By Lauren Gordon
It was only a matter of time before the neighbors asked what I do for a living.
I have two stock answers and I switch them out depending on the person asking: I’m a stay-at-home mom or I’m a poet. Both are met with the same look that equates my worth with an income. Sometimes I say “I’m a writer,” but this has too many follow up questions and since I have a twenty-two month old, I’m usually in a hurry and/or annoyed. But my neighbors think it’s wonderful that I’m a stay-at-home mother, that I’m lucky and blessed to be married to a man who earns such a large income that it allows me to not “work.” I hear this all the time in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: being a stay-at-home mom is better than being a working mom, being a stay-at-home-mom is not work, being a poet is not work.
No one wants to hear you had to quit your job, sell your house, and relocate because your spouse had to take on a new job, because even with a combined income, you couldn’t afford to pay for daycare in addition to a mountain of school loan debt. Nobody wants to hear that you spent fifteen years taking handfuls of classes at a time while you worked so you could accrue a mortgage-sized-school-loan debt in order to earn your graduate degree in Poetry; a degree that is consistently degraded and discussed and argued about whether it is a worthy one or not.
And this isn’t to say that sometimes being a SAHM does feel like a blessing and that so often, I am grateful for what my MFA has allotted me. There is an assumption that if you’re not earning an income, you’re not working. And please try to convince my dyed-in-the wool, retired, Catholic, Republican, farming, truck-driving neighbors that poetry is work.
Luna Luna featured an interesting article recently by Lisa Marie Basile on the merits of educating the naysayers on what it means to work as a poet. I love this quote:
“For whatever reason, the Poet’s work seems to have been both diminished to that of a drippy college elective (made worse by the canonical white hetero-normative selections) and a personal hobby caused by depression and melodrama.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a class of high school creative writing students about poetry and publishing. It was an interesting mix of kids; half of the class was upper classmen, mostly female, and interested in writing poetry and essays as a possible college major or minor. The other half were freshmen, mostly male, and believed the creative writing class could inform how they structured their college entrance essays. Both groups of the class had preconceived ideas about writers and poets, though. Flaky. Hippie. Hipster. Glasses-wearing Starbucks-drinking Notebook-jotting loners. Tattooed. Freaks. Alternative. Hobbyists. Poor. (Let the records show that I arrived fifteen minutes early in contact lenses and long sleeves). Despite their different writing goals, the stereotypes seemed to overlap.
Now, what do you think about when you consider the term “stay-at-home mom”? Do you see a hurried woman in yoga pants and running shoes, disheveled hair and a shirt covered in stains? (Okay, that one might be legitimate. See: the first six months I was a new mother.) Or is she in sexless, shapeless capri cargo pants and melting into the background in her sad Crocs? Are there bon bons and daytime soaps? Or is the baby stuck in a high chair while mom pins 800 cupcake crafts on Pinterest? I mean, I don’t know. I’m just going out on a limb here based on the bajillions of images I see of mothers in the media. If we’re not pushing around a mop and folding our husband’s clothes while wiping a mouth and kissing an owie, what the fuck are we doing?
While I understand the SAHM stereotype, I barely know where those kinds of notions about writers or poets come from. They seem so archaic to me, like a Dobie Gillis rerun. Somehow the Maynard G. Krebs reference of beatnik wastoid is thriving. Am I the only one surprised that these stereotypes about artists still exist? Somewhere in this system, we are missing a huge opportunity to expose children to art, and in this roundabout way, it makes me struggle with pride and embarrassment any time I have to talk about what “I do.” And being a parent compounds it and makes me constantly think about it.
What happens in a couple of years when my daughter begins school? I will again have to become a high functioning, income earning member of society, but careers that are related to my field of education are few and not well-paying. And don’t forget, I will need to find a career that will cater to my daughter’s schedule. So, I will need to find a full time job that allows me to come in late and leave early, have tons of days off for my daughter’s illnesses, teacher’s meetings, vacation days – oh, and I need to earn a decent income doing something related to my MFA in Poetry. And I’m lucky. Legitimately. These complaints happen in a privileged space where I am afforded the luxury to even complain about this. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
When I worked as an Office Manager (the job I had to leave after my daughter’s birth) I never identified as a poet first, Office Manager second, but that’s the reality of how everyday society treats art. Just because poetry is vital to me, doesn’t mean it is vital to everyone. It’s no wonder we form enclaves and community where we can feel understood and appreciated. So the trick is to either find lower-paying work doing something related to my field of study, or higher-paying work doing something soulless, like creating Profit & Loss reports. (No offense meant to any reader kicking ass at creating perfect P&L’s) I don’t know, is there another option? Grants? Fellowships? Residencies? Things I can’t afford, or travel to, or be away from my young daughter for, or etc. I’m not sure how to navigate this next chapter.
And what happens when my daughter is in school and she is put in the position of saying “my mommy is a poet”? Listen, mom guilt is some heady stuff. It’s one thing to resign myself to a lifetime of Poetry vs. Society, but now I have to subject my daughter to it, too?
I am being tongue in cheek, of course, I hope that comes across. I think most of us have developed tough skins, because you sort of have to in our world (moms and poets). You can’t go into workshops and skim through rejection letters with doe eyes. You can’t walk away from a diaper blowout, no matter how much you want to. We are a righteously tough people. But the battle we’re fighting is a big one.
Basile writes in her article, “I think it is of utmost importance that we defend and share our poetry with the outside world.” I agree, mostly. I do think it’s important to help educate anyone who asks, but how do you battle The System? A sixteen year old with a beatnik reference was sort of my undoing in fighting the good fight. I can barely keep it together within our poetic community while being a mother (at home or otherwise). I’m curious about the misinformation train. I’m more curious why poetry isn’t a part of the public curriculum for young students the way art and music might be.
Reading and reciting poetry activates the same part of the brain that responds to music. Isn’t that incredible? It triggers an emotional response that can act like a recollection. The study discovering these kinds of facts is the first of its kind and in its infant stages, but it’s hopeful. Maybe a poetry education in public schools for younger generations is not that far off.
There is validity to being exposed to art the same way that creating is work, and in a better world, would be remunerated as such. I think what I need to do as a parent, and a person, is help redefine the idea and definition of what work is. (Did everyone get that Philip Levine reference? Ooh yeah, a little poetry humor all up in this). I want my daughter to be able to say that her mom is a poet who busts a lot of ass working at it. I need to use different and better language when I talk about what I do as a mother and what I do as a poet (like, maybe don’t say “busts a lot of ass”). It isn’t enough to have my own community of poetically interested people, but I can see that I will have to be much more conscious about how I self-identify. And depending on who is doing the asking, I think I feel comfortable enough to defend my work and volunteer my time and fight for exposure.
Just don’t tell my neighbors I’m a liberal voter with a small organic garden. They kind of like me, even though I’m a poet.