I’m writing this from Toronto in the middle of a summer afternoon. As to the conditions that allow for such an indulgence (!), two of my children are away at camp, two are busily occupied with replacing the batteries to their armory of nerf guns, and one is, as my husband, Ryan, likes to say, “tooting her horn.” (We have a musician in the family. She’ll be off to McGill University in the fall to study clarinet performance.) I am guaranteed, at the very least, another uninterrupted hour in my office.
In terms of finding time for creative work, this summer is easier than previous ones, easier still than the many early years of parenting. I won’t assume that you know much about my family life, so I’ll give you some of the background. Ryan and I married right after we graduated from Wheaton College, and we had our first child when we were almost 27. After Audrey was born, I made the decision to leave my high school teaching job to stay home with her; Ryan continued to study for (and pass) his actuarial exams. Soon, I had another baby. By thirty, Ryan was finished with his exams and hoping to go to graduate school for an MBA. Generously, I said: “Absolutely not.” It wasn’t that I begrudged him the opportunity. I’d already pursued my own graduate degree in my twenties. It wasn’t even that I was nurturing private ambitions of my own. But it had been 8 years that he’d been dividing his time between work and studying, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I really wanted to share him.
To abbreviate a little, that initial refusal eventually gave way to willingness. When Ryan was accepted at the University of Chicago, we moved back to Illinois from Ohio when I was 36 weeks pregnant. We lived almost two months with my in-laws (two young children and a brand new baby) before moving, without much furniture, into a rental house. Ten months later, we finally settled into something more permanent.
It was a lonely year. I was home with three children three and younger; Ryan was working fulltime and spending evenings either at class or on homework, sometimes also leaving on Saturdays to meet up with classmates for group projects. I can remember a few tearful moments when resentment would bubble up, and Ryan would remind me that “we” had decided together that this was the right next step for our family. And he was absolutely right. Throughout our almost 23 years of marriage, by God’s grace, there has always been this indivisible “we.”
Still, the pattern had been decided early on: the indivisible “we” was Ryan at the bow, Jen at the stern. “We” were making strides to what God was calling Ryan to vocationally. (It may have looked like a corporate climb, but, we’ve never really seen it that way.) It felt absolutely right, in those years, to support Ryan’s ambitions, and I remember the encouragement I took when, after he’d been assigned to read Katharine Graham’s Personal Historyfor one of his classes, that I’d read it for myself. Graham had been a housewife and a mother before suddenly being thrown into the role of publisher of the Washington Post. I remember reading how she credited her ability to run a newspaper with her experience of running a household. These weren’t wasted years, I told myself—not for the sake of my children, of course—but also not for me.
And soon enough, life with three children eased a bit. It wasn’t long before I was considering a return to graduate school for a ministry degree. In the summer of 2007, I was in the office with a Wheaton professor discussing a plan for meeting the Greek prerequisites for the program; two months later, I learned I was pregnant with twins.
It’s funny how this story is, quite by its own will, writing itself. It’s marking its seasons—for my husband—by career transitions; it’s marking mine by the birth of babies. As I’ve thought often about the difference between men and women’s lives, it’s this that I notice, that the lives of mothers seem to be more seasonal than the lives of fathers. Perhaps that would have been less true for me if I’d continued in a traditional work role, and I’d be curious to know if you agree with this observation and if that’s been your experience.
Admittedly, if there’s something I’ve been envious of in Ryan’s life, it’s the luxury he seems to have enjoyed of being “uninterrupted.” I means the hours, of course—especially the summer ones. But I also mean the years. However much he has committed to being present with our family, because of our traditional division of household labor (he to the bread, me to the baking it), I’ve been tasked with absorbing the contingencies of family life. It’s the contingencies that make life fitful, that make plans a bit tenuous. It’s the contingencies that present the challenge to creative work. (Even to finishing this letter, quite honestly. I’ve been interrupted several times, once by a child insistent to exact promises from the tooth fairy that she will repay her debt.)
Anyways, Shawn, I’m so glad for the chance to begin this correspondence, an idea which came to me by a good friend who recently wrote about a friendship he formed through letters. I realize that I’ve only sketched my story according to its faintest outlines, that I haven’t even begun to recount how and when my writing life began in earnest. But I guess that’s the good thing about letters like these and the good thing about friendship. It never needs to be hurried.
I look forward to your letter and to getting to know you better. Among other things, tell me how you and Maile met, how old your children are now, and how you sit back down to your computer after ten hours of driving for Uber. (You know that I’m cheating a bit: I’m reading your wonderful companion journal to your most recent novel, Light From Distant Stars.)