Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Writing in the gaps

Before kids, my writing time looked something like this: set aside a dedicated block of time (minimum four hours preferred), keep a stack of reference books and copious notes handy, write, reflect on writing, take a short break, repeat. Granted, most of that writing was seminar papers and a dissertation prospectus, but looking at it from this distance, I'm envious of all the time young me had for writing.

When my first child was born, that schedule disintegrated. Instead of planning my own schedule, I was suddenly at the mercy of a seven-pound tyrant who ate and slept according to some arcane schedule I couldn't quite grasp. For the first couple months, I was vaguely convinced I was going mad: I was sleep-deprived, overly emotional, and what little writing I managed to produce was so clearly inferior to what I'd done that I wondered if I'd lost brain cells with the delivery.

It did get better. I learned to write in the gaps, in the forty-five minute snatches of time when he'd nap, in the early evening after he slept. Of course, once he got old enough to really follow a schedule, we added a second child, and four years after that, a third. My youngest is now three and in preschool (hallelujah!) so my stretches of time have gotten longer and more predictable, but I still struggle with balance--with giving my whole focus to my children and then switching that whole focus to my writing. Some days I succeed. Other days (many other days), I don't. Like right now: while I'm typing away to meet a self-imposed deadline for this post, I failed to monitor my potty-training son, who just announced that he's "pee-pee." (That makes, for those keeping score, the third accident today.)

Oldest kid at 1, taking advantage of his mom's distraction to decorate the house with tissues

I am not the primary breadwinner in our household: we decided early on that while my husband pursues tenure at a university, I would stay home full-time and teach part-time and write in whatever cracks of time were leftover. This meant that in the early years of our marriage I did almost no creative writing, until I reached a point where I realized this was not simply something I wanted to do, but something I needed to do, a part of me I needed to reclaim from the wilds of mommy-land. Until recently, writing was an unpaid labor of love for me, which meant its priority ranked below parenting, teaching, other community responsibilities (but not, to my mother-in-law's chagrin, below housework). Though now that I'm on contract, I still struggle to shift my mindset, to remember that I'm entitled to the time to write--in fact, I'm contractually bound to that.

But there's never enough time for all the things I want to do--and the time I do have is frustratingly elastic. Hours when my son is at preschool or the kids are sleeping speed by; hours when I am home with the three-year-old seem to crawl by.  Before my first child was born, a good friend took me aside and warned me, “One of the hardest parts about being a mother is the boredom.” I looked around me at her comfortable home; at her two blond-haired blue-eyed children looking at a picture book near our feet; at the quilting project slung half-finished over the sewing machine; at the partially constructed puzzle on the floor–and I didn’t believe her.

Then I had my son. Once the initial shock and exhaustion wore off, I started to wonder if maybe my friend was right. Sure, there were those exalted moments when I snuggled my cheek against his, when I watched the tiny play of movement across his face while he slept, when we read books together and he laughed–but in between those moments were other, less exalting events: countless iterations of diaper changes, settling–again–in the chair where I seemed to nurse endlessly, and even, sometimes, trying to play with my son. Although he was fascinated by the colored blocks I offered him, there was only so much interest I could sustain in them.
It does get easier as they get older: their interests become more complex, they can sustain real conversations, and few things have been more thrilling than seeing my older kids get lost in books that I also love. But the time I spend with them is still not fully my time--it's time borrowed away from the stories I could be writing, the books I could be reading.

I wouldn't trade away that time, frustrating as it can be. I remember hearing a story about J.K. Rowling, whose child had asked her what she would choose if she could only do one: be a mother or a writer. She said she'd be a mother--but she'd be grumpy about it.

That's me, too. I'm a better mother because I'm a writer, because my brain has something to do when it's off the parenting clock (or, let's be honest, sometimes when it's on), because I have goals beyond making sure my kids survive.

But I think I'm also a better writer because I'm a mom. Writing has made me less precious about my writing time, which makes me both more flexible and better at time management--I can do in an hour now what took me two or three hours before kids. But more than that, nothing in my life has been so frustrating, agonizing, joyous, or surprising as parenting. And that deeper emotional range informs my writing in ways I couldn't have imagined before I began writing in the gaps.

This post is part of a parenting blog hop, part of Aliette Bodard's awesome brain child, something she began with several UK writers and graciously allowed a few US writers to crash. You can see the other posts here:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the honesty of this post. This is precisely why I've stopped pantsing this year. ;-) I just have to be able to make full and efficient use of my very limited time, and I have to be able to write in 20 minute spurts if need be and still get back into the "zone" (something that used to take me a thousand words to achieve!). I had never heard that Rowling story, but I love it!