Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.
My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.
So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.
So I asked him about it.
“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.
“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”
He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.
“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.
“Why?” I said.
“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.
“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”
“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”
I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”
The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.
“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.
“I mean….” Ella faltered.
I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”
“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”
DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.
“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”
“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.“
“It’s annoying,” Leo said.
“It’s awful,” Ella said.
“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.
“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”
“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”
“And the You Being Gone.“
“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.
“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.
“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.
“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.
“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.
“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”
“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”
I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.
“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.
And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.
And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.
And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.
My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.
Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.
“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”
“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.
“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.
“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”
And so we began.