Parenting and Writing:
USB Keys Are Not Edible
By Anne Holly
A typical afternoon at my house finds me begging an extra ten minutes from my three year old son so I can finish a paragraph. Naturally, he wants me to play “choo choo” and isn't always kind and understanding about why I’d rather play “keybode.” Recently, his favourite line is, “My turn to work with the compooter.” I’ve had to rescue laptops, important note pages and even USB keys from mouths, destructive little hands, and toy-boxes many times.
I suspect these are scenarios common to most writers who also happen to be parents. (Or, should I say, parents who happen to be writers? Chicken and the egg, I guess.)
I write my fiction at home, and as a freelance writer, researcher and teacher, I also do a significant amount of my bread-winning from home, as well. Since I’m parenting alone at the same time, and my son only has playschool two days a week at the same time I’m teaching my classes, there are many times when I have to overlap my mommy time and my working time. The trouble is children and deadlines wait for no woman.
The basic dilemma is this: How do you juggle the time demands of an active child, who you adore, with your work, which you love (and need to do)?
Most of the time, I have managed to figure out how to get my “1k a day” without too many tears from either one of us. Without finding a way, I wouldn't have been able to finish my PhD dissertation, or do my fiction. I was a student when my son was born, and have only recently finished, and I have applied the lessons learned then to my writing.
It doesn't really matter what style your writing is, the method you develop is entirely based on the rhythms of your family and of your work, but these are some broad strokes of my basic regime:
- I work whenever I can, meaning I have stopped waiting for the “perfect setting” or “right time.” When the tot is sleeping/playing nicely I go for it. This is helped greatly by my habit of outlining scenes - I can just pick up the next scene and run with it, by plugging away. There is no guessing as to what to write next.
- I revel in the “1k hour” challenge – learning to write quickly and efficiently can really help when time is at a premium.
- I work at night whenever possible – no distractions, free time. I am fortunate in that I can exist on very little sleep – a survival skill I picked up in grad school, encouraged by a natural life-long propensity towards insomnia. One challenge in this system is not falling asleep while I’m putting the tot to bed (after a whole day of chasing him around). The bigger challenge, however, is in staying cheerful during the following day after some late nights. This takes concentration and the will to be cheerful. Cheerfulness does not always come naturally, but it can be inspired if you are mindful of yourself and your moods.
- I’m not afraid of joining my son for an afternoon nap.
- While I try not to compromise on my motherly duties where they count, I have had to adjust my idea of “ideal motherhood.” My house is often horribly messy, for example. Meals are tasty, filling and nutritious, but they are hardly glossy-magazine quality. And I’ve had to back down on my “he should never watch videos” stand (we don't have TV/cable reception, which I won’t change my mind on, but we do have DVDs). The tot does spend a bit of each day watching his favourite DVDs to give me some peace. At first, I was super-guilty about that, but when I see him learning from them, and clearly enjoying them, I have loosened up a bit on the issue.
- Likewise, I’ve learned to get over the initial guilt I had putting the tot in daycare (playschool). It’s good for him, and me, and allows me to work and teach. I was raised in a traditional “mothers look after their own kids” atmosphere, so this was a significant hurdle for me – especially during the early stages when he’d cry when I left him! At first it was a “necessary evil,” but now it’s a valued part of our lives. He loves his school and his friends, so that has helped.
- I’ve been working on establishing my writing and work as “important to mommy.” I patiently explain and re-explain to my son that “I need to finish xyz before we do this or that”. I don't push his patience, but I am increasing the limits steadily, encouraging him to play near me on his own more and more, and to accept that when I’m writing I am not entirely accessible. I don't overdo this, as he is still so young, but I hope this will pay off when he is older.
- A well-exercised child is a happy child. Daily outside time, or park trips, are essential for both of us, and helps me clear the cobwebs (and helps him sleep better). I’ve learned that taking mommy time is actually helpful for writing more efficiently.
- I use a Dictaphone/notepad when necessary, and have become good at integrating my note-taking time with mommy time. For example, during “craft time” while he’s drawing or colouring, I sit with him and outline in my own scratch pad. I let him doodle in the margins and they cheer me up when the writing is tough.
- I accept the help of a good, trustworthy friend, and am grateful for the afternoons she can spare once a month or so to take the tot to the park to give me some extra time when I need it.
- I try to be interactive when I write, as much as possible. I do not demand constant silence or privacy. This way, he can feel that I am reachable, even if I am not directly playing with him. We listen to music together while we do our separate activities in the same room, for example. I will often read out loud when I’m editing (if it is under PG-rating), as he does seem to enjoy my running monologues – he doesn't really care what I am saying most of the time, I find, as long as I am talking to him. A lot of the time I’ve spent writing, I was nursing him, or he's been sitting on my shoulders, or sitting next to me at the desk typing on his own keyboard or toy laptop. Writing this way is not ideal, perhaps, and some people wouldn't want to do it, but I find it works for me. Sometimes, you just have to power through.
- Deal with the fact that you might not always have the time and money for promo that some other writers have. Do what you can, and let the rest go.
- Finally, a caveat – if you choose to work while your child is around (awake or asleep), you have to be prepared for (and be okay with) multiple interruptions at the drop of a hat. Potty emergencies, broken toys, help needed, fights with the cat, boo-boos to kiss, books that need to be read, fears to hugs away – there is no substitute for an alert, loving parent, and your child is perhaps the greatest treasure your life will hold. You chose to be a parent; they had no choice in the matter. The onus is on you to adjust, even if it’s also a great thing to train them to be respectful of you and your time. Strike a good balance, and life can be good.
It might well get dicey; sometimes, you may feel one obligation or the other is suffering, and you can get frustrated with the burn of sleep deprivation when the muse strikes. But there are ways to juggle both, and many have done so successfully for years. Investing in the quietest keyboards you can find, cutting a few non-essential corners here and there, and living off coffee... It may be a fair price to pay for us toilers in words and nurturers of small people, as both are wonderful gifts.
And, in so doing, you are teaching your child the ethic of hard work, the value of attention to your craft, and the importance of following your dreams/calling – by example, you are encouraging them to do what they are meant to do, and that’s one of the basic foundations of parenting.
I am of the opinion that being a mother makes my writing better and that being a writer makes my mothering better. And if the dishes are not always done, and the floors are not always spotless, I can honestly say I feel good about what I do - on both sides.
So, happy writing! (And give your little ones a hug for me.)
Anne Holly is a Canadian non-fiction freelancer, teacher, mother, and published author of romance and erotic-romance. She is the author of the short books Waking Kara, Unwrapping Scrooge, Good for the Goose and V-Day, and of the novel Strings Attached, all available on Amazon and other retailers. She is currently preparing another contemporary romance novel for submission, looking forward to three more releases in 2011, and is writing a comedic chick-lit faux memoir about life as a single mom and an academic by day and writer by night. She is an avid NaNoWriMo participant, and writes a monthly newsletter. She hails from rural Nova Scotia, Canada, but now resides in Ontario with her three year old son and their cat named Ralph.
You can visit her at her website or blog or find her on Twitter @anneholly2010. She loves talking with readers, writers and assorted book people.
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