Megan Stielstra: Teacher, Storyteller, Mom

Megan Stielstra
Juggle what?

What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?” “When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner, do you have to pretend to be lesbians?” No, the worst question is “How do you juggle it all?” 

—Tina Fey

 

I am often asked how I juggle it all. This can mean many things depending on who’s asking: How do I juggle being a writer and a mom, a teacher and a mom, a working mom, a mom [1]? Submitting my writing, marketing my writing, performing my writing, writing? Teaching students, teaching teachers to teach students, learning from these teachers and students and writers and moms—‘cause, really: what the hell do I know?

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I am often asked how I juggle it all, and the truth is, I’m lucky. My husband is a total hands-on dad and 100% supportive of my work. He even taught our three-year-old to ask, when I get home at the end of the day, “How’d the writing go, Mommy?”

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I am often asked how I juggle it all, and the truth is, I’m lucky. My kid is spectacular in a thousand ways that, like any parent, I could go on about forever [2] but what’s pertinent here is that he’s a great sleeper. Eleven hours per night and a two-hour nap. Everything I’ve written since he was born has happened during these two hours. He conks out and I get to work. There are dishes and toys and laundry everywhere; a hundred new emails marked priority; the house is on fire, burning to the ground as I type, and none of it matters. These are my two hours. I am able to exist as an individual independent of my role as a mother because of them. I guard them. They are precious, the last canteen in a barren desert.

Here’s how I used to write: my workspace had to be clean; notes organized; a certain kind of coffee; what music would best suit my mood? I’d read a little, stare at the wall, go to the kitchen for more coffee and—whoa. Look at how gross the oven is, better clean it, and—shit. The fridge is nasty, too, and the floor, and of course the kitchen floor is connected to the rest of floor and by the time the whole apartment is spotless, I’ve given up on writing for the day because I don’t “feel inspired.”

Fuck waiting for it.

Sit down and make it happen.

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I am often asked how I juggle it all, and what I say is, It’s how you use the time you’ve got.

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Do I sound like I know what I’m doing? It’s not altogether true. I feel a bit fragile about my writing, actually. Here are some reasons why:

1. Sometimes, I can’t write during those two hours because I have to be at work.
2. Sometimes, I can’t write during those two hours because I have to nap.
3. Sometimes, I can’t write during those two hours because my brain hurts and the only way to fix it is to watch Jack Bauer free-streaming on Netflix.
4. Sometimes, when I can write during those two hours, I don’t know what to work on. A short story? This essay? A blog post or two or five, or that interview that was due last week, or my journal? What I want to work on is my novel, but to tackle something so big with only two little hours… it just  seems impossible.
5. I’m ashamed to admit that. My students might be reading this.
6. What I want to work on is my novel. I walk around thinking about it and sometimes I run into walls or miss my el stop. I’ve written short stories for a decade, but this—there are so many characters! Recently, I was talking through some dialogue to keep them all straight in my mind, and my son looked up from his Legos and said, “Mommy, are you talking to yourself?”
7. I thought of the scene in The Hours when Virginia Woolf is going insane and her niece asks why she’s talking to herself and her sister Vanessa is all, “It’s okay, honey. Aunt Virginia’s a writer.”
8. “Yes,” I said to my three-year-old. “I’m talking to myself.”
9. He hugged me. Have you ever been hugged by a three-year-old? It’s the greatest feeling in the history of the universe.
10. He pulled free of the hug and put both little hands on my cheeks. “You don’t have to talk to yourself, Mommy,” he said. “You can talk to me!”

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I try to juggle it all. I have a very complex system of color-coded Google calendars: CALEB, CHRISTOPHER, WRITING, TEACHING, CTE, 2nd STORY, and LIFE (for example, Go to the dentist. Buy groceries). In fact, I just added a new one! It’s called SELF-PRESERVATION.

This week, there are three things scheduled under SELF-PRESERVATION: yoga class, Murakami’s IQ84, and have a good cry.

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Recently, when complaining to my friend Amanda about how I can’t juggle it all, I started to cry. We were driving somewhere, my son in the backseat. I went on and on about the pressure, the exhaustion, the mortgage, how I’d cut off my left arm for an uninterrupted week to write, “ …and to top it all off, fucking Halloween is coming! When am I going to find him a costume!? Let alone fucking make one! Some mothers go to JoAnn Fabric and get the patterns and FUCKING MAKE JIMMY INTO A PENGUIN WHO HAS THAT KIND OF TIME!?”

FYI: I didn’t really swear in front of my son.

That said, I wanted to.

Sometimes, it’s all too much.

Amanda listened to me explode all over the car and then, calmly, she got out her cell phone and turned to the backseat. “Caleb,” she said, dialing. “What do you want to be for Halloween?” “Light-up Batman!” he said, which made me cry harder ‘cause it’s so totally adorable, and while I sat there unable to control my gulpy, gaspy sobs, my sweet little boy asking if I was okay, could he please unbuckle his car seat and come up front to hug me?—my friend Amanda got on the phone and ordered a Batman costume. Size 5T. “And if it could light up somehow, that be great.” Then she hung up, looked at me and said, “What else?”

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I am often asked how I juggle it all, and the truth is, it takes a village. As I type these words, my son is with his Uncle Jeff. Jeff is a bartender at a fancy French place, and wants his godson to be educated in high-end cuisine. To that end, they take a monthly tour of Chicago’s best gastro pubs. My son comes home stuffed and excited, toddler-talking a mile a minute about rillette, cornichons and haricot vert, and I get new pages of my novel; maybe an essay or two.

Jeff is also a writer. He understands my need to get the words out of my head and on to the page. He knows it makes me… calmer.

*

It is rare, if ever, that I feel calm. I drop my son off at school and am floored by all the mothers, so put-together, so sophisticated. I am exhausted from teaching til ten the night before. I have probably, recently, spilled juice on myself. A good day is when we leave the house on time with the necessary stuff: Caleb’s backpack and my backpack and student work and books and computer and keys and the avocado plant for Show’n’Share and coffee and did I walk the dog? Did I make my deadline? Did I write down the idea I had in the middle of the night about how to transition between chapters 3 and 4 of my novel? It was a great fucking idea! WHAT WAS IT!? We get everything in the car, Caleb’s strapped in, I’m strapped in—and then I just sit there. I breathe. It’s 8 am. The day hasn’t even started but already, I look around for applause.

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Recently, when complaining to a friend about how I couldn’t juggle it all, a woman I’d never met leaned over from the next table and said, “Tina Fey has an essay about parenting in this week’s New Yorker. Maybe you should read it.”

I love Tina Fey. I have always loved Tina Fey. She’s on my list, the one my husband and I made, prior to getting married, of people we’d be allowed to cheat with if ever the situation presented itself (Tina Fey, Idris Elba, and PJ Harvey from the This is Love video). I admire her humor, the doors she’s opening for women in Hollywood and hopefully this country—life follows art, right?—and, most importantly, I’m grateful for her honesty about how being a working mom is hard even when you have help. See how she does that? Admits having help? So legions of working moms don’t compare ourselves to the impossible model of Tina Fey producing a television show, writing a bestseller, dressing up in designer duds and fighting twenty times a day with a toddler about putting chocolate sauce on the broccoli?

How do I juggle it all? I have help.

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Dear my cousin Aaron: thank you for helping me take care of my son. Thank for appearing out of the clear blue sky the moment my family and I most needed you. Did you hurt yourself on your fall from heaven?

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Not gonna lie: when that woman—that stranger—told me that Tina Fey’s essay could help with my parenting, I wanted to stick a fork in her eye. I was eating a very gooey Danish with a fork and I imagined reaching across the table, plucking her eyeball right out of her face, and flinging it across the coffee shop.

Giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea.

Especially when it’s about parenting.

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I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I feel a bit fragile about my parenting. Here are some reasons why:

1. As a college writing teacher, I read a lot of My Mother Screwed Me Up Good stories.
2. There are so many My Mother Screwed Me Up Good stories, many of which feature women who are artists but stop making art when they have kids and then blame the kids and then the kids go to therapy and grow up and write books like Running With Scissors.
3. I didn’t stop making art when I had a kid, nor have I stopped helping others make art, in part because I love my job but also because I need it (Hi, Fannie Mae!), and no matter how fast I run, no matter how much I write, no matter how much permission I have to be a Working Mother in the Twenty-first Century—I still feel guilty. Last week I got an email from school about which parents would help the kids change into their Halloween costumes and which parents would buy juice. I had two meetings, a four-hour workshop, and an annual report due that day, so I bought the juice.
4. I am the mother who buys the juice.
5. I sat on the kitchen floor and cried about being the mother who buys the juice. I vowed to quit work immediately. We’d pay our mortgage somehow, right? And if not, who cares? We’ll mail our house keys to the bank, pack up the dog, and go live in a cabin. Preferably one with a goat. I’ll help my kid change into his Halloween costume every day and we’ll only drink milk. Never juice. Fuck juice.
6. (This cry had not been scheduled on my SELF-PRESERVATION Google calendar).
7. My three-year-old came into the kitchen, wanting to know why I was sad.
8. I told him, “Because I bought juice.”
9. He put both his little hands on my cheeks and said, “Mommy, I love juice!”
10. Then he said, “Can you be done now so we can play?”

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I am often asked how I juggle it all, and the truth is this: I can sit there crying on the floor, or I can get up and build a super-ramp with my kid. I can worry about what and how and when I’m writing, or I can put my ass in the chair and do it already. It’s how you use the time you’ve got.

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In the end, there are these calm, lovely, perfect moments. Everything has slowed down. We’re reading bedtime stories. We’re coloring spaceships. We’re making forts out of pillows, figuring out the impossible, puffy architecture. This month, we made enough to cover the bills so, for a few weeks at least, the weight of the world sits elsewhere, and for now it’s just the three of us.

I think about how lucky I am. It’s a big feeling, a thousand times bigger than my novel ever could be. It’s so big that I almost stop breathing.

My whole life, there’ve been two things I’ve known for sure: I want to be a writer and I want to be a mom. And now? People ask how I juggle it all, and what I want to say is, Are you kidding? My life isn’t a juggle.

It’s a fucking gift.

 

 

footnotes:

[1] I’m using the word Mom here because that’s what I am, but I think this applies to dads, too, and the Aunts and Grandparents and foster parents and significant adults who are raising super-awesome kids that make this world a better place.

[2] When I get mad because somebody parked in my parking spot, he says, “Mommy, you have to share.” He says, “Mommy? My body needs to run now. Can we go somewhere for this?” He says, “My body is full of bones and meat and mus-kulls.” He says, “Mommy-Ramen-aminal” for Mayor Rahm Emmanual. He says, “Will you be my friend? Friends are super cool.” He says, “Can we listen to that M.I.A. song? M.I.A shakes my butt.” He says, “You’re the best Mommy I’ve ever had in my whole life ever,” and a thousand other amazing things, a thousand times a day. For him, I want to be a better human being, a better writer and teacher and wife and friend.  For him, I want the world to be a better place. I think art can help make that happen. And someday—two decades into the future when he’s finding himself as an adult—I want him to read my stories and be proud of me. Which means that now? I need to get to work.

*This essay originally appeared in HYPERTEXT Magazine:  http://www.hypertextmag.com/?p=906

Megan Stielstra is the Literary Director of 2nd Story and co-editor of their print anthology, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck: Stories From 2nd Story(Elephant Rock Books 2012). She’s told stories for The Goodman, The Steppenwolf, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chicago Poetry Center, Story Week, Wordstock, The Neo-Futurarium, Victory Gardens, Theater on the Lake, and Chicago Public Radio, among others, and is a regular performer with 2nd Story, The Paper Machete, and Write Club. Her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm (Joyland/ECW 2011), was a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pank, The Rumpus, Make Magazine, F Magazine, Other Voices, Bluestem, The Nervous Breakdown, Fresh Yarn, Pindeldyboz, Swink, Necessary Fiction, Shareable and elsewhere. She teaches writing and performance at Columbia College and The University of Chicago.

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Published by CAR_Jeff on Wed, 02/06/2013 - 1:06pm
Updated on Thu, 11/07/2013 - 3:51pm