In 2010 The Guardian published an article called Ten Rules For Writing Fiction. It was a compilation of famous authors’ top ten tips. Richard Ford’s advice stood out to me. His first rule was: Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. This advice sounded like inherently sensible advice to me. But his second rule took me by surprise: Don’t have children. Like most effective slogans it was three bold, simple words—there was no ambiguity, no room for qualification. At the time, I was feeling unusually positive about my writing future. I had been shortlisted for a new but reasonably prominent writing prize, and the flush of excitement that came with such a shortlisting had not yet completely faded. But I was also thirty-one, I had been with my partner for ten years, and I had finished GP training—during which, amongst other things, I had studied graphs of women’s fertility (which dropped off precipitously after age thirty-five). To use a tired metaphor, I could hear my clock ticking.
As a teenager, when I imagined my future I envisaged being a working mother. My mum had done it, so why couldn’t I? But by 2010 I was starting to question the notion that I could do everything and do everything well. I had seen the strain on my working-parent-friends’ faces. I think that’s why Richard Ford’s second rule resonated with me. But—as with most advice I don’t like—I chose not to follow it. I went on to have children, two of them, and I kept writing.
In some ways, I’m glad I only started writing in earnest after I had children. It means I have never known any different (except vicariously, through writer-friends who go on leisurely writing retreats—most of whom, granted, have already done the hard yards with their children). Writing with kids has taught me discipline and efficiency. I can’t lie around hoping for inspiration to hit. If I have an hour at a café, or fifteen minutes while the kids play with Lego, then I’m going to use every second of it. And the thing about children is that they grow up. Suddenly they don’t need you as much. As I write this piece, my daughter is at school, and my son is at kinder. Now I have the luxury of longer stretches of time.
But just in case I’m giving the impression I have this mother-writing thing down pat, please allow me to provide evidence to the contrary. I once worked a full morning at work only to have a colleague kindly point out at lunchtime that my blouse was inside out. Another time I drove off, leaving an extremely expensive pram on the side of the road (it was long gone when I finally realised a few hours later—I had left it in hard-rubbish-loving Brunswick after all). And on a particularly bad day, as I bent down to tie my daughter’s shoelace, I—and all the drivers waiting at the lights—watched my son’s stroller roll down the hill with him still strapped inside it, a park bench the only thing stopping him from meeting with oncoming traffic.
So this is the part where I say, but it’s okay. I calm myself with platitudes that it will all work out in the end. I cite articles like the one from the New York Times, which claims that daughters of working mums earn more and sons of working mums spend more time helping out around the house. I think of all the successful writers who are also mums and seem to be making it work. But the sad fact is, I don’t know what will happen. I like to believe the New York Times article because I love my children and I want to work and write, and I don’t want to give up either. But the truth is I will have to wait until my children give me their verdict. Years from now, when a significant event like a twenty-first birthday or a wedding or the birth of a child causes them to reflect on their childhood, they will tell me themselves whether I did a good job. Until then, I will continue doing what I’m doing. I will love them, and write, and save up for therapy.
Melanie Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland, Sleepers Almanac and Seizure, among other publications, and her story, ‘White Sparrow’, was published in Shibboleth and other stories, published by Margaret River Press. In 2016 she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for her collection of short fiction, Australia Day, to be published in 2017 by Text Publishing.