Updated: Mar 2
Many of my friends have asked me how I did it. To have completed my Ph.D. coursework, to have written four novels and taught writing to college freshmen all while raising a young child, I must either be neglectful or hopelessly self-sacrificing.
"You probably never sleep," my friends insist.
Or they ask, "Are you spending enough time with your family?"
The truth is, we give time to things that matter to us. If you want to write your novel badly enough, the work gets done, and you're more likely to give up time you would have spent on social media than those precious minutes you share with your child.
One way or another, as I killed myself in grad school driving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge after dropping off and picking my son up at daycare, I managed to check everything off my to-do list and go to sleep with the intention of doing it all over again the next day. I took it one day at a time. Some days, I broke down and had to ask for help. We all need help sometimes. But we don't need performance-enhancing drugs to make us superheroes. I know too many parents abusing these, and let me tell you, it's unsustainable. You don't need drugs, nor do you need sacks of cash to throw at nannies and housekeepers. All you need is faith in yourself, and a few good habits. These worked for me, but they might not work for everyone. Take what can from my experience, toss the rest.
Let me preface this advice with a confession. Like many parents out there who were forged in the age of the internet, I have desperately googled "Why won't my [1/2/3] year-old sleep through the night?" a million times. I have felt exhausted, hopeless, and inadequate numerous times throughout this journey, but somehow I managed to force myself out of bed, to get straight A's throughout grad school, and to meet every deadline. Also, my son isn't murdering grasshoppers, so that counts for something.
Here is the list of the habits and parenting hacks I've found most useful as a writer.
1. Make a Schedule
This one came from dear old mom. "Your husband is lazy. Make him do stuff." From the day I started grad school with an infant, Mom told me I needed a schedule and a list of household duties. I would have had a much harder time in grad school without my partner-in-crime feeding me coffee and getting socks and shoes onto our flailing octopus-child in the morning.
Make a schedule for the most hectic parts of your day. Share responsibilities. Make sure you are fair to all partners involved. Schedule in down time and breaks. Everyone deserves to sleep in once in a while or get coffee with a friend (not to mention shower).
2. Write While The Kiddo Falls Asleep
The strategy here varies by age. When my son was a baby, his naps were too short for me to get any writing done, and usually I was eager to take a nap myself. I did all my writing while rocking, feeding, and soothing him. Bassinets are great for this. When he got older, I couldn't concentrate on writing with him in the bouncer. He would get bored after twenty minutes or so, so I used this time to do chores. I discovered, though, that I could work on my laptop while he lay in his crib going down for the night. Sleep training wasn't for us. He never liked going to bed or being alone. But to this day, I can sit near his bed and do work on my laptop after the bedtime ritual (The four B's: Bath, Bottle, Books, Bedtime). In fact, I'm writing this blog as he goes to bed right now.
3. Don't Become a Night owl
This might just be me, but working at night is unproductive past a certain hour. I always chose to get my writing in during and shortly after bedtime. At 10 pm, it's time to connect with your partner or catch up on chores.
4. Get a Job so you can afford Daycare
Some women want to stay home with the kids and write while the babies sleep. That's great for them. I couldn't do it. I was too tired by the time I had time to write. Being a stay-at-home-mom is the hardest most unappreciated job in the world. Hats off to you supermoms out there. I went and got a part-time job so I could afford daycare and use a few hours a day to write. Those hours saved my sanity.
5. Headphones and Auto-Reader
When your kids are babies, you can read your manuscript over and over with a reader and portable bluetooth headphones. I did a great deal of my editing this way while commuting, rocking baby to sleep or pushing him around the neighborhood in the stroller. Just make sure you unplug for face-to-face interaction. It's important to talk to your baby. And if you live in a city, it might not be safe to stroll with earbuds in.
6. Work Writing into your Social Life
When you're a parent, a student, a teacher, AND a writer, you probably don't have time for friends. So form a writers' group! Host writing prompts, writing marathons, and workshops. You can make friends and refine your craft.
7. Give Yourself Breaks
Don't neglect self-care. Carve out a day every now and then where you don't write at all. It's good to remember how to play, and connecting with the people in your life is excellent inspiration.
8. Set Goals
Give yourself realistic goals and formulate a plan for how you will achieve them. Set deadlines and hold yourself accountable. I will query this many agents this year. I will complete my website by this date.
9. Embrace Mess
Things might take longer than you expect. Life might not look the way you imagined it would. If you're a parent, you probably came to embrace mess during those early weeks of endless feeding, changing, rocking and doing laundry, but remember that these difficult phases will recur. You might be overwhelmed and burnt out one week, and if you are, take the pressure off in terms of your writing goals. You can write tomorrow, or next week. You have your whole life to write.
10. Forgive Yourself
This is the hardest part. When you feel you have to write to be happy, it can break your heart when your child needs you more than anything and there just isn't time for your creative outlet. Likewise, our children can suffer when we devote ourselves too much to work, and we internalize that guilt. Silence your inner critic. At the end of the day, all we can do is our very best. Sometimes, you'll be disappointed in your performance as a parent or you'll yearn for those days that you could just write without any responsibilities whatsoever. Don't feel guilty. You're human. And once you forgive yourself, you will have the energy and resolve to do better moving forward. The path of the writer is not an easy one, especially with kids, but we deserve to do the things that make us happy, even when we have little humans depending on us for their survival.
Keep writing. Even if it's just twenty minutes a day while your kid falls asleep.
You got this.