Column by Vanessa Shields
I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.
When there is illness in the family, my writing life stops – or at least shifts. Whether it’s personal illness that renders the body, and therefore brain, incapable of creative work and/or when caregiving becomes the main focus, and it too causes a pause in creative work.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. It’s funny to me, how it all happened. I always say it was because I relaxed for the first time in my life. My guts had been squeezed with anxiety, worry, and fear for so long that when I finally made a decision that gave me the freedom I had always dreamed of (buying a one-way ticket out west and putting university on hold), my body didn’t know what the heck to do except, well, release.
There I was, working on my first film, falling in love with mountains and filmmaking and the man of my dreams…and my guts were literally bleeding out.
Ulcerative colitis is part of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) family. Other IBDs include Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS – which my mom has…and also the artist who does my tattoos…oh, you too?) and Crohn’s Disease. I’ve been hospitalized four times because of this, and every once in a while I’ll get a small flare up (basically, my guts start to break and it hurts a lot).
My kids know when I’m not feeling well in my guts. How? Because I tell them, and because we only have one bathroom. Illness happens. Not too long ago, a stomach flu tore through our house. First with my son (Wed – Sat), then with my daughter (Sat – Mon). Lots of sheet changes and toilet flushes. Lots of tears and writhing in pain.
Little-to-no writing being done.
I mean, of course, right? Your child is literally throwing up in your hands; of course you’re going to stop to care for her. To clean it up. To do the laundry and try to keep the virus from spreading. I can’t do anything but lay down after a terrible BM (bowel movement). Sometimes I can read, but even that takes a bit too much energy.
Sickness scenarios can range from 24-hour flus to long-term, live-in care, to palliative and/or end-of-life. Caregiving is a full-time job. It’s exhausting—this is not a complaint; it’s a reality. And time pushes on: deadlines continue to approach, events are around every corner. What is a writer to do?
Well, I had two events in one weekend recently. One was a reading as part of a holiday music event, the other was a bachelorette party (I’m a bridesmaid) that I was partly responsible for planning. I had to cancel my attendance at the holiday music event – an event with my name/face/presence attached to the bill. I made it to just before the dancing started at the bachelorette.
I chose to stay home. I chose the holding-the-hair-back, back-rubbing, tummy-tickling role of mother and caregiver (which, in the end, I could have been doing at the bachelorette too! *She laughs out loud*) even though I really wanted to do the other things.
I was really looking forward to reading my poetry at this event. It was with two musicians I love and whom I was honoured to share a stage with. I could have sold some books. I could have made new contacts. I could have been a working writer.
But my heart was telling me um, V, you need to go home. Now.
And I must say that when it comes to illness, my heart leads the way on my decision-making path.
When my grandfather was dying, we were all by his side in the hospital—my world became a hospital bubble and I didn’t notice the smells or the beeps or the sun rising and falling. Even Time took a back corner (huddled and hiding because the hands of the reaper were near), and the truth of my life became giving the best life to the person who was suffering. My Nonno still had life in his eyes that spoke to me, though his mouth could not. His last words to me were Thank you. I’m grateful I was there for that. I’m grateful I can write about it now.
In these deeply human experiences I am inspired to write. But if my hands need to wipe a bum or feed a mouth or hold a hand, and I need to cry and feel scared – this is always my choice. The words will hold themselves in my soul somewhere, and when Time gets bigger again, and my fingers find a pen and paper or a keyboard, the words will come. The ones that need to get out will always come.
Many a deadline or event has passed that I was fully committed to making and/or attending. But there will always be deadlines. There will always be events. I’ll put caregiving – family – first. I think those in my family and support circle know this. Sometimes it’s not easy because my heart is truly split: such is the duality of being a writer and a parent.
My take-away here is that this particular challenge – choosing to tend to a sick self or family member, or choosing to do your creative writing work (at your desk or on a stage) – is a choice that is often made in the moment. It is made based on time, energy, and the seriousness of the illness. It is made based on your support system (if your partner can stay home instead of you, for example). And we can trick ourselves pretty darn good, especially if it’s the ‘self’ care that needs to take precedence. But in the end, our bodies and/or our hearts will take the upper hand, and we will STOP to take care of ourselves, and those around us.
Otherwise, not only will our body and family suffer, so too will our writing. And when the writing is so much of what gives us lift, vitality, perspective, peace and joy, we certainly cannot hurt the vessel that enables us to be the beautiful writers that we are. Being a well-balanced, healthy writer, of course, means that we’re balanced and healthy parents too. See how that works?
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press)was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website www.vanessashields.com.