In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

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?”

DeeDee nodded.

“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.

12 thoughts on “In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

  1. And as a pre-published writer with a daughter who loves to tell her teachers what I do, they tend to ask quizzically, “Grace says you’re an author?” with a raised eyebrow that says *I’ve looked you up at Amazon and there’s nothing there…*

  2. I had no idea. I’m still mostly an under-cover writer, all the kids’ teachers don’t know. Not even all the neighbors know, because a few I’ve told looked at me like I was nuts, though some were genuinely intrigued.

  3. Yes. As a writer and mother of three children who is married to a writer and also the daughter of a writer, yes, yes, yes. The expectations, the moods, the never-not-at-work-ness of it all can be hard on kids (and adults). But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  4. Oh Bless. Oh dear. I am sorry to report that my children and I laughed **so hard** over this (I read it aloud to them). But that’s only because we can relate so well you see. Oh dear. The muttering and crying and clicking of the computer keys …

  5. About 1/3 through I was horrified, to say the least. I am an unpublished, nearly starving, writer with a small dog for family. I work at a bookstore and my friends are online video makers who talk about books. So I couldn’t possibly imagine why anyone would be ashamed to have a mother who was a writer. In fact, I started wondering if my own siblings were embarrassed by me and I just never knew. “But why? Why is it embarrassing to be a writer?!” Honestly, I was very near screaming this at my sleeping dog lol. Then I read this, “Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it.” and I went “Oooohhhh.” I went from almost panicking to a somber understanding, then finished the article with tears in my eyes. Thanks for sharing this. It makes me think that maybe it’s a good thing that it’s just me and my dog– at least for now 🙂

  6. HI Kelly,’
    btw I love Iron Hearted Violet. I’m a published author, as well, whose children are now grown, but I remember how difficult my child was, doing everything possible to interfere with my work. When I asked why, she told me: “If you finish that book you’ll get published and famous and then you’ll never have any time for me ever.” I assured her that was not true, but I never forgot it.
    When I was published, she didn’t want her teachers to know, especially not her English teachers, because once they knew no writing assignment she turned in was good enough. No matter what, she could never get an A on a paper. She worked hard at it, too. And some of her work deserved an A. She insists that her work was held to a higher standard because her mother was a writer.
    I never understood Christopher Robin Milne’s attitude about Winne the Pooh until I had kids and wrote.The good news is that now that they’re grown, they are very supportive.
    Write more books, I need something new to read.

  7. Hi Kelly,

    I just found your blog after seeing the link to another post of yours on Mighty Girls. I love, love, love this perfectly hysterical and spot-on post about the downside to being a writer. My own kiddo was two days into the first year of high school when I had to call in to the school to excuse a three-day absence so that we could appear together on the Today Show to promote my book (the producer wanted to include my kiddo on the segment). But A didn’t want anyone at the school to know the reason for the absence (HORROR!) “I don’t want to start a new school like THAT, Mom!” I understood, of course. Kids want to be seen for who they are, not for what their parents do.

    And the muttering! The kiddo still reminds me of the months and months I spent wandering through the house with unbrushed hair, muttering, “He needs to act, not reflect! Act, not reflect!” as I noodled obsessively over my MC at the time. The years I spent writing my second book were not my best years as a mom. I’m working much harder these days to keep any muttering and/or any writing-related despair to myself. 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Oh, thank you so much for stopping by, Ingrid! (And may I just say that my two daughters LOVED your books – and so did I. 🙂 )

      In the end, our kids love us selfishly – and they get to. We love them selflessly – we don’t know how to do it any other way. Eventually, that relationship folds over on itself, but in the meantime, their childhoods belong to them, and while they are curious and sometimes perplexed by my career, it doesn’t matter all that much to them. What DOES matter, in their minds, is me loving them. Every day. All the time. And so I do.

      Fortunately, my kids have an appreciation for the fact that I am – and always will be – completely and totally nuts. So it goes. And bless them. 🙂

  8. Pingback: In which some Cub Scouts take me down a notch or two. | Kelly Barnhill

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