by Elizabeth Austin
During the last week of March, I was visiting Portland, Oregon, attending the 2019 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair. It was my first AWP, and I went into it imagining all the panels I was going to attend, the writers I would see, and wondering whether I would get a chance to meet my hero humans (hi, Danez Smith).
That week was also one in only a handful of times I have spent away from my children, with friends, in a new city rife with potential for exploration . . . and I am an adventurer. I am also a solo parent, my kids’ father having left years ago with no further contact. I am the sole individual in charge of the lives of myself and my two children. It can be really tiring.
So tiring that, almost as soon as I deplaned in PDX, I realized my attendance at the conference was going to be spotty at best; as it turned out, I probably could have gotten away with just a day pass. I spent the week half in guilt for not soaking up every part of the conference, and half in rapture at being able to wake up at 10 a.m. and order a delivery of edible cookie dough for breakfast and read until the lunch plan texts began.
Every few hours I would mentally berate myself; here was one of the most exciting literary events of the year, a chance to network, to glean advice and information, to listen to some of my favorite writers speak and read. I had flown all this way, paid for flights and lodging and childcare, and I was going to blow the whole thing—I needed a break that badly.
A close friend from graduate school was also attending the conference, and she persuaded me to go to a panel discussion on the balancing act that is parenting while working while writing. It seemed exactly the kind of thing I was there for: insight into how better to manage my beast of a life and all its messy components.
Although the panelists were well-spoken and compassionate, and while there was much to take away from the panel, ultimately I left with more questions than answers. I respect the challenges of these writers and the insight they shared, but none of their experiences mirrored my own. They were all academics, employed full-time, homeowners with health insurance and partners who were also mostly academics.
I wanted to ask, not to be antagonistic, but out of genuine curiosity: Have any of you been in the position I am in? Raising children alone while working, at one point attending a graduate program with a 4- and 5-year-old, trying to fit writing in between all the other essential things, living with your mother? My cup of anxieties runneth over.
Often discussions of time and making time and who has the most time and resources turn into pseudo-competitions of who has the harder life, which is not the discussion I am looking to prompt. There will always be someone struggling more and less than you are struggling, there will always be someone more and less privileged than you. Representation is what fosters healthy discussion, and representation is what I was hoping for and found lacking. It is a specific kind of exhaustion not to see yourself reflected in what you hoped would be a mirror. In the panelists’ defense, you don’t know what you don’t know, and we are all learning. To get to the meat of it, where does writing fall in all of this crowded life-living?
As it turns out, almost nowhere.
Writing often falls so far to the wayside of my life that sometimes I forget it’s a thing I do. I don’t need to write, but I need to write. I have a great job, and it, combined with some side gigs, is enough to live on. Writing is not my career (yet), it isn’t a moneymaker wheel that I need to keep turning, and so it often gets bucketed into the extras: things I can do if I have the time, piled into the same cobwebbed mental closet as yoga and running and getting my hair cut. In the grand scheme of my life, writing has become another chore to keep up with.
The not-writing is a slow-burn anxiety; I don’t notice it until the whole house is on fire and I’m bursting with ALL THE THINGS and I need to get them onto a page immediately, dinner and laundry and lunch with coworkers be damned. I am trying to prevent this pileup of creative energy, and in the absence of outside advice, I have formulated some of my own.
Life, for me, is like a beany, many-vegetabled soup. It’s delicious, it’s complicated, the ingredients don’t all come together at the same time, and not everything is going to make it into every bite. Some spoonfuls are all mushy, unsalted potatoes, while others teem with texture and warmth.
It’s the old adage: you make time for the things that are important. Except I can’t manufacture time. Laundry takes the time it takes, and there’s only so fast I can fold. There are no shortcuts to completed homework. In fact, the faster I try to spur my children along, the more frustrated they become, the less learning gets done. I cannot fit ten minutes of yoga into five. The oft-offered advice of make time for your writing isn’t useful if it isn’t realistic.
Still, I try. At night, after work, and my commute to and from work, and homework, and dinner, and showers, and brushing teeth, and arguments over LEGOs and desserts and shoes by the door, after the TV has been turned off and the electronics are on the chargers and I’ve taken a minute to stare at the wall, I try to write.
My poems have come at the expense of my children’s bedtime stories, their homework, the dishes, the laundry, and lunches spent connecting with my coworkers. They have come at the expense of hours of desperately-needed sleep and times when I wanted to see my friends. My computer is filled with half-completed poems, not because I lost the thread or because I hit a block, but because the rice boiled over or there was a fight over who the Harry Potter castle LEGOs belong to or whose foot is on whose leg. My hard drive is a boneyard of poems interrupted.
Here is a messy truth: my children and I have been pulling shirts and jeans out of a knee-high pile of clothing in my bedroom for two weeks, but damn if I didn’t get a poem written, polished, and sent out. To me, it was worth it.
Recently, I texted my best friend: “I’m writing a post on balancing work, writing, and solo parenting and it’s overdue and I’m polishing it up on my lunch break and I feel like that sums up the entire process. Plot twist: there is no balance, it’s all chaos.”
Each day is a bag of things and each day I pull from it what I can.
What I wouldn’t give for an extra set of hands.
Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Foliate Oak, Driftwood Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, 3Elements Review, and Sybil. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with her two children. Find her on Instagram at @elizabethbeingqueen.