Monday, July 28, 2014

4 Tools for the Writing Parent by Joanna Roddy

"Mother" -Nikki McClure

Being a parent of young children is all-in, no matter what else you have going on. And it presents special challenges for us creatives who need space and time for our work in addition to bringing home the bacon or taking care of littles. But inciting a rivalry between your children and your creative progeny will only make you feel frustrated and hopelessly divided. A while back I read a post by YA author Laini Taylor about "Writers with Kids" and I liked how she phrased the topic as "Not so much 'kids as obstacle' but 'kids as given.'" 

Making peace between my own work/life balance as a writing parent is something I've been honing for years now, and what seems to work in one season can change with my own creative growth and my family's development. Here are four tools that have helped to ground me and other writers I know in the midst of a life that sometimes feels like it's been reduced to tantrums, skipped naps, and bleary-eyed late night feedings. 

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without
putting a word on paper." -E.B. White
Get Support:
You can't do it alone. Supportive spouses are a common theme in the Mayhem group and you do need a champion in your corner to keep the faith when you're discouraged and to let you work while they man the wheel at home. One of our Mayhemmers with five kids called a meeting to get everyone's input on whether his writing career was important (the kids agreed it was) and what he could do to stay involved with family life. This gave him clarity on how to be present to his kids' needs when he was with them. Even single parents can find supportive family members or friends who will spend time with the kids while they work. On the flip side, there will always be skeptics of your choice to invest in creative work and it's important not to let their disapproval cripple your efforts. Get your team of advocates and tune out the critics. 

Embrace an unconventional work schedule
Time is the giant hurdle for writing parents and there are a million ways to make it work. I have a hands-on husband who looks forward to time with the kids after work. He often gives me one day each weekend to write while he hosts "daddy daycare" with a bunch of his friends. Just last year I also started to get up at 4:00 in the morning to work for a couple of hours before my kids wake up. I'd never done anything like this before and I have found it surprisingly wonderful. It's a commitment that requires a shift to an early bedtime and a new paradigm on evening social commitments. But I was too tired most days by the time the kids were in bed to do much more than watch shows or tinker on the internet, so why not just go to bed and wake up fresh and ready to work? Because there's no way I am going to get up at 4:00 just to read my Facebook feed--I'm getting down to business.   

Other Mayhemmers have done all kinds of crazy schedules, like driving babies all over town till they're asleep and then writing like mad on a laptop in a parking lot until they wake up, or having a spouse with a flexible schedule and taking afternoon writing sessions a few days a week. Some have hired a sitter to give them a few hours of writing once a week (me included), some have written between innings at little league games, and some even have a spouse who works night shifts so there's daytime space for the writer to work. I used to do swaps with other mom friends: I would drop my kids with them for a few hours and go work and then come back and watch their kids and mine for a few hours while they went out and did their own thing. I even know one woman who wrote her entire doctoral dissertation in 15 minute increments. You have to get creative with your time, but where there's a will, there's a way.

Go on retreat:
One of the most helpful things for me has been getting a work weekend away once every few months. There's traction and momentum that comes with long chunks of time without interruption. Last fall I fulfilled a lifelong dream and rented a one-room cabin in the woods, a dedicated writer's refuge on an island in the Puget Sound. I channeled my inner Thoreau, cooked and slept and worked in a sanctuary of silence, and after three days had revised or written more than I had ever done at once in my life. You don't have to splurge on accommodations, though. Wait until a friend is going out of town and offer to housesit or apply to funded writing residencies in your area. 

Learn when to fight and when to flow:
Creative work is hard to choose for and you do have to get fierce about it and fight for it. When you never know the next time you'll get a chance to work, it's easy to become distracted and resentful when caring for your children, but if you can block out and commit to a work schedule of some kind, then you are freed to compartmentalize and be more present to your family when you're with them. It's also important to expect that unforeseen circumstances will sometimes intrude into your work time, especially as you rely on other people to care for your kids. If you can hold onto your own resolve to keep making the time to work, then the setbacks won't feel like failure.

How have you found time to write in the midst of family responsibilities? What other strategies have been helpful to you as a writer with kids? And if you don't have kids, how do you maintain a balance between writing and your other responsibilities? Would love to hear your thoughts!


  1. This is great, Joanna. I regularly do all but the retreating, but in May I had my first weekend away from my kids since becoming a parent - it wasn't for writing, but to be in a wedding. But since the house did not fall down around them (and in fact I think they had a great time without me), it inspired me to try to make it a once a year thing - next time it will be for writing!

  2. Absolutely brilliant! I took a retreat earlier this year and, like you, got more accomplished than I had ever done. I must make this a regular practice!!

  3. Hi Joanna! I admire how you have wrestled with this and found ways to balance your creative work and family rather than giving up. That is not easy! I have put my career (software engineering) on hold for now to focus on family. Like writing, it's creative and requires uninterrupted thought processes. Even without engineering in the mix right now though, I really resonate with what you're saying because there are so many other interests and goals I have that put me in the same dilemma with the kids unless I find unique ways to fit them in without creating a competition between the kids' interests and my other pursuits. Anyway, your insights and ideas are inspiring!

    1. I didn't know about your software engineering background, Anna! I have profound respect for the homeschooling moms out there (we have at least two that I know of among the bloggers here), and I can only imagine that carving space for creative life when the kids are little lends itself to finding that space even as you continue to make parenting and teaching your full-time job. Keep me posted on how your journey progresses!

  4. Joy and Michael, do it! So rewarding. Joy, have you ever thought of applying for Hedgebrook? It's a writing retreat center for women on Whidbey Island that offers free residencies. I think I'm going to apply this year. If you ever want the contact information for the cabin I used last fall, let me know!

  5. Wonderful, Joanna! Thank you for the encouragement once again!

  6. I'm not a parent or even married, but I still struggle with keeping the peace with my family.

    Now that I've become obsessed with doing videos that often takes time away from doing day to day things that can drive the relatives I live with nuts.

    This is especially hard because I don't have a strong OFFLINE support network, it's hard to talk about my writing without sounding either overly defensive or flippant on my part.

    It's not that there not supportive they just don't "get it" and because I'm not at the "earning income" stage yet, it's hard to not feel like a bum even though you are working REALLY HARD! (Sigh...)

    Joanna, I have nothing but respect for the parents I know who face countless challenges, and I REALLY hope I don't sound mean when I say this, but excluding the "Project Mayhem" community, I do wish more parents/writers (OUTSIDE those in my circle who don't treat me like their wayward son) would TRY to understand that more.

    We're not proud of our lack of progression.

    We don't want to be a burden.

    I just ask them to remember this, if we didn't have a home to come back to if we couldn't graduate high school, or college if we got that far, or simply could find work even after YEARS of schooling/training, we'd be on the street.

    Don't let the horror stories you hear on the news tell the whole story.

    They don't represent everyone by any means!
    (Sorry if I sound mad folks, I'm not, this is simply still an emotional sore spot for me)

  7. Still dreaming about writing retreats over here. :) I think your advice to be flexible is spot on. I only frustrate myself when I try and have a rigid writing schedule that lets me see family life as one big interruption. Learning to go with the flow has been hugely helpful for me.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!