How Pregnancy Taught Me to Say No to Everything and Write Novels Instead
I didn’t realize how much I was giving away my time until pregnancy forced me to cut myself a break
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I noticed it early in my first pregnancy, when I was 32: the world treated me differently with a baby inside me than it did when I was a solo human practitioner, uterus vacant and belly comparatively flat. Some of the changes I didn’t mind: a dependable seat on the subway during rush hour, encouragement from my boss to go home early for no particular reason. Thoughtful gifts that turned up unexpectedly from far-flung relatives: pricey swaddling blankets, the nursing pillow with the all-time cringiest product name: My Breast Friend. Other turns were not as nice: the strangers who felt free to fondle my belly, the wild-eyed guy who screamed he’d “put a death curse” on my baby after I’d “stolen” his parking spot. My male obstetrician, who seem fixated on my weight gain, reminding me to keep an eye on it at every appointment.
But the most prevalent change I felt as a pregnant woman was the general permission to opt out. Of anything: dinner with friends, after-work drinks with colleagues, jogs in the park. Of cleaning the bathroom, book club meetings, my exercise regimen and cooking dinner. Of answering the phone.
The most prevalent change I felt as a pregnant woman was the general permission to opt out.
I realized, with increasing exhilaration, that as a pregnant woman, I was off the hook. Nobody explicitly told me I had a pass, of course, but it was something I felt, a subtle shift in energy between me and everyone else: my husband, my colleagues, my friends, my own mother. For the first time in my life, I felt the power to say No, without fumbling through excuses. My excuse was growing inside me. Anyone could see it.
Why was this significant? Well, I’ve always had unusual difficulty saying no to everyday requests from perfectly nice people. I first became aware of this tendency in college, and of the pattern intensifying as I moved into adulthood. On the surface, the inclination toward “small yeses” (as a therapist once called it) might not seem like a problem. But ordinary appeals — even well-meaning invitations — anything from Can you grab the dry cleaning to Got a little time to talk? to Want to come with me to a show tonight? — had begun to stir vague panic in my chest by the time I turned 30. Not because the individual questions were unreasonable, or because anyone was trying to take advantage of me, or because I was truly opposed to the activity at hand. The panic stemmed from the feeling that, regardless of my actual desire — and unless I had a real, hard conflict (or made one up) — I could not say no.
I did this over and over and over, for nearly a decade. Between grad school and having children, mid-20s to early 30s, I became the sort of writer who did not publicly identify as a writer — despite having written furiously from an early age, despite having completed an MFA, despite having published a slew of poems and short stories. Privately, writer was my primary label, right up there with woman and human. But when people asked what I did, I’d consider for a flash how much time I actually spent writing — as in, ass-in-chair, words-on-page — and say, Well, I work full-time in HR, but I also write fiction, sometimes.I got an MFA, so…” I’d trail off with a self-conscious laugh before quickly segueing into, And what about you?
Perhaps it was spinelessness, or a classic feminine desire to please, or a dearth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it was a confusion of priorities, or a lack of discipline. Whatever the culprit, one consequence was crystal-clear and chafed at me every day: I was not writing enough, or hardly at all, despite the fact that I desperately wanted to be writing. I had no time to write, because I chose to have no time, by saying yes to everything else.
I had no time to write, because I chose to have no time, by saying yes to everything else.
I spent my first pregnancy noticing the opportunity to change my accommodating ways, but not doing much about it. After my son was born, I slipped back right back into yes-ing, perhaps more wantonly than ever. When he was almost one, we moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, where the weather was always great, and I downgraded my HR career (always more of a necessity than a choice) to very part-time contract work. The combination of 75-degree, blue-sky days, a minimal paycheck, and ample unscheduled time with my son made me feel beholden to some hazy debtor. Even though mothering was plenty challenging, it didn’t feel like enough of a contribution, and being a mostly stay-at-mom seemed too luxurious. In retrospect, this would have been a perfect time of life to write, but instead, I filled it up with nonstop obliging of other people: I agreed to edit the resumes of people I barely knew (everyone’s favorite “small favor” to ask of their friend who works in HR), volunteered to host toddler playdates, spent hours counseling a new mom friend about her divorce, shuttled my son to ridiculous activities he mostly screamed (not happily) through, like “Baby Zip Line Time!” Most nights, I prepared elaborate vegetarian meals to eat with my husband, turning down his frequent offers to simply pick up dinner on his way home.
Why, why, why? I desired almost none of these commitments I’d imposed upon myself. In the shower, I would fantasize about a perfect day: a few sweet hours with my son, a little money-making work, a solid bank of writing time, dinner that magically appeared on the table.
In the shower, I would fantasize about a perfect day: a few sweet hours with my son, a little money-making work, a solid bank of writing time.
But I was not writing. Not at all. Instead, I was scrambling to Target and Kidnasium and chopping vegetables.
Everyone appreciated my efforts, but no one required them. But I needed the acknowledgements. I needed to be verified as doing stuff for other people, being industrious, helpful. The need burned hot and low inside me, re-igniting with every invitation, every potential favor, every casual request. My first reaction was always to speculate what the other person wanted me to say. My own desire, well — I’d deal with that later.
My real desire was to write. I had an idea for a novel in my head, rumbling and writhing and demanding release. And yet I would not make the time to release it. A hard knot of self-disgust lodged permanently in my gut. I softened it by telling myself, over and over, that the time would come. That at some point, in the not-too-distant future, the universe was going to hand me a chunk of sumptuous, golden time to write a novel, its purpose as clear as a holiday turkey on a platter.
The irony was, I’d already been handed the turkey. A writing life back then, in fall of 2009, was fully available to me. I had childcare and a wonderfully supportive husband and a godforsaken laptop. All I had to do was open it.
But then a text chimed from a mom friend with a two-year-old: Possible for me to drop Maddie off for a few hours? Have an appt.
Sure thing! I shot back, and began combing my pantry to make sure I had little Maddie’s favorite snacks on hand.
And then I got pregnant again.
The morning sickness smacked me almost right away, something that hadn’t happened the first time. For a few weeks, the nausea and exhaustion were so intense I could hardly drag myself out of bed.
Then, it passed. I felt better. Much better. My husband and I announced the pregnancy. And then I remembered how it worked: the proffered subway seats back in Brooklyn, the encouragement from everyone to take it easy, the unexpected gifts.
The lowered expectations.
The easy Nos.
I got out of bed, ten weeks pregnant, and I began to write. I quit my mom’s group, referred people with problem-resumes to a good staffing agency, and let my husband fill up our Veggie Grille punch cards with takeout dinners.
With my new free time, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I wrote more that year, at 34, than I had in all of the previous decade; through a few thousand words a day (most of them throwaway, but still), the novel stuck inside me unfurled and released.
The pregnancy gave my sense of time new hard edges, parameters. My writing time no longer felt elastic or endlessly available. There was no creative paradise waiting for me somewhere outside the time-space continuum. There was, however, another newborn, another set of raw nipples, months of sleeplessness, just around the corner.
My writing time no longer felt elastic or endlessly available. There was no creative paradise waiting for me somewhere outside the time-space continuum.
So, I needed to write now — while my pregnancy was cushioning me from the endlessly-demanding world.
The world could wait.
I finished a draft of my novel before my first daughter was born in August of 2010. Eventually I landed an agent and sold it. It was published in 2014, right around the time I got pregnant again.
I got bolder with the third pregnancy. I got up in the early morning dark and left the house. The kids were tiny — I’d just weaned my daughter — and mornings weren’t exactly a breeze. But my husband could handle it — of course he could! In fact, my going out in the mornings to write had been his idea, years ago. I’d just never taken him up on it.
Why are you never at breakfast? my son sometimes asked me. Why can’t you work at home?
Because Mama needs to write, I said. Then I revised it: Because Mama loves to write.
My third pregnancy chugged along, bringing the same swollen calves and a preoccupation with Wetzel’s pretzels. This time, I didn’t even wait to “feel” the permission from others set in; I simply bashed into another novel and finished the draft shortly after my second daughter was born. It took longer to revise and sell this time, but I did it. Shockingly, it’s about motherhood, and desire, and time.
Most of our lifeline is unspecific. We know roughly when things will happen, but not precisely. Death looms on some vague horizon. Pregnancy, on the other hand, is a clean nine-month(ish) time capsule. It comes with its own unique set of expectations. It’s not an easy time, but for me, it was an essential gift. Twice. It enabled me to live according to my deepest-held priorities: to write regularly, with purpose. I may have always had the permission, but pregnancy gave me the courage claim it.
I may have always had the permission to write, but pregnancy gave me the courage claim it.
I no longer need to be pregnant to hold writing at the center of my life. This is fortunate, since I’m in my 40s now and not having any more babies. It’s sometimes still a struggle to guard my writing time, to protect it, to make it nonnegotiable, to not let competing priorities swallow it. Having a writing life, I’ve learned, is a matter of balancing desire with responsibility, discipline with flexibility, generosity with self-care. I’m still not immune to granting small yeses to the wrong requests. But I’ve learned to pause and ask myself what I really want from the brief, precious hours of my day. And when anyone asks, I never hesitate to tell them I’m a writer.