by Steffanie Triller Fry
Nine months ago, I gave birth to my first child. For the nine months since, I have been trying to reconcile my identity as a writer with my identity as a parent. When I saw that there was a panel entitled “The Parent-Writer: Can We Really Have It All?” at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs this February, I jumped at the chance to learn how parenting had transformed other authors’ writing. But, the panelists never touched transformation. Mostly, they emphasized the need to get enough time to devote to writing – a problem we all face, parent or not.
I must admit that I smiled when I learned that of the five panelists, all published professional writers, three had one child each and two of them had two children. I think my recent student who parents five children ranging in age from fifteen months to seventeen years and who is currently working on her Advanced Project could tell these panelists a thing or two about being a parent-writer!
The thoughts missing from this panel presentation prompted me to ponder on the ways parenting has affected my own writing, and how it continues to affect the writing that adult students-parents-writers do each day.
Adult students spend a significant amount of time outside of the classroom on non-academic endeavors. But, research has shown that these non-academic pursuits may enhance the learning that takes place inside of the classroom. Not surprisingly, Graham and Donaldson found in their study of nearly 27,811 college students, approximately two-thirds of whom were over the age of 27, that adult students spend significantly more time involved in off-campus activities (including raising children) than younger students. But significantly, Graham and Donaldson also found that the adult students’ reported academic growth was also greater than younger students’ reported growth across 26 categories, including “Improving writing ability” and “Developing creativity and original ideas” (Table 1.)
While a significant subset of the scholarship in the field of rhetoric and composition in the past five years has discussed learning transfer, most of this research has considered how students use the skills they learn in first-year composition in the disciplines and in the field. Little has focused on the way students use prior learning processes when they learn in the composition classroom (Moore 11). One exception is Michelle Navarre Cleary’s “Flowing and Freestyling: Learning from Adult Students about Process Knowledge Transfer.” In this article she considers the ways that adult students Tiffany and Doppel learn in their home and work lives, and how these processes of learning transfer to their academic work. Tiffany and Doppel, however, are not parents.
These studies in learning transfer beg the question: what can parent-students as parent-writers transfer from their learning in the home to their studies outside of the home?
Though the spaces in which I am parent, writer, teacher, and many other things are separate, as part of my identity they are inseparable. Just as what is true in parenting is often true in teaching, I can learn about my relation to my written work from my relationship with my child.
To begin this conversation, below I suggest ten things that parenting has taught me about writing:
10. Comparison is the source of my discontent. Life is easier when I focus on my baby and my writing.
9. Anything goes – just so no one gets hurt. But sometimes we have to get hurt. Pain is a powerful stimulus for learning to take place.
8. It’s always easier when there’s a routine.
7. When something goes wrong, it will eventually be forgiven, even if it takes a ton of hugs and kisses.
6. Lots of people have done it, gotten through it, succeeded; and they all seem so successful and calm in the light of day. But they all have their sleepless nights. It’s how they respond to the anxiety and unpredictability that makes the difference.
5. I may have to do the same thing over and over again to get the desired result. But it may take a month or two or three to figure out what that thing is, and then it may change.
4. A creator and their creation are forever connected: it is difficult to leave my daughter in the care of another already – I can’t imagine sending her out into the world. I’m similarly reluctant to share my writing with others, and the world.
3. We were all babies once; every adult was once someone’s child. These adults who were once children are our readers, characters, and inspiration. At its core, writing is a humanistic activity, and I am writing my best when I am remembering this.
2. Feeding solves all problems.
1. Children are natural muses. Whenever I have writer’s block, I either look into the eyes of my child, or get down and try to look at the world through the eyes of my child. Either way, I learn something new.
In the past nine months I’ve experienced a steep learning curve: I’ve been trying to learn not only how to parent, but how to write and parent at the same time. I cannot help but think about my student who conceived her papers while washing dishes at the kitchen sink. Because she faced out the window while sudsing the glasses and plates, in these moments her children could not reach her, and she used this time to imagine her papers from beginning to end. Being a parent not only taught her to make the most of the time she had; being a parent transformed dishwashing into a sacred space where her intellectual mind could flourish. I know I have many other students and colleagues who know much more about how parenting has affected their ability to create. I encourage comments to this post to share what you have learned! Please add your own ways that parenting has transformed your ability to write, create, craft, or work.
Graham, Steve and Joe F. Donaldson. "Adult Students' Academic And Intellectual Development In College." Adult Education Quarterly 49.3 (1999): 147. Professional Development Collection. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
Moore, Jessie. “Mapping the Questions: The State of Writing-Related Transfer Research.” Composition Forum 26 (2012). http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/
. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
Navarre Cleary, Michelle. “Flowing and Freestyling: Learning from Adult Students about Process Knowledge Transfer.” College Composition and Communication 64:4 (2013): 661-687. Print.