Welcome my special guest to the blog today. Phyllis Schieber, like me, is an author and mother and derives great joy and fulfillment from both roles in her life.
by Phyllis Schieber
As I was considering topics for this post, it occurred to me that one of the subjects I have neglected to address is how motherhood figures into the subtext of The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, as well as to my earlier work, Willing Spirits. As a preface to that discussion, I must first address how motherhood has shaped my life. I am the mother of a soon-to-be twenty-six-year-old son. One of my dear friends, the mother of five daughters, once told me that, “It doesn’t matter how many children you have. Once you’re a mother, you’re a mother.” I believe that is true. Motherhood has empowered and defined me as nothing else in my life ever has, not even writing.
Many years ago I read “One Child of One’s Own,” an essay by Alice Walker. In the essay, Walker discusses her decision to have a child, but “only one” because more would make it difficult for her to move about with ease. She also points out that it is unlikely that the question of whether or not to have children is even asked of men who are artists, but that is a whole other discussion. Nevertheless, when I was pregnant, I worried about how I would balance my need to write with my responsibilities for my child.
Needless to say, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of motherhood. I don’t know how anyone can be. Nothing can prepare someone for the intensity of such love. In truth, I did not feel that immediately, and I worried that perhaps something was wrong with me. When the nurse handed me my baby boy, he looked rather perplexed and not at all certain that he liked me. But that first night alone with him in the hospital room, I was enraptured. I pulled the curtain around my bed and peered down into the bassinet He stared at me as I unwrapped his blanket and removed his diaper. I smiled at his naked little body and ran my hands all over him. He relaxed under my touch and wriggled about a bit. As I changed his diaper, I introduced myself and presented my plans for our future. He listened with interest before he began to wail. He was hungry. After a rocky start and the help of another new mother in the bed next to mine (by some miracle, she also happened to be a maternity nurse), I nursed him. I was in love. I knew by then that from henceforth, he would tell me what my plans would be. I acquiesced without complaint. Once we were home and eventually settled into a routine, my life was defined by his needs. His father left early and came home late most every day, and I spent long, mostly happy days with my baby. I learned how to strap him to my chest and write. He slept to the sound of me banging away at the typewriter keys. If I stopped, he opened one eye and looked up at me, questioningly, but with understanding. I often rested my chin on his downy head, inhaled his unique scent, and rubbed my cheek against his soft hair. I had never been as in love with anyone as I was with him, and that love persists.
It is true that I am not a real baby-person. Some women just adore infants. I am not one of them. Give me a two-year-old, and I am there for the duration. The emergence of language thrills me. I am intrigued by the surfacing of thought processes; I am captivated by their play, and by their creativity. I invented games to play with my son that involved little more than our imaginations. I grew as a writer because he challenged my vision and my originality as nothing else ever had. As he got older, I enjoyed the time I had with him even more because I knew it was short-lived. I welcomed school holidays and snow days because it gave us more time to be together. I stashed away little art kits that we could do on these days. We baked and cooked. We painted. I introduced him to the game of “mishmash.” From time to time, I would allow him to empty the kitchen cabinets and pour a little of everything into a huge bowl. He delighted in this game as only a child could. With his sleeves rolled up and a big wooden spoon clutched in his hand, he stirred the ingredients as he explained what he was making. Each time, it was something else. Years later, when he told that he had chosen to write about mishmash as one of the topics for his memory piece during his six-week Language and Thinking orientation at Bard College, I was moved to tears. He remembered. My time with him had been well spent.
When I write about motherhood, as I often do, it comes from a place that is still a source of wonder to me. How is it possible to love someone so much? In The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, each of the main characters is a mother. Barbara, the mother of three grown children, recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each of her children. She deftly navigates those relationships, trying not to play favorites and working hard to be what each of her children needs while still retaining her independence and her privacy. When she eventually decides to reveal her secret, she is most worried about how it will affect her children. Kaye has two children and though they are adults, she is unable to disregard how her decision to leave their father might affect them. Even Kaye’s relationship with her own mother, Gertie, explores the push and pull of mother and child. However, Ellen’s loss of her infant daughter and the inability to conceive again play the most significant role in the novel. Ellen’s need is so profound and so palpable that I cried as I wrote the section where she imagines what it would have been like to raise her daughter. Ellen’s situation is heartbreakingly sad. Her loss defines her forever. I loved writing the scene where Ellen and Joy meet for the first time. They are each so full of expectations. Joy, already a mother herself, can really understand what Ellen must have felt and continues to feel. Both women have suffered unimaginable losses, and this brings them closer.
My role as a mother has enriched me as a writer. I can go to a place inside myself that understands what it means to split yourself between your own needs and dreams and your role as a mother. Of course, after so many years, I have a better grip on how to balance the two. Clearly, I have written consistently throughout these last twenty-five years. Still, when my son is home, I turn my days over to him whenever he wants me because now there are weeks and months that go by without seeing him. Although I cherish the time I now have to myself, I often miss those endless days of being wrapped in a cocoon with my baby. And like the women in my novels, I continue to create a life for myself that is separate from my child’s life because that is natural and best. Sometimes, however, I long for just one more chance to experience another day of the chaos and fatigue that defined those early months. I want just one more day of the newness and the thrill of such never-ending love.
Join Phyllis on the Sinners Guide to Confession and Willing Spirits virtual tour. If you would like to be a host on this tour, contact firstname.lastname@example.org