetically: to “my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”

I, too, have been simultaneously experiencing my writing and motherhood journey, listening to an orchestra of conflicting voices, at grating volume since. Admittedly, I wasn’t a stranger to writing before I got to parenthood (or rather, it to me); the occasional, speedy Op-Ed, flash-off-the-pan verses, auto-ethnography musings in between; gradually, I built a trove of stories, without planning to do so. But oddly, it took the switch to motherhood, the birth of our almost Irish twin girls — in other words, for my world to be turned completely on its head — to catalyse what was going to become my debut novel. Sounds like a joke, which didn’t land, except it wasn’t.

There had been moments I dreamt about being a writer — stumbling upon my labour of love on a bookstore display, a dazzling signature for author copies, open mics with live, electric audiences. Amidst those stimulating instances, there was one luminous morning, just weeks after giving birth, which unanimously sealed the desire for storytelling within me.

I was listening to a guest speaker (the headmaster of a school in England), offering our students a rehashed version of Thoreau’s words: “Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. What’s your song? he asked. Take five minutes to scribble your song on a piece of paper; then share it with the person next to you.” It felt daunting, unreasonable almost, to conjure up a song — one which might accompany you through life — in a matter of minutes. Yet, his titanic ask compelled me to confront stubborn procrastination — what was my song?

That morning, for the first time, I fully registered that storytelling was my song. It made a powerful billboard tagline, coaxing possibility, offering home for potential, which was true to my value system; but in reality, my longing to be a thoughtful, attentive mother, was beginning to overshadow my curdling ambition. The two seemed at odds.

As a girl growing up in South Asia, I was conditioned to chase motherhood martyrdom, believe creating something, anything and raising kids were mismatched pursuits. Normative expectations propositioned self-effacement as a virtue, inching you closer to the desi mother pedestal — each time a mother forfeited her dreams, vitality, hope, there was reason to celebrate.

It wasn’t going to be easy to shed, so quickly, the social desirability to be a good, omnipresent mother. It demanded steep unlearning and I could only try. I decided to stick to stories, for the time being at least, less out of choice, more out of necessity.

A few years in, still navigating the choppy waters of early parenting, ping-ponging between what and whom matter most, I watch how writing slides up next to me — indispensable, cathartic, a brief window for self-expression, a kind measure of self-worth, on days when no other tether seems available. Conjuring stories, amidst chaos, allows me to create and hold space; make sense of new motherhood, of an outside world that seems on the boil, to battle but also immerse elsewhere, coexist. Children’s literature sparks my imagination in ways unfamiliar, a pleasant reminder that Maths and Science for first graders matter, but stories, they’re sustenance, a bridge connecting to my daughters through our unplanned participation in each other’s lives — theirs in mine and vice versa.

But writing, it’s much more than that. It grants a mother permission — to snuggle into tightly sealed spaces. The words I stitch into patterns — similar to mindful chanting — tell me I don’t have to choose a single station for my identity, to stop viewing my life as “either”, “or” — parent or writer, “good mother” or “bad mother”. Sometimes, I create from the part of myself that directs my gaze within, Sufi-like, which bumps against societal hitches when it raises its head in other ways. I write about attachments that percolate outside my own skin too, worlds standing at a departure from mine. Often, I create from a place of embryonic confusion, for stories offer me crutches, putting into words what makes little sense, what can’t be worked out by mere experience, what is in the process of yet becoming.

Practically, it isn’t simple. I wouldn’t exchange motherhood for anything, yet there are moments of trade-offs that frustrate — fork-mashing fruit, being summoned to pick a sick child from school, humming teeth-grinding versions of Baby Shark, when you could be crafting a cliffhanger. I honour those feelings, though don’t let them linger. It requires recapping to myself, something my mother passed on to me, as I slipped into the parenting role; the biggest gift unearthing your song will offer is perspective. A gentle nudge to step back and model for the girls, a value system — which though sits uncomfortably with the arithmetic taught in mothering finishing schools — allows you to preserve your own being, whilst simultaneously showing up for someone else.

She was right. I am, without the shadow of a doubt, a happier, better, less restless mother, when I don’t feel axed into surrendering my own song — to write and tell stories — to pass the “good mother” litmus test. It’s still early, yet motherhood, I’m grasping, is clunky, vertical terrain; but it’s also a portal. I can choose to waltz through it fulfilled, juggling hide-and-seek whilst playing my own jukebox, or adorn the martyrdom flag and slowly cease to exist; believing “as if she who disappears the most, loves the most”. The latter, “the unlived life of a parent”, is a burden, and one too large to pass on to my girls.

Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi

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