Books and Babies–How Do Writers With Families Balance It All?
By Becky Tuch
There’s a hilarious bit in one of Louis C.K.’s comedy routines in which he talks about family life. How do parents really feel on a day-to day basis? “Well,” C.K. says, “my wife has assassinated my sexual identity and my children are eating my dreams.”
It’s funny because it’s true…And yet it’s not. The comedian’s dreams can’t have been wholly devoured. He is on stage, afterall, delivering this joke to thousands of people who have paid money to see him perform.
But what is the reality of having kids and pursuing your literary dreams? How do people do both? What sacrifices must be made? What unexpected rewards may come along?
I asked my writer-with-kids friends to weigh in, first on how their writing routines had changed since having kids, next on what advice they would give to writers who hoped to “have it all”—family and literary success. Here is what they said:
BEN WINTERS, author of the novel SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS:
I have found, counter-intuitively, that I am more effective and efficient in my writing life since having children, and I think it has to do with boundaries. Before, I could stay up all night if I felt like it, doing basically nothing, always thinking how that burst of inspiration would be coming along shortly. Now, I know I have a very specific time when I will have to shut down the computer, get in the car, and go pick up those kids—and so the inspiration better come now, or it ain’t coming today. I love that. And I love the reward, the finish line, at the end of a long solitary writing day, of the noisy, tactile, silly, entirely outward experience that is parenting.
Obtaining and maintaining literary success is a crazy goal, because whether you achieve it is dependent on so many factors outside of your control. Obtaining and maintaining quality in your work is inside your control, and (in my own personal opinion) the emotionally powerful experience of having kids is useful in making a person more sensitive, strong-willed, and patient, all things that contribute to becoming a better writer.
JULIE WU, author of the forthcoming novel THE THIRD SON:
As far as routine goes, my routine isn’t what I would necessarily choose, but dictated by child care. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would write more if I didn’t have a family. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that I’m a better writer (and person) for having a family, experiencing motherhood, seeing children grow and face their own challenges. At the very least, I know now that a woman cannot carry a four-year-old child and a full suitcase down a steep flight of stairs while wearing high heels, which is what I had one character do before I had kids.As for having it all–people do this. Why not? You may not make the 20 under 40 list, but who cares?
JON PAPERNICK, author of the novel WHO BY FIRE, WHO BY BLOOD:
Certainly having children significantly compressed my writing time. It has been particularly impossible to write during weekends when I spend time with the kids. I’m usually too exhausted after they go to bed to write, so that just leaves the few days a week when I’m not teaching. In a nutshell, having children has significantly affected my writing routine. However, my two boys remain my greatest creation despite the hard work I put into my books.I don’t think one needs to make a choice about family or literary success, since literary success is never guaranteed anyway. In fact, success is entirely subjective. I certainly wouldn’t recommend giving up a family to focus on writing alone since a manuscript cannot snuggle up to you and tell you that it loves you. Kafka referred to his stories as his children – but of course, he wasn’t exactly right in the head.
NICHOLE BERNIER, author of the forthcoming novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D.:
I think the harder question is how haven’t they affected the writing routine? I think the only way they haven’t affected it is that I’m still using the same alphabet. I think through ahead of time what I want to do during each writing stint — what scene, what essay, what bit of marketing or promotion work — because I don’t want to use precious night hours or babysitting time twiddling my thumbs while I figure it out. I used to travel fairly flexibly for magazine articles, and that doesn’t happen as often or as easily. Another is that I don’t have a desire to be on staff any longer; I like the flexibility and independence of working for myself. But the downside of that flexibility is that you usually aren’t writing when an idea actually strikes you, so you have to find creative ways to save your thoughts. Being a mother has made me a lot more disciplined, because you have to take advantage of writing time when it comes, and I can’t procrastinate deadlines until the last minute, because you never know what might get in the way. All-nighters aren’t a viable option anymore. Oddly, I’m hungrier about my writing and more ambitious than I’ve ever been, which is a funny thing in the thick of the little-kid years, not what I expected to feel.
Things change once you have children, and things change if you go from writing for a tangible paycheck for writing fiction, which is almost always by nature “on spec.” There’s a lot of challenges, adjusting of expectations. In practical terms, it meant years of giving over babysitting time to something that may or may not pay off financially. That was a hard adjustment after 15 years as a paycheck writer. In mental terms, it means finding the discipline to work when you have the time. The faucet has to go on and off based on the family schedule, not the ebb and flow of your ideas or mood. Emotionally, it’s meant sometimes curbing the inner toddler that wants to throw a foot-stomping tantrum about not being able to write as much as some other writers do. Spending all day on revisions, or traveling for conferences or retreats—those aren’t things that happen easily with family life. That’s when I have to go back to square one and remind myself how lucky I am to know what it is I love to do and pursue it, because many people never do.
RON MACLEAN, author of the forthcoming novel HEADLONG:
How did having children affect my writing routine? Threw it up in the air, smashed it on the ground and burst it into unrecognizable fragments. I had to start over. Before my daughter was born, I was a night (often late-night) writer. Maybe age was a part of it, but after she was born (and ever since), I’ve been mostly a daytime and early evening writer. The biggest change though, was that I got VERY good at being disciplined. At using whatever bits of time I had available. Before my daughter was born, I harbored sensitivities like I needed certain conditions in which to write – if I didn’t “feel it,” I wouldn’t push it. Once I had a child and realized how hard-won any writing time was, I became able to focus and make progress in any half-hour or hour or two-hour chunk I could find, and I found I could write anywhere – any room, indoors or outdoors, on any means of conveyance. It was quite empowering.
In one sense, I don’t think it’s possible to “have it all.” We have to decide what we prioritize. For me, I definitely wrote less in the first years after my daughter arrived. And I put much less time into the marketplace side of my writing career. Because I had a very clear notion of the kind of present father I wanted to be. And I have zero regrets about that. In another important sense, I absolutely think it’s possible to have a healthy family and an active writing life. In fact, of the many great gifts my daughter has given me, I credit her with giving me the gift of focus.
JENNIFER BARBER, author of the forthcoming volume of poetry GIVEN AWAY:
Like many, I write in the early mornings before work. My son, as an infant and a toddler, was an early riser, ready to get going around 5 a.m. So there was a period of a few years when the early-morning writing slot just wasn’t available. Luckily my mother lived close by, and was happy to spend time with her grandson during the day. If I didn’t have a freelance editing deadline, I’d take my notebook and head out to a coffee shop for a few hours. I’m not sure how much new writing got done, but I revised and read and thought about poetry. My daughter came along nine years later, long after my morning writing schedule was re-established. She was and is a night owl and, as an infant, slept till 7 a.m., so that left the early time free.
I’m always surprised when I meet young mothers who have just finished writing a book of poetry or short stories or a novel. Then, when I question them about this seemingly impossible feat, I find out that they were able to get babysitting or daycare for several hours each week, sometimes several hours each day. Of course this can be hard to afford, especially if the family is temporarily or permanently dependent on a single salary, but if the budget allows, a babysitter or daycare makes a huge difference in getting consistent writing time.
AMIN AHMAD, author of the forthcoming novel THE CARETAKER:
The birth of my son, in 2000, actually prompted me to start writing. Before he was born, I always fantasized about writing a book, in the hazy ‘someday I’ll write a book’ sense. Having a son made me conscious of my own mortality: one chapter of my life was done, and another one was beginning. Having a child made me conscious of how I was living my life. Could I actually raise a child to be true to himself, if I was not doing what I actually wanted to do? So in a sense, all my writing has been modeling a certain behavior that I hope will inspire my son. I wrote from 5 AM to 8 AM, before work, and when he was about 7, I quit my full time job to write full time, and I wrote 5-6 hours a day. Knowing that I had to pick him up from school set a boundary for my day, and I wrote seriously and hard, knowing that as a father I had to take myself seriously.
As a beginning writer, you need concentrated time, and lots of it. That is difficult to find when children are very young. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I got my first book deal when my son was 11. Now I can write all morning, and if he’s home, he just draws and does his own thing and doesn’t disturb me; it’s natural for him to have a dad who disappears for hours and makes stuff up. I really don’t understand the mindset that a ‘literary life’ and a ‘family life’ are exclusive. My son has given me strength and courage to write. And what the hell is ‘literary success’ anyway? One book? Ten books? Good reviews? Money? At the end of the day, it will always be me, sitting down to a blank page–because, as a writer, that is what I do: write. And I’d rather know that my son is by my side, and when I’m done writing, we can go out into the world and do something else.
LYNNE BARRETT, author of the story collection MAGPIES:
There you have it: writers with kids finding ways each day to have it all–or at least strive for it.
What about you? Have you struggled to maintain the balance in your life? Have kids restored your writing process? Given you renewed focus? Or have you chosen to pass on having kids in order to focus on your artistic ambitions?
Let us know. And in the meantime, may all your dreams remain undevoured!