Kid #2 could arrive at any time and I’ll admit I’m panicking just a little. Can I do this and still write? Yes, I’ve been here and done this, but not with a three year old who needs me to be at least somewhat functional. And that first time around? I basically existed in trauma response mode for nearly two years; “functional” didn’t exactly apply.
How can I juggle parenting and writing? (Again. More. Still.)
I always knew I wanted kids, so this was a big question on my mind long before my first pregnancy. All advice I found on the topic basically boiled down to: you don’t. Write off writing for the first two years.
F*ck that. Even in the best of circumstances, I don’t know if I could survive two years of not writing.
As my first pregnancy progressed, I became more and more frantic to find something. ANYTHING. But the advice I found remained the oh-so-unhelpful “you find a way” or just give up for a couple years. That’s when I could find anything at all, and a lot of it came from authors who were not the primary caregivers. The advice that made me want to rage-scream was the ubiquitous “they’re only that little once, so just enjoy it.”
I know our culture has a long and storied habit of erasure of parental mental health and maternal identity (PSA: calling me “mama” erases my personhood beyond my reproductive role and is asking to be punched), but come on. How can I possibly enjoy one of the most intense, demanding experiences if I can’t do the things I require to be my best self? And what sort of example does that set for a kid?
If I don’t write, my coping skills vanish, my mental and emotional health plummets. And parenting requires these all in spades.
I found a way to make it work, that first time around. By which I mean I worked my ass off to figure out what I needed and how to get it while being semi-permanently attached to a tiny human. And right now I’m facing having to go through it all again, so this post is for myself, as a reminder of how I did it before and how I can do it again. Maybe it can help some others struggling with writing while parenting small children.
Step 1: think you know your process? Not any more.
Seriously. Take everything you think you know about how you work and chuck it out the window. Defenestrate it. It’s gone and can’t help you now. In the Before times, I could only have one major project at any given time. My brain just didn’t work with anything else. After? If I could focus on one project for even twenty minutes at a time, I was doing well. I needed a total overhaul of everything I thought I knew.
Step 2: be flexible. Be a f*ing contortionist.
Your focus flits around like a goddamn fly that will not land long enough for you to swat it? Add projects. Vary them. Make them wildly different. Try different mediums. I ended up juggling blog posts for three separate platforms and flipping between three or four short stories on my laptop, a play on an old desktop computer, and revising one novel and drafting another by hand. And that’s just what I remember now, a couple years later. I took advantage of that fractured focus and flipped between them all indiscriminately, letting my brain latch onto whatever it could rather than trying to force it.
Step 3: take a hard look at the new patterns. Time and space aren’t what they were.
How do you use your spaces now? Where do you spend your time? How can you adapt to those new uses? I spent a lot of stationary time on the couch nursing during the day and in a dark bedroom at night, also nursing (followed by making sure I hadn’t set her down too soon so she’d spit up and aspirate that in her sleep–most nights it just seemed easier not to leave). So those were the places I most often wrote.
Step 4: get rid of obstacles.
The fewer steps between thinking, “Hey, I could write now,” and actually writing, the higher the chances of writing actually happening. This meant keeping a reading light and my research book in the bedroom and bringing my laptop in as a matter of course every night. The binder with my novel revision stayed open on the table beside the couch at all times, along with the notebook where I was drafting the other novel and a for-fun book to read (because reading is also an essential part of writing). Sometimes just needing to open the binder kept me from touching the revision for days on end, so it stayed open.
Step 5: remember that it will keep changing.
Kids grow fast. Almost as soon as I felt like I’d figured out a workable system and process, my kid hit another milestone, her needs would change, and I’d be scrambling to reevaluate and do this all over again. Of course, it took me longer to finish any one project, but I was always making progress, always writing.
Step 6: ask for help before you need it.
I literally could not ask for help for at least the first year of parenting. Maybe the first year and a half. So this is cheating in that it is something I did not do and so it did not work for me the first time around. Even at the time, I knew it was a simple thing and I knew I had a support network just waiting for me to call on them. But I absolutely could not wrap my brain around actually doing that. I had no energy for the logistics and the mom-guilt of involving other people (more toxic culture at work). This time around, we’re in the middle of a pandemic so I can’t rely on having that same support network, but I’ve been able to make clear my likely future needs as well as the fact I may once again not be able to ask for the help I need in the moment.
In the sleep-deprived haze of my next few months, I will need this list, these reminders. What worked for me before won’t necessarily work again. There are more unpredictable variables this time around and maybe one of the worst mistakes I can make is fooling myself into thinking I somehow have this figured out.
But I’ll also need to remember to allow myself grace. Writing is hard. Parenting is hard. Doing them together is not easy and for all the times I somehow manage to find my way, I will lose it again.
Is it worth it?
I can only answer for myself, but hell, yes.
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