The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

Mother With Baby Suffering From Post Natal Depression

By Julie Vick

When my first son was a few months old, I was bouncing him on an exercise ball at 3:00 a.m. to try and get him back to sleep. It was the third time I had been up with him that night, and I was scrolling through an online parenting board on my phone reading posts from others in the same predicament. There were plenty of people lamenting their situations, but one post said, “Just cherish every moment, they won’t be that little for long.”

I understand where such thoughts are coming from, but reading them on a discussion board in the middle of the night only added fuel to my sleep deprived fire. I was going on three months where I had not slept more than a four hour stretch at a time, and even those four hour stretches were a rarity.

The humor and adrenaline that had carried me through the first weeks with a newborn was waning and the reality of my fragmented and sparse sleep was setting in. My mind felt fuzzy and jumbled during the day and my husband and I had both logged enough hours bouncing our baby on an exercise ball at night to earn us a spot in the Guinness World Records book for ball bouncing between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.

I could have arguably stayed off my smartphone during these late night sessions (and one piece of advice I read indicated the light from the screen may be disrupting my baby’s sleep), but I found it comforting to connect with a web of other sleep-deprived parents in the same situation. My friends in the physical world who had babies all seemed to be sleeping just fine, and I wanted to find others who understood. And I did.

But some online commenters would inevitably try to spin the situation into a positive like, “I actually enjoy the few moments of quiet bonding time when the rest of the house was asleep.” This was not my experience. I was not enjoying 20 minutes of cuddle time once a night while my son ate and then peacefully drifted off to sleep; I was up multiple times watching the hours until I had to be awake for work tick by as I struggled with a wide-eyed three-month-old who would cry the minute I tried to lay him down.

In the early days of parenthood, it seemed like so many things were set up as dichotomies: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, bed sharing or having your child sleep independently, cloth diapers or disposable diapers. When I got frustrated, I often felt bad that I wasn’t just enjoying the fleeting moments of my kids’ childhoods more.

Then I heard an interview with the writer Cheryl Strayed. While discussing the advice column she had written, she mentioned that it’s okay to experience two opposing truths at the same time. While she wasn’t talking specifically about parenting, when I relate this advice to parenting it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve heard.

You don’t have to be in just a pure state of thankfulness or frustration – you can feel both at the same time. When you are up with a baby in the middle of the night you can be both frustrated at your current state and appreciative that they won’t be small enough for you to rock to sleep forever.

You can be disheartened when your toddler has another potty training accident, but understanding that it is one of the few things in her life she  is trying to have control over.

You can want to pull your hair out when your preschooler refuses to eat anything but saltines with no broken edges on them for dinner, but aware of the fact that he will likely diversify his eating habits as he grows.

Many parenting choices also don’t have to be so black and white. You can feed your kids both breast milk and formula. You can use cloth diapers at times and disposables at others. When you look for a middle ground, it’s often there.

Now when my younger son wakes up at night it’s rare, but my husband or I are still sometimes hanging out with him for a couple hours in the middle of the night trying to coax him back to sleep. When he looks at me with wide open brown eyes that seem to ask, “Why can’t we just get up at 3:00 a.m.?” I can be both frustrated and entertained.

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado and has been published in Brain, Child,  Washington Post On Parenting,, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at:


10 Novels for Summer Reading

10 Novels for Summer Reading

The Small Backs of ChildrenBy Samantha Claire Updegrave

Summer is on. It’s been in the 70s in Seattle. My favorite radio station plays the best tunes in the morning as I scramble eggs and help my little guy open his yogurt. And in the early evenings, my son, who is now six years old, will curl up next to me in the big bed, his own book in hand, and read to himself. I have dreamed of this moment. Granted, he reads out loud, but it’s the experience that counts. Once he finishes, he asks me to read my book out loud so he can hear what I’m reading. For a moment, the tenderness is astounding in a way I never expected when I became a mom.

It reminds me of why I read. If reading literary fiction – with all its ambiguities, emotional complexity, and power to deliver us into someone else’s heart and mind – increases our emotional intelligence and empathy, so does parenting. This list could easily be written in three or four versions with little overlap, so I’ve focused largely on novels from the last four years.


brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

It’s a bit of cheat to start with this one because technically, this is a memoir, and it happens to be written in free verse (poetry that’s not in meter and doesn’t rhyme). It’s up here because this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. Jacqueline Woodson is a critically acclaimed young adult author with seventeen books to her name so you might also discover some good bonus reading from this one – which makes up for my cheating.

brown girl dreaming is Woodson’s story about growing up in Greensville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York during the 60s and 70s. Between her two worlds, with the civil rights movement unfurling in the background, her family changes shape and geographies, but the deep-rooted family love is steady. In the chapter “off-key” she writes,

My whole family knows I can’t sing. My voice,

my sister says, is just left of the key. Just right

of the tune.

But I sing anyway, whenever I can.

This is a beautiful metaphor as Woodson explores her coming of age, which includes struggles with reading and writing.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston

Pam Houston has a self-admitted reputation for writing “autobiographical fiction.” The main character in Contents May Have Shifted is named Pam, and it’s noted on the back cover that the Pam in the book is “a character not unlike the author.”

Contents, like so much of Houston’s writing, is sharp-witted, as warm as it is raw, accessible and dazzling. The chapters are organized by place and flight numbers and take readers to California, Tunisia, New Zealand, and many stops in between, through impossible flights and landings. The short sections make this one great for toting around – you can get lost as the story rolls from one place to the next, or grab it when you only have a few spare minutes. Pam’s journeys are full of friends, her partner, and body workers, and taken in sum her travels and relationships piece together the ways we heal ourselves, one leap at a time.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika Wurth

Erika Wurth’s debut novel about sixteen-year old Magaritte, a drug-dealing Native American, pulls readers through the muck of poverty and addiction, hope and the longing for escape. Wurth packs a lot of tenderness inside raw, vivacious, and humorous prose.

Magaritte wants out of the life she sees other girls falling into – teen pregnancy, drug abuse. Along with her cousin and best friend Jake, who she also deals drugs with, she dreams of getting out and having a real life. But no matter how deep her longing, she repeatedly makes bad choices, landing her in the ER. As things at home get increasingly worse, she discovers she’s pregnant from the boy she’s been dating, and has to choose between living the life she’s always feared and the life she longs for. Girlfriend challenges mainstream expectations and perceptions of race, class, and girlhood, as well as what “choice” really means.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You has to be one of the best titles for a book, ever. Celeste Ng’s debut novel is a staggering study of personhood and familial relations, the narrator as the recorder for the family’s inner, unspoken thoughts and desires.

The book drops us right in at the moment before everything collapses: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

Ng then maps the interior landscapes of each member of the family, beginning – “like everything begins: with mothers and fathers” – with Lydia’s parents Marilyn and James when they met in college, their courtship, marriage, their childhoods. The depth of exploration in this novel is as stunning as the writing itself. This was a slower read for me, even though I never wanted to set it down, because I found myself savoring the details of each characters’ inner life. In a way, I feel braver after having read it, more aware of how I want to parent my kid as he pushes to become his own person in the world, the person he’s meant to be.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Any season is the right season for digging into a Toni Morrison book. God Help the Child is her first novel set in our current time, and though it’s evident the characters carry with them the legacy of slavery’s historic trauma, Morrison approaches these enduring effects by peeling back the layers of her character’s childhoods.

Morrison weaves the story through short vignettes told from multiple perspectives. A woman who calls herself Bride is at the center – young, successful, beautiful, blue-black skinned – along with Booker, the man she loves but whom she knows little about, who leaves her. Sweetness, her light-skinned mother who shunned Bride as a child because she was so dark, frames the story, giving us the hard truth: “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

Love Water Memory begins with a thirty-nine year old woman waded knee-deep and fully dressed in the San Francisco Bay, peering into the distance for something she can’t place. The voice of a stranger snaps her back to her senses; the cold numbness in her legs, the heaviness of her feet. She has no recollection of why she’s there or who she is. At the hospital psych ward she learns she is suffering a dissociative fugue, a rare form of amnesia the doctor’s believe was caused by an emotional trauma.

When her fiancé Grady discovers she’s been found, the woman gets her name back – Lucie Walker. Love is Lucie’s journey as she discovers who she is as she’s piecing together who she was, tracing a path back to a past so terrible she’d buried it long ago. And it’s Grady’s story too, as he also has no choice but to confront his own wounds and walls that grew from the loss of his father.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch’s forthcoming novel The Small Backs of Children is my most anticipated summer read. I recently read her memoir The Chronology of Water, a roiling account of her life as a swimmer, wife, lover, daughter, sister, writer. It is one powerful piece of literature that continues to stick to my ribs.

Here’s the back cover preview:

“In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes—and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own.”

In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends—including a fearless bisexual poet, an ingenuous performance artist, and the writer’s playwright brother and painter ex-husband—to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—East and West, real and virtual—collide?”

Yes, please! Out July 1, 2015.

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

I was touched by this story, which I came to read after devouring Karen Finneyfrock’s poetry collection Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. I wasn’t sure how her prowess as a poet would translate to prose, and there was all the hubbub about how adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature in Slate last year. Some of the criticisms of adults reading YA are that the characters lack the mature perspectives found in adult fiction, ambiguities that are part of real life is largely absent, and the conclusions are often satisfying and overly simplistic. Fair enough, but oh my…. I loved this book. Finneyfrock’s use of language is both honest and bare, no wasted words, direct and exactly how the protagonist, who calls herself Celia the Dark, would know and understand her world.

Revenge is the story of Celia Door, a girl entering the ninth grade with one thing on her mind: revenge against the popular Sandy Firestone, the girl who committed a cruel act against Celia and inspired her to “turn dark.” When Celia is presented with her opportunity, her plan backfires and endangers her best friend Drake and their friendship.

It is true – the ending is incredibly satisfying. But as an adult, I found it healing to read Celia’s version of her story with all my mature perspective in place, because it was a way of seeing myself then, acknowledging all my big and tiny hurts I carried, from the vantage point of who I am now.

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

Another work of “autobiographical fiction,” Torch was Cheryl Strayed first book, preceding her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by several years. This novel, which she began piecing together on the PTC hike chronicled in Wild, tells the story of a loving and strong family that unravels when Teresa, mother and wife, is diagnosed with cancer at age 38 and given only a few months to live. Her children, Claire and Joshua, and partner Bruce, all deal with grief in different ways, which ultimately pulls them apart.

Beautifully rendered, exposing the gaping holes left by sudden loss and grief and the myriad ways we try to fill them in, Strayed’s novel shows us what it is to be human and alive in the face of the unbearable.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Before saying anything about Roxane Gay’s debut novel, I have to warn you that it is gut wrenching, uncomfortable, and violent. And while I am not one to normally read books with detailed accounts of violence, this is well worth making the exception. The writing is engaged with the world of the book, crisp and clear. Having read on the jacket cover that this is a story “of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places” kept me going. I knew there was more than survival on the other side of the traumas. Redemption. I was holding out for it.

Gay writes with precision and control, exposing the links between wealth, corruption, and violence. Even though she puts us in right in the same room as this brutality, the chaos and terror are always held within this larger framework. And in Mireielle, she also shows us how a woman finds resiliency in impossible situations.

When I first read this novel, my son watched more TV that weekend than he normally does in a month. Even when scenes made me wince, I could not put the book down, not even for a minute. Reading, it never felt like gawking, or gratuitous, never violence for the sake of entertainment. It felt important to be a witness.

Samantha Claire Updegrave‘s writing career began with cut n’ paste zines, and now appears in The Rumpus, Bitch, and Hip Mama. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner and young son.  She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review.

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers

20 Favorite Quotes From Brain, Child Writers


Never Wish Happiness for Your Children

By Adrienne Jones

“The trouble with that kind of thinking is, a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. Our children are themselves.”



Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer

She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.



Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AM
By Robin Schoenthaler

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.


The Richest Person in the World

By Adrienne Jones

Well, maybe he’s the second richest person in the world and I’m the richest, because I get to be his mom.




Open and Closed

By Catherine Newman

When they’re little, and you’re scraping them off of your leg at a party so you can refill your wine glass and metabolically transform four or five pounds of cheese into the milk that’s soaking through the front of your dress, you can’t wait for the kids to become separate from you. Thanks to your mind, as open as a flower-dotted meadow, you know that you will rise to any occasion of individuality.


Because I Will Always Do It Again

By Jon Sponaas

“Though I can’t, in a general way, believe much of anything, I especially couldn’t believe that you were IN your mom’s tummy, floating around in that complicated liquid…”



The Days Are Long/The Years Are Short

By Lauren Apfel and Lisa Heffernan

With my nest soon completely empty, I face the day that has loomed before me from the moment I became a mother. I am facing three distinct losses, that of their childhood selves, of my identity as their mother and, most painfully, of the daily intimacy that was our life together.


Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for my son. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person.



This is Adolescence: 16

By Marcelle Soviero

Sixteen is full of paper thin promise, delicate due to the decisions I can’t make for her anymore, decisions that will determine what happens next.



How to Smoke Salmon

By Ann Hood

The sadness that comes from your first child leaving home is, of course, not the saddest thing of all. But the ache, the sense that something is missing, the way you keep looking up, expecting him to burst through the door in his size 13 shoes, it is real.


On Shame and Parenting

By Adrienne Jones

I did for them everything I believed a good mother would do for her children and clenched my teeth and prayed it was enough, or right, or that at the very least they would be OK in spite of the depth of my brokenness.



I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

By Jennifer Berney

Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.



Family Motto: More Love is More Love

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love.



She loves Me She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”




Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same.



love-you-the-same1 I Love you The Same But Different
By Rachel Pieh Jones

I love all my children the same. But I don’t love all my children the same. I love them all the same amount. Endlessly, to the moon and back, from Djibouti to Minnesota and back, forever and no matter what. But I don’t love them all in the same way. I don’t know why this realization surprised me. I mean, of course I don’t love them all in the same way. They are unique individuals and I have a unique, individual relationship with each one.


Bury My Son Before I Die

By Joanne De Simone

It goes against everything we believe about motherhood, but I’d rather bury my child than leave him behind.



Armageddon Mama
By Tracy Mayor

Beyond that, in the spirit of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I guess the most moral thing I can do right now as a parent is to raise my kids to be in some way part of a solution. Not just recyclers or composters or occasional car-campers, but innovators, problem-solvers, team players, good citizens of the world. Non-assholes.


MAMA: Mothers Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.



Till Death Did They Part
By Molly Krause

When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.



Baby Weight

Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

fall2008_strayedAs a child and teenager, I remember being mildly disturbed by the animal quality that overcame my mother while in the presence of babies. It was a quality she cloaked in a polite, seemingly offhand request—may I hold the baby?—and a nonchalant tone of voice, but I knew her intentions were indisputably vulturine at their core. She wanted that baby in her hands and she wanted it now.

“Oh,” my mother would coo once she had the borrowed baby in her possession. “Look at this,” she’d moan to me, standing desolately witness to her mysterious rapture. “There’s nothing on this earth like the smell of a baby once you’ve had one of your own,” she would explain each time. “Nothing like the weight of a baby in your arms.”

Over the years, I observed this same response in other women, all of them mothers whose own children are no longer babies. Inevitably—both in my younger years with my mother and later, in the company of my post-baby mother friends—I, too, would eventually be offered the opportunity to hold the baby, but rarely did I take it. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the astonishing perfection and beauty of these babies. It was that I appreciated them most at arm’s length. I wished them well, but I didn’t wish them to be in my sphere. I was never what you would call a baby person. As a child I didn’t even like dolls.

At the root of my indifference was a belief that, adorable or not, babies were trouble. They were the thing that kept you from doing what you actually wanted to do with your hours, your days, your weeks, your life. From traveling and writing and perfecting your yoga postures or collecting fragile figurines, from making love at all hours of the day or lounging around drinking tea or wine with a good book in hand. Babies cried and caterwauled, they fussed and fidgeted, they demanded without compunction and ruthlessly denied those charged with their care even the most reasonable requests: to shower, to sleep, to pee in peace. I liked to shower and sleep and pee in peace. I liked my life without babies. My life was a private pleasure dome of self-fulfillment, of doing what I wanted to do when I felt like doing it—or not.

Which is how I got the shock of my life when, at thirty-five, I had a baby of my own and loved him so entirely I couldn’t honestly remember what I thought my purpose had been on this earth before he came along.

To conceive him had been an essentially intellectual decision. It wasn’t that my husband and I particularly wanted to have a baby at that moment in our lives; it was that we’d grimly realized I was approaching an age that, as one not-so-cheerful article from a women’s magazine put it, if I wanted to naturally conceive a baby, I’d “better run, not walk, to the exit.”

My husband and I had talked for years about becoming parents, and we were in perfect agreement with each other on the subject. Neither of us was in a hurry to have a baby, and yet there wasn’t any doubt that someday we would. Parenthood, we agreed, is one of the few truly profound experiences life offers, and neither of us, regardless of our grave and genuine doubts, was willing to miss out. What if we don’t like the baby? we wondered out loud to each other. What if the baby bores us to tears or destroys our budding artistic careers?—his, as a filmmaker, mine, as a writer. We imagined, as the years rolled by, that our desire for the two children we planned to have would move from the theoretical realm and into the actual. That we would wake up one morning with the mad and certain desire to relinquish our lives as we knew them to the sweet bonds of parenthood.

That never happened. In the end, we simply reached for each other and hoped we weren’t making the biggest mistake of our lives.

On my thirty-fifth birthday I was eight weeks pregnant and living in a grand house on a small island off the coast of Brazil at an artist’s colony, working furiously to complete my first novel and trying to distract myself from the relentless pregnancy-induced nausea that clawed at me every minute of every day for three months solid. I sold my novel the same week that the nausea let up. As the details of my book contract were being negotiated, my editor asked me when I would like to hand in the final, significantly revised draft of my novel.

My baby was due at the end of April. I had a distinct image of what he would be doing in the first months of his life, of how he would recline in a lined wicker basket such as the kind I never owned, woven and biblical—a Moses basket, it was called in several of the catalogues of baby items that had begun to crowd my house. I had it in my mind that he would lie in this basket at my feet, sweet as a bundle of straw, silent as a pile of laundry, while I significantly revised my five-hundred-page novel.

I told my editor to set the deadline for June 30, and then I forgot all about the novel I’d toiled years to birth and settled into my pregnancy, watching my expanding belly in wonder, feeling my baby’s sometimes fierce, sometimes tender kicks, not quite believing that there was a human being growing inside of me. A human I would love.

“I don’t think I actually love the baby yet,” I confessed to my husband, well into my third trimester, on one of the daily walks we took around our neighborhood. “I’m extremely fond of him,” I went on to explain, “but I don’t know him yet, and how can I possibly love someone I don’t know?” Even in the throes of the much-touted high emotions of pregnancy, I was a rationalist, not a romantic when it came to babies—including my own. I was stunned and delighted the first time I heard my son’s heart beat or saw the skeletal profile of his dear little face on the ultrasound, but I didn’t burst into tears the way many mothers-to-be do. Instead my nascent mother love manifested itself in a more practical arena: in making sure I would grow and birth the healthiest baby I could. I exercised and ate the right foods and read dozens of books on pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding. I opted out of an epidural—which would ease my pain during labor, but put my baby at risk—and chose midwives who were well practiced in the art of birthing without unnecessary medical intervention. I performed a daily repertoire of squats and stretches and Kegels and practiced relaxing while my husband pinched me hard in a birth-simulation exercise.

My baby was born after an agonizing forty-two-hour labor at an out-of-hospital birth center, weighing nearly eleven pounds. I’d truly suffered while birthing him, literally been ripped apart at the seams. I’d been awake for two days and two nights roaring like a lion every six and then four and then two minutes with the pain of my contractions, unable to keep even a sip of water down. I’d pushed and pushed and pushed my baby out of me so hard I felt like there was no part of me that wasn’t him, felt that in pushing his body out, I’d pushed my own into absolute oblivion. I pushed so long that I forgot what I was pushing for, forgot that at the end of that final push there would be the baby who’d grown in me, this boy who was my son. But there, at last, he was.

My unspeakably beautiful son.

Brown as a bean, despite his Swedish and Scottish and Irish heritage. Brown hair, brown eyes, a brown cast to his skin, as if the weeks I’d spent in Brazil with him in my womb had seeped into him and taken root. Despite my exhaustion, I was too happy to sleep in the hours after his birth. How could I sleep with such a precious being in my charge? His every breath was a miracle. The ancient knowing of his eyes, a revelation. The fragile grace of his hands, an astonishment.

I was a mother now. I would never truly sleep again.

My son. My sun. My son. My sun. I chanted to myself in the weeks and months that followed his birth, as those final two days of April turned to May and then May to June, my world spinning around him all through the last pale chill of spring and into the heat of that first summer.

The thirtieth of June arrived, and at dawn I sent an e-mail to my editor, composing it with one hand, the other hand holding my son to my breast as he nursed. I assured her that I’d made great progress on my novel revision, though it wasn’t quite ready to send to her yet. Could I have until August fifteenth? I asked. The tone of my e-mail was flimsily optimistic, falsely calm, and the part about having made progress was just short of an outright lie. Turns out, despite the fact that my son was what’s called an “easy baby” in the mothering trade, he did not spend his first two months in a wicker basket resembling either a bundle of straw or a pile of laundry. In the midst of all the nursing and diapering and dressing and undressing and burping and pacing and hopping and loading and unloading and buckling and unbuckling that mothering a newborn entails, I’d barely showered since he’d been born, let alone sit down to do any honest writing.

My career as a novelist was over, I feared, despite its dazzlingly promising start—a generous deal with the publisher of my dreams, an editor, reputed to be among the best in the business, whom I both adored and admired. Writing my first book had not been unlike giving birth: a years-long gestation and labor that required a fantastic leap of faith, both emotional and financial. It was a process that had obliged me to believe, against serious odds, that I could do this, and then go on to actually do it. To write a whole book and then write it all over again. And again. To endure the doubt and constant lack of funds, the brutally candid and diverging opinions of the fellow writers I’d enlisted to read my work, the frozen half-smiles of all the people I’d met at parties over the years to whom I’d been compelled to explain that although I was working as a waitress or a youth advocate or a teacher I was, in fact, actually a writer.

And now all I had to do was write a bit more, to make one last pass at the book I’d written in what felt to me like my own blood. But I couldn’t do it, I realized with indisputable clarity on that late June morning in the early first summer of my son’s life. I was going to be the woman who ran the marathon and then took a race-ending fall in the last quarter mile.

And it was all my son’s fault.

The thing was, I didn’t care that much. Or rather, I cared—an icy cold mix of anxiety and sorrow rose in me like a fog—but I didn’t care enough to do much about it. All of my life I’d believed that writing was my calling, my passion, my reason for being, my greatest contribution to the betterment of the world, but that theory of my life unraveled completely when I became a mother. I had a new passion now. A new reason for being. And though I took it on faith that my writing remained somewhere lost inside of me, there was no question that now it was shadowed entirely by the towering existence of my son.

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched. When my son was one week old I wept while my husband rubbed my back in bewilderment, asking me what was wrong. It was that our son was a week old, I managed to explain between sobs, though my husband’s expression only grew more bewildered. “Don’t you understand?” I asked in exasperation. “One entire week of our son’s life is gone.”

He didn’t understand, though he, too, had now become a baby person, had been stunned by the depth and ferocity of his love for our son. But being a mother was different from being a father, another shock to me. As a feminist, I’d always rejected the notion that mothers were more vital to their children than fathers were—and I still do to a great extent. But in those early months of my son’s life, there was no question that no matter how lovely, amusing and interesting he found his daddy, I was his world. If the entire human race except for the two of us had been wiped out that first year of his life, my son would have been just fine. He ate from my body, slept nestled against me, spent a good number of his waking hours in my arms, followed me steadily with his dark eyes when he reclined in his bouncy seat across the room. I’d read that babies don’t comprehend that their bodies are separate from the bodies of their mothers until they are three or four months old, and I struggled to comprehend the same thing.

I was him that summer. He was me.

Still, I was also allegedly a novelist. A novelist who’d promised a powerful editor the final draft of her novel by August fifteenth. My husband had a teaching gig that summer that took him away from home five days a week. Each morning when I said goodbye to him I would swear to myself that this was the day that I would begin in earnest. I would write without stop from the moment my son fell into one of his frequent naps until he woke. I could make it work, I thought, I could fit it in. But almost always, something intervened. Exhausted, I would nod off when my son did and not even realize until an hour or more later when, together, we woke. Or I would spend those precious hours kicking around uselessly on the Internet or sinking deliciously into a novel or making myself lunch and then sitting down to eat it in exquisite peace.  By the middle of July, I knew the jig was up. I needed help.

The babysitter I found was perfect for the job. She wasn’t looking for anything long term, and neither was I. I needed her for three or four weeks, I explained. She was between semesters at a naturopathic medical school and would sit with my son for four hours, four days a week and study for her board exams while he napped. My office was in the basement. I could hear the rhythmic ticking of my son’s battery-operated swinging chair on the floor directly above my head while I wrote. Or allegedly wrote. Half the time I sat simply staring at my computer screen, a photo of my smiling son staring back at me.

This is insane, I remember thinking even then, confounded by my mad love for such a little man. Especially since a fair portion of the time I spent with him was not precisely fun. In fact, there had barely been a day in his life that I hadn’t at one point or another felt the distinct urge to either run out the door in hysterics or smash his gorgeous little head against the wall. I didn’t do these things, of course, and nothing even remotely approaching them. But there was no question that motherhood took my breath away not only because of the gloriousness of the beauty it offered up to me each and every day, but also because of the heat of its rage. Knowing what I knew, now that I was a mother, made me afraid for all the babies in the world, amazed at how many of them had survived babyhood, despite being born to mothers who didn’t have half of the emotional and financial and psychological resources I had. It made me think of my own mother, who, by twenty-six, had three babies, no money and a volatile marriage.

My mother never met her grandson. She died young, when I was twenty-two and she was forty-five, and her death has been my life’s greatest sorrow. Before I had my son, every time I made a wish on a star or a set of birthday candles, I always wished for the same thing: that I could see my mom again for one more minute, and in that minute I would tell her that I loved her over and over again. But now my wish had changed. I wanted to say thank you to her and to tell her that I had no idea how hard it was to be a mother, and how hard, in particular, she’d had it, not only while she was married to my father, but after they’d divorced and she’d become a single mother. I wanted to thank her for not ever running out the door in hysterics or smashing my head against the wall even though she must have had a thousand impulses to do so. And most of all, I wanted to tell her that now that I was a mom, I understood something that had never occurred to me before: that when she had raved about the smell or weight of a baby in her arms, she hadn’t really been talking about that borrowed baby, she had been talking about me.

But I couldn’t say that to my mother. All I could do was pour the love she’d given me into my son. I could also finish my novel, which, as it happened, was essentially an ode to her.

I tore myself away from that computer screen photo of my son and wrote what I could in the time I had. Come August, I sent my revised novel off, knowing in my heart that I could do better, that I hadn’t really reached hard enough for what I needed to find. My editor called me a week later and gently but firmly confirmed my gut feeling. There was still work to do and no one was going to do it but me, but I couldn’t do it just yet: In the midst of everything else, we were moving.

My husband and I had bought a house that was five houses down from the one we were living in, a bigger one that would accommodate our new family of three. For those last weeks of August, before we officially moved, we owned two houses on the same street. Each day I made trips on foot, carrying small objects from our old house to the new one, my son lolling in a sling strapped to my body, while I carried a Crock-Pot or a tea kettle, or a box of knick knacks we probably wouldn’t ever unpack.

The new house was empty except for one thing: a big red rug that I’d ordered and had delivered and laid out in the living room. It had cost seven hundred dollars, paid for by my book advance. My husband and I had never before spent that much on anything for our house, but we reasoned that we needed it because our son would be crawling before long and we wanted to cushion his body from the hardwood floors. I would set him down on this rug as I unloaded whatever things I’d carried over, darting into the kitchen with a box of cups, or into the bathroom to place a stack of towels on the shelf. One day when I came back into the living room, I saw that my son had rolled over while I was gone, a thing he’d never done before. From his back to his tummy, unlike most babies, who first do it tummy-to-back.

I placed him on his back again and left the room, and when I returned he’d rolled over again, so this time I put him on his back and waited to see what he would do. He did nothing but smile at me and smack his lips and kick his legs in that jovial way he did when he wanted to nurse. I lay down next to him on my book-advance rug, and as he nursed I thought about the months ahead. Summer was waning, and I had the feeling I always get as autumn approaches—that I could begin anew again, that the future was starting now. I wanted to parlay that optimism into progress on my novel revision, and as I lay on that rug, I felt a glimmer of faith that it could be done, that in fact my old passion for my writing hadn’t disappeared, that it wasn’t in contradiction to the deeper passion I had for my son.

“Talk to your baby,” an old woman in a grocery store checkout line had advised me, unsolicited, when I was pregnant. “Tell him everything you’re doing and thinking, even when you know he can’t understand,” she’d said. It had seemed like good advice and so I’d taken it, talking to my son always, explaining what I was doing when I was changing his diaper or putting him in the car. And I talked to him on that red rug in the house where we hadn’t yet lived. I told him that a plan had been made, that his daddy would be home more soon and I would go into my office for hours at a time to finish the novel I’d first finished nearly a year before, when I’d been pregnant with him. That if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t feel complete, and that would make it impossible for me to be the kind of mother to him that I wanted to be.

He seemed to listen, the way he always did. I could tell by the way the rhythm of his sucking changed when I spoke, like he didn’t want to miss a word. He was nearly four months old, and it seemed to me both that he’d been born yesterday and also that he’d been with me forever. When he was done nursing we just lay there together for a while, awake and cool in the last summer heat. And then he did what I’d never seen him do before. He rolled away from me.

Author’s Note: I did manage to complete the revision of my novel when my son was nearly nine months old. I sent the final draft to my editor and then immediately became pregnant with my daughter. By the time my book came out, I had two children under the age of two—a newborn and an into-everything toddler. I took them with me on my fourteen-city national book tour, along with my lovely and supportive husband. It was the most exhausting, hilarious, maddening, conflicted, and wonderful time of my life.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. Strayed has written the “Dear Sugar” column on since March 2010. Her writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into twenty-six languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.