The Birth of Writing Motherhood

The day I left the maternity ward at New York Hospital and came home to my apartment on Eighty-fifth Street and West End Avenue, I drew down the blinds, crawled into bed, and hid under the covers with my newborn baby. We stayed there for two weeks. The overhead light was too bright, the street noise too loud, and the kitchen smells from neighboring apartments too strong. Shadowy figures came and went, walking on tiptoe, talking in whispers, as I sat propped up on pillows, my newborn at my breast, a La Leche coach at my side. I could not breast-feed my baby, much less change a diaper the size of a cocktail napkin or clip fingernails that curled under like cellophane. The last time I had felt so disoriented and alienated was the day I turned twenty-one and landed in New Delhi, India. The doctors called my condition postpartum depression. I knew better. I was in culture shock.

No matter how prepared we think we are—how well informed or widely read—becoming a mother is like landing in a foreign country. Only after we disembark do we discover that motherhood is a geographical place with its own language, customs, rituals, and taboos. The terrain is dizzyingly rugged in some places, deadeningly monotonous in others. The weather is unpredictable year-round. No sooner do you adjust to one climate than the temperature changes: Your angelic baby hits the terrible twos. Your talkative preteen turns into a mute or a monster. Like me, lots of mothers—especially new mothers who have recently traded in briefcases for bottles, high heels for house slippers, and pagers for nursery monitors—typically experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and exile. Most of us acclimatize with time, but then we realize with a gulp that there is no going back. We are lifelong citizens of this other country.

Even before I became a professional writer, I had always turned to writing for help in navigating my life. As a teenager, I kept diaries with yin-yangs and peace signs on the covers. Late at night, burrowed under the blankets, I wrote about my crush on a boy who never so much as looked at me from behind his blue eyes, blond curls, and bubble-gum cheeks that ballooned when he played the tuba. Around the time I left home for college, I stopped keeping diaries and began writing journals. Bored with the self-pitying stuff of adolescence, I filled my journals with reflections on books I read, foods I ate, people I met. After college, when I landed a job as an editorial assistant in midtown Manhattan, I stopped writing for myself altogether. During all the years I spewed out manuals, newsletters, and magazines for corporations, museums, and universities, I never wrote one page for or about me.

Then I became a mother.

I don't know what prompted me (it might have been desperation), but soon after my first child was born I began my first writer's notebook, which sounded more grown-up to me than the diaries and journals I had kept in my teens and early twenties. In the beginning, I wrote in fits and starts, with weeks, sometimes months, between entries. But in time, I managed to make writing a daily practice, and I practiced writing the only way I knew how—the same way I had practiced cello as a teenager, by starting with whole bows on open strings. No matter how hard I tried to do "real" writing, however, my life as a mother bled onto the pages of my writer's notebook. Interspersed among exercises on dialogue and scene and setting appeared recommendations for child care, tips for gaining admission to preschool, notes from teacher conferences, a recipe for dinosaur nuggets, sketches of Halloween costumes, bits of backseat conversation overheard on the way to baseball practice. Soon I found myself writing in my notebook in doctors' offices, at bus stops, on hayrides, in toy stores, on the swing set, in the bleachers. Without my willing it, my writer's notebook became a Mother's Notebook, a receptacle for all the notes and stories, all the scrap paper and scraps of my frenzied days as a mother who writes and a writer who mothers. For nearly eighteen years, my Mother's Notebook has been my passport to motherhood, and my pen the needle on the compass that points my way.

From before my children started preschool until now as they look ahead to college, I have written almost every day because, at every step along the way, there is so much to sort through and so much to say. In the pages of my Mother's Notebook, I have written about the moments I will never forget and the moments I would otherwise never remember. I have written about having too little time and too much to do. I have written about pockets and closets and toy chests, and about all the things I have saved or lost. I have written about names and nicknames, busyness and boredom, grief and gratitude and guilt. I have written about planning ahead, and about improvising along the way. I have written about holding on and letting go. I have written about my children's missteps and my own mistakes, and about forgiveness. I have written about mothering my mother, and about longing for the woman she once was. I have written about seeing myself in a magnifying mirror because motherhood exposes every blemish and scar. I have written about the softening of my body, especially my heart, and the sharpening of my vision, because once I became a mother, I saw things I didn't see before. Scribbled in black on white, the pages of my Mother's Notebook illuminate what it means to be a mother in all its colors and complexities and contradictions. And as I keep on writing, I hear the echoes of mothers everywhere—across the canyons of race and place and time—singing the universal song of motherhood.

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Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Garrigues

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