So how does a completely immersed mom claw herself out of the abyss of early motherhood?
For me, it started with writing a book and ended with raising a hammer.
Let’s start with the Book…
Last November I told my family that I would be writing a novel that month. You see, every November there’s a month-long writers marathon called the National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo. The challenge is pretty straight-forward: Writers and hopeful writers commit to writing at least 50,000 words—about 1,600 words a day—and at the end of the month they will have completed the rough draft for a small novel—or be well on their way to a draft for a longer one.
I heard about the challenge several years before, when I was pregnant with my third baby, and I’d spent the previous two Novembers wishing I could participate. It just seemed impossible for me to take on, with toddlers and young children, tight finances and a mountain of responsibilities.
Besides, I had no confidence in myself as a fiction writer. It seemed a silly outlet for my scant free time. I was a writer, yes, I knew that. Before having children, I’d worked as a newspaper reporter, always writing other people’s stories and always on a tight deadline—and never with three young children clinging to my legs. Since becoming a mom I had written a little, but it was non-fiction as well, maintaining my own “mommy blog” and writing and blogging about all things parenthood for PEPS. I love writing. I’m not happy if I’m not doing it at least a tiny bit.
But creating a story from thin air? What made me think I could do that? And how could I abandon my family and my responsibilities for something that seemed so flighty, so self-indulgent, something that would turn out terrible anyway?
So I kept ignoring the story that had been building in me in the midst of my busy days mothering. It started as a waking dream that danced along my subconscious—but then it began reoccurring. After I while, I found myself actively building on the story, all in my head. I saw this inner storytelling as a way to entertain myself during the many hours I sat prone, immobile but still awake, doing the nighttime work of mothering. It became an escape during the day as well, something to turn to as I watched my toddlers play or wiped up their many messes.
I never could find time to write my story down. I kept it inside, losing whole people and worlds to my own foggy-headedness. It was fun, telling myself a story. But eventually, I wanted to get it on paper.
NaNoWriMo seemed the perfect way to force myself to get it all out. Every year I told myself that when my youngest started preschool I’d take the plunge. To wait just a little bit longer.
Well, when last fall rolled around, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I decided to just do it. It seemed impossible—my busy toddler was with me 24-hours a day and my other two daughters were only in pre-K and first grade—but I was going to do it anyway. Even if no one else would ever read my book. In fact, I promised myself no one would ever read it but me. I had no dreams of publication, of wowing others with its prose. I longed simply for permission to write.
Seven years of constant immersive motherhood had taken their toll on me. I was sad, and angry and sometimes I felt trapped in my life. I was doing this for me.
It meant they were all going to be seeing a little less of me. I constantly fought the urge to bag the whole thing. But I knew that I needed it—desperately. I listened as the little voice inside me told my family that this was important. For whatever reason, this was the thing I had chosen for myself, and I was going to do it.
I made some time for writing during my everyday life. It meant my husband taking a few mornings off work, my parents taking the girls for a few hours here and there, and my kids getting better at self-entertaining.
It meant dishes piled in the sink, saying no to all of the other things that crept in, and leaning on other people for help even though I felt embarrassed to do it. It meant making my own needs a priority even though they felt more like self-indulgent desires. The writing came slowly and steadily, feeling at times awkward, pointless and boring. I kept going.
But most of my writing was done during the two overnight trips I took away from my family. I left my family overnight for the first time ever—and then I did it again 10 days later.
For my first trip, I took the train to Portland, writing frantically the whole time. The words poured out of me with so much force that my fingers raced across the keyboard to catch up, cramping from their years of atrophy. I hardly looked up. I remember being shocked when we pulled into Union Station. I spent the day catching up with college friends. We had powerful, grown-up conversations I hadn’t realized I’d so badly needed. Then I spent the night and most of the next day writing. Again, furiously.
When the train came to a stop at King Street Station I looked up to see my two older daughters pressing their faces against the station window to greet me. The baby was asleep in my husband’s arms. That weekend I wrote 12,000 words. The story was taking form and became easier to write, even in the 15 or 20-minute chunks I carved out back at home.
Approaching the end of NaNoWriMo, I had only 30,000 words. I told myself the final count didn’t matter. I was proud of myself anyway. It had seemed so impossible and I had come so far. I had listened to myself and prioritized my needs for the first time since 2009. It felt good. Finishing didn’t really matter. It wasn’t really the point.
My mother-in-law and her partner came to town for Thanksgiving. After a few days visiting, I left again, this time on the ferry to Kingston. I drove to Port Townsend and stayed overnight with my mom, who was teaching there for a few weeks. I barely slept. I wrote my story.
On the ferry home, I checked my word count. I was up to almost 45,000 words and there were three days remaining in November. It hit me then that I might really do this thing. I was going to have to sprint, but I was going to actually finish.
At the end of the month, I had written 50,070 words. I did it! It felt so good to be proud of myself for something that existed completely outside of my life as a mother. A few weeks later, I sat down and read my book. My rough draft wasn’t complete. It felt like I was only about halfway through the story, and it was really rough. But it wasn’t terrible. Maybe, someday, I could edit and revise it to the point of sharing it with others.
Beyond accomplishing that huge and fulfilling goal, I felt like myself again. Everyone was fine. Especially me. I had learned how to carve out meaningful time for myself, spend time away from my family, and that everyone else would be OK when I did.
Actually, I learned that everyone would be better off if I made space for my needs too. I finally saw my own needs as being interwoven with my family’s, and saw that when they were ignored too long, it actually hurt everyone. My overwhelm, my depletion, my powering through, all of the sacrifices I was making on behalf of everyone else—well, it hadn’t been good for them either. Taking care of me was part of taking care of them.
I’ve written another 35,000 words since then and am gearing up to finish it during my second NaNoWriMo, happening right now. After that, I’ll be editing, polishing and even sharing my book with others.
I am determined to find a way to parent my kids well while still feeling like I exist outside them. And my book was the first big step in that direction.
Next up, the Hammer.
This piece is the second in a series called “Beyond Baby Steps.” The series will explore my journey out of the early survival years of parenting.
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 8, Ruby, 6, and Nora, 3. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.