Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Topical Tuesday: Parenting and the Writer

A typical afternoon at my house finds me begging an extra 10 minutes from my 2 and a half 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 "keybood."

I suspect this is a scenario 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.)

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 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 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 staying awake while 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.
  • 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 filling and nutritious, but they are hardly glossy-magazine quality. And I have had to back down on my "he should never watch videos" stand (we don't have TV/cable reception, which I will not 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.
  • I have been working on establishing my writing as "important to mommy." I patiently explain and re-explain to my son that "I need to do xyz-amount of writing 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 am 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.
  • I use a Dictaphone when necessary.
  • Finally, 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 what I am writing out loud (if it is under PG-rating), as he does seem to enjoy my running monologues - he doesn't really care what I am saying, I find, as long as I am talking to him. A lot of the time I spend writing, I am nursing him, or he's 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.
In asking authors around the biz (or any work-at-home parent), I find similar make-shift processes in place. Robert Roman, author of Road Mage, and father, gave me a quote that sounds pretty familiar:
I'm lucky - the boy who likes to sit in my lap is small enough that I can type. Other than that? I steal time from myself when they are sleeping and I ought to be, and I sometimes steal time when they're playing quietly and daddy doesn't get the game.
(Basically, make hay while the sunshines, parents!)

Diana Cosby, author of His Conquest, gives me hope that proper balance, boundaries and explaining your writing to your children as if you are - gasp! - a human and not just a mom does work as your children age:
Make your children a part of the process, explain how writing is important and like they value the time they spend doing what they love, you value yours. Break down with them a time you write and they respect your time. After, it's fun time where you play, do homework or spend with them.
Juvenile/young adult fiction author of Shrinking Forward, and mom to four, Nathalie LeBlanc may have it the best of any of us - her stuff can actually be used seamlessly with her parenting!
I started writing when I was pregnant with my first child and now she is nearly nine years old. She has read my first novel Shrinking Forward. She was so excited to find out what happened next she bugged me for a week to read book two called Fading Away. After a week of bugging me she won! I love her excitement on her face every morning waking up and wanting to know what happens in the next chapter! After all, one of my main reasons for writing my novels was for my children.
Perhaps not so applicable to those of us who write romance or erotica, but, while we can't all write to the age group of our children, Nathalie reminds us that writing is not really contrary to our parenting. At times, the work is important to our family health by adding income. Even more often, it aids our parenting by making us happier or more complete as individuals, which should make us more able parents. For some of us, it's an important part of keeping sane! In the long run, seeing a parent create and have the courage to pursue their dreams is a valuable thing in a household.

So, even while it might get dicey, and you may feel one obligation or the other is suffering at times, and you feel the burn of sleep deprivation when the muse strikes, there are ways to juggle both, and many have done so successfully for years. Investing in the quietest keyboards you can find 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.

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.)

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