“Distracted Notes …” by Barbara Louise Ungar

Barbara Louise Ungar


An Essay

When I gave birth at 45, I discovered that 35 and above is deemed “Advanced Maternal Age,” so I coined a term for my slim but growing demographic: Geriatric Motherhood. And my marriage was on the skids.

I found that pregnancy, like impending death, which it resembles, concentrates the mind wonderfully. At least, internally. According to my OB, I was the most ecstatic pregnant woman in the world, and I have poems to prove it. I was on sabbatical, so out came (after the kid) my second book of poems, The Origin of the Milky Way, my baby book. I trained myself, while nursing, to write poems in my head; once my baby went down for a nap, I ran to the computer to get the poems down. The poems in this collection are mostly short, telegraphic, and baby-centric. Obsessed as I was, I learned to write a collection focused on one subject: motherhood. I had become a vessel, and the poems, like my son, came through me. When I gave birth, I felt helpless in the grip of a ferocious life force: a model for the ancient idea of possession by the muse.

When my son was still an infant, I could set him down and he’d stay put while I scribbled, but once he began to walk, at ten months (early), it was all over. I had no help, and it was all I could do to survive.

I was lucky enough to be on sabbatical while pregnant and on maternity leave for my son’s first year. Then I went back to work.

“How is it?” a friend asked.


And so it remains, nine years later. Single motherhood is impossible. Single working motherhood. Single, working, writing motherhood. Then there’s poe-biz: a fourth impossible.

As my marriage crumbled, I found my next subject, which led to Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life: divorce (and, of course, single motherhood). These poems were exorcism and catharsis. Life for me had been so bad in the marriage that it was far easier to be alone.

When visitation began, I had one and then two days a week without my son to try to concentrate on writing. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, “I used to think I couldn’t write with dirty dishes in the sink. Then I had a child. Now I could write with a corpse in the sink.” This quote is probably from Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, the best book about single motherhood I know, a book I loved even before I joined the ranks of motherhood, and singletude, but I don’t have time to look it up because I should be grading papers, and I only have a few hours before my son comes home from school. So, the choices are always writing, poe-biz, or life-plumbing (my catch-all phrase for dishes laundry cleaning mail email bills car and body maintenance recycling garbage yard work plunging toilet fixing furnace shopping cooking dishes laundry cleaning … ). Writing wins, almost every time.

But my son comes first. Always. Reflexively. I learned this shortly after giving birth: Walking down an icy sidewalk with my babe in his padded plastic basket (one of those snap-in car-carrier doodads), I slipped. As I went down, instead of my hands going out in front of me to break my fall as they always had, my entire body curled around my son in his NASA-grade carrier. I hit the ground on my side and back, my arms holding him high up off the pavement. I was stunned by the realization that there had been no choice: My very reflexes had been rewired. I’d protected him, rather than my own body, without a thought. I realized in that instant that I would throw myself in front of a car, bullet, madman, shark, raptor, zombie, to save him, and there wouldn’t even be a choice. Natural selection: Moms’ brains are rewired.

I read a study, “Joys of Motherhood Include a Rewired Brain” (probably in the Science Times, where I love to fish for poem ideas): Virgin rats took nearly five minutes to snag a cricket, while lactating mother rats nabbed the food in just 70 seconds.

How is writing a poem like snagging a cricket? You learn to write like a mother rat: Faster. Leaner. Meaner. Shorter. Fewer drafts. More focused on what really counts: more desperate. Fearless. Loving.

If I am lucky and get a poem, sometimes I’ll have a little time left over to send a few things out. More often, I’ll obsessively revise the poem. On unlucky days when I give up in despair, instead of sending poems out, more likely I’ll get caught up in

that tiny insane voluptuousness,
getting this done, finally finishing that.

—Theodor Storm, trans. Robert Bly, “At the Desk”

A tree fell in my yard. I need to help my son with his homework and schlep him to Hebrew school grocery shop return cellos exercise relax. Instead, I’m writing this.

Mornings are hardest. Getting us up, dressed, breakfasted, washed, combed, lunched, and ready for school (which usually involves my packing five, count ’em, five bags of stuff to get through our days), and out the door on time for work often involves a bit of roaring. Or whimpering. Once he’s gone, I’m madly scrambling, mopping up the milk I’ve spilled in my rush.

“It’s too hard.” But then I woman up. Help. It would be nice to have help.

A friend doing a performance piece once asked for someone to come up on stage to help her. I volunteered. I was asked to cry. I have no acting experience but, having read about The Method, simply repeated what I had been doing earlier, hunched on the toilet, sobbing and keening, “I can’t take it anymore, please, help, somebody please help me!” I was a great success. People thought I was making it up.

I do not mean to complain. We do not live under a tarp in a refugee camp. I did not have to walk across Cambodia pregnant, as one of my students did. Kvetch a little, yes. An Irish friend, a young, married professor of English, wrote me in rage after she had her son: She told me that working mothers are trapped—we have no time or energy to write about it, let alone organize to do anything about it—so no light escapes our black hole. Tillie Olsen’s classic Silences describes profoundly the ways that love can silence women, mothers in particular. I’ve recently discovered Sandra Tsing Loh’s “The Bitch Is Back” and Mother on Fire; they’re hysterical, but Sandra is fifteen years younger than I am, and she has a really nice husband who helps her. (Old, bad feminist joke: Men are good for two things: One is taking out the garbage, and I forget what the other one is.)

There are good reasons for menopause, too: You wouldn’t want to do what I do if you were one second older than I am. (I was definitely on my last egg.) I think about women having babies into their fifties or sixties, and I know they’re mad. But even younger women with good husbands, like my friend and Sandra Tsing Loh, are overwhelmed, and most of us just don’t have the wherewithal to tell anyone about it. So, thanks for asking, Rattle.

It’s a little easier now that my son is older: The TV, computer, Xbox, and reading give me a little breathing space. He can dress, feed, wash, and go to the bathroom himself. I don’t have to watch him every second. Often we sit side by side on the couch; I grade while he reads, draws, watches movies. I’ve seen (with half my brain) every Disney flick more times than is advisable, and they’ve infiltrated my poems (as in “Crueler than Disney” and “The Middle-Aged Mermaid”). Sometimes fairy tales (“The Miller’s Daughter”), cartoons (“Looney Tunes”), or funny things my kid says trigger poems as well (“Spell” and “Champagne and Pull-ups”).

Who knows what teenagerdom will bring. What poems of mayhem. Then, in eight short years, my son will be off to college, and I’ll have the house to myself. His bedroom will be my study. (I’m working now, as usual, at the dining room table with the computer in a corner and piles of papers everywhere. I never entertain.) I’ll be able to travel again, if I’m still alive and mobile. I’ll be able to give readings whenever I want, if anybody wants to hear me. Maybe I’ll finally get better at sending my work out. I’ll have all the time and quiet in the world. And, God, I will miss him.

Like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel, I am centered by my love for my son, and every shape I make rises out of this.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


Barbara Louise Ungar has published three books of poetry: Thrift, before motherhood; The Origin of the Milky Way, about motherhood; and Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, about becoming a single mother. She is a professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where she teaches literature and writing.

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