I was nineteen or twenty, walking to the train, and saw a mother and father, each with a child in a bike seat behind them. I wondered if I would ever have those things; a husband, children, bikes. I wanted them desperately. I didn’t think it was possible to be both a writer and a mother. It seemed motherhood fundamentally took away exactly what was needed to write.
After graduate school, how to be both a mother and writer was the most pressing question for me, more so than how to get an agent, where to publish, or what are the best literary magazines.
Lauren Groff, a writer I greatly admire, recently said in a New Yorker interview, “The questions I get most at readings or in interviews are about being a mother and writer, when I’m expected to do this this sort of tap dance of humility that I have no desire or ability to dance. I think people are mostly kind and don’t know that, when they ask these questions of women, they are asking us to perform a kind of ceremonial subjection.”
She is right in that martyrdom is tied up with motherhood and she is right that men don’t get asked these questions at readings. And I think we should all strive to eliminate guilt and shame from the motherhood narrative. But how to mother and write is an important question I’ve asked myself at a reading Samantha Hunt gave about a year before I got pregnant. (She has three kids, including twins. Her answer was, “It takes me five years to write a book, with or without kids. When I sit down to write, I write. I don’t even know what Facebook or Twitter is.”) I wanted to hear that it was possible. I wanted to know how it was done inside the brain. I wanted to know that I could be both. And we don’t ask these questions of men, because most of the time men have wives that do the primary caretaking. Most of the time, male writers have wives that for the better part of two years had lost autonomy of their bodies, either pregnant or breastfeeding, and then by pressure of culture and society, continue to take on the majority of the childrearing.
I am sensitive to hormonal shifts and major life changes. I’m sensitive to sleep deprivation. And for me, much of the wide open mental space and blocks of time needed for creative work is taken by parenting; and that’s fine. I love being a mother. I needed to be a mother, in the exact same way I needed to be a writer. And I also needed to hear how other people did it. For that reason, I asked Entropy contributors and other parent-writers to talk about their experience of parenthood and writing.
As is apparent in the responses below, there are a myriad of ways to make a family and to balance careers and parenthood. There are single dads, stay at home dads, adoptive parents, foster parents, queer and straight, stay at home and working, and there are a myriad of personalities; some able to write, some able to write sometimes, and some not at all. All are valid and important voices to hear.
I think birth-3 years old is a very intense time when you feel profoundly responsible for shaping and sustaining a little human being. That pressure began for me in pregnancy and relaxed in stages: when my daughter stopped breastfeeding, when she started speaking in sentences, when she started making friends. She was in daycare and my husband and I split childcare on weekends and after daycare fifty-fifty, so I wasn’t *actually* fully responsible for her, but it was a feeling, a very strong feeling. I wrote and taught through this period but it was more to hold a place for writing and teaching in my life (and because I had to earn a living) than that I experienced real growth on that front (though I only recognized this in hindsight). I’m okay with that – I’ve invested 3 years in a lot of things that didn’t pan out nearly as well! My daughter is now 6 and from 3-6 it grew increasingly easier to compartmentalize and enjoy all aspects of my life (plus parenting was a lot less physically demanding). I feel like the single most important development on this front was when she learned to read — because she now had a very active interior life, I could go back to my active interior life. Having enough time in the day to actually get done what I want to get done remains an inexorable problem, but her increasing autonomy enables my increasing autonomy. Of course, those first 3 years were also a limit experience (of discovering and then going beyond my limits) that brought tremendous joy and intensity to my life , and created a bond that will hopefully sustain us both for years to come. . . but I also spent a lot of time being bored, honestly! I’m better with an older child, I think, now that I have one, but I also know the time I put in on the playground was worth it. It remains hard to write long form, but I’ve always preferred short stories anyway. Whatever I write, even if it’s longer, I do more consciously in increments now, knowing that I can’t keep it all in my head.
My partner and I have one child; by the time this article goes live he will be seven years old (birthday this weekend!) He came to live with us as a foster child in October of 2015, and the learning curve– both for being a parent conceptually, and being the particular parent I can be for this particular child, with his and my particular life experiences- was steep. For the first several months of parenting I had very, very little extra mental, intellectual, or emotional energy. My brain was blasted open and I was obsessively reading about adoption, child development, child mental health– and writing very little. I felt stupid, I felt exhausted, I hated myself at times for not knowing how to parent, for not being good enough, for not writing. After six months or so we started to– as we’d hoped and prayed– grow into a family. After about a year or so, I felt like a person again, we started to make friends with kids around his same age, and now my life is over-full but I’ve developed a writing practice again.
Right now, for instance, he’s sitting at the kitchen table drawing fire truck after fire truck after fire truck, and I’m working on my computer.
So many of these things though depend on your particular child, their developmental stage, and their issues– and how you make time around other demands. Now I get up at 5 or 5:30 most days to write, but in the past I couldn’t have done that because he would hear me wake up and get up too. Now when we’re home together in the afternoons we can work in companionable silence, as we are doing right now. I’ve had to train myself to write when he or my partner are around, though– in the time before I had the house to myself a lot more and got used to the solitude of monks. When I’m with him and we’re drawing or I’m writing and he’s playing, I will make little notes for poems or essays, or draw little comics– shorter little things; short attention span writing.
Something will change again– school will start, my work schedule will shift, et cetera– and I’ll have to bend myself and my writing around new demands– so I think it’s partially an issue of willpower and partially being flexible. It’s hard. But being a parent, psychically, is hard. Writing is another demand but it’s also something else, something nourishing and vital.
I have to say, full-time work is still a greater barrier to my writing than motherhood is. The only real difference for me, since having our two-year-old, is that I have to coordinate my weekend writing with my husband’s schedule. I guess I am more tired, which poses its own challenges. I don’t know. Like most everything, there are trade-offs. Time is tighter, sure, but I’ve also had some pretty far out ideas when I’m soothing her in the middle of the night. Rocking and singing and seeing the dawn can have a transcendental effect. So can exhaustion! I’ve been hit with inspiration out of nowhere, slack-jawed and underslept in the shower. My output has slowed, but I’m still always working on and toward something. The baby and toddler years are mega intense, but they’re short in the grand scheme of things. I’ll take some reduced productivity in exchange for this ride.
My child is grown and gone. I miss the closeness of the early years. Those years also bit into my writing time, bit deeply when I was single-parenting, so that once or twice I definitely lost something. But I gained things as well, no question, things that deepened & enriched the work. A tradeoff more than worth it.
I have an 8 year old and a 2 year old. I don’t think being a parent took away my writing time. Everyone has 24 hours a day. I choose not to watch tv shows (except sports occasionally) and I try to write whenever I can. Stewart O’nan says you have to steal the time. I’ve learned to value my writing time more since I’ve become a parent.
I have a 20 month old daughter. Compartmentalizing isn’t so much the issue as the limited size of my compartments. I feel like all of my To Dos are overflowing every compartment and frying my hard drive. Deep creative thought is still incredibly hard, because I spend so much of my day with the Daughter program running in my head. It’s okay for now, since I’m between books and grant apps, but I am wondering when I’m going to have time to just sit and think (and not feel guilty about it).
We adopted (so I don’t think it’s the hormones) and I still can’t keep a complex story in my head like I could before. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a lack of time, constant interruptions, and the immense strategic requirements of being a mother (e.g. Do I have food in the house? Why is her nose running? I need to get her shots. A play date? Great idea! Good lord we have too many toys. How do I only have one pack of diapers? Is she ready to potty train? We need to do something fun. Where the hell is her kiddie pool? Time to break out the 2T clothes. What are we eating for dinner tonight? Has she eaten vegetables today? Better make a smoothie. What do you mean I have to interview for preschools? An Amazon credit… I can finally get that water table I wanted!)
My son is 17 months old, and I hope my answer to these questions will be different when he’s a little older, but right now, I would describe my writing life as “meh.”
Which is better than nonexistent, but still….
While my partner and I were waiting to adopt, I had a robust (if unpaid) writing career. I wasn’t a publishing prodigy or anything, but I was prolific, and there was a general feeling of momentum. As I saw my peers pop out kids one after the other, I seethed with envy. I harbored a deep-rooted suspicion that some divine force had decreed that I could have academic success but not personal/family success.
I won’t say that the script has flipped now. Writing (if not publishing) is in my control more than having a child ever was. Yet as I devote my time to my day job and my thoroughly joyous, sweet, goofy, exhausting kid, I have a sense that everyone else is reading all the new books and churning out novels. At the end of the day, I lay next to my son’s crib and scroll through Facebook while thinking that I should at least be reading The New Yorker online.
I mean, I am writing a little bit. I steal (and it always feels like stealing) an hour or so a week to blog or write letters to my kid or occasionally write short stories or even more occasionally work on my so-called memoir. It feels like physical therapy to prevent complete atrophy of my writing muscle, whereas once I was sort of an athlete.
What I learned during my long wait for a kid is that I am the sort of person who will always envy other people and wonder what I’m missing out on. It’s okay; that’s what I have a therapist for. I also learned that I’m playing the long game, and there are times for a lot of writing and times for a little writing. And because of all we went through with fertility treatment and adoption, I have so much genuine gratitude for our kiddo.
I think most stories of parental ambivalence end with “but I love my kid and wouldn’t want it any other way.” I’m no different, but maybe I’d just amend that to say: I love my kid, I’m continually learning to be patient and I know that change is good for me, even if the ways I’m currently being shaped haven’t yet made their way to the page.
I was always nervous about being able to be both a writer and a mother. I felt sure it wasn’t really possible to be both. I thought a writer’s life meant freedom– freedom to travel, to stay up late drinking or writing or both, to go on wild excursions, live some kind of untethered life where all the matters is writing. Age and practicality got rid of a lot of those romantic notions. Once I was in my thirties I enjoyed staying home a lot more and enjoyed drinking a lot less.
By the time I had my daughter, I had a pretty established writing practice. I wrote nearly every day and was in the middle of several projects. I’d started to regularly publish. I’d also readjusted my expectations regarding what a successful writing career could be. So, I wasn’t afraid I’d stop writing for a few years until my kid was old enough for school. My daughter is nearly two now and while I struggle with time to write, and mental space, I am still writing. I am the primary caregiver, which I think matters a lot. It means I am home more often. It means I do more housework. It means I do most everything related to preparation around my daughter– meals, sleep schedules, diapers, clothes, arranging babysitters, decisions and research about schooling, discipline, etc. Those things take a lot of time and energy and they are really hard to push away when I finally have a couple hours to write.
Here is what has changed: I was working on a novel when I was pregnant, and then I was no longer able to think in a certain way. Hormones change your brain. Half way through my pregnancy I found I could no longer hold a novel in my head. I just couldn’t. So I abandoned it and started writing a lot more of short nonfiction, essays, and such. Short nonfiction is also a lot easier to publish. In the beginning, I got a babysitter for 4 hours a week, then 8 hours, and I’d sometimes write when my husband was home. We don’t have family around, so that makes things a lot harder. I recently started revising an old novel again, and because its not new material, and its all sort of already in my head, I am able to do that. I am hoping that soon I can work on the new one again. My best writing days are Saturdays, when my husband takes over and I feel I have what feels like unlimited time. All in all, I probably write 10-12 hours a week. Its not enough. But its what I can do.
I am extremely fortunate to have been able to stay at home, and both working and stay at home parents have their challenges and perks. I lost myself for awhile there, but I never lost the desire to write, if anything it is more pressing and important than ever. It’s what makes me feel like a human being.
My daughter was born in ’02, a year after I finished my MFA. 14 years later & just in the last 18 months or so have I really rededicated myself to my writing. But that’s just me. I very much admire those who press on with babies/toddlers in the house.
I found new motherhood very overwhelming. My husband and I were both in our 30’s, already married for 5 years. Suddenly our established patterns were completely upended. I was lucky to be able to stay home, but also felt pretty isolated — didn’t know any other moms, minimal family support, minimal emotional support from my mom, who was never a “natural” at motherhood herself. I hadn’t been writing much before becoming pregnant (I was doing the commuter college instructor gig), so didn’t have anything pressing to “get back” to. I’d had a couple of previous miscarriages, so while pregnant I felt engulfed in anxiety. My brain was just not thinking about writing AT ALL. After my daughter was born, it was like my life (and brain) was in a blender.
My previous love had been for writing short stories & reading every new collection that came out. Very quickly, I lost my taste for short fiction almost entirely. So I also struggled with just what, exactly, it was that I wanted to write.
For years I blogged, I journaled, wrote morning pages, trying to jumpstart my creativity. I’d get fired up, then some minor or major life crisis would happen, and I’d lose the thread. Even before kids, I had no great routine or pattern to my writing.
It was only around when both my kids were in the double digits that I’ve been able to establish a routine. (They’re 11.5 and 14 now.) Looking back, clearly it was a question of making writing a priority, and goading myself into a daily (or near-daily) routine. I was free to have begun that routine back when my kids were much younger and in school full time, but I didn’t. And I think that part has less to do with motherhood, and more to do with my struggles to overcome the fear and inertia to begin.
My daughter is almost two. Having her has not really affected my ability to write. I got lucky and got a grant that paid for childcare, starting from when she was 6 months old. I also was towards the end of a big project when she was born– starting something new would have been really hard, but I was finishing and then revising. I don’t think I would be able to leave her for long stretches for a residency for a few more years. It seems like being away from her for more than a few days would be more distracting than productive. I do feel like it is hard to pay attention and be in the moment, when I want to be in my head or working.I’ve been thinking about what Lauren Groff said in that interview about how people always ask her about having kids and balancing it with her work, and that they are two separate things and don’t need balancing and nobody asks men those questions. I see what she means, but I don’t know that it applies to me. I do feel a lot of guilt, for just wanting to be in my head so much. I am starting a new novel, and I do worry that it will require a level of immersion that will be really difficult.
I don’t remain present for my family very well. And sometimes I can’t get deep into a project to write very well. Both are problematic. I feel like I’m failing at both being a parent and being a writer most of the time. That whole compartmentalizing mental thing people talk about is not possible for me. I have to work very, very hard at meeting deadlines for my family (that event at school I’ve signed up to bring in a snack for) and for myself (immediate deadlines and long term ones).
I always worried before I had children about what my parents and extended family would think. My parents pounded into me the idea that what I did reflected on them. I never rebelled the way I probably should have as a teenager. So after I had children, I worried about what my parents and extended family would think and added my kids to that large audience of judges. What parenthood did for me though was give me a deep sense of unconditional love. My kids completely accept me and I feel buoyed by their love even when the writing isn’t going well. I find myself telling them to be brave and see that it can apply to me, too. I feel less stifled by other people’s judgements now. And I can see as they grow into teenagers that they’re capable of understanding complex ideas. So I think parenthood has helped me reach for deeper material even as it restricts me in terms of having time to pursue it.
My girlfriend and I have one child, who will be 3 in a few weeks. Before he was born, I couldn’t understand if we would ever have time to do anything ever again. I had the sense (partially correct) that parenting meant being present ALL THE TIME, and I was worried about survival logistics—how would I go to the bathroom, or eat, or sleep, or go to my job?
It didn’t occur to me to be worried about my writing practice—I just assumed it would be a long time before I’d figure it out that out, and accepted that as part of the territory. But then I’ve always put other things before writing—my relationship, grad school, teaching, my emotional process, various forms of checking out like drinking or Buffy or taking long aimless walks—so why would this be any different? It took me years to understand that I write fiction like a certain kind of poet: in bursts, when I feel like it, very slowly. And what’s wrong with that? Yes it took me 13 years to finish my first novel, but I also put that novel aside for a year at a time, more than once, because I needed to get my life together.
I long for fame and literary glory and validation from strangers just like every other chump under capitalism but I’ve had the luxury of realizing at least two decades ago that I wasn’t going to be a prodigy, that I was never going to be productive. Isn’t that one of the gifts of queerness, at least in the old-timey sense? I’m not productive. Who cares?
This probably isn’t helpful for a new or prospective parent. What I’d say to younger me, three-years-ago-me: You will definitely be able to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom (although not privately) and go to work. You are not doing this alone. You should take a shower and wash your hands thoroughly before any job interviews in the first month after the baby comes. When your girlfriend gets you a weekend in a bed-and-breakfast so you can revise your book, thank her profusely and take it and don’t feel guilty if you spend a good chunk of it asleep.
I’ve blocked it all out. Kidding, sort of. Our daughter is 20, just graduated college, so it seems we didn’t wreck her. I was running a small business when I found out I had to go on bedrest. That was the most challenging time–before she even showed up. Later, both my husband and I went back to school and taught. The art school we both attended and I later worked at was great about her being around, and various undergrads would babysit when we had a schedule conflict. I did find overall, that while I could do work-work, my creativity sometimes flattened without warning. I did my best new work late at night, really late, when there were less interruptions, and also took to using a tape recorder. As far as time goes, I’m sure we all were frazzled, but if given the chance, I’d probably do it all exactly the same.