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A Fortunate Age

Four months ago, in a hospital room overlooking the variegated lights of Manhattan, I gave birth to my second child, a girl, whom my husband and I named Rebecca Pearl after both my grandmothers, the fiery, socialist, urban one and the sweet, long-suffering, rural one. One by one, our friends came to visit the new baby, who from the first moment displayed a strong, focused gaze that seemed to foretell an even stronger will. "Hello," they cooed at her, cradling the warm heft of her body and kissing the dark striations of her hair. Inevitably, though, there came a moment when they looked at me, these friends I've collected over the years — from college, grad school, various jobs — and asked, "Wait, when is your novel coming out again?" April, I told them, in a neutral voice. "Oh," the more polite and reticent said, with a worried look. "How are you going to go on tour?" the more opinionated and meddlesome demanded. "How are you going to do this?" I don't know, I told them. We'll see, I said, with a shrug to indicate I was taking their concerns seriously.

But the truth is, I wasn't terribly nervous about any of it. The business of publishing a novel might not be easy — like every other writer, I've heard my share of stories about unattended readings and lonely nights in corporate hotels — but it certainly can't be more difficult than writing a novel, which I had done, in large part, while my first child, Coleman, was a baby. If I had managed that, then I could, really, manage anything.

That said, when I think back on those first months of Coleman's life, I'm filled with something akin to wonder. With Pearl, as we're calling her, whole days go by, seemingly consumed by the gentle, quotidian tasks of caring for a little baby — the endless nursing, the changing of diapers, the putting down for naps — and I find myself at 3:00 p.m., still in my nightgown, having imbibed nothing but an apple and a cup of coffee. There were days like this in Coleman's infancy, certainly, but the days I remember most are the days when I left him to write. There were days like this in Coleman's infancy, certainly, but the days I remember most are the days when I left him to write. My husband, Evan, had returned to work full-time, at his office in midtown, after just two weeks of paternity leave. We couldn't afford a sitter, so we agreed that the weekends would be my time to write, which sounded fine in theory. In practice, it was somewhat harder.

When Coleman was perhaps a month old, I'd nurse him to sleep, throw on the first clothes I could find — usually wrinkled, usually milk-stained — shove my unruly manuscript into a frayed, gray messenger bag, and run breathlessly along Grand Street to our local coffee shop, consumed with fear that I'd left something important at home. That something, of course, was the stroller. It felt strange to be out in the world without it. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. On the weekends, our coffee shop — the only such entity in our not-quite-gentrified neighborhood — filled up with our neighbors, mostly other new parents whom I'd met through the local mothers group. "Hello," they'd chirp brightly, their hands firmly gripping the black foam handles of their Maclaren strollers, their babies lolling inside, crumbs dusting their chubby faces. "Are you working?" they'd ask, putting quotes around the final word, perhaps not intentionally, but regardless indicating that they were either baffled or amused that I would choose to spend a beautiful spring day hunched over a huge sheaf of papers or frantically typing, rather than, say, taking Coleman to the park like a normal mother.

What they didn't understand — and certainly I couldn't explain — was that I had no choice in the matter. Or so it felt to me at the time. A year or so before Coleman's birth, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, I had started this novel — about a group of Oberlin grads who move to the city during the tech boom of the late 1990s — and it had so consumed me, overtaking everything else of importance in my life, that I couldn't even consider stopping work on it. Though of course I did. It's one thing to be a working mother, to leave your child in the care of a sitter or a spouse for the sake of your family's economic survival. It's quite another to kiss your infant goodbye purely for the sake of your own literary pursuits, for a project that may come to nothing. I was lucky in that I had an agent, albeit an agent who hadn't read any of the novel. She'd signed me on the strength of my magazine writing, knowing that I was working on a novel (though at that point, "working" meant slowly writing and rewriting the first chapter). But having an agent gave me a bit of validation: I wasn't, despite appearances, working in complete void, honing a novel that might never see the light of day. I had, in other words, a reader. And that one reader — combined, of course, with the urgency with which I needed to tell this specific story, a story about New York's most recent gilded age that had come to me, piecemeal, as I watched the dissolution of that era — was enough to keep me going, to get me out the door on those Saturday mornings when I'd been up half the night with the baby and had barely seen Evan all week and would have loved to do nothing more strenuous than sit on the couch drinking coffee while Coleman slept in my lap.

Out the door I went, each weekend, starting when Coleman was about four weeks old and carrying through until he was almost three, and stealing every other moment I could: in the very early morning before Evan and Coleman awoke, while I ate lunch and dinner, at night after I'd put Coleman to bed. ( Evan has a whole series of photos of me in bed, having fallen asleep, my head on my manuscript, pen clutched in my hand. Evan has a whole series of photos of me in bed, having fallen asleep, my head on my manuscript, pen clutched in my hand. ) In those early days, I would sometimes find myself near tears, simultaneously sick with longing for him — the smell of his hair, the warmth of his chubby little arms — and shaking with anxiety about the limitations of my time. Could I finish a scene — a chapter? — before I had to run home and nurse the baby? At the coffee shop, I put on headphones and hid my face with my hair so as to discourage conversation with even the nicest of my neighbors, a deterrent that didn't usually work, and I would have to force myself not to scream, "Do you not understand that I only have two hours to work?" at whichever sweet, well-meaning person had stopped by my table and asked if I was signing up for the infant sign-language class or what have you. This behavior, as you can imagine, didn't make me the most popular mother in the area, particularly when combined with my habit of turning down invitations to shop at the Baby Gap on Front Street or to infant swimming classes at the Y, so that I might, of course, find an hour or three to write while he napped. I did, however, manage to make a few friends during that time, including a woman who'd been a few years ahead of me at Oberlin and who, coincidentally, had moved to the building across the street from mine (the building, in fact, where my dad had grown up). She was a sculptor of some renown, with a beautiful, towheaded daughter, and our conversations largely centered on work. "I've just resigned myself to the fact that from here on in my mind is always going to be divided," she told me one day as we pushed our strollers east on Spring Street. "I've just resigned myself to the fact that from here on in my mind is always going to be divided," she told me one day as we pushed our strollers east on Spring Street. Our children were perhaps seven months old. "When I'm working, I wish I were with Lottie. When I'm with Lottie, I wish I were working. That's just how it is." I was shocked that she'd so perfectly captured my dilemma and, perhaps, even more shocked that she'd come to some sort of peace with it.

But I did, too, as time wore on. Sort of. As Coleman grew older and I returned to what I call work-work — editing a new magazine, first part-, then full-time — the disparate threads of the plot came together. Writing and rewriting grew easier and easier. My intention, from the start, had been to write a big, defining, generational novel; to take stock of the era in which my generation came of age. And the further that era receded — as my peers got married and started having children, against the backdrop of a disintegrating economy, an endless war, and an increasingly corrupt administration — the better able was I to see the extent to which my characters had been defined by it, slyly affected by New York's growing wealth and shift in cultural values, even as they continued to think of themselves as bohemians, idealists, at odds with the dominant culture. Meanwhile, it grew harder, rather than easier, to leave my son, who had grown into a chatty, imaginative boy with wild, curly hair and very strong opinions about everything, including the fact that he didn't want his mother to leave him. Ever. I remember, in particular, one Saturday when he was perhaps a year-and-a-half old, not long after I'd returned to work full-time: The three of us sat on the floor of his room, lining a set of two-dimensional wooden figurines up along the edge of his rag rug, the sun slanting on to the wooden floor beneath. All morning, I'd been trying to force myself to leave. "You can go at any time," Evan said to me, finally. "We're fine." I choked down a sob. "I've hardly seen him all week," I said. "I'm worried this is going to scar him." With a heavy sigh, Evan sat up. "He'd be more scarred by having a mother who never finished a great novel because she had a baby. Or a mother who was constantly saying, 'I could have been a writer, but I never finished my novel.'" Evan would know. His own mother had spent much of her adult life uttering similar statements. And he had indeed been scarred by it. I grabbed my bag and left.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of A Fortunate Age.

Books mentioned in this post

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of A Fortunate Age

2 Responses to "A Fortunate Age"

    RC March 29th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Lovely, just like the writer, and her novel, which I was lucky enough to read recently. As someone with a zillion stories to tell but ZERO work ethic, it never ceases to amaze me how people with very full lives--work, spouses, children, Stuff--are able to hunker down and devote themselves to a Passion, be it a novel, a dissertation, music, etc. Kudos to you, Joanna!

    n8 March 31st, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Congratulations on pulling it off and not becoming an alcoholic, a chain smoker, a child abuser, a spouse abuser, or giving in to any number of pressure releasing (de)vices. Kudos, indeed. I cannot wait to read it! Will there be mention of nude brunches?

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