“Confessions of a Family Woman” by Chivas Sandage
“Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate…
a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
How strange it sounds: “family woman.”
But “family man” ranks as compliment or defense, connoting respect for “a responsible man of domestic habits.” Or a general term for a man, responsible or not, who has dependents. And the man who isn’t a family man, as long as he’s heterosexual, is still considered normal, manly, just a little too manly—it’s in his nature, we say.
“Family woman” does not exist in the dictionary, revealing a curious, culturally ingrained assumption that no such term is needed—to be otherwise would go against feminine nature. This ancient notion, alive and well today, sustains an old, internalized taboo: women are less likely to express ambivalence for their roles as wives and mothers, except, of course, within the context of humor. It’s one thing to complain about the behavior of your partner and/or kids, or even admit that you’re fed up and feel you can’t hack it on a particular day, but women rarely question choosing the roles. At least publicly.
In talking to my women friends, especially other mothers, I have reinforced this taboo. Regardless of how deeply I love and adore and cherish my child or how incompetent or successful I feel in my parental role from one day to the next—I have rarely admitted to the deeper ways I struggle, nor publicly questioned my own ability to be both a good mother and a good writer. I am a warm, caring, consistent mom. I am also passionate about my work. But unlike my friends who are dads, I always feel the tension between the two.
Which leads me to confess: as the mother of a tween daughter, I sometimes look forward to aging and fantasize being an old woman who spends her days in the library. There it is!
Or perhaps I just long for endless afternoons, alone, in a quiet room. Yet, I love the library for its occasional clearing of a throat, lone question, or the soft thud of books set down. These are sounds more comforting than silence: air rushing through vents, a computer’s tiny chirp, small voices of children that do not call me. I long for one full day of sounds that do not depend on me—lives being lived that do not need me, that meet with mine only by chance.
These are the fantasies of a mother, writer, partner, and teacher with only a few hours to spare, sitting at a table for one in a small town library, in a corner where there is little chance of crowds: poetry. Even if a soul or two ventures into this ghost town-like part of the library, they’re unlikely to stop, probably lost. In this way, I hide.
Yes, I confess to lust for the greatest of luxuries: time and space to explore my own mind. A room of my own, a lock on the door, a mind that’s free to think without worrying about rent. Virginia Woolf’s words have haunted me since I first read A Room of One’s Own. And when I fear that I’ll never achieve my goals against all the odds, I remember the book’s end: “…to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” And so I do. I return to my notebook, suspending disbelief in favor of passion—to read and write for ten more minutes.
In that sacred realm of the library, if I whisper aloud while putting each line down, no one will hear—I only have to share my table with a computer that’s out of order. I know to avoid sitting upstairs, even in a solitary corner, where my words flowed freely until a gentleman, hacking and steeped with smoke, took it upon himself to keep me company. Though he did not say a word, the mere presence of another, so close yet unseen on the other side of a divider was enough to silence the speaker in my head. And so, I left within minutes of his smoky arrival—the presence of another so palpable, making the air thicker and synapses slower.
The only distractions now, in the desolate aisles of poetry, are the hundreds of titles staring at me. Close by, calling as loudly as poetry, biographies about poets lure; I gravitate to them with guilt, feeling I should focus on the works themselves, not the writers. Perhaps this pull has to do with the tension between my own life and writing—a friction that threatens to explode.
I want to know: in his heyday, did Yeats have a day job?
He started out as a journalist, but eventually, did poetry feed his wife and kids? How did he do it—being both a writer and family man? I try to imagine Yeats scrubbing the insides of a baking dish instead of writing the lines that float precariously in his head. Or carrying armfuls of dirty laundry down rickety steps to a basement while contemplating rhyme schemes. Or the poem he is jotting down being hijacked by the cry of his small child—
My partner arrives, telling me—with compassionate regret—it is time to leave. I have to eat, after all, and I’ve already passed on my one chance to see the ocean during a short trip to visit family. What have I come to, that the sea lost to the library? And what was that thought I had just been thinking?
There was a line, arriving in my head. It was settling like a leaf sailing downward through the air. Then it was gone. Hijacked by the call of my life. No, my words were not hijacked; they were shot out of the sky. Not by my partner or daughter, but by my own choices and chance—starting from day 1 with fate’s lottery we call birth. A childhood in poverty followed by school loans I’ll keep paying for decades. But that’s another story. What, what was that other thought?
That last word, like a bird just shot—suspended mid-air for an instant—begins to fall, wings akimbo, down from the mind’s sky, out of sight.
I pack up paper and pen. Fold my notebook closed. I will return to that page, and other words will take the place of those lost, like the reconfiguration of birds flying after one is taken by a hunter’s bullet. Other words will rush in to fill the empty page. The new words will fly in another direction—the story, poem or essay that was becoming, will become, another.
After savoring a book with my daughter and wishing on glow-in-the-dark stars, I retire to my own bed exhausted. I pick up Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence and begin the essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” As I turn the pages, I sit up straighter. Rich describes being “determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a ‘full’ woman’s life.” She continues, “If there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster.”
Monster. The word echoes in my thoughts. On a daily basis, I wonder why my small parcels of time to read and write are not enough? What is wrong with me? While my women friends all want to have another baby, I admit to them that I’m very happy with my one, smart, beautiful daughter. Instead of another child, I want to birth a book, and then a dozen more—books already growing in me.
Tomorrow I’ll steal two hours in the library, where the rules of conduct innately protect solitude. How magical, to have a place where no one is allowed to converse at length! Or whine, scream, weep, argue, eat, or play loudly! To be—at least relatively—alone! How can I feel the loss of time to work so palpably and miss it so dearly?
I continue reading, jotting down marginalia, and thinking. In contrast to Rich’s struggle to create a “full” life that includes both children and writing, Woolf—who, of course, did not have children—articulates what’s at the core of the dilemma:
For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away.
How can I really write if I so rarely enjoy the “freedom to press on”? In my worst moments, I have caught myself considering the pros of remaining single for the rest of my life! Of course, this is not what I want—which is simply to write. So I choose between things like working at my desk and cleaning. As someone who loves a clean house, I take solace in the fact that words on paper can last forever while a dust-free house “lasts” only a few days.
In Rich’s words, I see myself: “I wanted, then, more than anything, the one thing of which there was never enough: time to think, time to write.” She describes “reading in fierce snatches, scribbling in notebooks, writing poetry in fragments…” This is my life. I read and write on the run. Advancing by even a paragraph in a book is worth it. In a notebook, I start a short story or a poem with a single line. Sometimes, just a title or a phrase. If I’m lucky: a scene, a few stanzas, paragraphs turn into pages! But usually, it can take weeks or months to return to that fragment. Yet I know it’s there. And I know a poem, essay, or even a book can grow from a line or two on the back of an envelope.
It took the lives of every woman I know or have known to teach me to teach myself to write while my daughter sleeps, dishes wait, and in every room a fine film of dust descends.
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Chivas Sandage Artist Statement:
Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. Magazine where she launched Ms. Muse, a monthly column on feminist poets and their work. She is the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her essays and poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review, and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a second collection of poems and a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.