Shall I Compare Thee?: Parenting Thoughts from a Poet’s Desk

by Jessica Towns

I was five months pregnant when I waddled into my first poetry class on the heels of a gifted poet friend. There, with the help of a dedicated teacher, I saw another side of the thing I’d hated most in high school English. I found an outlet for my feelings as I transitioned into parenthood, and then it became something more. I burned through notebook after notebook practicing the difficult yet satisfying craft.

These days, when my three year-old wanders off to play by herself or with an unfortunate cat, I tiptoe to my computer to indulge in poetry, now a habit as much as a hobby. I’ve noticed parallels between parenting and writing poems—elements of the creative process that shed light on my job as a mother.

I am part of something bigger than myself.

When I write, I think of myself as the steward of a gift rather than an omnipotent creator. I didn’t invent language. I didn’t create love, nature, death, or any of those things poets like to talk about. I take joy in what already exists. Likewise, I didn’t piece together my child’s DNA. I lovingly accept the unique individual I’ve been given and go from there. My job in each case is to care and nurture—to make each gift the best it can be. I find this attitude keeps me humble and grateful, and it lends a sense of connectedness with the long-standing traditions I participate in.

I can’t count on praise.

There’s an ever-present urge to find external validation for what I do. I spend so much time in these exhausting, unpaid endeavors, and there is no great metric to gauge how well I’m doing.  I won’t win a Pulitzer (I had to fight with the word processor to even spell Pulitzer), and as much as I would love it if someone would burst through my kitchen with balloons and a trophy every time I get my kid to eat broccoli, it’s not going to happen.

I have to find my own ways to define success. Is my daughter healthy and learning? Am I cringing less at my poems over time? Then great. If I’m lucky, someone will appreciate my efforts after I’m dead.

I learn by doing.

Only so much can be gleaned from books and classes. I’ve memorized the formula for a Petrarchan sonnet in full iambic pentameter, but it doesn’t mean I’m churning them out. I’ve filled my head with scripts to mitigate meltdowns, but it takes many tries before I can execute these to any effect.  I do things wrong more often than not, but I accept my mistakes as part of the ongoing learning process. To do anything well requires hands-on practice.

I am good enough.

One of the rougher parts of parenting, and poeming, and life in general, is the temptation to compare my work to others’. I’m skilled at curating lists of the ways I don’t measure up. Some people write beautiful poems in ten minutes, when it can take me months. And did you know there are parents who have never fed their children fast food? Ugh.

It helps to take a broader view. As a reader, I love to experience a wide variety of poetry. It would be a sad life if only the few best books were allowed to populate the shelves. And even sadder if there was only one type of person, raised by one type of parent. The best artists are in touch with their own strengths and bring their unique selves to their work, so as imperfect as my efforts may feel, I recognize the value in what I have to contribute.

The work leads me.

The most thrilling moment in a creative venture is when a work-in-progress takes on a life of its own. The process shifts, and I am no longer making, but guiding. I let go of my preexisting ideas and adapt to what’s in front of me. Nothing ruins a poem faster than a poet’s agenda. I hope to approach parenting with an artist’s ear—learning all I can about my her and nudging her in the right direction. Not allowing her tender self to be crushed under the weight of my expectations.

The final product is not mine.

Finally, there is a moment when my work has to stand on its own. I surrender my influence and hand a poem over to its readers. I don’t get to keep it at my desk and spend my whole life “perfecting” it, and I don’t want to. Just like I’ll have to let my daughter move out someday and live her own life. My job right now is to equip her to live without me. This is the heartbreaking beauty of the lives of poets and parents—at some point, whether or not it feels finished, the work will be over.

Some of my writer friends brought me a sticker from a conference they attended. It reads, “Poetry: I’m in it for…” then a blank line. Resisting the urge to write “the money”, I wrote “the joy,” dotting the j with a small heart. This sticker hangs on my bulletin board as a daily reminder. There are days of writing that make me want to rip my hair out and burn my notebooks. There are days of parenting that make me want to rip my hair out and skip town. Yet there is profound, underlying joy in both these things: taking on the responsibility for shaping something bigger than myself, trying to make a positive mark on the world, and being forever changed by the process.

About the Author

Jessica Towns is a full-time mom and two-time PEPS graduate. She lives in Shoreline with her husband Will and daughter Ravenna, and spends her limited free time writing and drinking a lot of coffee. Jessica holds a civil engineering degree from Seattle University.

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