Write From Home
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610
E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com
Harriet's Principles for Creative Mothers
The year my son was born, 2002, marked the 150th anniversary of
Uncle Tom's Cabin.
This anti-slavery book was revolutionary
for its time, but before my son's birth I had never read this classic.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's words had such power:
Lincoln called her "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great
war." But beyond her literary heroism, I discovered another realm of Stowe's
life that made me eager to learn more: she had seven children before she
wrote the book that changed America.
Stowe's approach to writing while mothering her
seven children still resonates today. Her personal papers (letters and
journals compiled by her son) shed light on how her seemingly mundane
routines and creative life intertwined to create a masterpiece. I was so
heartened by Stowe's insights that I started thinking of her as my friend
Harriet. Here are the lessons she taught me:
Nurture hope for the future
In an account of trying to cut out clothing patterns while the twins
were screaming and making an impossible mess, Harriet wrote, "I am but a
mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping. As for
thoughts, reflections and sentiments, good luck!" She took the time to
write even when she perceived herself as completely empty-headed: "I am a
dolefully uninteresting person at present, but I hope I shall grow young
again one of these days..."
Despite the stress level,
recognize the gift of your children
Harriet fretted about the struggle to find writing time. But she
added, "My children I would not change for all the ease, leisure and
pleasure that I could have without them. They are the money on interest
whose value will be constantly increasing."
Mine every experience
Harriet wrote about day to day life in her home. A household
experience that was not uncommon for her time informed her famed account
of the fugitive's escape in
Cabin. A freed slave from Kentucky came
to Harriet's house to work. Harriet's family learned that the girl's
former master was searching for her nearby, and was likely to kidnap her
and return her to slavery. Harriet's husband spirited the girl away into
the country, where she could hide.
Surround yourself with
Harriet's determination was bolstered by friends and family who read,
wrote and encouraged her to write. The Beecher family maintained a
circular letter that traveled from state to state, each family member
adding more news. Her husband was a gem of encouragement, especially for
his time. In one letter he wrote: "My dear, you must be a literary woman.
It is written in the book of fate. Make all of your calculations
One friend wrote a funny account of Harriet's struggles to
maintain a balance. When her friend asked about her latest piece, Harriet
talked about the baby's teeth and the baking: "It is really out of the
question, you see." Her friend persisted, even when Harriet insisted: "We
must give up the writing for today." Finally, maybe to silence the friend
that hounded her, Harriet finished the piece she had put aside, and sent
it off to her editor.
Despite the guilt, seek
your own space
Harriet struggled with ambivalence in the same way modern mothers do.
She wrote, "Our children are just coming to the age when everything
depends on my efforts...[they] need a mother's whole attention. Can I
lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?" In the next paragraph,
she committed to her creativity pursuits and planned a private writing
space: "If I am to write, I must have a room to myself."
Know your purpose and plan
your time accordingly
As she lay in bed after the birth of her 7th child, Harriet was
writing editors and reading historic novels. Her papers show that she was
driven by her purpose, even though writing consistently appeared at the
end of a long list of interruptions. "I have been called off at least a
dozen times...to nurse the baby, then into the kitchen to make a chowder
for dinner, and now I am at it again, for nothing but deadly determination
enables me ever to write: it is rowing against wind and tide...the spirit
moves now and I must obey."
Honor your spiritual side
Harriet thanked God for guiding her way. At a communion service,
Harriet was struck so powerfully by a vision of the scene of Uncle Tom's
death that she had to restrain herself from weeping aloud. She grabbed pen
and paper when she got home and, of course, the rest is history.
Embrace your experience of
motherhood. It will shape your work
Later in life, Harriet reminisced with her child about the winter she
Uncle Tom's Cabin. "I remember...weeping over you as you lay
sleeping beside me, and I thought of the slave mothers whose babies were
torn from them." Her bond with her children heightened her compassion for
slave mothers. It was the force that willed her to write her plea to the
Next time you struggle to
maintain your creative drive, remember that Harriet thought about giving up,
too. Not long before she wrote her famous story, she declared: "I can earn
four hundred dollars a year by writing, but I don't want to feel that I
must, and when weary with teaching the children, and tending the baby, and
buying provisions, and mending dresses, and darning stockings, sit down and
write a piece for some paper." I am grateful that Harriet found a way to
carve out those moments to write, even though it surely seemed impossible.
I know how Harriet felt. My
intense workday, finish race to day care and attempt a smooth transition
back to parenting wore me out today. And I have only one child to tend!
I have a pencil portrait of
Harriet here on the desk, and she is looking right at me, rather pointedly.
I'd better do some more writing.
Katherine Hauswirth is a freelance writer who lives in the
shoreline area of Connecticut. She is the author of Things My Mother Told
Me: Reflections on Parenthood, as well as articles and essays for
Pregnancy, The Writer, The Writer's Handbook 2003, Byline and Pilgrimage.
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