This week we are featuring new mom and writer Rachel Rickman. Rachel is an English Professor and freelance writer born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and living on a little island in Mexico called Isla Mujeres. She received her BA, MA, and MFA from Northern Michigan University where she taught English for nine years. Rachel lives on Isla with her husband, musician Ryan Rickman, and their one-year old son, Callan, as well as their two rambunctious pups. She’s currently working as a freelance writer and is published in The Northwestern Review, marquettemagazine.com, globalliving.com, and writes about life between Michigan and Mexico on her website: jezebelstable.com.
For people who don’t know your medium well, could you explain what your art is like?
I’m a writer of lyric creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a relatively new and emerging genre. In it, I find a wonderful fluidity to play with form and content to come as close to my “truth” as possible via the written word. I like my writing to evoke moments to pause and space for thought. For it to inspire thought, as well as tell a story. I deeply admire writers in the genre such as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Barbara Kingsolver, Gretel Ehrlich, Annie Dillard, Diana Abu-Jabber, and more.
What are important motherhood contexts people should know about you?
Until I was 32, I lived my entire life in rural Upper Michigan. I believed I would always live there and some day raise my children there. In December 2015 I moved to Mexico and within two weeks met the man who is now my husband. I went from being comfortable with never having children to making the decision to remove my IUD and see what happened. It only took three months for me to get pregnant.
While deeply happy and excited, especially because I’d been unsure whether I could have children, I was also frustrated by the growing lack of freedom pregnancy brought. I was also struggling with being away from my family and in a country in which, while learning, I had yet to master the language.
I had strictly planned for an all-natural birth, and Ryan and I spent the summer putting aside savings to afford a natural birth in a nice hospital.
I’d planned my birth, I’m fit and strong with big wide hips and my doctor assured me a natural birth was possible. Two days past my due date, my doctor scheduled an early morning appointment for a possible induction. I talked it over with Ryan and we decided we’d make the appointment a checkup, but as I was only two days over, there was no reason to be induced. When I entered the hospital I was immediately taken for a “special” ultrasound with an “expert” as well as my regular doctor. They said a natural birth would endanger the baby’s life, and the c-section was completely necessary. And they were going to do it right then.
My husband and I felt something wasn’t right and that we were being forced into a situation without knowing all the answers, but before we could argue, they were prepping me for surgery. The hospital had a translator, but he was in and out of the room, and my mind was racing too fast to ask the right questions anyway. I was crying and begging the nurses who were trying to poke me with needles for IVs and stuff me into scrubs, to go away so I could have a moment to think. I was able to call my mom, who calmed me a little by saying, “You have to do what the doctors think is best for the baby. You can do this.”
I felt like I blinked and I was in surgery, the epidural driving deep into my spine with a pain I didn’t know was possible. Lights dimming and fading. Blue scrubs. Ryan’s worried eyes over a surgical mask. A cutting. A tug and pull. The sound of my baby crying. Bring him to me. Bring him to me. They were supposed to put him on my chest. Skin to skin. All the plans, gone.
Finally, finally, I was wheeled into the hospital room and Ryan and the baby arrived. He was perfectly healthy and beautiful in every way. But my body was cut in half and I immediately began throwing up from the medicines. I tried to hold Callan to my breast, while holding a garbage bag to throw up in with the other hand. I had to pee, and when I stood, blood rushed out of me. The nurses assured me it was “normal”, but I hadn’t read anything about this, and it was terrifying. I gloried in my beautiful baby, while also mourning what I felt was a failure of my body.
Many women are perfectly happy with their c-sections, but during post-partum, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow failed. That my body had failed. It’s taken almost a year, but I’m slowly healing from the trauma of the unexpected c-section.
How has the practice of your artmaking changed since motherhood?
I’ve struggled a great deal finding time to write. Callan is a sweet, wonderful, imaginative, inquisitive, and ACTIVE baby, and my ideas of blissfully parenting and freelancing have been replaced by the realities of feeding, cleaning up after, and chasing around this active little man. I’ve struggled with what this means for me—for my identity—if my mother side has taken over some of these other aspects that are so important for my ideas of myself.
I repeat to myself: these times are temporary. Mothering is a constant fluid activity. There will be time to write in the near future, and you’re stockpiling material. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes I feel lost, but I’m starting to regain a semblance of balance.
What has been most challenging about sustaining a creative life in motherhood?
Time and energy. I carry around notebooks and write down ideas for essays but never have time to write the essay itself. Breastfeeding at night seems to be a fruitful time for my brain to produce thoughtful ideas and whole paragraphs of narrative that seem to evaporate in daylight. Motherhood has meant giving so much of myself to my son and my husband. I think there’s a biological shift there too, that my independent self often chafes against because at the end of the day, there’s no more energy left. I miss being the single woman alone at a table in the bar with a large drink, writing or reading.
What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life in motherhood?
Perhaps not a surprise, but I’m happy for the experience and perspective motherhood has afforded me, and like many artists, I’ve gained much material that I think is and will be useful to myself and others. I’ve found a voice as a mother that other mothers/parents seem to relate to, which brings me much joy. I think in the world of social media, so much of motherhood is seen through the lenses of filtered photos, and based off the popularity of shows like “The Letdown” and “Workin Moms” people are looking for honest voices.
What are the particular issues that come as an artist in your field with children?
Time and energy. My husband works two jobs and we have a growing restaurant. We have two high maintenance dogs. We live far from family in a foreign country. It’s hard to find reliable child care. I miss my family for a million reasons, but not having my mother, father, and sister around to help take care of baby so that I can write is one of the biggest things I struggle with.
After staying up all night with a fussy baby, dealing with the household day to day, etc. I have no energy left to write. I always tell myself, “After the baby goes to bed.” But by that point I’m lucky if I can keep my eyes open.
Who are other artist mothers in your field that inspire you?
My own mother has been a significant inspiration. She went to U of M and started her degree in puppetry and costume making, but changed to the more lucrative elementary education. She worked so hard every day to instill in my sister and I a sense of wonder, imagination, and empowerment. I have other people I admire as artist mothers, but other than my own mother and close peers, I don’t feel that I’ve had an artist-mentor-mother figure, which has been difficult.
What’s been the your most important mantra to continue having a creative life as a mother?
I’ve developed a theory that for myriad reasons, mothers give so much of ourselves to our children and our partners that we can easily lose important pieces of our identity.
Every day I tell myself to:
Take deep breaths wherever possible. Rocking a baby is a great opportunity for squats if you’re in the mood—might as well. Hormones are a real thing—give them their due but don’t let them take over. Be a little selfish. Take time for yourself. Sometimes that doesn’t mean being creative in the moment, but relaxing for a bit so that you can eventually get to that creative space. Everything is temporary and changing. This phase isn’t forever.
You can see more of Rachel’s work here: