Writing as a full-time parent

(This article was first published on writing.ie)

This time last year I gave up my job to mind my kids full time. I had a pensionable permanent (and rather manic) nursing job; a job for life. People frowned at me, groaned at me, quivered as they experienced the spine shivers that I didn’t. People that knew me and my kids properly, patted me on the back and told me I was making the right decision. A large and very excited part of me thought, naïvely, that I’d have more time and freedom to write. And while I do have more time in the vicinity of my laptop, that doesn’t mean that I write more. Finding the time to write is now more challenging than ever.

I used to write in the evening, when the kids went to bed. But minding young kids all day leaves me mentally exhausted (let’s face it, conversations aren’t always stimulating with a three year old). By evening, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a book or the T.V, with no demands on me. When I worked 13 hour shifts, I often came home physically exhausted, but mentally fuelled with stories and interaction. I wrote every night, no matter how tired. Now I get up early to write, which is often impossible if the kids have been unwell or awake in the night, and my eyes hang from my head like someone snapped their strings.

I also try and snatch moments; ten minutes here, ten minutes there. I don’t allow myself get into episodes of extreme flow around my children, because it’s not fair on myself or the child that receives the blunt edge of my frustration when they interrupt me. Why would I create a situation that I know will lead me to fail, and get angry at myself and the kids? Young children have endless and constant needs, and they are my priority, no matter what.

But that doesn’t mean I must neglect my love affair with words and stories. In the stolen ten minute bursts, I have endless options. I can write a character sheet. A thought process. I draw graphs and charts, blasting out ideas of what might happen. I figure out plot problems in the shower. I string words together in the woods behind the house, while I walk the dog. I read articles, research my topic. I think, what would my character do in this situation? Would she like this dinner that I’m cooking? Keeping my writing at the forefront of my mind, makes my day run smoother. It also means that I know where to pick up the next time I get a solid chunk of un-interrupted writing time.

An unexpected issue that cropped up when I stopped working, was the lack of ideas. I didn’t realise how many ideas I got from working. Ideas and stories come from real life. From getting out there and interacting; from listening, seeing and feeling. Not from doing dishes, school runs and arguing over homework. I found that the routine of mundane tasks stifled my thoughts, and dampened my ideas. Particularly in winter, where I tend to spend weeks on end stuck indoors with asthmatic children. So 5 months after quitting work, I took on another small job; one or two shifts a month in a local nursing home. It gave me the small break I needed from the house. It’s often when I stop trying to think of ideas, that I get ideas. And there are few places better than a room full of people with a whole life behind them, to find stories.

I stopped waiting for inspiration to come to me, and started looking for it myself. I gave up the notion that a writer’s mind should brim with constant stories and perfect sentences. I refused to let myself feel like a failure because I didn’t always know what to write next, and instead I thought methodically about how to create ideas. Between reading, nature, film, the internet, people, art, I started finding creative beauty hiding all around me. I just had to learn how to find it, and trust that the days I don’t find it do pass.

The biggest challenge for me, as a writer and parent, is editing. While I have learnt to write surrounded by people and bustle, I still need silence to edit. I need to allow myself get completely absorbed to see the flaws. So I plan when to edit. I ask for help. I tell people how important it is to me, and I lock the door. I am strict with myself, and I am disciplined. But having children means that even if I do plan time to edit, I can’t always carry out that plan. One gets sick. One gets frightened. One hurts themselves. One needs me.

So I try, and try again, not to chastise myself if life gets in the way, and the story takes longer than I wanted. You need endless patience to be a writer; most of all with yourself.

Right now, I write this final paragraph with my daughter serving me a tea party. I drink from imaginary cups and type words in between sips. And look, I’ve got to the end of the article despite the lack of real tea. In a minute I’ll shut my laptop, so I can be fully present with my child, my priority. Tonight, when they sleep, or tomorrow morning if I’m too tired tonight, I’ll edit it in silence.

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Squashing the Guilt

Last month was the first month in 2 years, that I didn’t manage to get a blog piece out. As soon as May passed, guilt covered me like prickly sunburn, that I hadn’t succeeded in this monthly self-set goal. But then I started thinking, why do I let myself suffer guilt over my writing? I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with this. It’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. That you should be able to write not only your novel, but also enter short story competitions, and write poetry and weekly blogs. Twitter doesn’t help. Watching other people post their successes, competition winnings, reach word counts in the thousands, while you struggle to find time for a few hundred, or even ten. Life happens, obstacles land in our way, and it’s not always our choice. I have dead-lines, but I set them myself. I’ve no agent, no publisher. Not yet. I am at the freest part of my writing career (yes, I do believe it will be a career, with my smug self-belief) with no one to answer to other than myself. So why do I hold myself to such high standards?

I am someone who has always suffered from guilt. I can feel guilty a number of times a day, sometimes almost to crippling degrees. The rational part of me knows that there’s not always a need for this guilt, that it’s usually a wasted emotion because I’m not actually a bad person. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my young children, when in fact I gave up my permanent nursing job to love and care for them full-time. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my marriage, when the time I spend with my husband always involves a lot of laughter. When I work the odd shift in a nursing home, I’m guilty that I’m not at home minding my family. When I’m at home all the time, I’m guilty that I’m not setting my daughters a feminist example of a mother who also works. And in the last 2 years, writing has jumped onto my list of things to be guilty about.

But why should it? I started writing as a way to stop thinking about my real life worries. A big bay window into escapism. I never expected to fall so in love with it, that it moved the goal posts of my life to a whole new field (more like a meadow with a lot of uncut grass and brambles in the way). Like any goal, it brings a whole list of worries and new things to be guilty about. If I over-sleep the odd morning, I wake with niggling self-disapproval that I missed today’s hour of writing time. If I go on a rare night away, my stomach balls itself up until I find the time to write on my romantic getaway.

I’ve been to many writing festivals and panels, and I’ve heard all about how important a writing routine is. I agree. I made my writing routine, and I love it. I love that time alone in the morning before the world is up, and the weather is merely hinting at the day ahead. I love the sense of achievement I get when I finish a Chapter, or come up with a new metaphor after days mulling it over. Outside my routine, I love snatching ten minutes in an unexpectedly calm part of the day, to scribble a few lines. Or the immense satisfaction that comes with three solid hours of work on the train to Dublin for events.

Last month I failed to write a blog post, but I achieved a serious and time-consuming editing over-haul of my novel. My children needed my time more than usual, for reasons I’m not going to go into, but suffice to say, my role as a mother will always come first. I barely had time to read, but I grabbed minutes here and there, because a week without reading to a writer, is like having a shower and realising you’ve plenty of Conditioner, but no Shampoo. I didn’t achieve every writing task I planned to, but I achieved more in other areas of my life that needed it. Sometimes you have to balance the rest of your life, and close your ears to the guilt trying to sink you.

So I’m going to stop beating myself up on the days I fail to write. I’m going to enjoy my days off when there’s a good enough reason to take a day off, like a holiday, or the promise of breakfast in bed, or a migraine (it’s true, I have tried to force myself to write with a migraine, thinking that one little sentence is better than none). If I need time off, that’s okay. If life gets in the way, I’ll be patient and start building my ladder. Hell no, I’ll build a climbing frame; it’s more fun. Nothing kills a passion faster than turning it into a chore. Writing should be a beloved pendant over your heart, and not a chain around your ankles.

Being a Parent and a Children’s Writer: Pros and Cons

Pro: You get to try your stories out on your kids, for honest feedback.
Con: The honest feedback part. VERY honest.

Pro: To write for kids, it helps to know what matters to them. Parenting teaches you what things are important to children (breakfast… second breakfast… lunch… second lunch…), and gives you a Masters degree in their needs.
Con: Kid’s needs are endless. Literally. They never end. And that means very little time in the day for writing. I average one hour an evening, on a good day, and only when they’re in bed. Unfortunately my mind works ten times slower in the evening. I do try to fit writing into the daytime, but ten stolen minutes is about as good as it gets.

Pro: Writing loo humour for children can be great fun. I remember how the word poo made me explode with laughter when I was a kid. I thought you could never over-do loo humour back then. Now I know you can, thankfully.
Con: Dealing with real children and actual loo emergencies and poo explosions is just not funny in real life. And it always happens when I’m in a train of great thought, words flying out my fingers. It is so hard to get the words back in my fingers once that train has choo-chooed out of here.

Pro: Having kids means having heaps of kids books. This means getting to know the market, and learning to see language through the child’s eyes. It also means lots trips to the library and being able to take kids books out for yourself on their cards. Kid’s library cards have less fines.
Con: Having to deal with screechy rowdy toddlers in the library, and NEVER getting to browse the adult books section. Sometimes I forget that books do actually exist for people my own age. I try not to get eye contact with our librarian, as I know he sends me mind bullets. My 2 year old is, let’s just say, loud.

Pro: Kids create extraordinary situations. Like the time my 2 year old secretly took her potty out of her buggy at the counter in Tesco. As I paid for my purchases, she proudly exclaimed “Look Mummy! I used the potty!” She wasn’t lying. There are some things you would never think could happen, until your child does it. Extraordinary situations, and being pushed out of your comfort zone inspires stories and sparks imagination.
Con: Do I need to explain the con in the above situation?

Pro: Kids teach you to be more flexible. You just can’t predict what will happen next with kids. You learn to be creative about when you can write, and just grab your opportunities and feel grateful for them. So when you do get ten stolen minutes to write with Peppa Pig on in the background, you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest.
Con: Looking forward to writing all day long, and then at bedtime one of them gets suddenly unwell and there goes your hour of writing. It is not always easy to be flexible, and even a contortionist parent can’t get out of dealing with sick kids and vomit. A lot.

Pro: Watching your stories switch on the sunshine in their little eyes, knowing that your words made that happen. And even if no-one else ever reads those stories, you know you moved something in your child, and they know you did it too.
Con: Sometimes I find myself let down if my daughter doesn’t immediately love my story. But then I simply think of myself as a child, and let my own little self feel the magic instead. After-all, the most important person to write for is not your kids, or your readers, but yourself.

Little Tommy’s Day: A Poem for Toddlers.

Little Tommy wakes up,

It’s dark all around.

Listens very carefully,

Doesn’t hear a sound.

He bangs on the cot-sides,

Makes lots of noise.

Cries very loudly for

His mummy or some toys.

The door opens slowly,

Mummy picks him up,

All his banging and his tears

Have given him hic-cups.

 

Wrapped up in his blanket

Right down to his toesies.

Watching from his buggy,

And feeling very cosy.

Mummy is behind him,

They’re going to the park.

A nice bit of fresh air,

Now it’s no longer dark.

The pond is full of white swans,

Flapping their big wings,

When they see the breadcrumbs

That Mummy always brings.

A spin around the playground

Beneath the cloudy sky.

Whizzing down the steep slide,

And swinging way up high.

 

Tommy’s sitting bored now,

Stuck in his high-chair.

Peas shoved high up in his nose

Fish-fingers in his hair.

In walks his smiling Daddy,

In walks Mummy.

Daddy walks up to his chair,

And tickles Tommy’s tummy.

Mummy shakes her finger,

“Food is not a toy!

Eat it up, every bite.

There’s a good boy”.

 

The bath is full of bubbles,

To wash away the muck.

He builds a bubble castle,

Then breaks it with a duck.

Wrapped up in a fluffy towel,

he can’t stop wriggling.

The air from the blow-dryer

Has him really giggling.

 

He drinks his bedtime bottle,

Warm on Daddy’s lap.

A story of a little bear.

Who won’t go for his nap.

Tommy’s lying in his cot,

Dad turns off the light.

A little kiss on Tommy’s cheek,

“I love you. Night Night.”

Early Mornings: A Poem for adults.

Early Mornings

The whimpers slowly turn to moans,

And soon to full blown cries.

I throw the blankets off my body

And force open my eyes.

I think back to the night before,

That foolish glass of wine.

It caused this pain inside my head,

A good idea at the time.

I stumble slowly down the hall,

And push open the door.

Something painful under foot,

Some toy left on the floor.

I lift my child into my arms,

Her body shines with glee.

This daily greeting of pure joy,

You’re back, she grins, For me!

I forgot to put my slippers on,

Not even a pair of a socks.

I change my daughters leaky nappy

As my feet turn to icy rocks.

Clean and dry, I hug her close,

And sit down on the rocking chair.

She drinks and gulps her milky breakfast

Quietly twisting strands of hair.

Full, she wriggles off my lap,

Sliding swiftly down my legs.

Her toes touch the cold wood floor.

She turns back to me and begs,

Grunts and groans, her arms held high

Up, she gestures, Take me back!

I distract her with a doll, a rattle,

Her beloved jumping Jack.

A minutes peace to sit back into

the cushions of this soothing chair.

A minute to myself to wake,

And rid my eyes of morning glare.

The toys soon will lose their wonder.

I force myself to stand.

I pull open the spotty curtains

And look out at the waking land.

The sun is shining gently in,

Filling the room with light.

She toddles to my cold bare legs,

Grabs them with all her tiny might.

She points to the door, an order

Telling me where to go.

She giggles when we’re in the hall

Faster, she grunts, Why so slow?

We reach the door of my own haven

My bedroom light has just turned on.

My husband’s hidden beneath the duvet.

Then “Boo!”, jumps out, the laugh is on.

Hysterical giggles fill her belly,

She jumps into his waiting arms.

My heart soars, my head has cleared,

Impossible to resist her charms.

I flop beside them on the bed,

The three of us a piling muddle.

This simple pleasure in my life,

The weekend morning cuddle.