The ambition of a writer who's also a mother

Up through my twenties, I had very little ambition. I mean, I wanted to be a novelist someday, but it wasn't urgent. I had no drive to make money, or impress people, or achieve much of anything.

For reasons beyond my understanding, that all changed when I started blogging. Mikko was three months old when I started Hobo Mama. Especially as the blog grew, I discovered in myself a passion to make something of myself, to be professional, to be taken seriously as a writer.

And yet, even now, even still, four and a half years later, I wrestle with that tension: ambition vs. motherhood, writing vs. parenting, success vs. fear. It's hard to say which will win, at any given moment and over time.

When I blog and when I work on my novel and other projects, or even when I do the business taxes for our family or work on my sewing, I feel the age-old guilt of a mother otherwise engaged. I am not paying attention to my children. I am devoting myself to something other.

But I also feel the spark of that other within me driving me on, compelling me to create, to do, to pursue. When I let it go for a time, I feel stagnant. But when I fall too headlong into it, it becomes repellant to me — what I become seems repellant to me.

Where does this tension come from?

I have to blame some of it on the inherent misogyny of our culture, that says women are not meant to have ambition, that mothers especially are created to be content with their narrow lot in life, raising other people to pursue dreams instead and watching them flourish. I reject this even as I am steeped in it, like black tea, and cannot scrub the cultural stain of it out of myself as easily as splashing myself with the clear water of more modern thought.

Some of it also is truth: I have children because I want to. I am married because I love my partner. I am part of a real-life community that is important to me. I don't want to sacrifice them all on the altar of my work. I do want time for them, and balance.

But I'm amazed and dismayed at how often I feel sheepish about my ambition, even within myself. I self-published a book of parenting poetry and have hardly promoted it. It was a lark, I've told myself, a print-on-demand experiment. No biggie. But others I talk to speak of it with reverence: "You have your own book," they'll say. And I'll question why I am not as impressed with my successes as they are. In how many ways like this do I sell myself short, see myself as less than, present myself to the world as not to be taken seriously?

Why does the idea of being taken seriously scare me so much?

My husband has given up a lot, and graciously, willingly, to allow me time to write and blog. I have little financially concrete to show for it. He doesn't care, but I'm embarrassed by it. It's culturally acceptable, I know, for a woman to have a hobby that nets her some pin money while the man pulls in the bucks they live on, but this doesn't seem fair to me, or in line with what I want for our partnership.

What is my measure of success when it comes to my blogging or writing? What if in ten years I've earned not a penny more from my writing, but I have a large and caring online community around me still? Is that failure? What if I haven't sold my novels but have enjoyed the writing? Is that humiliation? What will my children think as they grow if I've worked nearly full-time hours on writing and that's the result? Will they be proud regardless? Will I be proud of myself?

For now, I live in the tension. The woman who strives to be professional but dabbles in self-deprecation, the mother who yearns for external success but knows that success can also be measured in diapers changed and bedtime stories read, the writer who puts one word and then another on the screen.

What holds you back from following your ambitions? How do you balance your passions with your responsibilities?


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