Years ago, when I had four children crammed together and a husband in the thick of graduate school, I stumbled across Tillie Olsen’s book Silences, which chronicles the lives of authors who have been silenced by life circumstance.
I loved Tillie Olson, loved her short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” which might be the mantra of every mother struggling to help an unreachable child.
So I picked up Silences, and thumbed through the pages. It is not a very readable book, full of stops and starts and jumbled quotes, but I came upon this:
“Substantial creative work demands time, and with rare exception only full-time workers have achieved it. Where the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor effort and accomplishment; silences” (p. 31).
This quote stirred something in me. I was mother to four children, a PhD widow, and a fledgling freelance journalist who wrote a mediocre column for a newspaper across the country. I had recently picked up another column for the local paper. It required me to write once a month. After three months, I quit.
“Are you still writing for the paper?” an acquaintance asked a few weeks later.
“I quit,” I told her. “It was too much.”
“Too much?” she snorted. “Once a month? How hard can it be?”
I took a step backward, shocked by her response, but even more by the truth of her statement. How hard could it be? It couldn’t have been that hard, and yet it was. On top of a home, a new baby, diapers and dishes and church responsibilities and the emotional toil of so many little people tugging at my day, I simply couldn’t string together 600 brilliant and coherent words.
I made a heap of mistakes in those young days of parenting, and the biggest one was not recognizing my need for creative space. I silenced myself, thinking I needed to be Mother and Wife and that eventually the words that I wrote in circles through my brain would shush and retreat to their proper place.
In Olsen’s words: “…women are traditionally trained to place others’ needs first, to feel these needs as their own” (p. 35).
It’s part of our culture, as LDS women. We want to be good wives. We want to be good mothers. This may mean that for a time we are silenced. In order to be “good,” we may set aside a career or school for years or decades. We may scale back to part-time employment or relegate work to the night shift. Or, in order to meet financial needs, we might postpone our true dreams. That, too, is a type of silence.
What Olsen doesn’t address in her book is how to end the silence. How does a woman, after all that quiet, clear her throat and find voice?
Here’s what I think: I think it takes finding a tribe of support. Good friends who understand. It takes cooperation and encouragement from a spouse and children, because they will have to shift their expectations of what you will do with your life as you emerge from your silence. Too often we wives and mothers play the martyr. (“I used to…write, run, sing, paint, teach…but with Little Johnny’s t-ball and Sophie’s competitive dance, there simply is no time.”)
It also means, and here’s the hardest part, embracing fear. Every time I broach a new milestone in my writing career, I do it with tremors running up and down my arms. I am absolutely terrified. It’s taken me a decade to realize that for me this is part of the equation. I will be scared, uncertain, and inadequate with each step, but I will not be silenced.
Years ago, when I was newly married, I talked to a woman who was in the throes of raising five beautiful, talented children. She stood in the large, gleaming kitchen of her family’s cabin and said to me, “I feel that my husband’s life is a glorious train ride, and it’s simply my job to grab onto his coattails and hope that I don’t get left behind.”
In our view of eternity, in the joy that is to come from living the gospel, I can’t think this is what God intended, yet I’ve heard this type of sentiment over and over from middle-aged women. They stand in their kitchens and think, “Is this it? All I am good for?”
I like to think that our good Lord, who is ever a respecter of women, would echo the words of Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “The Lantern Bearers”:
“And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets, to find where the joy resides, and give it voice, far beyond singing.”
How and where we find voice is different for each woman. After so many years of silence, our voices might come out a bit rusty, warbled, and uncertain. But joy is never found in silence. It’s never too late to open our mouths and sing.
Image: The Lanterns – Charles Courtney Curran – 1913