I was relaxing in the lounge before teaching my second class at the East of Eden conference last weekend. A tall young woman with bobbed hair sat down beside me. I glanced at her nametag and said, “Oh, I have your book.” I didn’t tell her I got it because I failed to return the book club card on time; you know how that goes. She smiled at hearing I had bought her book, then told me it was her first time being away from home since her baby was born.
Ah, babies again. She said she was glad she had gotten the book done four months before she got pregnant. Now she can’t remember anything about it. Everything that happened pre-baby is lost in a fog. The baby has changed her life completely. And I thought, wow, this is the deal, the life change that never happened for me. Having someone you’re completely responsible for gives you a whole new perspective.
At this point, I figured mentioning how I missed my puppies would have been too trivial. I did mention the husband with Alzheimer’s. She nodded. “So you understand.” But I probably don’t. It’s different. She asked what I was working on. “I’m writing a book about childless women.” Thud.
In line at lunch, I mentioned my topic to a slender woman with the most gorgeous curly black hair. She hadn’t planned to have kids, she said, but when her father died, she changed her mind. At 33, she asked herself, “What am I doing?” Now she’s a mother.
Looking around the conference, many of the women were my age or older, having waited until their children were grown to start their writing careers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We had two speakers Saturday night. The first started writing late, realizing that when her kids grew up, she ought to “get a life.” But the second, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, never let her three children and three marriages stop her from earning a Ph.D. or writing more than a dozen books. In fact, when asked how the prize for A Thousand Acres affected her, she laughed. “I was four months pregnant. I was sick the day before I won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was sick the day after.” She already had a 14-year-old daughter, whose reaction to the award was typical of teenagers. “Huh. Cool.” You know how it is, Smiley said.