9 min read

‘How Can I Work, Write, and Be Part of a Family?’

Hi there,

Most of us think of writing as a solitary pursuit. But today’s letter reminded me of what there is to be lost when we write without each other. The Reading started in empty classrooms and dark bars; it started on those afternoons and nights not writing, but talking about how to write.

What I love about literature, I want you to have: I want you to know that you’re not alone. You don’t have to write a word in order to believe yourself a writer; don’t have to win prizes for what you say to matter. The Reading is about your voice in the dark. The Reading is about calling back.

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Photo by Yanyi: A six-story triangle-shaped building stands straight on a corner in Paris, France. The street on the left slopes down toward you with a few cars parked on the side. The street to the right slopes down from you, with bikes and cars parked as well. Looking at both streets disorients, puts you off-balance. Two crosswalks mark the sides of the corner.
Hi Yanyi,

A few years ago I completed an MFA. I’d been writing for over a decade but didn’t feel like I was getting any better - I needed help, and a community, and that’s exactly what I found there. But one of the things that year exposed was the disconnect between my partner’s view of writing and my own.

When I signed up to that MFA, it felt like permission to find a routine that worked for me, a year to really make something of my writing practice without the demands of 9-5 work. Except even that year was something of a disappointment. Instead of liberating me to treat my writing like a ‘real’ job, something legitimately worth spending my time on, as the year wore on my partner got more and more frustrated with my lack of flexibility, my commitment to the book.  

It was as though she thought of it as my hobby - that year my sabbatical from ‘real’ life - and I thought of it as my vocation.

That’s not really improved since. We have a child now, and I’m back in a full-time job, and so opportunities to write are more scarce than ever. In an ideal world I’d be up early in the morning, writing my book before anyone else awakes, carving out time on the weekends to write. In practice, that never happens: if I wake up early, my partner can’t get back to sleep; if I don’t go out with my family on the weekends, then not only is my partner left to do solo child care, but I miss out on the formative years of my child’s life.

I love my family, Yanyi, and I love my partner. My times with them have been the most rewarding experiences of my life, and watching my child grow has changed me profoundly. But I feel like I need to write, and my window for doing so shrinks every day. The last book I completed, written in the gaps, nearly broke me - and the prospect of writing another is daunting to say the least.  

These days I’m not sure whether I was ever right to see writing as a vocation - and justify all those nights spent typing alone in the office, every one taking me away from my partner - or whether that was the wrong perspective all along. And I’m also not sure whether my expectations of what it might mean for my partner to be supportive are realistic or monstrous. I know I’m asking a lot of her, and yet the infrastructure of our life is set up in such a way that everything seems designed to stop me writing.

Truthfully I’m starting to wonder how I can work, write and be part of a family, and of those things, the only one I can compromise on is writing. I don’t want to do that, but I can’t see any other way. Perhaps you can.

Thanks,

Happily Married But

Dear HMB,

In some ways, I’m the least qualified person to answer to the dilemma you’re describing here. I’ve lived alone for the better part of the last decade and I’ve technically never been a parent. I’ve only struggled with writing with a full-time job, never mind taking care of a helpless tiny human while also trying to be there for a partner. Yet, so much came up for me when I read your letter, and I wonder if there’s something in there that might help your thinking and situation.

Right now, you feel like the “infrastructure of [your] life is set up” to “stop [you] writing.” You have a full-time job, I assume, because you need to keep the lights on at home. I will assume, too, that your partner is also working full-time, whether that’s as a stay-at-home parent or with some other job. To top it all off, if your kid is school-age, then both of you are double-timing as their virtual school supervisors and playmates, too. Quarantining during the pandemic has forced us to confront the realities of our home life with more frequency and honesty. It has forced all of us to ask: Is this what I want the shape of my life to look like? Will I ever have power to change it?

HMB, I hear the distress in your voice by the end of your letter. I can hear the mornings you tried to wake up but couldn’t, the weekends you wished you had, and the binds between materially surviving, your family, and your writing. I relate to what you said at the very beginning: that writing is your vocation, not a hobby. I relate to the vulnerability of saying that about something you do: that it is a necessary element of your life. Something you do for yourself and no one else. It can seem silly to say out loud that something so “useless” should mean so much to you.

I was the oldest daughter in an immigrant family, which meant becoming a de-facto third parent for my siblings from when I was still in elementary school. My mother likes to joke that I was not the third but second parent, standing in for my father who often stayed late at work, books and articles piling up in the physical space of his absence. She often told me how she gave up everything when she immigrated, explaining that her life’s fulfillment was her children.

When I became an adult, I couldn’t help but feel a duty to share everything with my family—my home, my finances, my resources, and, most of all, the trajectory of my life. Writing, obviously, never came up as part of that. My parents needed me to be a certain person. My success was their success. That need consumed me, but it had nothing to do with me.

The reason I bring all this up, HMB, is that I see some of what I went through in what you describe. When I came out and stopped speaking to my parents, I was declaring myself as someone separate from them. Someone with needs that had nothing to do with them. Someone whose desires, no matter how trivial or sinful, deserved to be honored. I had lived a life accountable to their needs, their desires. I wanted a life accountable to my own.

Perhaps, like me, you are used to these extremes. Either you continuously punt on your writing or you work on it stubbornly, afraid that if you stop, you won’t get another chance. Each situation is an overcorrection of the last.

When you did your MFA program, you were gulping down the opportunity like water out of the desert. But you mention that your partner was frustrated by your lack of flexibility, your commitment to your book. Now, you’re back on the other end, with writing spiraling out of your own control due to other priorities. Perhaps you both fear missing out on your kid’s life and being the absent parent who selfishly abandons them to work on a make-believe vocation.

While you might be exasperated or even angered by your partner’s frustration around your writing, you’re also afraid that your partner is right and that she’s bearing the brunt of your selfishness. You’re afraid that what you need to work is unfair to what she might want or need, too.

Your fears are not unwarranted. As much as I broke away from a family struggling with boundaries, I also grew up watching my father disappear to escape us and do his work. I watched my mother work full-time while doing childcare, housework, and keeping dinner on the table, all without much input or help from him. I fear becoming Emerson waiting for his mother to drop off meals at his cabin. I fear reproducing millennia of cheating femme and nonbinary people of their own lives because we were all socialized to disappear for men’s. But most of all, I fear becoming my father, eating alone in the kitchen, late at night.

Ursula K. Le Guin said once in an interview that “[o]ne person cannot do two full-time jobs, but two persons can do three full-time jobs — if they honestly share the work.” This thought has followed me often since I read it a few years ago. The tricky thing is not the sharing: it’s understanding, honestly, what the work actually is. The tricky thing is figuring out, through all the distorted ways we were taught to communicate, how to get through to each other with what we’re most afraid to say.

That duty I felt to my parents? It was the only way I had been taught to acknowledge the love they had given me. It was the only version of I love you that they understood. There were a slew of other things we were afraid to say as well. I need you and I miss you. I’m afraid and I don’t know what to do.

Perhaps you’ve been paying close attention to your partner’s judgments of your writing because you were taught to be accountable for someone else’s needs to the point of neglecting your own. Sometimes, when you’ve denied yourself the things you most need, your anger and frustration turn outward toward whatever they’ll latch onto. But most of us have been taught to hide these ugly feelings away. Most of the time, they latch onto the people closest and most intimate to us. Writing is just the tip of the iceberg. What else do you deny yourself? How long will it be before you see your family as an impediment to your existence?

HMB, maybe you and your partner are both compromising first on what you most need for yourselves. You mentioned that “[i]t is as though” your partner “thought of [writing] as [your] hobby,” but have you asked her directly if that’s what she really feels? Is she really in over her head in housework and childcare? Is she not trivializing your dreams, but trying to voice her own needs?

Do you know what your partner dreams of accomplishing, still, in her life, or what she might do with her own sabbatical? Have you asked? Would you be willing to honor it as much as your own? You and your partner need to understand not your child’s needs or the needs of the house but the needs and desires you have for your lives, perhaps with a trusted therapist.

The letter I’m writing to you is only possible because right now, my partner is picking up our week’s groceries and dropping off our packages. It’s still hard for me to say yes when they ask if it would help me if they took on some more errands this week, even harder for me to ask them proactively, just as it’s hard for them to let me take on some bills, some nights when they need someone to listen.

We all deserve to be accountable to ourselves. In partnerships, this means being honest with yourself as much as each other. It means laying out your dreams, no matter how wild yours seem; it means really listening to, and believing in, the value of theirs. The work is more than closing the office door: it’s the dishes and laundry, the days we lose to grief, the moments in your child’s life when they need to be reminded you are there. All this, too, is the work. All this, too, is your life.

There are countless ways the work can be done. There is more when we share what we have and what we need. Allow yourself the gift of giving each other the freedom to choose, just a little. Maybe you’ll write at night, not the morning. Maybe you’ll trade days with your kid at the park. Someone else will make the coffee. Another one might make the bed.

A partnership is a life twice-lived. You’re not sacrificing for each other—you’re building the biggest life you’d both want to live. Do the work and love the life. If you remind each other, in words and in actions, you will actualize the dreams neither of you could have managed alone.


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