Writing as a mother

When I was in college, I planned to be a stay-at-home mother and homeschool and write novels. I knew someone who did, and it seemed pretty simple. The kids would be working on their schoolwork and I’d be right there, writing. Able to help them if they needed it, but with plenty of time to write. I had trouble writing in college (because of all the writing I had to do for class) and when I was a teacher (because I would get home with hours of grading to do) so I assumed that when I had kids and quit my job, I’d have more time to write.

What a laugh! Writing when you have kids is difficult in a whole new way. There are all kinds of new challenges.

1. Time. Depending on the children’s ages and how needy they are, it might take all of your time management wizardry to find time to pee and eat, let alone cook anything, wash the laundry, or shovel a path through the mess. I have had stages in my life when I was so far behind on vitally necessary tasks that finding ten minutes to jot a draft was flat impossible.

2. Second, there’s the arms problem. Kids want to be in your arms a lot. It’s one thing to hold a phone and scroll through facebook, but typing takes two hands. I have had kids who nursed for hours on end, every day. As they get older, they start being picky about where they nurse and what you’re doing, so they kick the keyboard and thrash around if they sense you’re trying to pay attention to something else.

3. Exhaustion. One of my kids woke every forty-five minutes throughout the night for about a year. Another one liked to wake up at three and stay up for an hour, as wide awake as can be. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Your brain is running at maybe 20% capacity and if you sit down in a comfy chair at your desk, you’re likely to crash at the keyboard.

4. Mental fatigue. Your brain is busy all the time with when they last ate and when they were changed and whether you need to schedule another doctor visit. It can be hard to be creative under that kind of pressure. Doubly so if you have any degree of postpartum depression or anxiety.

5. Guilt. We are taught from an early age that we are absolutely vital for our children’s wellbeing, and that ultimately that wellbeing is our job. We brag online about how busy and tired we are–proof that we are sacrificing everything for our kids. Nobody can complain that our house is messy if we have never taken any time for ourselves in years. But if we are writing, it feels like everything has to be done perfectly first. Spoiler, that’s never going to happen till the kids are grown. So writing requires the ability to shake off years of conditioning and claim our time and our right to be creative.

6. Lack of support. If we’re going to overcome all these hurdles, it’ll really help to have a supportive spouse who says, “I’ve got the kids for now. Don’t worry about a thing, they will be fine, go off to the library or the cafe and get some writing done.” And the sad reality is that many women do not have anyone like that. They may have no partner, or worse, a spouse who gets home and says, “It’s a mess around here, what have you been wasting your time on? Writing? You’ll never amount to anything as a writer, so if you have time to spare you should get a real job.” I have nothing nice to say about a person like that. There is no excuse to stomp on the dreams of someone you allegedly love.

Okay, so that’s the bad side. I spelled it out in grim terms because I want anyone who is not a mother to read this and realize just how uphill our journey is. But if you are or plan to be a mother, that might have discouraged you. So let me tell you how these problems are surmountable. I know because I’ve done it. I have four children, none of whom are easy, and in the past two years I have written two novels.

The first enemy to slay is the guilt. You have a right to be creative. You have something worthwhile to say. If you clean the house, it will get messy again, but your words and your dreams will remain. They are irreplaceable: no one else can ever write the stories you can. As a mother, you’ve gained wisdom and understanding you didn’t have before–that needs to make it into your pages so that other people can feel what you are feeling right now. Your children will also learn from your decision to write. They’ll learn that writing is valuable, and that you are valuable.

My own mother is a writer also. She and I used to sit at the table together, writing out our stories longhand. When I was older, I read some of her stories and poems, which I loved. They inspired me. But I regret that there isn’t more. I wish she had had more time to write all the ideas she had. I hope someday she writes that memoir. It would mean so much to me.

Next comes the practical stuff. You can get the hang of nursing at the keyboard. When my second was a newborn he nursed basically all day and I got really tired of reading blogs, so I started doing some translation work, typing one-handed. It was tedious, but I had all the time in the world.

Now, I can’t do that because the youngest is two and if she’s on my lap, she wants all my attention and will climb up my face until she has it. So I rely more on the TV than I used to. I felt bad about it, and then I thought, which is worse, an hour of TV time per day or a mother who privately resents her children for killing her writing dreams? So they watch TV. I get a little done then, and a little after bedtime. I do all my writing on a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard, so I’m often able to write in the playroom or outside. Anytime my kids are absorbed in something is a good time to write!

One big thing that I have learned through practice is to separate writing time and brainstorming time. I can only write at the keyboard, but I can brainstorm almost any time. I can brainstorm in the middle of the night because a kid woke me up and I can’t get back to sleep. I brainstorm on the way to the grocery store. I brainstorm in the school pickup line. That way not one second of my keyboard time is wasted. I know exactly what I am going to write, and I sit down and let it out. It wasn’t always like that, but through years of effort I’ve gotten better and better at this.

When I’m actually writing a first draft, I try to throw myself as thoroughly into it as possible and really crank out the words. That means I do not read books. I avoid facebook and twitter. I don’t watch TV. Basically writing becomes the thing I do for fun, and other fun gets left for a month or two. Luckily I do enjoy writing, so it recharges me. I think maybe that’s the secret.

Then when the draft is done, that’s my time for catching up on all the stuff I neglected: I scrub the bathrooms, spend time with my husband, take the kids to the library–all the things that can wait awhile, but not indefinitely.

But sometimes this has not worked. I wrote a novel when I had a two-year-old and a six-month-old, and I thought that I would write another the following year. But instead, I got pregnant again and spiraled into a dark and very overwhelmed place. It was hard to keep living and keep everyone else in the family living. It was like that for five years. Any time I got my feet under me and started brainstorming the next story, something would knock me back over. Life itself was more than I could handle, let alone writing.

The only thing I regret was that I let myself believe a narrative I had heard: that if I were really going to be a writer, I had to be writing all the time. That if I missed out on years of writing, I would lose my mojo somehow and never be able to get it back. And that was a lie. If you are a writer, if you really love it, you’ll keep coming back. It’s like a lover in one of those romances, where they’re apart for years, but the second they meet eyes again, the old chemistry reawakens. If you feel about your stories the way Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, feels about Captain Wentworth, don’t worry that you’ve missed your chance. You and your muse have a love for the ages and absence will only make the heart grow fonder.

So, if you’re a mother and you want to write, you should. Maybe all you can get is half an hour a day. Maybe you work and a few paragraphs on your lunch break is all you can do. Maybe your partner doesn’t believe in you. Maybe you’re so tired it’s hard to tell if what you’re writing is garbage. But making just a little time for it–by giving a flat no to things society has told you you have to do–will feed your spirit and help you believe you can still be creative.

And if you can’t, if you absolutely can’t–I feel for you. I want to tear down all the structures in society that put unbearable burdens on mothers and teach us we’re selfish for claiming the right to be creative. I want to kick to the curb any man who’s happy enough to beget children but won’t take the responsibility to help raise them. I want to bring you a casserole. It’s not fair and you shouldn’t have to put your creativity on hold. But if you do, remind yourself it’s not dead. It’ll be there. Keep a few characters in your head and let them talk to each other whenever it’s quiet. Someday the kids will start school or start sleeping through the night and you’ll find yourself with a little tiny bit of space. And that’s when the words will pour back out of you, because they haven’t died. They were there all along, waiting their turn.

You can write. I believe in you.