Finding anchor: Writer mothers and the pandemic

June 6, 2021

As the emotional fulcrum of homes, writing mothers are finding their balance in the new normal and rebuilding the writing space.

Writing mothers have had it tough this year. As mothers and writers, we operate out of a zone that has been carefully fought for and preserved, the proverbial room of one's own. It is as much a physical space as it is a mental and metaphorical one. A tranche of time that is sacrosanct and cordoned off from the vortex of responsibilities that can consume the time that could have been devoted to writing.

The pandemic and its restraints on mobility upset this balance. Suddenly, the realms we had kept neatly separated blended into one. The roles and responsibilities we had neatly sequenced hurtled into one another. Added to this was the chaos of the world around us. Our familiar frames of reference and understanding were dismantled. With children and husbands working from home for the greater part of this year, the home has been a busier centre of activity than usual. Options for the time away from home or me-time, slivers of time where we find our sanity and sustenance, were out of reach.

As the emotional fulcrum of homes, writing mothers are finding their balance in the new normal and rebuilding the writing space. The News on Sunday (TNS) spoke to five authors based in Pakistan and the United Kingdom (UK) about how they have coped with the challenge of finding their focus in the unsettling times, and the lessons they have learnt. The responses range from existential crisis to passion projects started during the pandemic. There is matter-of-fact acceptance as well as complete surrender and faith trusting life to show the answers one day at a time.

Pandemic passion project

“Like the women I write about I find that writing deadlines do not work in the same way as they do for men. The workplace and families demand much more from us.” – Amina Yaqin

 “During the pandemic I let go of the desire for perfection and completed my monograph on Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu writing. The book has given me the chance to mix scholarship with the task of translation, something I’ve always enjoyed. Like the women I write about, I find that writing deadlines do not work for women the way they do for men. The workplace and families demand much more from us. Like many mums I am consumed with the guilt of not doing enough. Amongst all this angst, I thought why not fictionalise the diary of the proverbial begum.

“The begum is an immigrant in London, she has come down in the world and finds herself living next to an aristocratic lady of the manor who is also slumming it. The begum's diary is written during the pandemic, at a time when people who have gardens use them a lot and babysitting services have become restricted. She herself is a relic of an aristocratic past related to the Begums of Bhopal who have a minor part to play in my book. Writing the diary was a creative act that gave me mental space to manage crazy deadlines, disasters, home schooling and isolation during the pandemic. It gestures to various things that got worse in the pandemic such as the hostile environment, Brexit etc.”

Here is an excerpt from the diary:

“Coming from a city I’m used to arid and dry landscapes with not much to look at so anything green gets me excited. But the lady of the manor has higher standards. All hell broke loose when her next-door neighbour refused to cut down their tree. It was casting a dark shadow over her garden depriving her exotic banana tree of much needed light. As a neighbourly gesture she contacted them personally with the rather generous offer of going halves on having the offending tree removed. Sadly, this offer was turned down. So, dear Begam, what do you do when you’ve downsized from a flat without a garden in Hampstead to a house with a south west facing garden and a neighbour gets in the way of your sunlight? It is pretty obvious; you sharpen your pencil and write to the council. With steam coming out of her ears she did the necessary signing off with a flourish and a title. Sure enough, the summoned council came to inspect and advised the neighbour of the lady of the manor’s human right to light. So, the poor non-entities had to fork out from their life’s savings and organise a tree surgeon. But in the end, the British sense of fairness prevailed as the tree was cut back and not removed, pleasing the neighbours on the other side who were puzzled by the whole business.”

Amina Yaqin is a globally recognised scholar on Pakistan and its diaspora, a reader in Urdu and post-colonial studies and founding chair of the Centre for Study of Pakistan at SOAS, London. Her views have been aired on BBC and other places.

Keeping the abyss at bay

“I write to stay in touch with my cerebral self, the version of me I respect most.” – Faiqa Mansab

“When the pandemic started, the lockdown didn’t scare me; I am a loner by nature. My youngest is in Class 6 and after the initial hiccups, he took to online classes as a duck to water. I used to write in the afternoon before the pandemic, when everyone was out of the house and I could get a couple of hours to myself. But now, I find that being solitary is a nocturnal treat I look forward to and that is when I do my reading and writing.

“I had started writing my second novel last year just before the pandemic hit in full force and the world tripped into a lockdown and then grief. The day was divided into managing devices and the internet, printing worksheets and uploading work. My child needed me to be a more tolerant mother than usual. I need to read to stay in touch with my human side because otherwise I feel like an animal catering to the needs of the household. I write to stay in touch with my cerebral self, the version of me I respect most. I cannot do without either.

“Mental well-being is important, and I have brought my sons up to take care of themselves and so when my youngest showed signs of stress because schoolwork seemed to have tripled, my feelings of helplessness increased manifold. Schools and teachers have been wonderful, yet nobody thought to change the syllabi or reduce it for this year. However, I do believe the pandemic has taught the world the importance of adaptability, of slowing down, of giving up on a lot of things and to make do with what is available. It has also brought into focus what is really important - mental health. If we take nothing else from this, we must take away that for each one of us there ought to be something that pulls us back from the abyss. For me it is books, whether I am reading or writing them.

“I had to have my gallbladder removed in 2020. So, sans gall bladder and with sarcoidosis, my eating habits needed to be managed. Instead, I ate my feelings. I finished a manuscript and discarded it. Not all of it was rubbish but the main character was rather intolerable. I didn’t realise it at the time, but she was a cri de coeur against all that was happening to me. I was exhausted. Finally, at night when I was alone, I would stare at the computer and would just want to sleep. Sometimes I would read what I had written previously and would be horrified. All day I struggled to get an hour for myself and when I finally got it, my mind was not in the optimum condition for writing. During the day my mind was only half-present, fretting about how I had squandered away the night in sleep instead of writing.”

Faiqa Mansab is the Lahore-based author of This House of Clay and Water (Penguin India, 2017, Dedalus Kitap (Turkish Edition, 2021)). When the pandemic broke out, she was in London on a Chevening scholarship. She flew back home to Lahore mid-way through the programme, finishing her dissertation in 2020.

No one place, no perfect time

“There’s no one space, there’s no one place, there’s no perfect time, there’s no perfect regimen. Some days are better than others.” – Laaleen Sukhera

“I balk at terms like supermom and superwoman because they come with unrealistic expectations. Why are we, women, always pressured to be superb at everything? It’s frustrating to be a master juggler 24/7 because it’s so easy to drop the proverbial ball. We tend to be quite hard on ourselves.

“I’ve been a single mother for four and a half years now with three little girls. I did find working quite manageable, especially during their school hours and having reliable helpers for evening meetings. However, Covid’s changed all that. I've found myself stretching my bandwidth – literally and metaphorically – to supervise my children's virtual schooling. I’m not a hovering helicopter mom but it’s hard on the kids and it’s hard on parents; it’s hard on teachers, too. So I found myself working on solutions like better time management, better structure, more self-discipline, short breaks, and you know what, it works. My kids are also spending more time with their paternal family and there's a better sense of balance on that side. So while I consider myself a full-time mother (parenting is not something you take time off from), my girls aren't always under my roof.

“I’m currently working on PR and copywriting assignments remotely from the UAE. I also write essays and edit. The pictures reflect my setting for Zoom calls and my primary writing corner. I tend to look presentable up to my waist if I’ll be on video and it’s pyjama bottoms or yoga pants beneath. Everyone in my house knows not to interrupt if I’m wearing my earphones and then they do this sign language thing that makes me giggle.

“Sleep – heavenly, heavenly sleep – is sometimes elusive and I rely on copious amounts of caffeine and catnaps to get me through if I’ve had a sleepless night or two. My recent Covid vaccination fatigued me tremendously for the first four days. To my delight, I found that it remedied my internal clock (for the time being at least, pun intended). This week, I've managed to fall asleep and wake up very early without alarms and feel strangely refreshed instead of bleary-eyed and crotchety (unless I’ve had a nightmare). Nevertheless, I need a latte.

“Gone are the pre-Covid offices and the boardrooms and cafes and co-working spaces that were my haunts. I work and write all over the house: my bed (when I’m too tired to move and need a blanket), my couch (I kick back and put my feet up), on the dining table (perfect for Zoom and where I get the most work done), and nestled in an armchair (when my back gets sore from the dining table or I need a change of scene). And I’ve found solace in online communities, whether it’s Twitter camaraderie or an online writing group on Zoom that I've just joined -- in fact, I wrote this during an LA-based 8am online writing meet-up (8pm for me).

“There’s no one space, there’s no one place, there’s no perfect time, there’s no perfect regimen. Some days are better than others.”

Laaleen Sukhera is a Lahore-based global PR and communications consultant who has been published by Bloomsbury and quoted in The New York Times and other places.

Lunch for three please

“I question my world through my children’s eyes.” – Mehr F. Hussain

“I once described my pregnant state as being akin to a brontosaurus with the attitude of a tyrannosaurus rex. Two children, one pandemic and a year and a half of life in lockdown later, I can easily say the description still applies.

“It’s been a transformative period. Authoring a book and setting up a publishing imprint may sound fun and games, but have you tried to do it during a pandemic? Add to the mix two small human beings that need constant feeding – wean them, they said, you’ll be absolutely free, they said (HA! HA!) – plus the joy of home-schooling and a dog. Well.

“‘Exhausted’ is not a state of being, it is a personality. A retired T-rex.

“Two laptops, one i-pad, two mobile phones and a printer inherited form my social circle. It’s a good group to have – they look after the children well. Especially during the innumerable bathroom breaks where the cool, white tiles stare silently as I despair at the state of the world. My world. Of unfinished sentences, the frustration of a tired brain, the lack of innovation of words. It’s just 26 letters. And I can’t figure out how to make them work.

“Like discarded clothes, my identity as a writer has long been forgotten and I wear these new hats uncomfortably – a playmate, counsellor, cook, cleaner, teacher, publisher, entrepreneur and numerous others that I haven’t even acknowledged yet.

“Come lunchtime and there’s a new rule – no talking. Switching on music from my childhood as a means of finding my ‘voice’ the children and I sit. One on each side, around the round table, they look and wonder about this retired T-rex. And I realise then, in that cocoon, I have them all to myself again. Just like when I carried them in my womb. All mine. And it reminds me how I used to look at my ballooning tummy and wonder who they were. And suddenly, the words begin to flow.

“Stories of who I am, as an individual, come out. I question my world through my children’s eyes. For far too long, I sat in front hoping to write something that resembled the person I was pre-pandemic. Fact is, one is not the same person. Lockdown may have kept the physical out but the mental seeped in through the mornings which never ended, and which one remains grateful for and the nights in which time was greedily snatched for some semblance of sanity.

“‘When is your next book coming out?’ I get asked, every now and then. Time on my side, I understand the necessity to realise this new self.

“Hello. Do you have a story?

“I have endless stories. Stories that I want to share not because they’re of a different world but because I want to cherish what once was just like these lunches with the lads. Will my writing do that? Tomorrow’s lunch will tell.”

Mehr Hussain is a Lahore-based writer and publisher.

“The mothers are not okay”

 “For a little while I allow myself to get lost in a story that is becoming as I write it. I have no idea how things will end, which is wonderful.” – Shazaf Fatima

“I wrote a sentence today. 20 whole words. It took me approximately 15 minutes, not because I was expressing a deep thought in sophisticated syntax. I typed with my left forefinger so that my right could ward off my son who was trying to climb on to my laptop. His twin brother, my current favourite child, was quietly playing on the floor. Ten minutes into the first ten words, my daughter needed help in the bathroom. And then, after twenty minutes, my favourite child had bitten my stepson and some damage control was required.

“On weekdays when the twins are at the child minder’s and the daughter is at school, I get two solid hours in which I ignore personal hygiene and a wrecked house and write quickly and often don’t get to complete what I set out to do. This is how I am working on my third novel. The process is slow, full of interruptions and thoroughly frustrating.

“Last year, I wrote nothing because I panicked at having to take care of three young children and my husband’s son who had decided to move in with us mid-pandemic. My husband took over my daughter’s room and his office paid for three large screens to be installed so that he could do his work with maximum efficiency. My workspace moved to the Weetabix-stained dining table where my children bickered around me. With splintered focus, I did the best I could, both as a writer and as a mother. And every day, I languished because the story had stalled, and the children were neglected.

“I spent most of my time curled up in bed and crying because I could not cope. I nearly screamed when a journalist emailed me to ask how I was innovating at ‘this creative time.’ The mothers are not okay, I wrote. I was not okay. Please stop asking me what I had written. I was trying to survive.

“But as winter gave way to spring, things began to improve. One afternoon I detached myself from the human stew that my family had become in lockdown and went for a walk. Looking at the grey sky, I asked my spark to come back to me.

“Strangely enough, it did. At first, I wrote two lines, then three, and some days I write a thousand words. It’s still painfully slow, but it’s happening.

“Writing time has become sacred for me. For a little while I allow myself to get lost in a story that is becoming as I write it. I have no idea how things will end, which is wonderful. It’s a nice kind of unpredictable in a world that has become uncomfortable with its deaths and distances. I am grateful for the calm it generates within my distracted and troubled mind. The pandemic, with all its distractions, has forced me to realise how writing for its own sake is vital to my being. It is not a lesson I intend to forget.”

Shazaf Fatima is the UK-based author of How It Happened and A Firefly in the Dark. She is working on her third novel about marriage and divorce.

– The interviewer is a UK-based translator and the author of Defiance of the Rose, a translation of selected works by Perveen Shakir 

Finding anchor: Writer mothers and the pandemic