On Writing and Mothering
As the mother of a toddler (Isabella, at the time of writing age 20 months) one of the questions I'm often asked is How do you find the time to write? Or, how do you balance work with being a mom? Now, I'm obviously far from an expert--I've only been doing this mothering thing for 20 months and counting, after all. (And this is also with only one child--we'll see what happens whenever we throw a second one into the mix). But here are my thoughts, should they be of any help to other writing moms out there--or moms thinking about writing--or writers thinking about becoming moms.
I have the best husband ever. I absolutely couldn't write the books I do without my husband's constant help and support--well, in all ways, really. But in terms of our lives as parents, he is a totally hands-on dad. He and Isabella play together, listen to music together--and he regularly takes her on father-daughter excursions so that I can stay home and get some extra writing time in. (He also makes me laugh when I'm convinced I'm writing the worst book in the history of the English language, does his own laundry, pitches in with cleaning, and is extremely tolerant when my head is in 6th century Britain and we have the same thing for dinner night after night for a week. Yeah, I have a sneaking suspicion that I don't deserve him. But I'm not giving him up!)
I get up early. Every morning, seven days a week, I set my alarm for roughly an hour before Isabella wakes up. I get up, brush my teeth, and sit straight down at my computer. It definitely helps that I'm naturally a morning person and am at my best in terms of writing and creativity first thing. The house is completely quiet, I'm the only one awake. And I can usually get a few hundred words written before Isabella wakes up, sometimes even more. And most importantly, this writing time orients my head towards my book for the rest of the day, so that while I'm getting my girl up, getting her breakfast, reading to her, etc., the story is still sort of simmering at the back of my mind, ready for me to start work the next time I get to sit down at my desk. Which brings me to:
I change gears easily. This was something I worried about a lot before my daughter was born: would I have the mental space to be attentive to a baby while simultaneously writing stories--a process that is pretty much famous for being all-consuming and never letting you go? Luckily, your brain adjusts. It really does. Sometimes, sure, I zone out for a minute while I'm reading Go, Dog, Go! or whatever and start mentally revising a scene in whatever book I'm working on before I snap back to being focused on Isabella. But for the most part, I can pretty much compartmentalize--be totally focused on having a tea-party or a tickle-fest with my girl and then sit down at my computer and be totally focused on the story I'm telling. That means I can take advantage of whatever small chunks of free time fall into my lap during the day.
I prioritize. Basically, I try to put my family first, writing second, and just do the best I can with everything else. And I try to make peace with the fact that the "everything else" is just not always going to get done. I try, too, to remember some of the best parenting advice I've ever gotten. This advice was given to me by a beauty salon worker when I was in middle school, more than 15 years away from having kids myself. I don't even remember her name--if I ever knew it--I only met her that one time, when I was at the salon with my mom. But what she told me stayed with me for all those years. She said: Your kids aren't going to remember how often you vacuumed, how often you scrubbed out the bathtubs, how clean you kept the kitchen floor. What they're going to remember all their lives is how much you played with them when they were small. So I keep that in mind and try not to worry when I feel like pigs would refuse to live in my house or a cyclone has struck my living room. Because at the end of the day, I'd far rather have play time with Isabella and a finished book than a regularly scrubbed and waxed kitchen floor.
We have a daily routine. Every day, Isabella and I have a fairly ordered schedule, a routine in which I make sure that certain times of the day are set aside for exclusive "mommy-and-me" time. We read stacks and stacks of picture books, go to the park, to story hour at the library, play house with Isabella's baby dolls, whatever Isabella wants to do, I'm there as a playmate. This helps a lot to cut back on the maternal guilt I think most working moms feel to some degree. And I think it also makes Isabella feel secure and independent enough that she doesn't need me there with her every moment of the day. Which brings me to:
Isabella knows how to entertain herself. Sometimes the sheer responsibility of being a parent is just overwhelming--the number of decisions we make on a daily basis that affect the precious lives in our charge is just staggering (and totally terrifying if you think about it long enough). But I think you have to reach a point where you tell yourself, Okay, as a mother, I'm responsible for my child's physical and emotional security and well-being. My job is to feed her, bathe her, change her, sing to her, laugh with her every day. I'm responsible for my child's spiritual education and moral development, and I'm her first educator in an intellectual/academic sense, as well. What I'm not responsible for, though, is entertaining my child every moment of the day.
My girl is my universe, and I enjoy every minute we spend together, every chance I get to watch her grow and see her figure out the world. But at the same time, from a very early age I've worked on fostering her independence and making her feel secure enough that she can play by herself some of the time. We don't have television, so she doesn't watch any tapes or shows. But she sits and looks at her picture books, plays with her dolls, builds with her blocks, learning that she's an independent being, that she is okay without mom being right there all the time. I guess that's the point of parenting, after all. You do your absolute utmost to nurture, treasure, and protect these amazing little beings so that they can grow up to be independent individuals, ready to make their way in the world.
Writing makes me a better mom. I'm a mom first and a writer second--but at the same time, the "writer" part is still in there, you know? I think all moms need that kind of outlet--something to be passionate about that is just for them, be it a hobby or a job or volunteer work or what have you. For me, to be writing, engaged in a story makes me happy, which means that I'm more fulfilled, more relaxed. I suppose it pretty much goes without saying that that means I'm a more fun and engaged mom.
At the end of the day, I know I have it easy. First of all, let me say that I firmly believe the term "working mom" is repetitive. All moms, regardless of whether they are pursuing an outside career, are "working." But I do know that there are many, many other moms whose careers make it much harder to juggle work with family time than mine does. Two of my close friends, for example, are single moms who work full time jobs, come home at the end of a long, hard day, take care of the cooking, the cleaning, the household tasks, and somehow still manage to be the most amazing, gentle, inspiring mothers to their girls. Now, they and all women like them are Superwomen and deserve every amount of praise and support any of the rest of us can possibly bestow. All I have to do is sit down in the comfort of my own home and do my absolute dream job--the one I would do anyway, no matter whether I got paid for it or not. I know I'm incredibly privileged and blessed.