Susan Ito is the author of The Mouse Room, a SheBooks mini-memoir. She co-edited the literary anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption (North Atlantic Books). She is creative nonfiction editor at the online literary journal Literary Mama, and her work has appeared in Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, and The Bellevue Literary Review, Making More Waves and elsewhere. She has performed her solo show, The Ice Cream Gene, around the United States. She writes and teaches at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, at UC Berkeley Extension, and the MFA Program at Bay Path College.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
I often feel as if my writing is my third child, in addition to my two human children. If I neglect it or don’t pay enough attention to it, everyone suffers.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
So many. I’m working on completing a memoir about my own parents, both birth and adoptive. I’m setting up a series of writing retreats and workshops that allows for quiet and reflection (something in short supply for parents).
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
It has been a long one. I lost my first pregnancy (a son) at 6 months due to pre-eclampsia in 1989. This was an intense and influential experience. A year later I gave birth to a first daughter, and then a second one as I was finishing my MFA. Writing, getting a masters degree and then teaching with small children was really challenging but I didn’t want to give up any of it. My daughters are now 20 and 23 and I can see that they haven’t suffered from the time I spent on my writing, including 4- and 8-week writing residencies when I was away from them.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
One of the most crucial elements is being able to immerse myself intensely in work, either for full days or many days or even weeks. Since having children, this involved a tremendous amount of support and cooperation with my husband, and other caregivers who stepped in while I took time away. At the same time, I also learned that sometimes I was able to write while fully immersing in parenting. I learned to write while sitting at the edge of the playground, or while playing a board game or watching a sports practice. There’s a lot of sitting around and WAITING while being a parent, and I learned how to utilize that time for my writing.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
I’ve written a column called “Life in the Sandwich,” which was about simultaneously caring for my children and my aging parents. I’ve written for Hip Mama, Literary Mama and other publications and anthologies, many of which reflect my family experience.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
I can’t imagine my art without my parenting. I really began writing seriously when I was pregnant for the first time.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Yes. I’ve written about them in poetry, and in personal essay/memoir and in my “Life in the Sandwich” column. I have mixed feelings about having done so, but now that they are young adults I am always careful to show them anything that might be public, and to get their consent.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
Worrying about what they might think of what I’ve written, if it might cause them to judge me.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
Writing has saved me, literally. It is a great stress release. It is also a way of not feeling alone. Parenting can be very isolating and there can be a lot of stress, anxiety and shame in the experience. Writing about the most difficult aspects of parenting has probably saved my sanity.
How do you escape?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have a partner/husband who supports my writing as much as he supports me and our children. He believes in it and nurtures it, which means that whenever I have needed or wanted to escape, for days, weekends, weeks or even months, he has rallied in every way to make it happen. He says that his relationship with our children was actually strengthened by my time away. He never gave me a hard time for needing solitude. Ironically, now that my mother is 91 (and she was instrumental in helping him when I went away to write) it is much harder to go away then it ever was when my children are small.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Don’t think that you are the one and only person who can love and nurture your child. It truly does take a village, but this means trusting others, opening up to others, encouraging your children to spend time with many many other adults. I think that mothering has become very precious to the point of neurosis, that mothers think they have to do every single thing 100% perfectly and 100% on their own. I think this is tragic. Children are not that fragile and actually they will thrive when exposed to many people who genuinely care for them. Start letting this happen when they are infants so that they develop a flexibility and an ease in the world. My daughters are both amazingly affectionate and adventurous young women who connect easily with so many people and I do believe that they were encouraged to do this from a very young age. Don’t think that you have to do it all or your children will be harmed. If you value your art, think of it as your other child. Give it as much time and love as your human babies, and everyone will thrive.
(PS. Before you are ever expectant, be sure to choose a partner who truly, truly values your art. It is heartbreaking to meet women artists/writers whose partners do not take their art seriously or value it. These partners will never support you in co-parenting or allowing you the time you need as an artist)