COVID, My Kid, and a Conference

“One way that I know I am a writer is that either I am writing, or I’m wishing that I was.”
-Jericho Brown, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, 2022

As I reflect on this in the wake of the conference, it occurs to me that this is also one way that I know I am a mom.

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was an absolute delight this year. The weather in Homer was flawless, the faculty phenomenal, and the conversation among the attendees was a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic.

Yet, amidst the sun and soft breeze, a small, dark cloud hung over me and still hangs over me, keeping the memory of those four days from perfection: missing my kid.

During the conference, with masks optional for attendees and airline passengers, I isolated from my kid, husband, and parents, forgoing the comforts of our camper, and instead sleeping in the back of my car. In the little time I had with my daughter on lunch or in the evenings, I watched her play or shared meals from a distance, always outdoors and masked as appropriate. I write this from the confines of a self-inflicted, post-conference quarantine in my parents’ guest room, waiting to find out if I got sick or am in the clear to return home and finally snuggle my panik.

So many—certainly the government, virtually all businesses, and most people—are starting to view the pandemic as a thing of the past, forgetting or blissfully ignorant that there are still 18 million children under 5 in the United States who are ineligible for vaccination.

As I reconnected with writers I knew before the age of COVID and connected with some for the first time in person, many inquired as to the state of my daughter, who recently turned four years old. I explained our situation with a longing ache. One friend was particularly kind and told me I was a great mother, a salve on my constant questioning if I’m doing the right thing keeping her isolated. She’s had three of her birthdays in the pandemic. She barely remembers playing indoors with other children, eating in restaurants, or visiting the homes of others. She talks longingly of all the things she’ll get to do and people she will visit with, “When I get my shot!”

Still, she thrives, and most importantly, she is healthy. She is one of the estimated 25 percent or so of kids who haven’t caught COVID, at least not yet. “We don’t want to trip at the finish line,” I keep saying, but that finish line keeps moving further away, and nobody seems to hear the pleas of parents to expedite the approval process. Delay after delay dash my hopes, and I am tired. So, so tired. I want my kid safe.

Selfishly, I want to go back to real life, too. Those four days of the conference, masked and anxious though I was, were the closest four days to “normal” I’ve had in more than two years. Despite my little dark cloud, I was invigorated, happy, reassured that I knew who my people were. I dreaded coming home to Anchorage, back to the environment that slowly eats away at my extroverted personality, poisons my mind into depression, separates me from so many and so much that I love.

I am a writer, because either I am writing or I’m wishing that I was. Right now, I am writing, but wishing I was momming. Sometime soon, I’ll be momming and wishing I was writing.

Too Many Hats: Struggling to Create in the Age of COVID

Often I speak of my various roles in terms of hats.

My favorite hat is my mom hat. I imagine it’s the kind a Musketeer would wear, in a rich purple with gold feathers. It’s playful and flashy, but maybe the ends of the feathers are a bit frayed. It’s well-loved and ready for an imaginative adventure, but it also signifies a duty.

My second favorite hat is my writer hat. I imagine this as a stylish beanie. Dark green, my favorite color. Perfect for a cold night in with a London Fog, or a literary event at my local cafe.

My student hat looks exactly like my writer hat on the outside, but underneath there hides a tiny professor nagging me to work on my thesis.

There’s my wife hat. I imagine it’s a baseball cap, like my husband wears daily. It’s probably a bit wrinkled and a little faded, but still ready to whip out for a picnic at the park, a day on the lake, or a ball game.

The last major hat is my day-job hat. It’s black—not for mourning, but just for practicality. It’s necessary, and it might look great on someone else, but on me it’s a bit awkward. Too big, maybe.

There are other minor hats. My chef’s hat. My daughter hat. My sister hat. My dog mom hat. (I worry what that would look like).

Before the looming threat of COVID-19 transitioned me to working from home, the pressure of “owning” all of those hats was stressful. Four days a week I would drop off my daughter at her Aaka and Aapa’s house. I’d whip off my mom hat and settle into my day job hat for a few hours. Then back to the mom hat. Chef’s hat. Grocery shopping hat. Student hat. Once in a while I’d get to wear the writer hat and attend a reading or write whatever I wanted.

Working, being a mom, running a household, and doing a Master’s degree is a lot of hard work.

Boy, do I miss that level of stress.

The thing is, so many of us parents who work from home are now having to wear two or three or five hats at once. My pre-COVID life was tiring, but it was also compartmentalized.

At the end of 2019, I started tracking my writing on a daily goals app. Some days I managed only a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, but if I succeeded in writing, I got a check mark for the day. I wrote for over three months straight. I was proud of myself: I’d finally succeeded in balancing my life enough to write daily.

Then our first COVID-19 case hit Alaska. Red X’s started stacking up on my goal tracker app.

That flashy purple mom-hat may be my favorite, but it’s also big, meaning it doesn’t leave too much room for anything else. My toddler is like most toddlers—high energy, needs constant stimulation, and used to having attention. But, somehow, I’m supposed to continue with my job (which has a whole new set of hurdles being online, by the way), and being a student, running my household with all of the extra steps social isolation creates. Add onto those things a whole new level of anxiety; take away any sort of support system. My mental health was in the toilet. I was always stressed, usually anxious, and often depressed.

I was wearing too many hats. Where was there time left to be creative? I didn’t have time or energy to pick up that writer beanie. The student one was pretty neglected, too.

But I’ve since realized I needed that hat. I needed it to dig my way out of the dark hole of bad mental health where creativity goes to die.

It wasn’t easy, but now I have three weeks back on the writing wagon. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Forgive yourself. Right now, we’re all in some state of coping, and however we handle that is okay. Maybe you won’t be as creative (or maybe you’re one of the luckier ones who is cranking out art as your own coping mechanism). Maybe you’ll come up with a new schedule that works for you. Maybe you’ll eat a ton of junk food and sleep 10 hours. Whatever happens, don’t beat yourself up about any red X’s that might be on your own calendar. I also had to let go of trying to be perfect at my job. Fortunately, my coworkers and boss are decent human beings who understand that I, too, am a human being. They’re going through many of the same things. The big problem was me being too hard on myself.

Step 2: Focus on your core needs first. Often, I would snowball into a bad day (or days) because I felt crappy physically, which made me more anxious, which made it harder to sleep, which made me feel crappier, etc. I realized I could turn this around in my favor. Start small. Drink a glass of water. Eat a small, healthy snack (yes, I know I said earlier junk food was a coping mechanism, but it can’t be ALL the time). Take a walk. Take a nap. Play. If your job will allow it, take a day off.

Step 3: Start small. Write whatever. Write one line. One paragraph. One stanza. Draw one sketch. Five minutes. Be creative for five minutes. Often, once I started, I found I could keep going longer. I needed to keep going longer. Remember to forgive yourself if that’s all you can manage, though. Writing or making art in the in-between moments of life is better than not at all.

Step 4: Find ways to re-compartmentalize your work and non-work life. Some hats (like me and my parent hat), you might need to wear all or most of the time. But when you can, you need to be able to set some hats aside. For me, this means working in one room and writing in another. Sometimes I do the latter outside, if the weather cooperates. I live in a duplex that’s just over 900 square feet, so options are limited, but being on my laptop 8-10 hours a day is more bearable if the scenery changes. The different room is associated with a different part of my brain. Compartmentalization also means creating firm work/non-work hours. I try not to answer work-related messages outside of work hours. I don’t have my work email on my cell phone or have notifications on my laptop outside of work hours. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but setting boundaries with my job is essential for me.

Step 5: Get help if you need it. I started seeing a therapist a few weeks ago via video conference. I got a ton of great coping mechanisms for my anxiety and depression. Some people might not need a therapist, or might not have access to one, but you need to talk to someone. Make sure you’re doing those phone calls and video chats with your friends and family. And make sure you’re talking to other creatives, too! Keep that fire lit. I don’t live with any creatives (though my daughter’s crayon scribbles are showing great potential), so I have to get that fix elsewhere.

Your hats might be very different from mine, but remember that the most important thing right now is to be safe and take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Wash your damned hands.

Why I Started Writing about Parenthood

I guess you’d call me an “emerging writer.” I also consider myself primarily a fantasy novelist, though I have yet to publish anything in the genre. It’s what I’ve been doing the longest—since I was in third grade. I have eight novel drafts in various stages, but just recently completed my first draft.

I only started writing poetry (aside from an angsty teenage phase and some school assignments) less than two years ago. My first published poem appeared in Alaska Women Speak last winter, and since then I’ve published three other poems.

For me, fiction is an escape. I draw on real life, sure, but I primarily write fantasy fiction and that’s an opportunity to imagine something, well, fantastic. Fiction is about being out there. Asking, “What if?”

Poetry, on the other hand, is a very internal experience. For me, it’s about processing my thoughts. It’s about connecting memories and revealing meaning. The overwhelming majority of my poetry is non-fiction, and many of my poems—at least the first drafts—are written in the first person. It is a place where I convert complex thoughts and emotions into words.

That I started writing poetry and became a parent in the same year is no coincidence.

At first, I viewed being a mom as something separate from my writing. A distraction, even. For months I lamented to friends, family, and classmates that I wasn’t able to write enough. On the increasingly rare occasion that I was able to sit down and write uninterrupted, I found that mom thoughts were crowding my brain. Stifling my imagination. Suffocating my creative energy.

So, I stopped fighting them.

You might have heard that mother-daughter poems are tired. Cliché. Lucky for me, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know a lick about what made a good poem, but I started writing poetry about my daughter.

My kid and I have a strong bond. Duh, any half-decent parent is thinking. You parents know that being a parent completely morphs who you are as a person. It centered my gravity around my kid. It morphed my voice as a writer, too. And once I gave myself permission to write what was on my mind, I unblocked myself.

In my case, having a child brought up a lot of questions about my identity—particularly as an Iñupiaq womanand the legacy I will pass to her. Most of my poetry started to focus on these ideas. My micro-chapbook, Immuk and Cookies, follows these themes and is forthcoming from Kissing Dynamite Poetry.

My kid just learned to recognize her letters, but gave me my most important writing lesson: our strongest feelings make for the best writing.

What are your strongest feelings?

Tips from a Creative Mom

I’m in my third and (hopefully) final year of my Master’s. I work part-time as a medical receptionist. In recent months, I went through the roller-coaster of selling a home, buying a new one, and moving twice in the process. Coronavirus has put strain on my schedule and my mental health. I run a household. And the biggest responsibility of all: I have an adorable and wicked-smart two-year-old. I wanted to share some wisdom I picked up along the way, to maybe give some hope to some newer parents out there who are writers or other creatives.

Investments in your writing are investments in your child. For many months I struggled with mom guilt. I felt that time I spent writing or on schoolwork was time I was stealing away from my daughter. I felt guilty over time she had to spend with her grandparents while I was doing 12- or 14-hour days at my summer residency. I felt guilty putting pressure on her dad during evening literary events, or weekend coffee shop sessions. I felt guilty that my writing endeavors weren’t producing an income to support her (*cough* they still don’t). Then I felt guilty that I wasn’t writing enough. But over time, I came to realize that pursuing my interests—even a few minutes a day or a couple nights a month—charged my batteries. If you’re like me, writing is necessary for your soul. No one is at their best when they’re stressed all of the time. That goes for being the best parent you can be. With that in mind…

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Now, there are plenty of moms out there who have it harder than I do. Some who work full time, some who are single parents, some who have multiple kids. Regardless of your workload, a support system of some kind is necessary when you are a parent. For me, that means asking for help from my (thankfully, very willing) parents (before coronavirus), and communicating with my husband on evenings I need him to fly solo. (Sometimes I fly solo too, because my husband needs time for himself.) It also means, because my husband is not a writer, that I need a community of writers who I can connect with, discuss writing with, and get my literature fix with.

Block out time and space for writing. This might take some experimentation. Ideally, this should be at a consistent schedule. Some people may find mornings work best, some on lunch breaks, some after their kids have gone to bed. Some people on weekends at a Starbucks after breakfast, but before they have to give their kid a boob for afternoon naptime (my preference).

You don’t have to write every day. Some people will insist that real writers write every day. If you have read a significant amount of craft books (which you definitely should), you’ve probably heard this multiple times. It is a lie. Writers write. They keep writing. But insisting you need to set aside that time every time the sun comes up during the busiest and possibly most stressful time of your life is nonsense.

Accept that some days you might not be able to block out that time to write. Life happens. Kids get sick. They have, like, 56 events in one week. Your main support person has to work late. You have to work late. You don’t feel like it (completely valid reason, as long as it isn’t every day). Don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon for one day, or two, or a week, or a month.

But keep trying anyway. Some days, all I manage is a few words edited in a poem on my phone right before I fall asleep. Some days, it’s ten minutes to draft a stanza in my kid’s pediatrician’s waiting room. Some days, it’s rewriting an opening line of a short story in the bathroom with my kid banging on the door while my husband is definitely available.

Your words are valuable, and someone out there needs to hear them.

Queer Happenings at The Writer’s Block

On Saturday, August 10th, I had the pleasure of reading some of my poetry at The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café! Queer Happenings Edutainment Night featured a panel discussion on Alaska’s budget cuts by Rev. Jacob Poindexter, Justina Beagnyam, and Dana Dardis and art by Jeremiah Freeman, Tatiana Agnew, and yours truly!

This was my third time reading at the Writer’s Block, but my first time reading outside of my MFA program. Anxiety was high, but fortunately I was able to employ some techniques passed on by faculty member and poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell. It was great to share the stage with some true Alaskan activists and talent. The crowd was super animated and supportive. With a great food and drink menu, books, and a constant flow of art and events, The Writer’s Block is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hangouts.

My poetry lately has focused a lot on my identity as multi-racial, being a mom, and some social and political themes. One of the poems I read was “For Reinette,” which appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Alaska Women Speak.

Thanks to my MFA classmate, M.C. MoHagani Magnetek, for hosting and inviting me to participate! And a big thank you to my friends, family, and coworkers, who showed up and probably got a little more than they asked for!