Guest Post: Author Jennifer Cody Epstein Reflects On Mothering, Writing, And Moving Forward

Today, author Jennifer Cody Epstein shares with us her personal evolution as a mother, and an author. It’s something I related to right away even though we’re at different stages in parenting. Even if you’re not a parent, Jennifer deftly explores how change as we become more comfortable with who we are and what we’re doing in life—and how looking back is often the best way to illuminate the path forward. 

Please welcome Jennifer Cody Epstein to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Reflecting On Mothering, Writing, And Moving Forward

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

About a week ago, while digging around on my computer for an essay I’d written, I unexpectedly stumbled on something completely different: an online diary I’d begun—very sporadically—keeping about a year after my second daughter Hannah was born. I was so exhausted when I wrote these entries that I have no memory of writing them at all; seemingly, I’d left them (as so many other early-motherhood memories) in a hazy sort of recollective No-Man’s-Land. And they were, after all, just three fairly brief entries, written over the period we were trying to train the girls to sleep in the same room. But they brought back those bleary and love-saturated days with such force that I found myself sitting back in my work chair after reading them, both amazed and bemused by how enormously life can change in just eight years. From the first entry:

March feels like the darkest month ever, and my life a hallucinogenic combination of brilliance and utter blackness. I am so tired that I can’t walk straight; that I forget where I’ve gone and what I’ve gone there to do…When the girls fall into their nightly rounds of sleep roulette—waking approximately every two to three hours, waking each other and us (exiled, for now, to the lumpy, short couch in the overwhelmingly loud living room, where the cat mewls and scats around all night) up, I find myself too exhausted and too depressed to even cry. I lie there in a miserable cocoon of self pity; hating life, hating our house, hating the cat, of course loathing myself. 

I was also at that time trying desperately to finish a draft of my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, which I’d started at graduate school. Lucky enough to have secured an agent and the support of my husband Michael (a gifted filmmaker, he is also one of my central readers) I was aiming to have the book finished in time for the former to take it to the Frankfurt Book Fair. But as the entries reminded me, I wasn’t finding it much easier than motherhood:

Before bedtime we went over Michael’s notes on my chapter (the re-re-re-re-rewrite of 24 and 25) and, while more positive than the last reviews (which were basically: “Throw it away, start over”) they were predictably blunt and brutal. My compulsive flashbacking and addiction to research are getting in the way; I’ve lost the momentum and the priorities of the story. He made the apt comparison of the way that I get overwhelmed by the day’s minute chores and end up doing three things at once–like trying to get out the door, crying and making pasta at 8 a.m. for the baby’s lunch, when all I really need to do is get out the door. But still—it hurts that I’ve taken five fucking months (more or less) to write even this miserable bit; since I got my agent in September! And while Frankfurt remains comfortably far-ish, I know it’s actually coming towards me at warp speed. The way Hannah’s first b-day did. The way Katie’s astonishing metamorphosis did, from Hannah-like babydom to someone who picks her own, hip little outfits and says things like “Quite probably it’s better if we watch Teletubbies now, Mommy.”

Reading these weepily-written confessions made me think about the oft-made comparison between writing novels and pregnancies. Having done each twice at this point, it’s a metaphor I’ve always supported, since it really strikes me as being pretty apt. But it also made me ponder the broader parallel to be made between being a parent and the writing life itself—something that at that moment eight years ago, in my numbed and overwhelmed state, I clearly didn’t have the capacity to consider. For while it’s true that some of motherhood’s bleakest points corresponded with my darkest moments as a new writer, on the maternal side, at least, they were also interspersed with moments of sheer joy and wonder—and a surprising prescience that one day I would look back and actually miss them. For instance, as Katie “graduated” from preschool:

There’s this sense of precious childhood vaporizing even as we watch. Next year will be so different—a new school, a longer day. Homework. More independence, both socially and physically. There won’t be that womb-like closeness that we’ve still shared these past two years; this knowledge that when I come pick her up we’ll still have most of the day left together, and she’ll come racing out to hug me, because I am, after all, her world (or most of it). I feel like 5 will slip to 8 will slip to 12 so very quickly. And while I know I’ll love all those stages (well, 12 may be tough) it pains me—really pains me, in a dull and crushing way that feels like a lead sack pressing down on my chest—that these lovely, safe, small years with her are now behind us. 

As I discover these entries, Katie has indeed turned twelve, and at present is independent enough to be at sleepaway camp for two weeks. My career has also matured: The Painter from Shanghai was published in 2008 (ultimately, in 16 different languages) and my second novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, came out this past March. For me, being an author has changed in much the same way as being a mother has. It is still hard as hell sometimes; there are still mornings when for no real reason I just burst into tears. But twelve years in—and with the unspeakable bonus of a regular sleeping pattern–I have also found both a kind of confidence and a fairly dependable rhythm. What once seemed daunting to the point of despondence now seems more simply like a lot more hard work—but work that I now know, in the end, that I can do. I also have more faith in the outcome: my daughters are beautiful, smart, kind and funny, and my books have sold decently and been well-reviewed. In other words, having gotten this far in both aspects of my life, I feel like maybe, just maybe, things are finally working out.

That said, there are still times when I miss the extreme peaks and valleys of the early days; when getting a full night’s sleep felt like a reward of Midas-like proportions and finishing a chapter felt like conquering a mountain. I adore being a mom to two pre-teens as much as I did to infants and toddlers. But there is something about the exhausted euphoria of those distant-seeming years I’ll admit to missing a little. Or, as I called it in one of my entries, Ending notes:

Hannah’s face in the morning, so fresh and happy and pink and smooth. She has the most open, grounded smile of any baby I’ve seen. Delicious. Katie on Saturday, wandering FAO Shwartz together after ballet and ice-cream sundaes for lunch; equally awed and enchanted by the lushly dressed Barbies and Madame Alexanders. A little friend. A clown. A partner in childish indulgences; sweet, fleeting crimes. 

Jennifer Cody Epstein is most recently the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (W.W. Norton, 2013) as well as the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai (W.W. Norton, 2008). A graduate of Amherst College (BA), the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (MIA), and Columbia University (MFA), she has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, a filmmaker, and her two daughters.

You can find out more about Jennifer’s books by clicking here.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Author Jennifer Cody Epstein Reflects On Mothering, Writing, And Moving Forward

  1. Great post. I’ve SO been there! My son’s only 8 months, and I feel like sometimes it’s impossible to work, let alone spend the evening writing and taking care of him … even the smallest task is like climbing a mountain, and it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning. I can’t even stick to my measly goal of 250 words a day, but I keep reminding myself that soon enough he’ll be a teen and not want to talk to me. I need to take a step back and remember that babyhood is fleeting!

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    • Hi Kristin–thanks! 8 months–wow, I feel ‘ya! Yes, it is so almost tragically fleeting….but the good news (at least for me) has been that for every parental stage left sadly behind there is a new one with just as many–if differing–thrills, chills and challenges. Overall, it keeps getting better in my experience….and ditto the writing! Hang in there 🙂

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  2. Jennifer, this is such a lovely time capsule of what it’s like to balance mothering & writing–I’ve raised five children, and I really wish I’d kept journal entries. Yours helped me relieve those early years of struggling to write and parent. Congratulations on your second novel!

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  3. Thanks so much, Holly! I have to say discovering these made me wish I’d stuck with it for much longer too–and almost (almost!) inspires me to try to start up again. (Who knows–maybe there will be a sequel to this essay when Katie is….24?)

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  4. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. I want to read an entire book made of diary entries like this! The microcosm of daily life being a mother. The honesty of the utter exhaustion and strange speed of time in a family. A day feels like forever but a childhood flashes by. So so so relatable.

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  5. A beautiful post! I wish I’d pushed myself further in those early days and taken up some of the opportunities thrown my way – which I was too wiped out to address! Good on you for following through (my biggest problem always) and achieving so much. I’m a lateish starter, had four kids and dragged them through Africa, but at least there’s endless writing material in that. Good luck with all!

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    • Thanks Catherine! And wow–four kids? Africa? Sounds a heck of a lot harder than weepily bashing out a few pages during nap time–I’m in awe! Good luck with your writing–and keep me posted on what comes of it (sounds like something I’d love to read!)

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  6. Pingback: Celebrating The Paperback Release of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s THE GODS OF HEAVENLY PUNISHMENT | women's fiction writers

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