Amy MacKinnon left her career as a political aide 13 years ago to be at home with her first child. Four years later, while nursing her third child in the wee hours, she began mentally composing her obituary and couldn't find much to put in it. "I was at a crisis point," she said. Motherhood alone no longer felt like enough, and she asked herself what she was good at. "The only thing I had was baking birthday cakes," she said. "And I really liked reading."
But cake-decorating classes required fees and a baby sitter. Writing required neither. So for one year, MacKinnon studied the style and content of newspaper articles. She began writing essays for papers, and over the next few years she honed her skills through classes at Grub Street, a Boston-based nonprofit that runs writing workshops for the uninitiated. She wrote 15 pages of her first novel the day she heard Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," say in a radio interview that fiction writing was fun. That novel remains unpublished, but she recently sold her second, "Tethered," to Random House.
"I thought people who wrote books were godlike figures," said MacKinnon, 40. "I was a stay-at-home mother in suburbia."
Many stay-at-home-mothers create new careers they can pursue at home, but it takes a dreamer, or a masochist, to choose writing. Why pick solitude, intensity, and lack of validation when stay-at-home mothering already embodies those things for many women?
Lynne Griffin, 48, a former pediatric nurse, finds writing an antidote to the isolation of stay-at-home motherhood. As a young mother she'd felt lonely and reached out to connect with other mothers. Once she trained herself to be a writer, the loneliness disappeared. "I get in the flow, and there's no better place than that for me," said Griffin.
In 2005, she found friendship and validation in a writing group that includes MacKinnon. "That's why mothers seek out play groups and writers seek out writing groups - to be seen, to be heard, to be relevant," MacKinnon said. Within two years of joining the group, Griffin's first novel, "Life Without Summer," was snapped up by St. Martin's Press for the kind of advance writers fantasize about.
Finding time to write seems a special challenge for stay-at-home mothers, who describe round-the-clock responsibilities for child care and housework. They write whenever they can - in short bursts, between chores, or when their children nap. They meditate on their stories while driving or vacuuming or playing Candyland. Most said they sleep little and rise in the pre-dawn hours to write. But they believe the intensity of their two loves, family and writing, inform each other.
"They bring the heat," Stace Budzko, an instructor at Grub Street and at Emerson College, said of the young mothers in his classes. "When it comes to conflict, they've seen it all. Nothing scares them." One mother in his class wrote a story about a young boy who built a bomb, and in the story the boy's mother was pleased, despite herself, at her son's inventiveness. The portrait rang true, said Budzko, and a non-mother might have painted it quite differently.
Motherhood can be a powerful formative experience for writers. "All mothers go through this period when they're terrified about what might happen to their child," said Lara JK Wilson, 41, a short-story writer who wrote before and after motherhood, and experienced the difference. "Feeling that can bring you to a place that's sharp as a knife. You feel edginess to your emotional state, and you know what ends you will go to, to protect that child. I can imagine the childhoods of all my adult characters, and it's because I have a multitude of emotional states in my family life."
For Darci Klein, 41, a former management consultant, motherhood was a direct source of writing inspiration. She took her first writing workshop in California while working full time, when her elder child was a toddler. Then she had three miscarriages before getting pregnant with her younger child. The family moved to the Boston area, and with unpacked boxes around her, Klein had to lie on her back for 28 weeks to prevent another miscarriage. "It was a transformative experience," Klein said. After her baby was born, she got cabin fever at home and signed up for a writing workshop at Grub Street, where a class assignment got her writing about her struggles to carry a baby to term.
"This was my story," Klein said, "and I wasn't sure the rest of the world would want to hear it. I was surprised at the response in the workshop. Some people cried, and it opened up a conversation about losses we had had." She showed a chapter to a literary agent, who offered to represent her. Armed with that vote of confidence, a baby sitter, and a support structure at Grub Street, Klein finished her memoir and sold it to the Penguin Group. The book, "To Full Term," was published last year. Now, buoyed by her success, Klein is writing fiction.
Does writing help the women become better mothers?
"I've been a role model," Griffin said. Her children, she said, have "seen the wonderful side and the challenge, the struggle. It's been a nice bonding experience, especially in the teen years, when independence takes them away from you. This has kept them with me."
MacKinnon says writing helps her feel complete and settles her as a mother. Recently she took her children with her for meetings with her New York publishers, so they could see the offices at Random House. "I've shown them that if you work really hard, and if you have a dream, you achieve that dream," she said.