The 5 greatest challenges of a Parent-Writer (and what to do)

If any of you saw my tweets over the weekend you’ll see that I was struggling to stay focused on writing with the children about. Let’s just say they weren’t in the most pleasant of moods and even though they were supposed to happily occupied playing (I gave them a huge cardboard box for goodness sake!) I could hear their intermittent gripes and let’s say animated debates. I WOULD LIKE ONE HOUR OF SILENCE I tweeted. My wish came true later when my husband organised a trip to the playground for the younger two and the older ones were with friends. Finally – a clear space to hear my own thoughts and attempt wordcount for the #30KinMay. What happened? I fell asleep! My children are a bit older now (between 6 and 13) and while it’s not so physcially hands on as when they were babies and toddlers, there are many demands, emotional support, homework, healthy dinners, being a listening ear, teaching them new skills around the house and so on. Parenting is one of those jobs that expands indefinitely into every crevice of your existence from early morn with the lark children to late at night with the anxious and insomniac teenager with nocturnal eating habits.

Challenges

1: Not being able to hear your own thoughts

Literally, because of the constant jabber and interruptions. Even for mundane thought processes as to what to make for dinner or whether to do laundry before cleaning the bathroom will be cut off by a young one needing something, or needing to bend your ear about something. Older children need you to really listen so that they can feel you are taking them seriously or so you can sympathise or advice on difficulties. Younger kids are adorably surreal in their ramblings but can take 15 minutes to tell you about a game they are playing which, in the end makes no sense at all. The nodding is important to them but what about that brilliant idea you had to solve the plot dilemma in Chapter 12. Gone, like a hat in the wind.

One piece of advice Write Everything Down in a notebook, smartphone notes (with backup facility) or a magnetic fridge list. Do it before you are interrupted or develop your own hand signals to ask the kids to pause so you don’t lose that genius idea.

2: Time, interrupted

I’ve written before about my experience of going on a writing retreat – a rather disconcerting experience for someone no longer accustomed to silence. Also if you’re a parent writer you’ll hardly know what to do with the freedom, it might make you crazy – though you can spend it catching up on all the sleep you’ve missed over the years!)  On retreat my greatest revelation was ‘There’s no-one asking me for anything,’ very unusual. I came to the conclusion after the retreat that perhaps you don’t need whole swathes of time to write, to produce material – that can be done in a concentrated time period. However having a space of time, non-interrupted to consider the book as a whole, to do research, to chill and let ideas incubate, and have a rest is probably invaluable. The reality of being a parent-writer is that your time is very much curtailed and there is no luxury of being able to immerse  yourself in a project. I do find it difficult when I have got into the flow of a project though and have to break off to cook dinner or do things with the kids. The flow quite often is hard to get into and hard to get back to if broken!

One solution to the time-immersion and interruption problem is to write early or late. When possible I get up early (5am) to write and NO-ONE interrupts me. As one commentator said here recently, she keeps her laptop open at all times and writes in between the spaces. A shorter amount of time can, as explored in this blogpost by parent writer Liz Catherine Harper focus the mind (and there are lots of other tips in the article as to how the writer adjusted to being a new parent.

3: No writing place to call your own

I had a lovely writing office and then the kids grew up and I (stupidly/kindly) gave up my writing office so they no longer had to share a room. Now I most often write at the dining table surrounded by family clutter and within full view of the breakfast dishes (Open-plan – also the bane of writers). As part of a writing ritual it does help to remove yourself from your other (bottle washer) existence. I’d be interested to hear from any of you who go elsewhere, coffee shops and libraries etc to see how that works for you. On my part I’m hoping that the leaky garage roof can be fixed so that our ‘hobby room’ conversion can be truly functional (and dry) for me to hide away there with all my writing bits and bobs.

4: Exhaustion

I had a writing hour and I fell asleep! Parenting is constant , the hours are long and there are no holidays. Writing (especially a Novel) is a marathon and requires a massive amount of mental and physical energy. We have to be realistic and take time to rest and relax as well as fitting in writing into our busy lives. Of course combining writing with a full time job is equally exhausting and it’s also difficult to gain the necessary head space to write after a day at work.

5: Guilt and Family/Society Expectations

As a parent it’s difficult to carve out time for yourself and sometimes hard to know when you should take time away to write and for how long, especially if you are only beginning as a writer and do not have the social seal of approval of publication. No matter how important writing may be to you, friends and family might see it purely as a hobby or not understand how long it takes to practice the craft. You may work on a novel that might never see the light of day, so it’s hard to justify to yourself that you deserve free time. There’s no straightforward solution but if you get involved in something like #30KinMay or #Nanowrimo you can let people know that you have an aim within a specified time and you can call on them to back you in your writing challenge. Apart from that you’ll need to try to set aside times that others know are yours to write. You need to be able to say no to coffee or phone calls on specified days and let others understand that you are working.

I’m so interested to hear how others face these challenges. You might be interested in seeing how some mother-writers did in this series from 2011. Many of these busy mothers have now gone on to being published authors in Ireland, the UK and the US. Another resource I find brilliant for articles on balancing creativity and parenthood is Studio Mothers. Tomorrow on the blog I have an article from Laura Wilkinson, one of the mother writers who recently released the engaging and fascinating Public Battles, Private Wars a fictional account of ordinary families (and particularly women) and the reality of their lives at the time of the 1980s miners strike in Britain. Laura writes about juggling motherhood and writing and about identity and career for a particular mother from her new book.

Postscript

While I was writing this my kids came home from school and my train of thought was interupted. Later a pot of noodles burned while I was trying to finish the post. This is the reality of writer-parenting!

 

 

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7 comments

  1. I sympathise. We’ve got 17 month-old twins and a 4 month-old as well as a day-job. I love our girls, but I’ve had to make some tough decisions in order to have time to write and get my head clear.

    Right now, I write during my lunch hour in work and get up an hour before any of the babies need their breakfast. It can be draining, but it keeps me going.

    1. Hello, good to hear from you. Those early days are so very hands on and adding a job to that, as you say you’ve to make some tough decisions but it sounds like you are one of those people who can’t not write so you have to do what you can to be able to do it. You, like all of us, may at times have to ease off your commitment if you run the risk of wearing yourself out, or losing the joy in writing due to exhaustion, but you can take heart in the fact that it’s obvious from the decisions and sacrifices you make that you are someone committed to writing and that commitment will take you a long way towards realising your writerly aims.

  2. I love your posts, just to know someone else is juggling the same things helps. I finally changed my routine, I write early now, its the only way to have head space and the kitchen table to myself, that way by the time I’ve woken the kids for school I’ve my writing done for the day. I’m like a bag of cats by seven pm, but thats to be expected :)

    1. Hi Niamh, how’s it going with you?! The mornings are SO good if you can do them, they also help with the guilt and the anxiety that you haven’t got any writing done. I’ve been minding myself as my lungs are bad after the flu but I’m really hoping to get back to the earlies if at all possible. I know what you mean about tempers at the other end of the day, though. another aspect that has to be juggled. We need to be flexible if we can see things starting to fall apart! All the best Niamh, great to hear from you!

  3. My solution, like you, was to get up early every day and have two invaluable hours for writing. I still do that now, even though there are fewer demands on my time.

    My children are much older now and pretty self-sufficient, but even so, I still feel that terrible guilt, especially when my mind is miles away, thinking about a plot when I’m supposed to be joining in with a game or watching a film. And those early starts mean that I fall asleep in the cinema and I know the children hate that!

    I loved your post and sympathise with every aspect of it.

    1. Thanks so much Joanna, I really appreciate hearing from someone in similar circumstances! That early two hours does seem to be the holy grail. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back to it soon!

  4. Oh it is so nice to have empathy from all of you! I have a 9 month-old daughter and a 3 year-old daughter, and a workaholic husband who is barely at home. I have recently started setting aside 3 hour-long evening slots for writing, after I put the children to bed. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but I was very grumpy when I couldn’t find time to write…

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