Last weekend was Mothers’ Day, and on that day I am reminded (by myself) of one of my favorite quotes, by George Bernard Shaw.
He said: “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to the country and to Mankind is to bring up a family. But, because there is nothing to sell, there is a general disposition to regard a married woman’s work as no work at all, and to take it as a matter of course that she should not be paid for it.”
When my children were little, I didn’t want anyone raising them but me. On the other hand, I didn’t just want to sit around rendering the greatest social service ever to the country and to Mankind by guiding the development of a handful of future happy, productive, self-sufficient citizens. I wanted to achieve some level of financial success as well – sort of like having your Mammon and eating it, too. I thought for a long time that I could make money as a writer. I took as my model author Jean Kerr, who I discovered back in my late teens. She and her husband, theatre critic Walter Kerr, had six children. I admired the fact that she managed to raise her family and write 10 or so Broadway plays (one of them a Tony award winner) and four books (which are among my favorites ever, and which I reread with regularity).
I think the secret to her success, at least in part, was that she didn’t write at home. In her most popular book, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, she explained that she would go and sit out in her car and write there, where there was little to distract her. I think the rest of the secret was that she had a maid.
I didn’t have a maid. Still, I decided that I was a writer and I let people know it.
My friends sometimes used to ask me how I found the time to write with four children.
“I don’t write with four children,” I would assure them. “I use a word processor.”
Which I thought was really funny, but they just looked at me like my brains were addled, and I suppose they were, because finding time to write in spite of – not with – four children was something of a challenge that I was not always equal to meeting.
It’s all very different now because the children are grown, or nearly grown, so I have a lot more time in which not to write. No sense in spiting them when they’re not around to appreciate it. But even back in those youthful days it was always very easy to put off writing because, first of all, I only wrote when I felt like it, and it was a feeling that came and went, kind of like the children. Still, when it did come and I was thinking about it, it did no good unless I had a pen and paper handy with which to take action immediately, because as soon as an idea came into my head, I’d say, "Oh!" And then the scenario would continue something like this:
First I think, "Man, I ought to write that down!” Then I think, "Where's a pen and some paper?" There isn’t any handy, so I go to find some, and on the way I see a rubber band (or paper clip) lying on the floor, and I stop and pick it up and go to put it away, and then I think, “What was I going to do?"
Then one of my kids calls me to come smash a giant spider crawling up the wall, and I yell back, "Smash it yourself! I'm busy!" Then they start crying and carrying on about how this huge black widow tarantula is going to bite the baby if I don't come right away, so I hurry down the stairs (after all, the baby had been known to pick up bumblebees now and then and try to eat them), and I see all four children standing around in a huddle, doing little jigs and pointing at the wall. I look and it's this minuscule little teensy spider scurrying away probably in terror from the kids, so I tell them if they don’t want the spider in the house they can just carry it outside. Then they cry out "Ew! Gross! No way!" and make gagging sounds, so I tell them to be quiet, and they don't, but one has to choose ones battles carefully in situations like these so I let it go, and then I think, "What was I going to do?" and then I think, "Oh, yeah, I was picking up stuff off the floor." So I look at the floor and see that the kids have left all their toys out, so I tell them to pick up their toys, and then I go balance the checkbook because it gives me a sense of usefulness.
And that’s how I managed to forget for one more day that I hadn’t written, even when I wanted to.
But not all mornings were like that. I remember one morning in particular that was different. That morning the baby woke up at 5:00 a.m. – which was really 4:00 a.m. to me because we had just set our clocks back the day before for Daylight Savings Time, which is why I remember that day, but none of us had internalized the time change yet – so the baby woke up at really 4:00 a.m. and was feverish and crying and kept trying to throw up but wouldn't. Finally, after I rocked him for a couple of hours, it got to be 7:00 a.m. (really 6:00 a.m.) and he fell back asleep, so I thought, "Boy, what'll I do with all this free time before the other kids wake up?" But before I could even put the baby back to bed, his just older sister woke up so it was too late. However, since she was nearly three years old, I figured she could pretty much take care of herself, so I got her breakfast ready, then went upstairs and decided to look at my checkbook in an attempt to take a more sober point of view about life.
Then I saw the PC monitor on my desk staring me in the face, and this image came into my mind of a set of scales, like the one Blind Justice holds, with me sitting at the computer, writing, on one side of the scale, and a more sober point of view about life sitting on the other side. I could see the scales going up and down, up and down, and finally coming to rest, with the side with me and the computer tapping the ground ever so lightly, and I thought, "I'll write instead." So I took a deep breath and prepared to boot up the computer, when I was interrupted with a flow of questions from a flow of children:
1) Mommy, what matches with this shirt?
2) Can I play with the Lincoln Logs?
3) Should I brush my teeth now?
4) What's today?
5) Did you say she could play with the Lincoln Logs?
6) What's three plus four?
7) Do I have to wear socks?
8) Is the baby asleep?
9) Then why is his door open?
10) How do you work the Lincoln Logs?
11) Why is the cat throwing up?
And so on. It made me want to boot up my children. And that reminds me of another of my favorite quotes:
“A child should never hear aught from its mother’s lips but persuasive gentleness; and this becomes impossible, if she is very much with her children.”
I don’t know who said it, but if I ever finish writing a book, I’ll dedicate it to them.
Anyway, by 10:00 a.m. (really 9:00 a.m.) the baby was still asleep and everyone else was playing happily with the Lincoln Logs (except the cat, who had been banished to the garage), and I’d lost the will to write in a haze of sleepiness from being up so early, so I decided to lie down for just one minute. And one minute was all I got, because sixty-one seconds later my oldest daughter materialized next to my bed and said, "Do I have to brush my teeth?"
Daughter: Did everyone else?
Daughter: They did?
Me: Because it's part of your morning chores.
Daughter (with great surprise): It is?
Daughter: I didn't know that.
Me (refraining from telling her that she's only been doing it since shortly after she first grew teeth): Well, it is.
Daughter: Why is this sticker on your desk?
Me: Because it is. Go brush your teeth.
Daughter: But why is it?
Me: Go brush your teeth!
Daughter (taking the hint): I'll ask you about it later.
Then I heard the other two girls singing the snake-charmer's song (the snake-charmer’s song was the only tune they knew all the way through at the time, so they sang it a lot, like thirty or forty times in a row), and the baby coughing, and the cat scratching on the garage door, and the scales swung wildly, and I fell out and the computer fell out and so did the sober point of view about life. Then we all decided to fingerpaint instead.
When I think about being a writer, and when I see all the zillions of books by the same 20 or 30 authors that come through the Bottom Shelf on a daily basis, I'm reminded of yet another of my favorite quotes, this one by the writer Flannery O’Connor:
“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
My children were good teachers. They have rendered a great service to the country and to Mankind.