I have one hand on the wheel and the other stuck in a box of tissues on the passenger seat.
It’s 90 degrees out but I have the AC and the radio off so I can hear my husband’s voice on the phone as I navigate through another construction zone in our rapidly-growing city. A sinus infection muffles my ear, an affront to the gorgeous July blue outside, and my version of hands-free driving is cranking the speaker on my cheap flip phone, face up on the center console. (Yes, in 2017.)
“You need to be fierce,” I tell him. “If you’re doing too much production work and it’s depressing, you need to make time to just mess around with the forge and the hammer again.”
My husband’s a blacksmith with a small production business. He forges tools for other small businesses, on top of the one-off knives, rings, and sculpture he loves to make.
I check the time on the dash — 25 minutes before I need to relieve the babysitter — and pull into the post office parking lot. There should be a check in the mail from an article I wrote, and I need it to pay the babysitter for the writing time I had this morning. I feel a little like the man making goldfish in One Hundred Years of Solitude, forging fish after fish and then melting them down to start all over again.
I cradle the phone under my ear as I turn the key on our PO Box. “Maybe that means staying late some nights, or going in early, or turning something down — I don’t know,” I continue. “You might have to piss some people off. Including me.”
This advice I’m giving him may as well be for myself. Or maybe I offer it because of how fiercely I’ve been fighting lately, for my own creative work.
Our daughter was born over a year ago, and it has been hard, harder than we thought it would be, to return to our projects. Perhaps more surprising, for me, is how little I wanted to write at all in the beginning.
Those first months were too consumed with learning how to be parents — and trying to cling to a vestige of mental and physical health — to be worried about much else.
The seismic identity shifts of new parenthood have been so disorienting, it has taken a while to locate ourselves and our relationship through all the rubble. Through frustration at what I perceived as his inability to intuit what our baby needed, like I could. Through an utter lack of clean underwear. Through the smell of a diaper pail in August heat. Through anxiety over the first vaccines and through taking turns bouncing her on the exercise ball at 3 a.m. and through the tears of first teeth and through sleep deprivation.
All of our old ways of reconnecting were not options in those early months. I wanted a candlelight dinner; instead we dined beside piles of laundry, the baby strapped in her bouncy chair on the table between us. I wanted to repair harsh words and tension in bed; instead, for the first five months our daughter slept with us. I turned in when she did, at 7 p.m., because she’d only fall asleep nursing and startle awake if I crept out of the room.
I kept waiting to connect with my husband, holding out for a chance to catch our breath and take stock of what the last year had brought us — an opportunity that looked and felt like it did before the baby was born.
Eventually, I realized those options weren’t available and might not be coming back — maybe in a few years, but certainly not tomorrow night. Next week didn’t look good either.
So I had a choice. I could keep getting frustrated at the disparity between my expectations and reality. This option usually led to me yelling at my (exhausted, bewildered) husband for neglecting to notice that our daughter wasn’t yet skilled enough to replace her pacifier in her mouth when it fell out, and that I was tired of doing all the noticing and pacifier-replacing.
Or, I could take a good hard look at reality, and a look at the man in front of me. This guy, who was doing his best to love me and our (dependent, indescribable) new daughter.
Now that our girl is older — eating at the dinner table with us, sleeping in her own bed— we are at an oasis of possibility. An undersized oasis, sure. Maybe more of a small fish pond. But it’s something.
She takes two naps: if I let the dishes sit, I can sneak in some extra writing time. She goes to bed early: more writing tucked in around dinner and scrubbing high chair slime. Sometimes my husband goes back to the shop at night to forge.
Yet, there’s only so much room in the fish pond of possibility. If one of us takes time to nurture their creative soul, you can bet your babysitting money the other one is somewhere tending to our 14 month-old. Or picking up the mail and talking the other one through their existential crisis on makeshift speakerphone.
My husband sighs on the other end. He’s tired and an employee just put in her notice and when did it get so hard to find the time and energy to create new things—not just sandwiches, but poems and sculptures and stories and photographs? Things, for lack of which, a part of us withers and dies.
I tell him I don’t know, but I have the feeling it doesn’t get easier. If we’re going to continue to pursue the work that matters to us, it’s going to have to happen in and through the patched-together minutes of our new life as parents.
It’s too hot to think straight and I can hardly hear him, and my three-hour reprieve from being Mom just dwindled to 15 minutes. But I feel hopeful. I’m happy to have conversations like this with him: tough-love pep talks in the absolute middle of it all.
Our marriage has been transformed by having a child, but it’s been expanded, too. We’re closer, stronger, and we have a deeper appreciation for the time we do get to spend together. We’ve been forced to become more intentional about it.
Maybe it’s the same with creativity. Each of us has a relationship with our work that looks different now that we have a child. We’re each going to have to figure out how to make our cobbled-together minutes count, to rise above fatigue and frustration. To write and hammer our way through it, in our own ways, but together.
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Guest post written by Melissa Reeser Poulin. She is a poet, essayist, and freelance writer. Her most recent work appears in Hip Mama, Mothers Always Write, In Good Tilth, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. You can read more of her writings at melissareeserpoulin.com.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.