Heather Ryan

Heather Ryan
Eugene, Oregon, US
December 20
"Imagine," says writer TK Dalton, "a knocked up Bookslut, Salam Pax with a dead beat ex instead of Raed. That's Terrible Mother." She's also a quick-thinking, smart-mouthed single mother to three kids. By day, she teaches writing to college freshmen and sophomores. By night, she cooks, cleans, parents and writes. She is, despite vehemently claiming to be one, not a hipster, but does have an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon, which she earned by duct-taping her children to chairs and feeding them bottles of Benadryl (not necessarily in that order). Terrible Mother still lives in Oregon, where she deals her snarky brand of parenting humor to her friends. "Another single mother blog?" says novelist Roby Connor. "Someone get this lady some Jesus."


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 15, 2009 1:49PM

Am I Blue?

Rate: 47 Flag

It’s mid-January, post-Christmas but pre-spring weather, and I’m sitting in my messy bedroom, at my cluttered desk, and I’m staring into a backyard that is overgrown with weeds and blackberry. The drainage pipe that runs water from the rain gutter down is hanging off the house, an arm that reaches into the ivy and alder.

This is an apt metaphor for my life right now: the chaos and mess, the grasping toward something, anything. My house is messy—not terribly unclean, mind you. Dishes, clothes and kids get washed, the bathroom gets tidied. We eat healthily. And yet the desk in the kitchen is a constant mess of bills and junk mail and arts and crafts and pencils and backs of earrings. The front room, the movies and video games scattered, the couch with the pile of fresh laundry. In my bedroom, there’s a pile of clothes I’ve worn this past week, some I can refold and put away, others that need to be washed, yet the pile persists; I have no desire to organize it.

Beyond that, my writing has hit a wall, and when I’m honest with myself, I admit that I haven’t been writing enough. Writing is like running in that you can’t laze for a few months and then expect to finish a marathon without, I dunno, dying en route. Christmas this year, I planned all kinds of homemade presents and crafts and hand-knit items, and I sent not a one. I haven’t sent my brothers their gifts, or my mother, or my dear friend Brad. The kids had all of their things, and we had plenty of good times, and wonderful nights with friends, and lots of board games and singing. At the time, I made the choices consciously, decided that I would put off chores in order to spend time with the Things Three. One of these was the decision to curtail my writing

But the accounting comes, and now it’s January, and the house is still messy, and I’m morose and lead-footed and feeling stretched thin. I see, too, the desires I have, the wants and needs, and the iron-solid beliefs: that I should be able to be an astounding teacher, an amazing mother, and a well-respected writer. All while cooking a three-course, vegetarian, healthy meal every night, managing doctors appointments and bill payments, and the orthodontist and the fencing lessons, and the trips to the library, and by the way, I like to knit, and I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book—have you heard of it? It’s good, the narrative clean and straight forward and persuasive—and I’d also like to clean the front yard, make it a little nicer. I’ve thought about having a garden, you know, in the spring. Cucumbers. Lettuces. Tomatoes. I could plant these things, maybe even do some canning in the summer, and, incidentally or not, the freelance writing market is terrible now, haven’t a clue how I’ll make it through next summer, and I’d like to just teach all year, if I could, or make enough to have the summer off, and I’m trying to apply for a few things, and I’ve pitched some big venues I have a shot at, and by the way, have I mentioned I’m tired?

Sometimes I wonder if I it’s simply that I try to do too much, that I expect too much from myself, or life in general. It isn’t sufficient that I’m good enough at anything—I want to be brilliant at several things. This is a problem, the most obvious reason being that, unless I stop sleeping completely, I don’t have enough time in a day. Last August, I spent two weeks at Soapstone—a writing residency in the middle of the Oregon Coast Range—and I wrote several strong essays. One of those essays was excruciating to write, a narrative about body image and sexual assault and female desire. It is far from perfect, and I am now, some 5 months later, ready to revise it. But the laying down of the basic structure, writing the first three drafts, were so painful and draining that I could not have accomplished it with the kids around, or with a daily job to attend to. I couldn’t have accomplished it without absolute devotion to the writing itself, and the space to do that.

In real life, though, that kind of space and time comes so infrequently, if ever. And then the every day pushes in—the laundry and the dishes and the errands. I see John—the kids’ dad—glance around the house when he drops them off. I see his evaluating eye—how he notices the dust in the corners, the haphazard piles of library books, the occasional mug ringed with cocoa. I cannot decide how to prioritize my life, how to make these choices, and it’s making things harder, more difficult. I cannot quite justify, to myself, the expense of childcare to cover writing time, though part of me understands that if I don’t do this, there will be no book, let alone books, ever. Which would break my heart, if I got to 50 or 60 and hadn’t finished writing a few books.

I started this short piece thinking I would write about SAD—Seasonal Affect Disorder—because when I sat at my laptop this morning, I was convinced I suffered from it—the post-Christmas blahs, the inability to organize, to get things completed, coupled with the coal-smoke sky, the rain. In the laying out of the evidence my mind has been changed, as it tends to when presented with better evidence. I cannot decide, though, how to move through this life I’ve created, what I need to do now.

Last year, the brouhaha between Alice Walker and her daughter Rebecca Walker took center stage for a few moments in spring. In a highly publicized article, Rebecca denounced Alice as a terrible mother, someone who had placed her daughter “after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.” It was hard to read such an indictment of a talented writer. Harder, though, was an essay by Phyllis Chesler, which detailed the complex and difficult relationships mothers and daughters have—famous writers or not—and the ways in which those relationships may reflect feminism and its weaknesses. At the end of the essay, Chesler says, Alice did what other women couldn’t do, or chose not to: “Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women's rights.” Then she addresses Alice’s daughter directly: “Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.”

I hate Chesler when I read this, though the emotion is misplaced. I want to believe she’s wrong. She’s wrong, I say. I say it again. I shout it.

I worry that she’s not.


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Heather, You write so brilliantly about topics that affect so many people. I don't think what you're expressing applies only to single mothers, creative people or people with lists of things undone. And you captured the frustration of unfulfilled expectations so concisely. Thank you.
Well, that's pretty. The coal-black sky. The gutter reaching to the trees. You forgot some pressures, but I forgive you, you have a lot on your mind:-)

Also, still, I don't grant you a free pass from SAD. Tinged with melancholy, you, YOU--TM of the ready joke and clever riposte? This is beautifully rendered and it's completely true: the pressures on you are tremendous. But the sky sooted with clouds, closing by the hour, the chill, still air, the disordered house and at work the cold tile floors and flickering overhead lights of PLC prison block-- if you think these things aren't getting to your resiliency and mood, you really are nuts.
the lights in PLC do make me crazy, I have to admit.
Julie said exactly what I wanted to say. :-)

Truly, this piece spoke to me.
You captured so much of what I've been feeling lately. Everything seems a mess and everything looks a mess and I can't get a handle on any of it. I'm terribly behind in everything. I'm doing too much and doing it all poorly and then beating myself up afterward for it. My youngest was sick today and I nearly cried because this was The Day that I was going to catch the hell up.

I have no words of consolation for you, but just wanted to say that you helped me feel not so alone in all of it.
heather, again, julie said it very well. the wonder boy was sick all thru christmas, and i just want to throw my hands in the air because i don't think i'm ever going to catch up. it's negative temps outside, i'm driving home on ice (after an evening meeting) and then i have to get up at five and start the futility all over again. rated.
Perhaps if I had read this piece a few hours earlier, I would not have spent the past several hours cleaning my house. And when I say cleaning, I mean down on my hands and knees scrubbing kitchen floor kind of cleaning. The need to clean was provoked by a few things: I overdrew my checking account; I have a sick child at home; the stuff I've been writing lately has been painful, and I just couldn't go back there today.
I hear everything you say. And yet, I know, and perhaps you do, too, that when I start beating myself up for not writing that the only way to do it is to write. And it's always amazing how much better I feel as soon as I start writing (just as I do when I start exercising).
I grew up in the PNW, and by mid-February I was suicidal. SAD is a pain. Where I live now is cold, but at least the sun comes out on a regular basis.
I'm starting to ramble, which is a sign that what you've written has really touched me.
So, here's what I will say and then be quiet.
YES, you can be a mother and a writer, and that does get easier as they get older. And YES, some days, you're going to be too exhausted to write or do much of anything. Give yourself those mental health days. Remind yourself that if you really are the center that your family revolves around, you need to take care of yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. As a friend said to me when I had taken out the whipping stick and was beating the shit out of myself, "Would you say those things to your daughter? What would you do if you heard someone say that to your daughter? So, why are you saying it to yourself?
Every time the whipping stick comes out, I think of my daughters, and how I want to model a different kind of life for them.

Sorry I went on so long. Didn't mean to.
Gee, twins separated at birth.
Men have ignored their cchildren for millenia in the pursuit of fame and wealth. Nobody siad they were bad for it until very recently and then only by the pc'est among us.

Work, you are in the boat that Tim Allen ascribed to men, "It's work or the penitentiary, there is no 'choice'."

So work, your kids will survive and appreciate all the "lights" and extras you bring in along the way.

Stop beating yourself up. There are people waiting in line to take their turn on your ass!


I wrote a haiku in my current day's blog about a mother you are NOT.
Just as I was about to come and read this post I got a note from Kara, my youngest stepdaughter, on Facebook asking if I wrote a poem I posted on my blog yesterday. Of course I did. But even though I have been her stepmother for 18 years and have known her for nearly 20, she actually didn't know I write anything or that I am ever any good. She seemed a bit surprised.

I think children are sometimes unintentionally mean and neglectful when they leave home. They discard their parents because it is the only way that they seem to think they will find themselves. Unfortunately it causes a great deal of emotional debris, and mothers, well, we are trained to fall on any knives left laying around our family as if we placed them there personally. I have one thing to say to Phyllis Chesler: We do the best that we can and just because it happens in our family doesn't make it all our fault either. Lots of children of high achiever, busy people turn out grateful and productive. Being a whiner about it is an unseemly choice made out of infinite possible interpretations, it's one that Rebecca made for herself. Imagine asking a soldier's daughter whose mother is in some godforsaken place defending Rebecca's right to whine how she feels about her mother. We have to invent our own perspective sometimes.

And the SAD thing, well, I don't know but the Winter storm that seemed like it would go on forever had yielded to fog up here in Bellingham. It nearly killed every smart-assed gene and funny bone in my body, now the sky is glaring with brilliant sun trying to burn off that fog, steam is rising out of the forest and my eyes hurt from the glare of so much light. So I posted something that makes me feel better: http://open.salon.com/user_blog.php?uid=1974

Maybe it will work for you too.

rated and appreciated
Hey Heather, I'm a single mother and writer. And ya, it's hard. Right now I'm blaming Malcolm Gladwell for your mood. I read and reviewed that book when it came out, and there's nothing like a fabulously readable history about successful men to get you down. The irony of his book is, if you remember the first chapter, his original outlier is that outrageously healthy community that doesn't care all that much about who is successful and who isn't. Nevertheless, he's right that success is mostly a product of circumstance. It is and will always be difficult for artist/mothers to succeed at anything until affordable childcare becomes a human right. In the meantime, go read some Grace Paley. She pulled it off: being a great writer, a great mother and great human being.
Wonderful post. I definitely relate. I'm terrified I will neglect my children in favor of my work, but more terrified that I will resent them if I am never able to try to do what I want with my life, namely, to write. Wouldn't that be worse? I think even if Alice was a stay-at-home mom - she and Rebecca would struggle with each other. I struggle in my relationship with my mother and she was a homemaker and mom for most of her life.

There is a documentary I've been hearing good things about called "Who Does She Think She Is?" about women artists and motherhood. These are rich topics to mine, I think. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Yes, well, yes. Thank you for nailing the whole expectations/frustration/doubts thing. I could NOT have said it better! I've been feeling frustrated I can't even find time lately to collect enough thoughts to make a decent post! Gotta write and will tonight.
I have mixed feelings about your post. I sympathize with you greatly, but I have no pity for somebody who can experience rain at this time of year. There is a small but obnoxious voice in my head that says, "if it's not below freezing, you cant get SAD"

of course I know that is not true. So I apologize for being an A-hole.
I feel like a fraud leaving a comment here---no children---

but, I wanted to say----absolutely no evidence of a wall in sight---this is a beautiful essay----

as I said, no children---but my stomach was tight with the frustration (and fear) you so eloquently express here.
Beautiful. Really strong narrative. I know we can all feel like this sometimes--not to diminish your feelings--so thank you for sharing.
I found Gladwell's book compelling but rather simplistic. Perhaps it's because he ties everything so neatly and hammers it home that we like his stuff, but, really, it's lacking in nuance. Just take the hockey thing: cut-off dates for most leagues--and all the other sports and school situations he mentions--are really in the fall nowadays, so why is the January date so important? I feel that his work is interesting but kind of cherry-picking-ish.

But I digress. Great essay about the complexities of life and motherhood. I mostly stayed at home with my kids--teaching a night class here or there--until they were of school age and then taking tutoring and subbing gigs, gathering great experience but not such great pay in the mysterious world of urban schools. But then again I have a banker husband who supports my habit of finding low-paying, non-career-hour jobs. I loved my time with my kids but understand that not all want or can make that choice. You seem like a good mother and writer to me. I'd take that and run with it.
Heather, what I want to say to you requires a very delicate balance, so don't lean one way or the other until I'm done, ok?

You can do both. You can't do them both perfectly, but then no one can do either one perfectly without the distraction of the other. You can't be Alice Walker. Alice Walker can't be you. You have to find your own way. But you can do what's important to you — which sounds to me, and pardon me if I'm wrong, like writing and raising children, with the need to make a living mixed in. That's not to suggest that teaching isn't important to you; I don't mean that at all. But it doesn't sound as though housework is (a sentiment I thoroughly endorse), and maybe you just have to let go of that and say, "This is what's going to give. I won't give up on being a good writer and a good mother, but f....orget the housework." And let go of all the other unimportant stuff as well.

That doesn't mean you don't have to do at least a certain amount of it; it just means you won't let it define you. Maybe you'll make sure your front room is clean and not worry about the pile of clothes in your bedroom. Maybe you'll find some other way of dealing with it. The key is not to let it, and other responsibilities like it, get in your way.

I think you will look back, a few years from now, and realize that you have done more than you thought you were doing at the time. You'll have a body of work that you can reread and think, "Wow! That's really good!" And you'll have kids who are a few years older and more independent than they are now.

But the flip side is that you shouldn't get down on yourself because it's hard. Sometimes it's impossible, and that's ok. It just is. But it won't always be this hard. It won't always be January. Someday you'll be the woman saying to a younger version of yourself, "Don't give up; just be patient and be good to yourself."
you capture this so extraordinarily. No advice, here, just tons of empathy. I find January to be terribly overwhelming - I just feel like I'm starting off behind and I'll never catch up & then, it's like 20 degrees outside. Who can be happily productive in this?

All I can say is hang in there (ok, maybe a little advice) - it sounds as though your kids are very young - it does get easier when they are older, are in school, and can do more for themselves. In the meantime, think about what matters most to you and do it - it sounds like writing, teaching & your kids - so the laundry and the piles can wait - they'll still be there tomorrow.
I, too, think you write beautifully. Thanks for absolving me of my guilt for the pile of clothes that diminishes and then mounts, and the closet that awaits a major overhaul. I wish I could say so many men, so little time, but that I'm afraid would be a lie.
I've been meaning to pick up that Gladwell book, but I often gaze into a very similar landscape you so beautifully painted and feel something similar. Keep doing what you're doing - nothing is impossible, everything is permitted. If anyone can, you will.
Your life, and your state of mind, sounds a lot like mine, minus the kids and the writer's retreats. It must be endemic to a certain personality type -- a type that seems pretty prevalent here at OS. So you're in good company. Best of all, nobody here can see your messy house. Or mine. ;-)
This got me thinking. I think Chesler is right. Of course she's right. But it's not an indictment of *women*. NO ONE can do it all. Men don't even try to. Because they have always been the ones to go out 'there' and earn the living/make their mark on the world, no one expected them to somehow ALSO totally take over in the household and be fantastic, nurturing, involved fathers. But reverse the equation, let women try to migrate out of the home and go 'out there' to earn their living and make their mark on the world, and we don't hold them to a new, revised standard - we hold them to the old standard PLUS the new standard, and if they slip even a little, we scream "bad mother" or from the corporate side, 'uncommitted, unreliable mommy tracker!'.

If Alice Walker was unhappy at her life's work, just going through the motions b/c she was subscribing to some notion of externally defined success, then Rebecca would have a complaint. But her mom did nothing more than what generations of men have done and been lauded for - she followed her talent to the places it took her, and she enjoyed the journey. Personally I'm pretty puzzled why Rebecca doesn't lay into her father for not picking up the slack she blames Alice for.

We only have one life. It's kind of short. I firmly believe we must put our own happiness first, because only then can we muster the motivation and energy to answer the myriad needs and demands on us. So many people aren't sure what would make them happy - here you are, able to define it! That's great! I think you should justify the cost of the day care and write. You have a great talent.
No, she is wrong. You can be both. You just can't always get the house perfectly clean and do both. See, the house is different from raising your kid or making your art. Cleaning the house is NOT part of child-raising, except in the sense that you want to have it clean enough that there are not bugs or bad smells.

You're being too hard on yourself. Your writing is beautiful. You are working your butt off. What you need are built in breaks, where you do things for fun, with and without the kids. Without those breaks, you'll get burnt out.

And I have SAD, which is why So. Cal. is a better place for me to live. So, I know just how you feel.

I agree with others that this piece of really wonderful writing captures all those things perfectly, those frustrations of what can and can't get done in one day.
That is, Chesler is wrong. Sandra is too lovely to be wrong. :)
Thank for for capturing all of it. Please show yourself some mercy, so that your kids can see life is fun too. :).
Heather, brilliant piece with tons of relevance and presented in your ever-fascinating way. Welcome to the fetishization of parenting, where we are supposed to be perfect in everything we do, and lavish ungodly amounts of attention on our kids AND be a breadwinner, AND keep our house a perfect palace of cleanliness for our little wunkerkinder. Talk about expectation!

I like to say that mother-daughter relationships are fraught with expectation on both sides, and therefore frequently disappoint. I think the same is true with parenting more generally these days. We are so convinced that there is a magic bullet, some kind of perfect child rearing technique that will make us perfect parents of perfect children.

The truth is, we all make it up as we go. And kids are resiliant. In fact, it is our imperfections that MAKE us resiliant. One thing I had to learn about my relationship with my mother was that the disappointments I had by her were actually gifts -- they taught me valuable lessons that have made me a better person as I move through the world. Our kids will find their way, every bit as much in spite of us as because of us.
Thanks Heather. You have a lot of company here. Human doings we are!
You do have a lot of company here. And finding time to write is really hard especially when you can't turn around without seeing a million chores. Things you can do: Don't worry about the ex seeing dust, don't worry about the personalized Christmas gifts -- those people will love you anyway and will get by just fine without the handknit items. Forget the three course gourmet vegetarian meal, open up a can of veggie chile, steam some frozen corn and make some Kraft macaroni and cheese (three courses!). Grab a notebook, a cup of tea, a beer, whatever you like. Tell yourself you're going to write for half-an-hour and do it. Tell yourself it's no different than doing the dishes or taking a bath or knitting a sweater. It's not a luxury; you HAVE to do it or you'll lose your mind. Also, I'm 57 and when I was in my thirties and forties thought I would die if I didn't get published and get famous. I didn't do either. I kept writing novels and essays and they didn't go anywhere and after awhile I realized what I was doing was keeping myself sane. I've been working on the same novel now since 2003, my cats keep peeing in the corner of my office, the house is a disaster, there are piles of everything everywhere. It's going to be okay! It really is! You're a good person and a great mom. You play board games with your kids! All people who play board games with their kids are great moms. Hope you find at least a tiny warming patch of sunlight!
Yesterday I posted a blog called Housework Manifesto which speaks to this directly. I suggested hiring a housecleaner. That one thing alone can cause a woman to have some time for creative pursuits. It does work. Good luck!
Great piece--totally deserves to be on the home page, whatever "deserves" means. In this case, it means that you did what good essayists are suppose to do: explore the familiar and "attempt" recovery of the strange or unusual. Like it. I take much away from this as a mother.

Also, I ditto what epriddy said in terms of the intersection between motherhood and career--that is, the two are not "supposed" to intersect. Motherhood is truly tough. I distrust women who flaunt their mastery of it. rated
This is so beautifully expressed, and so true. Fingerlakeswanderer is right, treat yourself as you would treat your own beloved child. Prioritize. Be gentle with yourself. I always figured I'd have a clean organized house and organic garden when life got back to normal -- Then I figured out this is as normal as it gets.
I've known a lot of artists and writers, and the ones that get anything done are the ones who tell their husbands or wives, their sons and daughters, to do whatever needs to be done and to just leave them alone so they can write or paint or compose.

It's a hard thing to do, tell people you love to bug off, but you got to do it.
I am a fellow SAD patient. It starts around the end of November and lets up around the end of February. When this coincides with the Holidays, it leads to disappointment. I used to feel soooo guilty and guess what? That made the SAD even worse.

What I do now is during the winter months, no matter what my family doctor says, I curl up in a quiet room with a book and read away. (My kids are old enough so I can get away with this) I do waht I do but I don't feel guilty about it.
Motivation comes in all forms, so allow me to be brief. Snap out of it!
You write about dark melancholy with such lightness – no mean feat. I absolutely love this piece.

It was not so long ago, I was a stay-at-home/freelance graphic designer Mom doing none of them particularly well. I think you're doing wonderfully and that "this too shall pass." Then, you'll write your book, and I, for one, will be in line to buy it.

PS: Light boxes cost about $250. Make sure you get one with 10,000 lux, or it will be a waste.
I really, really sympathize. My house is a wreck, too, but I've been learning to live with it. Fortunately for me, we no longer have any dependents living with us. And I know that makes a huge difference.

How about if you settle for 2 out of 3, maybe your writing and your kids, and not worry as much about the house. Unless, of course, you know any hungry students who'd be willing to barter a bit of sweat for a good meal. Nor would there be anything wrong with John, the kids' dad, pitching in a little bit. After all, you do most of the work involved in their care. What would happen if you just handed him a feather duster or a swiffer?

In the meantime, just knit a few rows, nothing specific, just knit & purl, too, if you want to. You'll feel better, and knitting does help the different parts of the brain communicate with each other. IIRC, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (the Yarn Harlot) says it facilitates Theta waves... but I might be misremembering.
I was reading this article about Penn's Dean of Nursing and had just reached the point where she's describing the parenting sacrifices that her mother made for her career and the impact that those sacrifices had on her (the daughter) and I thought of you.

I haven't read the whole thing yet, so I'm not sure of the total outcome...
I fully got on the lol-lercoaster when I read "you can't have SAD if it isn't below freezing...I know, I'm an A**hole." Made my day, elegantmistake. Heh.

You're all great for giving me pep talks--not what I expected, but maybe what I needed. Today is sunny and I'm feeling much better. The kids are also at their dad's house, so maybe the combo of lack of sun with a lot of responsibilities is a killer. I've decided to neglect the house in favor of writing.

You should know it's working wonderfully.

I could write forever, though, about the pressures of writing/the artist life and motherhood. They're tough. One of my dear friends Alana reminded me on my other blog, in response to this, of our professor who said "Single mothers rarely finish books." He said it to push us, I'm sure, though he's probably right.

I wrote that on a piece of paper and taped it to my window above my desk. I'm fucking finishing this mofo manuscript if it kills me.
I think I'm going to spring for a lightbox, too. For god's sakes, the sun today makes me nearly euphoric. I think that has to be a sign of something, yeah?
Also, Juliet, I think the Grace Paley suggestion was fabulous. Gladwell is a great writer, but there is nothing like reading a book on success--that is all male success--to drive home the idea that I won't be lucky enough to "make it," and that my talent is not enough. Pshaw!

I'm reading Lark and Termite right now by Phillips. It's amazing.