Monday, July 11, 2011

Being a Mom and a Writer

When my husband and I started a family it was decided (mostly by me, now that I think back) that I would stay home with the kids and he would be the wage earner. This was not the easy way out for either of us. Greg had the stress of being the sole provider and also had to come home to a wife eager for adult conversation, just when he wanted to quietly decompress. And I had my own troubles being home with one, then two, then three little kids, all needy, messy little jumping beans, more adorable in photos than I remember them being at the time.

I loved being home with my children, and wouldn't have had it any other way, but it left little free time for either of us.

Throughout the baby and toddler years, I thought about writing. I thought about it a lot, actually, but I never did it. Not once. It seemed that if I had a child age three or younger in the house I couldn't write.

Around this time I remember reading that John Grisham used to work his crazy attorney schedule AND get up at dawn to write for two hours before work. Later I read about Stephen King's writing routine in his book, On Writing. He's very disciplined and writes 2,000 words a day, no matter what.  Both John and Steve made me feel like a complete loser. I had more free time than either of them, and yet, I couldn't manage to do one tenth of what they were doing.

But then I realized that neither of them was doing what I was doing either.

Time, energy, and money. All three are finite resources. Kids are notorious time suckers, and they do a number on their parents' money and energy too. If you've got kids, you don't need a hobby--you're covered.

When my youngest was in preschool, I finally made the time to write. I took a non-credit class at the local tech college one night a week, and I also joined a critique group that met two evenings a month at the Hartland Community Center. It kept me on track with my writing, because I knew I had to bring pages to the next meeting. I still felt a little guilty spending money and taking time away from my family, but I felt, selfishly maybe, that I needed to do this, so I did it anyway.

Later, when I began freelance writing, especially during the time I got regular assignments from the community newspaper, I was able to justify my writing time because I was getting paid. I couldn't say the same for my novel writing, but I snuck it in anyway--it was my heart's desire. I'd always thought of myself as a writer, even during those long years when I wasn't writing a word. Now that I had a chance, I was going to do it every second I could.

I can only speak for myself, a mom of three who was home full time and whose husband worked long hours. Writing under those circumstances was difficult if not impossible. Personally, I need balance in my life to write. And silence. To work on a novel I need to immerse myself in that fictional world and I'm not able to do that if I'm sleep deprived or my kids are in crisis. And when your kids are little that describes most of the time. Seems like someone is always teething, or needs to be quizzed on their multiplication tables, or is sad because they weren't invited to a birthday party or whatever. Shoes get misplaced and field trip permission slips vaporize and a person can spend hours trying to get caught up. Added to that, if you're a writer of fiction, you probably have an acute sense of empathy. Taking on the joys and sorrows of your kids can be both emotionally draining and energizing. And that wreaks havoc on the balance I was talking about earlier.

When I first started writing this blog post I thought it was going to be about the importance of carving out writing time for yourself. I was going to say that I should have been more selfish in those early years. I should have just told my husband that I just needed every Saturday morning for writing, but you know what? The more I think about it, I'm not sure that's right. Even if I could go back in time and change my sense of entitlement, my circumstances would have been the same.  It wasn't uncommon for Greg to have to work into the evening or on the weekends. Some years we only had one car. And frankly, by the time the kids went to bed, I was spent.  That's just the way it was.

Even now that my kids are ages 16, 19, and 23,  I still have to set time aside for them on occasion. This past spring, my daughter Maria had her wisdom teeth removed. She's legally an adult and her boyfriend Sam took off work to go with her. In theory, I could have handed her the insurance card, wished her luck, then headed out to the library with my laptop. I never would have done that though. It's a mom thing. It doesn't matter how old your babies are, when they're going through something, especially a medical something, you want to be there.

(It went fine, by the way, and it was nice to have both Sam and me there--afterward he kept Maria propped up by the exit, while I went to get the car. On they way home, through her gauze-filled mouth, she told us, rather loopily, that she hadn't been to the zoo in a really long time. She was quite sad about it. "The last time I went to the zoo, the bats weren't there. We couldn't see the bats at all..." Later, she had no recollection of this conversation, but she did confirm the part about the bats.)

This struggle to find time to write when you're raising kids is an age-old problem. And if you work outside of the home, it's far worse. Writer friends who have other, non-writing jobs have the stress of their career on top of everything else.

Sometimes it seems the world is conspiring against you.

But if you wait, it gets better.

Unless it doesn't because something else happens.

I know, I'm not much help. What I can tell you is that having kids adds another emotional layer to your life, one that you can tap into and use in your writing.

Another thing I'd like to add is that it's okay to say no to other non-family, non-writing related requests. This may seem like obvious advice, but as a people-pleaser it took me a long time to get to that place. It's true that if you don't plan your time, other people will be happy to do it for you. So feel free to just say no! And if that's too difficult, you can always use my mom's classic line for taking a pass, "Sorry, that won't work out for me."

And most importantly, if you want to write, set aside time to write. But if life truly interferes, don't beat yourself up for it. Stephen King may write 2000 words a day, no matter what, but his wife, Tabitha, is also a writer and I'm willing to bet she has a different story.


RJ Keller said...

What a brilliant, honest post. Balancing family and writing is without a doubt my biggest challenge. It doesn't matter which is getting my full attention, there's such guilt, even though my kids are teenagers.

"if life truly interferes, don't beat yourself up for it."

I REALLY needed that today. Thanks Karen.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I totally identify with your blog today, Karen. Trying to balance staying at home with the kids and writing has been precarious for several years now.

I thought things would get a little better as they got older, but we are in the junior high and high school years, and, while I have more time to write, the house is like Grand Central Station. Now I am having more of a problem trying to focus so I can write. Yikes!

Stacey Cochran said...

With a four-year-old and 3-month-old in a two-wage-earner household and a writing career to boot, I needed to read this today. Thanks, Karen, and thanks, RJ, for linking from FB. This was inspiring to read.

Therese said...

So true, Karen! Even for a blog post, I need time and quiet...and this summer, with all 4 at home...not much of that happening! :)

Sheri L. Swift said...

Thanks Karen, for reminding us that it's okay to be a mom! Lol! Now I'm finding that grandparenting can be nearly as busy, and I have to remind myself that it's okay to be selfish and take time out for my future and all the things I had put off while raising my own. I guess that life happens no matter what stage we're in. ; )

Karen McQuestion said...

RJ Keller, you are welcome. And I hear you about the guilt. Every now and then I make a list of what I did accomplish on a certain day, because all too often I focus on what didn't get done. It helps me to see that I'm not completely worthless. :)

Karen, I also thought it would get easier when they got older, and it did, but it got harder as well. Situations still need to be monitored,if you know what I mean. It was Grand Central Station at my house too when my older son was in high school. One day, a relative observed a teenager walk through the front door said, "They don't knock?!" and I said, "Are you kidding? Do you know how often I'd have to stop what I'm doing to answer if they did?"

Stacey, I have no idea how you get any writing done, frankly. Thanks for weighing in and letting us know it doesn't just apply to moms. And if anyone wants to see Stacey's very cute editorial assistant check this out:

Therese, your house must be really hopping this summer! I've often thought it would be nice if the parents could siphon off some of that energy for themselves. The kids have way too much and we always seem to fall a little short.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Sheri--very astute!-- " life happens no matter what stage we're in." So true.

Sean McCartney said...

Great post Karen. I always set aside the hours of 10-midnight and write away. I wish it were evryday but, you are right, sometimes kids neds things, and we take care of those things.

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club

annebingham said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
annebingham said...

Yes, yes, YES.

Boy, does this make me feel better about all those years, Karen!

(And remember, Stephen King had that whole substance ingestion thing going on, too. Short term solution...)

annebingham said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen McQuestion said...

Sean, if you're writing from ten to midnight, you're a better person/writer than me. My brain shuts down sometime before then.

Hey Anne, I'd totally forgotten about the substance ingestion. I don't have anything comparable which puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

Jon Olson said...

Nice post. On top of time, you have convince yourself that it's a thing worth doing, and if you don't know any writers, that's a toughie.

Jon Olson
The Petoskey Stone
The Ride Home

Jacqueline Howett said...

But if life truly interferes, don't beat yourself up for it.

Enjoyed the read. I don't have children, but sometimes I find one must simply live life before one can write about it!

HS said...

Great post on balancing writing time and your "real job", whether that's a paid job out of the house or the often more demanding job of raising kids. It's inspiring to here about someone who can be successful doing it.

HS said...

Oops, of course I mean "hear", not "here". I am a writer after all. :-)

Karen McQuestion said...

Jon, that's a topic for another day, and something I grapple with all the time. Does the world really need another book, esp. one by me in particular? Am I just whistling in the wind?

Jacqueline, I agree about the importance of living life so that you can write about it. In fact, that's my favorite excuse for not writing. :)

HS, I think that's why so many writers dream of quitting their day jobs. Employment saps us of our time and creativity. How much better to have that mental space for our writing.

Pale Rambler said...

Are you sure we aren't related?

Three kids, a non-writing daytime job, and the many different responsibilities life chooses to throw at us are the very reasons I didn't give writing a serious attempt for 20 years. Now that our daughter is heading to high school and our boys can pour their own chocolate milk (although we encourage grape juice), I've been taking advantage of a few stolen hours each week.

But I would take your "if life truly interferes" statement even further. If life truly interferes, not only shouldn't you beat yourself up, you should fully embrace the interruption.

The computers and notebooks will be there for me whenever I'm able to devote the time. Our children, however, will spread their wings soon enough and be gone from our daily routine. I wouldn't want to miss any of it.


Karen McQuestion said...

Touché, Mark!

Kirk Farber said...

Nice to hear your thoughts on balancing kids and writing, Karen. We've got kids on the brain lately (don't have any yet) and I've been thinking a lot about how the time/energy factor will affect writing. I did start getting up really early to write before work, and that's nice because I use my best energy first before the sap of the day-job takes over. We'll see how long that lasts. As long as there is coffee, I guess. Sweet AA Kenya coffee. Mmmm.

Bill B said...

But if you wait, it gets better.

Unless it doesn't because something else happens.

Ha! Thanks for the great post, Karen -- and from the comments it's apparent that it's helpful to many folks and on many levels. Add me to the list of "needing to hear this today." And yes, the distractions (um, "life") will likely continue. There's always something new, even with kids in their 30's. And there's taking care of elderly parents & neighbors, and on & on. Of course there are good stories in all of those experiences, too, although sometimes it's appropriate to keep them at the level of being passed along to family & friends.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts, Karen. I'll go along with RJ's comment, "What a brilliant, honest post." ツ

Karen McQuestion said...

Kirk, I never took up the coffee habit and at my age I'd rather not start something that might be addicting. Still, if it helps increase my word count, I might consider it. :)

Hey there, Bill B.! I can always count on you to add something insightful to the conversation. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You and RJ are way too kind.

Dave Thome said...

As a dude who stayed home with just one kid for years one through three, I can say that...three is a really sucky age. I wrote a bunch of screenplays during the evenings in those years. When you've got only a few hours, you tend to make use of them. "loopily" a word?

Karen McQuestion said...

Okay, Mr. Journalism, you caught me. I know that "loopily" is not technically a word, but since it's my blog, and I liked the way it sounded, I used it anyway. What does Joe Konrath say? Oh yes, "My house, my rules." said...

I'm a stay-at-home-home mom and a writer. And boy are you right (fo all the erasons you mentioned). It' so difficult carving out writing time, and to be honest, so that my kids and husband suffer as little as possibible, I write in the evening when my husband's at work and the kids are asleep (if they're asleep) and nap time--basically every free moment I have is spent writing, which is great, but so tiring. I love writing but it's a lot of work! This week I've been preparing and uploading my debut novel on Amazon, B&N etc, and have been working so much more than usual. My husband feels neglected, and my kids (one and three) have been cooped up inside most of the day. I feel awful that it's consumed so much of my time,their time, eventhough that isn't the norm. Thank you so much for this post though, because it reminded me that what I'm doing at home is extremely difficult (not everyone can do what we SAHM's do), plus writing just adds another element of difficult. I need to relax.

Karen McQuestion said...

tmsouders, if your kids are one and three and you're also writing, you deserve triple gold stars on your chart. Someday when they're older you'll look back and wonder how you got it all done.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


David Pearce said...

With a teenage boy post exams the stress and arguments knock the toddler years into a cocked hat. I used to write on the train when I was commuting regularly, but now I work nearer home I get less time to write. Last week, though, I decided to edit my second book, transferring it from the page to the computer, and with a bit of discipline I have managed 6,000 words this week and taken some really good streamlining decisions. Thanks for the permission not to beat myself up about it, though!!

kathleen shoop said...

Such a great post! I actually got a lot more writing done when my children were underfoot. Now that the day extends into the evening with activities and school obligations I feel like I'm more scattered and have less focus than ever! So funny how everyone's creative lives play out. Thanks for the great insight into your writing life.

Karen McQuestion said...

David Pearce, thanks so much for leaving a comment and also for using a phrase I wasn't familiar with "knock into a cocked hat." I just Googled and spent three happy minutes learning something new. :)

Hey, Kathleen--we meet again! It is indeed interesting to compare notes on our respective creative lives. I think it's heartening too, to learn that we're not alone.

Marcia (123 blog) said...

Karen, I love this post.

I coach time management (!) and I often say you make time for what's important. That's true.

But by the same token, some seasons are just crazy crazy busy (I have twins who turned 2 two weeks ago) and like you say, no matter how well you're intentioned, something's gotta give.

I'm not a fictional writer - I write this kind of stuff - goal-setting, organising, time management :)

Lovely to get to know you. And LOVE your mom's standard line.

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Marcia! You have twins who are two?! You get a pass from me for just about everything. At the end of the day if everyone is clean and fed, you're a success in my book. Anything else you get done is a bonus. :)

Melissa F. Miller said...

Karen, I am so glad I found your blog! Although I sense my productivity will take a hit as I go through all your old posts. :)

I have been laboring under a boatload of guilt because the second book in my series is not finished yet. Every e-mail or review I get that asks when the next book will be available first THRILLS me to pieces and then stresses me out beyond belief.

But, I am a practicing attorney (my husband and I have a two-person practice) and have three kids, ages 5 yrs, 3 yrs, and 11 months.

Most days, something has to give. And usually that thing is writing.

I try not to obsess about it, but it's hard.

(The flip side of this coin is that I actually owe the fact that the first book is finished and for sale to the baby! When she was a newborn and woke up to nurse in the middle of the night, after she fell back to sleep, I'd make a pot of coffee and write until the sun and her older brothers rose. I never thought I'd be disappointed when one of my kids started to sleep through the night, but now that she sleeps, so do I!)

Anyway, love your blog and your thoughts on being a mom and a writer.


Christina said...

Christina Zawadiwsky - Sylvia Plath used to get up at five a.m. to write, before her children were up (but then she put her head in an oven and died, too - seriously, no joke)!

Karen McQuestion said...

Melissa, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences. If you're working as an attorney, have three small children and get ANY writing done, you're a far better person than am I.

When my youngest was a baby and up all night, it never ocurred to me to write. I wasted a lot of hours watching terrible television.

Christina, I don't think Sylvia Plath will be my role model...

Barbara Sissel said...

I am way late to comment but I love this post. It sounds so familiar to me. I was there too with the kids and all the stuff of home. Even now my kids are totally out of the house, but they still require time and somehow they still come first. As you say, it's a mom thing.

Karen McQuestion said...

Barbara, I think there's no getting around it--if you have people you love in your life, there's going to be unplanned intrusions. But that's the stuff that life is made of and our writing is richer for it.