Motherhood came to Mary F. Pols by surprise – sort of. She had always hoped to have kids, as soon as all the traditional family trappings were in place. But a fortuitous one-night stand upended her plans. The results included a son, Dolan, 4, and a memoir, “Accidentally on Purpose,” which she started during a year-long fellowship at Stanford. Pols, who was the movie critic for the Contra Costa Times until last March, was kind enough to take time from writing her next book – a novel – and from her busy freelance career to talk with us for the profile. “Accidentally on Purpose” comes out in the United Kingdom in March, by the way, and the paperback will be available here in the States in May.
How did you decide to write a book based on your journey to parenthood, and what was your process in making that happen?
I was inspired to write it in part because I couldn’t find much to read during my pregnancy that spoke to what I was going through. I wanted something more literary than a self-help book. After I gave birth, I had a sense of how slim those literary possibilities were when I was lying in my hospital bed re-reading Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions.” I’d first read it a decade before when I’d given it to a pregnant friend, and then during my pregnancy, had gotten two more copies as shower gifts. One of the doctors who’d come into check on me looked down at Lamott’s book, open on the bed, and asked me, “First time Mom?” I answered “Yes, how did you know?” And he responded, gesturing at the book, “Oh, they all have that.” I thought, hmm, I think there’s room for the marketplace for another book in this style, but I had a slightly different perspective from Lamott. She seemed so unfazed by her status as a single mother, as though it fit with her rather bohemian lifestyle. But I wasn’t that cool. I was terrified. I had craved the traditional and was aghast, constantly, by what I’d gotten myself into.
By the time I sat down to write my own memoir, I’d come to terms with my situation – almost – and wanted to speak to women who might be like me: older, desirous of children, but not exactly open-minded to an alternative life as a mother.My goal in telling my own story was to encourage women to reach beyond the familiar parameters of American life and parenting culture.
I started the book while I was on a year-long fellowship at Stanford. I had a lot of help and encouragement from other journalists in the fellowship. When I had a proposal together I gave it to an old roommate who is a novelist and she was kind enough to pass it to her agent. I’ve been working with him since.
What was the transition from newspaper writing to novel writing like?
I can’t really say, since I’ve spent more time in the last 10 months trying to establish a freelance writing career than working on my novel, unfortunately. But I think they are pretty compatible. I know that writing a memoir and writing for a newspaper mesh well; as a reporter, you know how to report your own life. And you are used to tight deadlines. I think actually, if someone would give me a deadline for the novel — it’s harder to adhere to your own — then I might be better off.
In the book, you talked a lot about the mix of feelings you had about unexpectedly becoming a parent, and a single parent at that. Could you talk about those?
It took me a whole book to really answer that question. I can only say that when I did my pregnancy test, I was afraid that it would be positive, but I was also aware that if it was negative, I was going to be disappointed. I did not want to be a single mother, and I resisted plenty of people who recommended it to me over the years – as an alternative to waiting for a man to marry – but I knew that I would rather be a single mother than never be a mother at all.
How are you finding parenthood? Is it what you expected? What are some of the surprises?
Parenthood is wonderful. It is what I expected, but more so. Honestly, I’m not hugely “kid-oriented,” and have never been one of those people who happily jumped into the fray with friends’ children. Maybe that’s because I was the youngest of a family of six, with a big age spread between siblings; I was used to being with older people. But the companionship aspect of having a little boy really surprises me, even now. He’s just great to be with, even when he’s exasperating. I also worried that I might miss my former life, you know, going out to concerts and parties, having long days without obligations on the weekend. I’m so content to just be at home instead. And I love planning our days on the weekend (we just got back from an afternoon skating at Oakland Ice (Center), but quite often, on the first Sunday of the month, we can be found at the flea market). I’d say I miss that life maybe once a month at most, and by jumping on the bridge and going to an early screening of a movie, I can usually get it out of my system.
What made you come to Alameda?
When I got pregnant I was living in a small flat in Oakland, in a fairly edgy neighborhood. So I needed to get myself into a better situation, and fast. I moved to Alameda because the rents were relatively low on two-bedroom apartments and I’d heard good things about the public school system. I’m a big believer in public schools.
Alameda is home to a lot of writers and creative people. Have you hooked up with some of those folks?
I’ve met a few. Mostly through my local wine merchant, Jeff Diamond, who introduced me to another one of his customers, Laurie Wagner. But mostly I hang out with other parents from Dolan’s preschool. It’s hard to squeeze in that adult time.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a novel.
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