I can’t pee by myself.
My newborn is at the stage where she’s usually strapped to my chest in a carrier. My two-year-old sniffs me out and hunts me down like a shark drawn to blood if I leave the room for longer than a minute. I can barely get my pants down. When I shower, she sits on a stool beside the bath tub and peers in through a small break in the curtain. “Mommy, what you doing? Washing your babas? Mommy, where’s my hair clip? Mommy, get my water bottle. You all done Mommy? Mommy! Mooo-my!”
My father once told me to become a parent meant giving up any selfish part of you. When I was younger, I didn’t know if I wanted kids. I felt too self-absorbed and spoiled, and never ready. I’m not sure anyone ever feels truly ready, but I eventually felt ready enough. Now I often think about my father’s words as I struggle to find balance between fulfilling my kids’ needs, and maintaining my own.
While I was never sure about becoming a mother, I always wanted to be a writer. In high school, I took all three OAC English credits, even though I only needed one to graduate. I won a school award for a poem I wrote. I explored university options based on their English programs. But I was never actively encouraged, by a teacher or mentor, to pursue this path. And I was too timid and quiet and uncertain to encourage myself. I was actively discouraged by my Greek immigrant parents. “It’s not practical,” according to my father. Writing isn’t a profession or career, words that caused my skin to prickle every time he said them. My parents were strongly vocal about the path they wanted for my life, so much so that I thought I wanted it, too. My first year at university, I studied (and failed) Economics and French. I graduated with an Arts and Science degree, and spent years moving from job to job, not writing, seeking a profession I wouldn’t choke on, something that would lead to a good life. A life that was worthy of my parents moving to Canada for. I applied (and failed - three times) to graduate school as a mature student; after years of schooling at the graduate level, work experience under supervision, and studying for three registration exams, I finally became a professional.
Now at 41, I’m considered late to both motherhood and writing. Part of the postponement was because my 20s and 30s were punctuated with bouts of depression that would leave me collapsed, shackled and gasping. Both decades were strung together by a line of fear and anxiety that I’m not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. On the days I couldn’t move, I managed to keep breathing. By my late 30s, after settling into my career, finding a good therapist, and learning to tame and temper my mental health so it wouldn’t leave me reeling, I had my first daughter, and I started to focus more seriously on writing. I now carry with me a strength, maturity and confidence my younger self most definitely lacked. I make a different mother, and writer, than I would have at 31, or 21. A better one, a stronger one.
Writing is solitary. You wrap up the thoughts and ideas from inside your head into random groupings of letters; you take these words and unfurl them onto a page. Most of the work is in re-writing, re-organizing, re-wording, revising. It’s hard, time-consuming, and can be lonely.
In the chaos of motherhood, there is little to no time for yourself. Especially in the early days with a newborn, especially with two kids. The baby cycles through sleeping and feeding sessions, with diaper changes thrown in. There is no schedule. The toddler has a schedule but is learning to adjust to the new family dynamics. No one gets much sleep. Someone is usually crying. Sometimes it’s me.
Writing grounds me. To make time for it during this stage of my life, I search for rare moments of stillness, like a beach scavenger combing the sands back and forth with a metal detector looking for treasures. I need these still moments for the ideas to come, to let them roll about and marinate:
- holding the newborn, dense and warm like a loaf of bread, against my chest
-lying on the floor beside the toddler’s crib in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep, shifting quietly at the stabbing pain in my hips; holding her pudgy fingers through the slats and listening to her shallow breaths lengthen
-standing with the baby in the carrier, asleep with her cheek suctioned to my chest with drool and sweat, softly snoring (standing because my sitting wakes her)
-cradling the baby in the rocking chair, rhythmically rocking back and forth, her head heavy on my arm
-swaying in the dark kitchen in front of the stove fan, holding a crying baby
-pacing in the dark bathroom with the fan on, holding a crying baby
-lying beside the baby in bed, nursing, feeling a gentle pinch and pull at my nipple
-walking briskly home from dropping my toddler off at daycare, pushing an empty stroller, filling my lungs
I use these moments to think, to come up with words, to string sentences together. I no longer have the luxury of chunks of time. While I prefer pen and paper, it’s hard (impossible?) to physically write while holding a baby, let alone bouncing, or walking, or rocking one. Thank goodness for technology; the notes app on my phone is bursting with snippets of ideas, sentence fragments, and paragraph drafts that I cobble together in these moments. Usually one-handed. Often with my left. Sometimes in the dark, amidst sighs and squeaks and murmurs from the baby. Thank goodness for the autocorrect and predictive text functions.
It’s messy and scattered, my writing process. Fragmented. One that is slowed. Down. I ruminate and edit in my head for much longer before I get things onto paper. I spend less time worrying about precise wording. I’ve adapted, because I needed to.
There is no real prescription for how to write. Some people wake at 5 a.m. daily to get an hour of work in before the day starts. Some people go to a cafe every Sunday afternoon. The only consensus, I think, is to write. Turn ideas into words and get them out on the page, on whatever schedule works for you. Do the work.
One of the biggest lessons I learned while on mat leave with my first daughter is that everything is a stage. This time of my life will pass. This mat leave will end and I will go back to my career; my daughters will grow, their needs will change, their independence will expand, and I will learn to adjust and carve out more time for myself to write, beyond just moments. And one day, I will have more than five minutes to myself in the bathroom.
Lina Lau is an emerging writer of creative non-fiction in Toronto, Canada. According to the ‘About The Author’ section from her first book, written at age 6, ‘Lina likes to skip, work, do cut and paste, help her teacher and read a book.’ She now prefers to bike instead of skip, and she rarely does crafts involving cut and paste. But she continues to enjoy reading, and also writing. Her work can be seen in Skirt Quarterly, and online on The New Quarterly and Invisible Publishing websites.