Grub Couple Reflects Upon Writing, Parenting, and Supporting Each Other Along the Way

Jennifer De Leon and Adam Stumacher are celebrated authors and teachers. Jenn is currently an Artist-in-Residence for the City of Boston and an English professor at Framingham State University. Adam is an award-winning educator in Boston and a writing instructor at Grub Street, among other places. Together, they are “Mom” and “Dad” to their young child and here they discuss navigating different life roles and how it all feels.

When I first approached you about doing an interview, you mentioned that balancing motherhood, teaching and writing was on your mind a lot. Is there anything specific you are mulling over right now?

Jenn: Mom guilt is a unique kind of torture. Seriously. I’m not the first working mother, nor will I be the last, sadly, to feel this way. It is constant. Just, unrelenting. What helps soften that guilt is seeing other working mothers getting it done, trying their best, making it happen. It also helps to discuss these issues with my husband. Does he have ‘Dad guilt’? Why not? What does it mean to be a “working dad” and why do we soften and ooooh and aaaah when we hear the term “stay at home dad” but then when we hear “stay at home mom” we have a different, colder reaction? Could it just be me? I doubt it’s just me. I’d like to continue these conversations with men, fathers, and yes, working writer dads. Share the baby weight, so to speak.

Adam: Thanks for including me in the conversation. I have noticed that female writers–like women in many professions–are constantly asked how they balance family and professional responsibilities, while male writers are almost never asked the same questions, and this difference speaks volumes about the way gender inequities are perpetuated.

Finding a balance between fatherhood, teaching, and writing is a constant struggle, not just because each of these vocations is central to my identity, but because each is infinite. I could spend every waking hour revising my novel, or lesson planning, or reading and coloring and playing with my son, and there would always be more I could do. Inevitably there are times when I feel like I am simultaneously failing at three of the most important jobs in the world. But in my better moments, I see how these three threads interweave and strengthen each other–what I have learned from my years in the classroom makes me a better father, and my experience as a parent enriches my fiction, which in turn makes me a more effective educator.

You were a writer before you became a parent. How has parenthood changed your writing life/how you come to the page?

Jenn: I didn’t believe writer-moms when they said this, but it’s true. I work faster now. I’m way more efficient with my writing time. If I have an hour at Starbucks, it can go very far. Many writer-moms say that they get lots of writing done at night, but that doesn’t work for me. I don’t like to write at night. Even before when I had the luxury of not having to fight my eyes from closing at 9 o’clock at night (okay, 8:30 more realistically), it just wasn’t my best working time. I would say the hardest adjustment has been shifting my expectations around what writing looks like. It used to mean writing in a café for four hours, and not forty minutes while my son naps, say. It used to mean sleeping in on a Sunday and continuing to read the novel I set down the previous night. Now it means reading a few pages in the car while I wait for school dismissal, or typing on my laptop while he plays with Legos. It’s hard. Part of me thinks I should be sitting beside him and helping him build something fascinating with the blocks. But the other part of me, yes, the writer with a deadline, but also the girl who spent hours writing in her journal beside her mother who maybe folded laundry or sewed or talked on the phone to my grandmother, that girl, reassures me that it is okay. And that maybe my son will grow up to be an architect or something?

Adam: Fatherhood has changed me as a writer in profound ways. It has changed the content of my work, as I find myself inhabiting the perspective of children and parents in new ways. And it has also changed the way I work, made me much more efficient. There is no waiting for inspiration, no superstitions about needing to wear my lucky boxers or have the perfect view outside my window before I can work. If I have forty-five minutes while my son is sleeping in one arm, I’ll write one-handed. If I have a spare half hour while waiting to pick him up from pre-school, I’ll write in the driver’s seat of my car.

I imagine your support system is a critical part of your success. How has it changed and grown since you became a parent?

Jen: I can say with certainty that my husband and I would not have time to write without my parents’ help.

Adam: Any writer needs a community of support for their work, but I’ve found that as a parent I need additional support just to find the time to work. For example, I would never be able to attend a writing residency without Jenn and our family members stepping up to help. There are particular challenges given that both Jenn and I are writers–we’re both trying to carve out the time to work–but on the other hand we both understand how sacred that time is. On a typical Saturday, I spend the morning hanging out with our son while she has a writing shift, and then she’ll do the same while I write in the afternoon. We make it work because we are both committed to each other’s success as much as we are to our own. And I like to think that we are modeling for our son what it means to work towards your dreams.

Are there moments you think about packing it all in and taking up another pursuit? If so, what brings you back off the ledge?

Jenn: Never! I mean, sure, I’ve thought about this a couple of times over the past few years. It always stems from finances. If I could make a living doing what I love and provide for those I love, why wouldn’t I? Alternatively, I do think about what more I can provide for my son if I had x, y, z job or profession. But I return to the lessons I try to teach him, the lessons my parents taught me: try your best, be kind, do good work in the world. What more is there?

Adam: I definitely have moments of doubt–I don’t know any writer who doesn’t. But something I have come to understand about myself is writing isn’t a thing I do so much as part of who I am. When I am not writing, I feel like I’m not fully alive. My parents are both professional musicians, and growing up I remember my dad saying that if you can do something other than being an artist, you should do it, only do this work if nothing else satisfies you. This has been true for me. So at the end of the day, despite the struggle and the heartache and the near impossibility to find that elusive balance, I always come back to the page.

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2 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    Jen, thanks for this piece. It’s so heartening to read about two terrific writers, who happen to be married to each other, making it work. Twelve years into the parenting gig, their insights ring true for me: the essentialness of scheduling and the (surprisingly) increased efficiency. Where I continue to struggle is when I need to think a thought/ask a question for more than say 4-hours–a macro issue of structure or voice, or some such. When I pull it off, I feel like a Zen master!!

  2. Deborah H Good

    Oh, such familiar sentiments: whatever important thing I’m doing right now, there’s something equally important that I’m NOT doing. How the word “during” or “while” gets elevated, as is while the baby naps or during a train ride, one can snatch time for what you absolutely need to get done, the brainbuzz that won’t be quieted until you do. How fortunate to be with someone who not only is supportive, but knows that hunger, too. Lovely interview.

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