A Much Better Mother When I Write

by Dhana Musil

Dhana Musil is a graduate of The Writers Studio at SFU. Currently, she is working on a memoir about the decade she spent in Japan’s seamy underbelly. She lives with her family and animals in West Vancouver.

“As we write we are both describing and deciding the direction that our life is taking.” —Julia Cameron


Hustle

It’s illegal to leave a child under the age of ten at home alone, but I’ve got no choice. I teach my first yoga class at six in the morning, then hustle home to wake my eight-year-old daughter, pack her lunch, and get her to school. Occasionally, I bring her to my class with me, but I hate to wake her up so early.

I teach all day, taking only a break at noon to scarf down some hummus and almonds and write for a few minutes. I always have the best intentions to work on my memoir at night, but in reality, I’m just too damn tired.

Most people think 33 is too young to write a memoir, but I have stories from the decade I spent in Asia that need to be shared.


Sister

Having just explained that she’ll be a big sister in seven months, my daughter sprints away, far up the trail ahead. When I finally catch up, thirty minutes later, I find my daughter sobbing on a rock.

“I’ll be the least loving big sister on the planet,” she cries. “Don’t count on me to babysit. Ever!”

I understand how difficult this news must be for her, and try to make her feel better by telling her I’ll throw her a big sister shower so that her friends can spoil her with gifts.

She sees through this. “It doesn’t matter. Everything will change,” she says. “This isn’t good.”

I try to take her hand but she pulls away.

“I hope you know you’ll never be a writer now.”


Dream

In my dreams, I read letters written in elegant cursive. They are the most eloquent, insightful letters I’ve ever read. Why can’t I write like this?

For a split second, there’s a flash of understanding: It’s my dream. I wrote that letter. Somewhere inside me I have the talent. I just need to channel it.

I’m woken by my infant stirring at my breast. I reach for the pen and paper on my bedside, but the words are gone. 

 


Possibility

I’m cross-legged on the floor, setting up the wooden train set with my youngest, when my partner hands me a newspaper ad. It’s for a one-year intensive creative writing course at an esteemed university. That weekend, he drops me off at the program’s information session. I have no idea how we’ll come up with the tuition, or how I will find the 20-plus hours a week to write—let alone if I will be selected. But this has to happen.

No matter what.

 


Scholarship

Not only am I accepted, but I am also granted the Writing Mothers scholarship. I am ecstatic.

For almost a year, we meet twice a week. We write. We learn. We critique. We listen. Sometimes, we cry. Alliances and friendships form. I am so grateful for the people on this journey with me, for my teachers. This human safety net allows me to walk across tightropes of trauma and self-introspection that I could never attempt alone. If it weren’t for the scholarship, I would still be sweating it out solo in the corner of my living room.

Having writing deadlines and being accountable to a teacher is a game-changer. I get up early. I stay up late. In between teaching, I put my youngest into 60-minute daycare slots at the recreation centre and write as fast as I can in the lobby coffee shop.

This human safety net allows me to walk across tightropes of trauma and self-introspection that I could never attempt alone. 

Author Joanne Arnott writes, “No, I cannot sit in cafes for hours of uninterrupted writing, or even debate; no, I cannot drink or dance or carouse until I am sated, because irrevocably the child wakes, and hungers, and needs, and I have taken on the gift-task of responding. Finding the way through, for me, meant making friends with structure: locating and exploiting the opportunities that did exist, to practice my craft, and learning to create new ones.”

For me, finding the way through means attending my monthly writing group and borrowing people’s apartments and cottages for the weekend to sit on the floor and brainstorm. It’s sending my toddler off to stay with my mother for a few days and it’s a night to myself in a hotel room. Door locked. Words down.

Sometimes it feels like it’s all too much—parenting a toddler and a teen, teaching, taking the deep emotional dives my memoir requires. While I can’t stop mothering and I can’t stop working, I can stop writing. But I don’t want to. And that wouldn’t be good for anyone. Like Arnott mentions, I need to continue to locate and exploit the opportunities that exist because I’m a much better mother when I write.

I am a much better mother when I write.


Validation

At first, I thought I wanted to write this memoir for my daughters as a how-not-to-live prescriptive. To spare them from making the same mistakes I had made. But is this still the right approach? Do they need to know about the abortion? The STDs? The drug use? I censor my writing because of my girls. I edit. Question. Add. Delete.

I write short stories, ones that will hopefully become chapters of my memoir. A few are published in anthologies. I’m even invited to read at a writer’s festival—my name is on the poster, my hotel room with the oceanview is paid for. I am confident that if I could quit working so much and focus on my writing, I could make a go of it. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option because we need my teaching income, little as it is.


Sacrifice

My husband is handed an opportunity to ditch his secure lower-mid-level managerial position at a lighting shop to start a mining company with a friend. It means losing his salary and medical benefits and pension. It means learning a whole new skill set and hoping this is going to somehow work out. We’re both scared as hell, but we both feel it’s the right thing for him to do.

We never say it, but we understand that this is where my memoir takes a back seat. This is where I take over 90% of the domestic duties so he can make something great of himself. We can’t both take these huge risks; someone has to stay home and raise the girls.

I am especially needed on the homefront because my youngest hates school so much. She hates all of it: too many kids, too much stimulation. She’s having a hard time academically and socially; by grade four, she’s already been to three schools, none of which have worked. One morning, I find her inside the dog kennel, “I Hate School” written across her forehead in my black eyeliner. I pull her out of school and start teaching her myself. This is where I become my youngest daughter’s educational advocate and my husband’s cheerleader.

I teach. I clean. I cook. I read. I clean. I teach. Sometimes I write.

My husband’s new job requires him to travel. He calls me from London, Munich, Hong Kong, and New York. He raves about the whiskey bar he’s been to and the fabulous Mexican place with the sweet barbeque corn. I put him on speakerphone while I feed the dog and yell at my youngest to concentrate on her math. He tells me about the sunset while I try not to cut myself as I pick up pieces of glass from the balsamic vinegar bottle that slipped from my hands. 

I teach. I clean. I cook. I read. I clean. I teach. Sometimes I write.

Somehow, I find the time to apply and am awarded an international writing prize with a full conference package, meals, and accommodation. I would have a week on my own to immerse myself in the company of writers—not to mention the external validation that it was my writing that put me there. I discuss it with my husband, but there are too many moving pieces for me to get away for a week. I have to decline the prize. 


Challenge

A decade has passed since I graduated from the writing program. My husband now makes enough to support the family and suggests I quit teaching to focus on my writing. One would think I would jump on this offer, yet I hesitate. It’s what I’ve wanted, or thought I had wanted all along, but I’m afraid that if I accept this offer and I fail to become as successful as my husband is in his new career, I’ll be a disappointment to him, a disappointment to myself, and entirely financially dependent on him. If I stay too busy as a teacher and a mother, I don’t have to face the reality that I haven’t yet achieved what I had hoped to as a writer.

I’m nearing 50 and not only do I feel stunted in my creativity, I am also starting to feel like I am becoming invisible.  One evening, I see a photo of a local writer I admire. Her body is lean and strong and she’s tanned and wearing stage make-up and a sparkly bikini and high heels. She holds a trophy for her bodybuilding. I have never even considered undertaking such a challenge, but this picture inspires me to push myself in new ways.

Between teaching and mothering and sometimes writing, I make time to tackle a new goal. The workouts are hard, but I follow a strict program that leaves little room for questioning or hesitation. I just put my head down and do the work, motivated by a goal and an endpoint. When months of dieting and exercise culminate in a trophy of my own, my husband is impressed and I feel validated in my ability to match his grit and determination. I feel ready to bring the same motivation to finishing my memoir.

Then, the pandemic. The yoga studio closes, and I know that it’s my opportunity to pursue writing without fear that I’m failing to match what my teaching income would be. But I hesitate, and instead turn toward a month-long business course, the premise of which is “teach your experience.” I decide to launch an online fitness program I call Strong As A Mother, to share what I learned about exercise and nutrition in working toward my fitness goals. At the end of the program, a few of the women seek me out for personal coaching, and I discover that each of them came to my fitness program by way of an online journal where several of my stories are published. My writing brought these women to me, and they bring me back to my writing.


Possibility(ies)

I reconnect with a childhood friend who lives in the countryside and has connections at a school suited to my youngest daughter’s needs. Although it’s a challenge—financially, economically, practically and emotionally—we decide as a family the best option is for me to rent the guest suite at my friend’s country home for my daughter and me to live in three days a week while she goes to school. It may not work out, but we decide to give it a try for at least a few months to see how it goes. I still drive her back and forth and make lunches and dinners and do dishes and laundry, but it’s worth it for her mental health. The time to write is a bonus. Within three months, I have made more headway on my writing than in the past several years combined.

As I write, Yasuko Thanh’s Mistakes to Run With and Jowita Blydowkowska’s Drunk Mom are two memoirs in which I find inspiration, comfort, and some answers. Despite being the mother of two girls, Thanh writes candidly about her years as a prostitute. Blydowkowska writes about being blackout-drunk while her child was young. Both of these authors take deep dives into the dire and disturbing reality of their experiences. I applaud these women for writing with such candour, but struggle to have their guts and tenacity.

I work to strengthen my bravery like a muscle by writing my uncomfortable truths in short stories and flash prose as a warm-up, before I contemplate putting my memoir out into the world. It’s the judgment that scares me. I wonder how Thanh and Blydowkowska came to terms with these feelings and how they felt when their books were birthed into the world.

My firstborn child is now 23. While she doesn’t need the hands-on mothering that my 12-year-old still needs, she still needs me for emotional support, though she isn’t always gentle with me. The other day she asked, What happened to your memoir that was supposed to be made into a movie so you could make millions?” I ask myself the same question.

Over the last decade, I’ve grown as a person and writer. My writing voice and motivation to work on this manuscript have changed. Mothering and writing are the pillars of my life, each dependent on the other. Luanne Armstrong writes, “I never did make a choice between writing and children. I made a commitment to them both and whatever the cost to me, to the writing, to the children, we paid it together, and somehow, miraculously together, we survived.” Perhaps I’ve missed the mark by putting undue restraints of this or that on myself. Work or family. Writing or children. Perhaps it’s all possible.

 

 


Dhana Musil is a graduate of The Writers Studio at SFU. Currently, she is working on a memoir about the decade she spent in Japan’s seamy underbelly. She lives with her family and animals in West Vancouver.

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