Why I Take on NaNo as a Mother: Writing as Self-Care and Conscientious Parenting

I’ll be honest: I expected 2014 to be my last year NaNoing.

Not for lack of love, by any means; I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo since my Junior year of college in 2002, and with only two wins under my belt, I’m a veteran of both the highs and lows of the self-imposed stresses of the contest. Anticipation of the event has long been one of the creative highlights of my year.

But in April of 2014, I found out I was pregnant with my first child, and I knew — since my family, the media, and society at large apparently couldn’t help but constantly remind me — My Life Was About to Change. My priorities would have to shift, sacrifices would have to be made, and my free time would become a precious and rare commodity. I was about to be A Mom, and as someone who pretty regularly becomes overwhelmed with even the most basic of adult obligations, I figured the added burden of NaNoWriMo on top of the typical stresses of motherhood would be borderline masochistic. I slogged my way through seventeen thousand words before the exhaustion of the late third trimester overtook me, resigned to the idea that this incomplete train wreck of a novel was my unfortunate swan song.

My son was born December 4th, and let me tell you, no one lied about motherhood being a change. But it wasn’t just less free time or less sleep (though there was definitely significantly less of both), but it was a huge change in my core identity. I was A Mom, now.

Suddenly, I felt less me.

I don’t want to give the impression that moms innately lose themselves or become somehow lesser when they become moms, because that’s (1.) bullshit, and (2.) a really easy way for people to devalue women’s identities as mothers — and if your proud, chosen, primary identity is as a mom, then more power to you. But in those days and weeks and months — during the sleepless nights, the obscenely frequent diaper changes, the endless feeding cycles, and the knowledge that this tiny screaming creature is entirely dependent on you for it’s survival — it can be pretty goddamned easy to forget that you were someone before this, someone apart from this, and that you still are — or at least, still could be.

Having a child is not and should not be a hostage situation — “give up your creative self and you get to be a good mom!”- but it does rely on some heavy negotiation and sacrifice. Things get put on hold, get pushed to the back burner, get tossed out entirely. It’s up to us each individually to decide what we’re willing to consign to each category, and what we’re willing to work to keep.

At the beginning of October 2015, I re-upped for NaNoWriMo. My son was 10 months old, scooting around the house on the verge of walking, and getting into everything his little hands could grab, and I loved him more than anything in the world — and, I realized, I owed it to both of us to give this another go.

My son is my first priority, easily and without argument, but he’s not my only priority. He’s the most important thing in my life, but he’s not the only thing.
Yeah, I’m A Mom. But that’s not all that I am. And I need my son to know that.
I need my son to see me as a whole person, as a person outside and apart from him, just as I want him to develop interests, a life, and a personality apart from me. He needs to know that I am here to love and support him, always and forever, but that there is more to me than a 24-hour catering and chauffeur service. I need him to see that passions and interests and self-hood are not things you give up for another person, though their places in the hierarchy of your priorities may change.

As someone raising a young boy, I need to know that I am modeling womanhood (complicated as my relationship with womanhood may be) as an independent identity, containing multitudes — wife, mother, teacher, writer — not as an identity based solely on the relationship I have with the people in my life.
I need him to know that pursuing something you love, however frivolous or silly, is always worthwhile if it brings you joy. I need him to know that men, women, mommies, and daddies all need to take time for themselves, sometimes. That we all owe it to ourselves to engage in activities that interest and challenge us. I need him to know that taking on challenges is the only real way to grow,and that yes, even mommy is still growing and changing.

Will sitting down to write a novel in November teach him all that? Not independent of other factors, no. But as part of a lifestyle in which I, as a mother, am still free to pursue interests, challenge myself, and indulge in self-care, then yes, it is an important teaching tool.

I love my son, immeasurably. That’s why he deserves a mom who is a whole, happy person in her own right. And NaNoWriMo helps me be that person.