Roundtable: Balancing Writing with Parenthood
In the months leading up to the birth of my firstborn, I was excited to be going on maternity leave. In Ontario, where I live, mothers are entitled to 52 weeks of paid leave, and I intended to make the most of them. I was going to spend a lot of my newfound free time (babies nap a lot! I could write while nursing!) working on my writing, and by the end of the year, if things went well, perhaps I would have completed my work-in-progress manuscript, found an agent, and – if I was really lucky – even landed a book deal that would kick off the start of a new career that would allow me to stay home with my kids.
How naive I was. It turned out that I was extremely optimistic about a lot of things during that first year, but one of the hardest to accept was that I wasn’t even going to have a finished manuscript, nevermind an agent or book deal. I was shocked at how hard it was to find some balance between new motherhood and getting actual work of my own done. Watching the days and weeks slip by without any measurable progress on my writing was tough, and a little stressful, especially when before I could produce a completed first draft in three months.
I started googling for advice from other writers, to see how they all had managed. From that, I built my own philosophy and adapted my approach to time management, and came up with a system that worked for me. I’m now expecting my second child and I know this is going to throw my routine out the window again, and I’ll be starting from scratch in finding that balance. But at least this time I won’t be taken completely by surprise, and I’ll already have a foundation of experience to build from.
I know I’m not the only parent struggling to incorporate writing into their role as a mother or father, so I reached out to a number of our WriteOnCon speakers who also have kids to ask for their experience and advice in how to make it work. Here, nine writers share their stories about finding balance as a parent. For those of you still endeavoring to make it work, I hope you can find some inspiration among their experiences.
Each author was asked the following questions:
- How many kids do you have and how old are they?
- When/how do you fit your writing in around your daily/weekly schedule as a parent?
- How long did it take you to find a rhythm in your daily/weekly writing routine (or have you yet)?
- What advice you would offer to those still trying to figure out how to balance their writing with parenthood?
Mindee Arnett – Author of five YA books, including AVALON and THE NIGHTMARE AFFAIR.
- Two kids: a girl, 9, and boy, 7. They were much younger when I started publishing.
- I’ve learned to write whenever I can. It varies day by day. I try to keep my rituals portable, as in the sort of thing I can do from anywhere, anytime.
- I still have no true rhythm. The challenge with kids is that they’re always changing. Some things get easier while other things get harder. The writer has to be flexible and teach the muse to show up whenever called. Learn to write in small sips as well as big gulps.
- Remember it’s all about balance. Keep the focus on just the word goal for that day and not the end of the book. It can get discouraging if you look too closely at how long it’s taking. Some days will be a win, some won’t, but the only failure is giving up. Also, in the end, family is more important than any book. So don’t resent time not writing when it’s done in sacrifice for your kids. Our time with them is fleeting. Savor it as much as you can.
Anna Banks – NYT Bestselling author of five YA books, including OF POSEIDON.
- I have one child, a teenager, but when I signed my first book deal, she was in elementary school. My first book tour coincided with her elementary school graduation, and I felt like a loser. I sent her flowers from tour, and Skyped with her, but it affected me personally that I wasn’t there for her big moment. When I got home from tour two weeks later, I made sure we celebrated in style. I think it went over pretty well. I think it affected me more than it did her, but it was an eye opener that writing and parenting does indeed require balance.
- This requires sacrifice, I’ve found. I actually wake up at 4am in order to get in some writing time, so that when she gets out of school in the afternoon, I have time to spend with her. I try to take one weekend day off of writing completely. I find that as a teenager, she needs me more than ever. Not physically, but emotionally. I have a planner, and I actually schedule in writing time and parent time, and it might sound bad, but it’s effective to schedule and be present in the moment for both.
- It took at least a year. When I first signed my book deal with Of Poseidon, all I wanted to do was concentrate on my writing career. I was looking at the benefits for my family of being a successful writer, and wasn’t dealing with the fact that my family needed me as a mother and wife as well. The key is to keep trying. If something isn’t working, let it go and move on. And don’t expect perfection. With children, there’s no such thing as a perfect writing routine. There are ear infections, school drama, teacher issues, summer boredom, etc. Be adaptable. Have good intentions toward your writing, but remember the reason you want to succeed in the first place. Success will never replace your family. And regret is the most jagged little pill to swallow.
- Don’t give up – it can be done. I love the quote, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” I truly believe planning is key. Keep a schedule, stick to it as best you can, but when things come up, forgive yourself and move on. It requires sacrifice, yes – but your writing career is worth it, and so are your kids.
Kelly Barnhill – Author of four MG novels including THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON.
- I have three kids – ages 17, 14 and 12.
- When my oldest was born, my entire relationship with writing changed irrevocably, and basically stopped. After my second child was born, I was able write again, and decided to commit myself to getting up and writing for two hours before anyone in the family was up, from 4-6 in the morning. I’d leave my computer open for the rest of the day so I could squirrel in a sentence or two, and then I had a childcare swap with another mom on the block, and I could write a little during the day one day a week. Which was nice. I wrote a bunch of short stories during that time, published some of them, and wrote a novel that I’m still super proud of, but will never see the light of day, and that is all well and good. When my third child was born, I could no longer do the whole early morning writing anymore since he woke up at 3:50 each morning totally raring to go. I spent a year tearing my hair out and writing nothing. Eventually, though, I managed, after many attempts, to win an artist’s grant from the Jerome Foundation, and then later another from Minnesota State Arts Board, which, among other things, paid for childcare. That was huge for me – having four hours, during the day, to work on projects. I wrote more short stories then, published more, was hired to write thirteen high-interest nonfiction kids books, and then wrote my first published novel. Writing, like any kind of art, needs time to flourish. Time is food for art. This is why artists grants are so important for the development of new voices.
- Obviously, this is a thing that is constantly in flux. Once all three of my kids were in school full time, my productivity really took off. Mostly. In theory, my schedule runs as follows: I get the kids up, make their breakfasts, check their homework, go over the after school schedule for the day and figure out who is getting where and how everyone is getting home, kick them out the door and write until I need to pick someone up. Except it doesn’t really happen like that, because the house needs to get cleaned and the laundry needs to get done and the groceries need to get gotten and the bills need to get paid and teachers need to get met with and doctor appointments and dentist appointments and orthodontist appointments and therapist appointments all need to be coordinated and negotiated and monitored. My oldest got really sick last January and I feel like I’ve had to spend most of 2016 in waiting rooms. All of these things impact my work as a writer – and they should. My career is super important to me, of course it is, but my family will always come first. So it goes.
- Here is my standard advice to all emerging artists who are also parents: Give yourself a goddamned break. For real. You deserve it. This is a hard lesson for parents to learn because they are so accustomed to not giving themselves a break, or indeed ever thinking of themselves at all. I remember when my kids were little, it was hard enough to even schedule in a shower for myself. Or breakfast. The work of an artist is hard and the work of a parent is hard, and both require access to that same, fundamental, deep place of the heart – they both flow from the same spring. And sometimes, you are just sapped dry, and that is okay. Feed yourself. Take care of yourself. Fill yourself with books and art and music and experiences. There is no hurry and there is no rigid matrix for success. Write the book you were born to write at a pace that makes sense for your life. And love every minute of it.
Karen Foxlee – Author of four novels, two of which are MG, including OPHELIA AND THE MARVELLOUS BOY.
- I have one child – a nine-year-old girl. I signed a two-book deal when she was about three weeks old. I’ve written four novels since she was born.
- I think that my ability to fit writing into my daily schedule has changed over time and depending on the circumstances. I am a sole parent. That first year of my daughter’s life was hard. I didn’t feel I could ever get anything done. I’d always been able to answer my creative impulses but suddenly I couldn’t. It was… shocking. The thing I learnt from that year was that I just had to do what I could. Even if it was only ten minutes of writing, it was still writing. My story moved forward in inches. Sometimes I only wrote one paragraph a day. But it moved forward all the same.The years my daughter was a toddler I decided I needed larger blocks of writing time. I began to write early in the morning. The Midnight Dress was written during the hours of four a.m. until seven a.m. Often my daughter woke but she learned to just lie beside me, to play quietly there, or go back to sleep near me.The habit of early morning writing has stayed. It’s the main way I get writing done. I do the early morning writing for blocks of two or three months. I usually see a lot of progress. I always make sure I take a week’s break from writing at the end of those blocks.
- As per above, I get into a rhythm if I make the decision get up early and stick to it. My daughter is used to sound of me shuffling around in the dark, coffee being made, the computer going. The months go past and a draft is produced. But of course, things change. When I’ve supported myself with writing I’ve had the luxury of also being able to write during the day when my daughter is at school. I’m back at work though now, and I have to write around that as well. I choose which mornings I get up on depending on what shifts I’m working.
- Firstly, I’d say don’t be so hard on yourself. I wish more than anything that I hadn’t been hard on myself that first year of my daughter’s life. I wish I’d just enjoyed it more. And even after that novel was published I just moved on to the next without even a moment to savour it. Without even being amazed that I’d been able to produce such a beautiful thing under such circumstances! It wasn’t until years later that I said… wow! I did that. I made that with a baby and while working as a shift worker. So, be kind to yourself. Congratulate yourself for your small victories, celebrate them somehow.Find what works for you. No two writers are the same. You might like to write in the evening. You might like to use a voice recorder while you are stuck in traffic. You might need to get out of the house and go to a library to work while the kids are at school. There are no rules. Anyone who tells you there are is lying.Don’t feel ashamed or guilty about having your writing time. When I began, my early morning writing was about writing, for sure, but it was also about ME. I was gouging back a little bit of me. That was my time, writing was me. It didn’t kill my daughter. She totally gets it. She asks me now in the evening, “Is it a writing morning tomorrow?” I see her modelling her behaviour on me. She says, “Tomorrow I’m writing the first chapter of my story,” and she sits at her desk for hours.Don’t worry about the volume of words. Especially with babies. Just do what you can. Novels are made up of words. Just focus on the words One word after another word and you will get there.
Seabrooke Leckie – Aspiring YA fiction author and published author of two Adult nonfiction books.
- I have one daughter, who turned two this past fall.
- My work hours currently are primarily after my daughter has gone to bed. I’m a night owl, and my brain just doesn’t function before dawn even if I force my body to. My daughter has a late bedtime, by kids’ standards, and it’s usually about 10 pm by the time I sit down at my computer. Most nights I work until 1:30 or even 2:00 am or later, and then sleep till she gets up around 8:30 am. I also usually get about an hour and a half after dinner, before her bedtime, during which time my husband is on parental duty and I am free, though I often use this window for reading and other non-work stuff. I’ve never been very good at working during naptimes, especially when she was younger and her nap lengths could be unpredictable – I find it very difficult to concentrate when I have one ear on the baby monitor and am expecting that I could be interrupted at any time. Instead, I’ve preferred to shorten my nighttime sleep to fit in more work in a solid block of time while the house is quiet, and catch up with a nap when my daughter naps.
- It took a while to find a rhythm in my work days, a lot longer than I thought it would when she was born. I didn’t get any writing at all done for the first three or four months, except for a tiny bit of contract work that had weekly deadlines. It was only after my daughter started sleeping through the night reliably that I started to get back on track, and things really settled in when she was finally old enough for my husband to take her for a set period each day. It took some experimenting with (my) bedtimes and naptimes to find a daily schedule that worked best for me around my daughter’s sleep habits.
- Know yourself and when you work best, and try to create a spot in your day that works around that. If you’re a morning person, set your alarm to get up before your kids do. If you’re a night owl, sit down at the computer after they’ve gone to bed. If you prefer to work during the day, be disciplined about naptime, or call on Grandma or hire a sitter – or trade sitting services with another mom friend – once or twice a week. Turn this window into a habit, and stick to the routine. But let yourself off the hook, too, when you need to. Unless you’re up against an impending deadline, let yourself have the occasional day off – even build it into your weekly schedule, if you need to – in order to recharge your batteries and enjoy other activities. You’re no good to either your family or your writing if you’re feeling tired and burnt out. And finally, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not getting as much done as you’d really like to. Any progress is good progress, and you’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, be present for your children – they’re only young once.
Janette Rallison – USA Today Bestselling author of 26 books, including the YA novel MY UNFAIR GODMOTHER.
- I have five kids and all of them are old enough now that I no longer have to constantly check on them to make sure they don’t die. However I wrote even when they were babies. That’s what nap time is for.
- I used to write during nap time, then preschool and now when they’re at school.
- There’s always something that will throw you off. I still have to set time aside for writing or it doesn’t happen.
- You can be a writer by just consistently writing one page a day.
Dee Romito – Author of the MG novel THE BFF BUCKET LIST.
- I have two children, ages 7 and 9.
- Since both kids are in school, and I’m not balancing a full-time job in addition to being an author (tons of credit to those who do!), I do most of my writing during the day. But there are plenty of other things that need to get done too, like everything that goes along with promotion, preparing for author visits and conferences, and answering emails. I like to do more of those things at night, once the kids are in bed. I’m a night owl, so that works for me.
- I don’t know that I have a rhythm to my routine. When my daughter was in preschool, my routine looked a lot different. With both kids in school, I have more time to write, but I also volunteer a lot more and schedule more appointments and errands during the day. Plus, once you’re working with editors and you have deadlines, it’s not always easy to plan what your week will look like. When you get notes, you get started on them. When you get your copyedits, they’ll come with a due date. So I guess in a way, I have found my rhythm because I’m okay with the fact that my writing schedule has to be flexible.
- I think the key to it is knowing what has to get done and when, and planning for it. But take advantage of down times too. If the kids are happily doing something on their own, return a few emails or read through critique notes—things that don’t need your undivided attention and won’t take too long. Check them off the list when you can. But be sure to carve out times for when you really need to sit and focus too, like a weekly writing night if you can manage it or a few hours on a not-so-busy Saturday (Catch them when they happen and put it on the calendar!). And remember that it’s important for your kids to see what it looks like to work hard toward your goals and follow your dreams. 🙂
Misa Sugiura – Author of the YA novel IT’S NOT LIKE IT’S A SECRET.
- I have two sons, ages nine and thirteen.
- I’m lucky enough to have a husband with a job that supports the whole family; that leaves me a big chunk of time to write most weekdays. I usually spend two or three hours writing while my kids are at school.
- I didn’t start writing seriously until both of my children were in school full time, so during the school year, finding a rhythm has never been an issue . On long school vacations, it’s not so much a rhythm as just fitting the writing in wherever there’s a little extra space. I would write early in the morning, but I try to save that time for exercise.
- If possible, set aside some sacred, inviolable time and space for your writing. If that’s not possible, scrape out what you can, when you can. If you have the funds, hire a babysitter for a couple of hours a week. Trade kidcare with your co-parent or a friend and go to Starbucks for two hours every Saturday morning. Park your kids in front of a screen for an hour. Order pizza instead of cooking dinner. Write in your car or in a corner while the other parents socialize during lessons or sports practice. (Unless you like to socialize. Then socialize.) Bottom line: do what you need to do and don’t feel guilty about it. Let go of feeling like you have to write a certain amount and just do what you can.
Lindsay Ward – Author/illustrator of eight picture books, including ROSCO VS. THE BABY.
- I have a son, 17 months old.
- I work before my son gets up, from 5am-9am, uninterrupted. He gets up around 7 and my husband, who works from home too, gets him up and takes care of him until 9. After those four hours, I work when I can during my son’s morning and afternoon nap. This schedule works really well for me, as I no longer feel this pressure during the day to choose between my son and work. Anything I get done in the afternoon is a bonus because I’ve already worked a solid four hours. And I get to spend the afternoon with my son, which is amazing.
- I started this schedule fairly recently, but I’ve already seen a massive change in how I feel about work and what I can get done. I make a commitment to get up and work from 5-9, seven days a week, which on some days is rough. But I feel more productive and capable of quality work now than I ever have.
- You have to make time. I know it’s not easy. I know everyone has a million things to do everyday. But you have to sacrifice something. For me it was staying up late and watching Netflix, which is what I would do after my son went to sleep. I was so exhausted from the day that I would just want to relax and zone out. The problem with that was that I was already tired. So instead of watching a show I should have been getting more sleep. This seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time. Now I go to bed earlier so I can get up and work and still get a full eight hours of sleep. Not only do I feel more productive, but overall I feel better. More well rested and relaxed. Obviously 5am isn’t going to work for everyone. You have to find the window that works for you. But it’s there. You just have to find it and be willing to let go of something else.