My daughter was almost one before I began writing again. Her early months were all-consuming, and I simply didn’t have the spare energy to either write or worry about not writing. It was late May when I decided it was time to jump back in and figure out where I had left off. Staring at the haphazard pile of drafts and notebooks in my closet, I swallowed a nervous lump in my throat.
Where do I start?
I want to share some of what I’ve learned as I’ve stepped back into a regular habit of writing. Please note: this is not a how-to. I read so many how-tos during the anxious months of pregnancy and early motherhood, I now recoil at the very sight of a how-to infographic. The last thing any of us needs, parent or not, is another way to feel anxious, or another list of things to do.
As a parent and as a writer, I like learning from others and feel grateful for the people and resources that have helped me along the way. Friends texted us when we were struggling with our daughter’s sleep. Eula Biss’s On Immunity and a big fat history of vaccines helped me grapple with all the fear out there about immunizations. The moms and babies in my breastfeeding support group have shared snacks and hugs and recipes and tips with me as we each made our own way through our little ones’ first year.
So what I want to share here is, like so much of my parenting style, a big collage of trial and error and learning from others. It’s what is working now, but I know I will need to stay attentive and active so that I can respond to the changes in my writing and my family. That’s probably the biggest take-home here:
For me, reviving my writing practice has meant tuning into what works today, and taking one step at a time. It has meant being fierce—I will find time to write today because it’s important. And flexible—I will accept the amount and quality of time I have today, even if it’s five minutes, and trust that both will grow and deepen with time.
My goal is to finish a collection of poems, and write prose for paying markets, while continuing to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. Here are five things that are helping me as I reach for those goals.
1) I’m reading more, especially about writing.
It’s really, really easy to collapse on the couch when my girl naps and zone out on the Internet. This is what Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls resistance. It’s easier to fritter away my time on Pinterest, in the name of researching dinner recipes or garden hacks, than it is to feel my fear about creating. That fear is currently tuned into my sense of time having accelerated since becoming a mom. I’m afraid I won’t ever have enough time to complete the projects I really care about, so I don’t even begin. You know what? It’s true. I don’t have enough time. I have slivers and bits and scribbled-on margins of time, littered all over the day. But I feel way more inspired and motivated when I use those margins of time purposefully. Now I try to sit down and write, or I read– especially about creativity and career. These are the books I’ve found most helpful so far:
Next step is learning how to be kind to myself when I choose Pinterest or Facebook or some stupid slide-show (Kid Stars of the 1980s! Where Are They Now?!) instead. Your tips requested!
2) I map out the weeks and months.
This spring, I signed up for an 8-week Fit4Mom class. Every Monday and Wednesday night for eight weeks, I worked out at 7:30. Period. When I finished those eight weeks, I felt great and saw a difference. I thought, Why not do this with writing?
Now I put writing time and deadlines into my schedule. To keep track, I use the free Monday Calendar app. I also have two whiteboard calendars: one on the fridge for family life, and one above my desk for writing deadlines.
3) I joyfully hitch my wagon to other wagons.
If you are a new parent, and especially what they (so unimaginatively) call a “stay at home mom,” you’re probably well-acquainted with loneliness. Writing can feel lonely, too. I love being able to connect with others about our writing goals and projects– sometimes while we push our kids in swings or pack them into the backpack for a hike.
From time to time, I connect over Skype with a couple of incredible women from my MFA program. We exchange work and critique via group video chat. The technology is hit-or-miss, so I am on the lookout for ways to improve that side of things. But I love the magic of suddenly being reunited with these powerful, compassionate writers. It still feels like sci-fi or Charlie’s Angels to me.
In the spring, a friend included me in a 40-day accountability email exchange. She had a goal and she just wanted a handful of people she was close to to “listen in” on her progress. I was so deeply impressed with her vulnerability and her courage. I read every one of her emails and rooted her on to success. What I learned was that it wasn’t about completing a task perfectly– it was about discovering more about herself and what she valued. So in August, I asked her to join me in a 30-day poetry challenge. I wanted to do something that scared me, like she had. It was scary. Some days I hated it. But I ended up with about ten poems I think I might actually be able to do something with– and that’s more than I’d written in the past two years combined. Holy sh**.
I’m super, duper excited about this next one: a monthly critique group that meets in the evenings. I just started this last month with a handful of friends. I really hope it becomes a long-term thing, because I love it. We plan to rotate houses, exchange work by email a week before each meeting, and keep the snack thing simple.
Last thing in terms of community: taking online courses. I tried one with Poetry Barn and wasn’t able to get through all of the assignments, but I did my best. This month I’m trying a class called Literary Boot Camp with Mothers Always Write and a Personal Essay Intensive course with Ariel Gore, in which we will somehow write the drafts of six essays in twelve days. Both of these just about scare the pants off me. But supposedly that’s how you know you should do something, right? Right…
4) I found a great babysitter, and I stay home and write.
There is no way–no way— I would take on the “6-essays-in-twelve-days” thing without a solid plan. That plan is called childcare. I feel like I struck gold with our babysitter. She works in early childhood education, lives in our neighborhood, and has a gentle personality that my daughter loves. My husband and I pay her well and give her presents because we want her to be our babysitter forever. In the past, I used the time to get out of the house or nap. Now I hunker down at my desk and write.
This automatically saves money on coffee and gas or lunch or whatever I used to do instead of staying home to write. It also has meant combing through our family budget to cut expenses and be able to afford childcare. I say “no” to a lot of small things so that I can say “yes” to one thing that matters a lot to me. Which leads me to my last point…
5) I’ve let go of a lot of other things.
I’m an American mom in the 21st century, so there are oh, I don’t know, 82 things I think I need to perfect. Tell me I’m not alone when I say I have somehow got it into my head, as a woman in the United States, that after having a baby I need to focus on having a great body, stylish clothes, an amazing sex life, homemade homegrown vegan meals, a spotless and stylish house cleaned with homemade natural cleaners, and spend all of my time engineering crafty sensory-play activities for baby. Good grief.
Thankfully, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thankfully, I believe in a God who loves me as I am and covers me with grace, because not only do I fall so very short of perfection, I also believe the lies of this culture and keep wandering down their hall-of-mirror detours. Writing is prayer for me, because I also really suck at praying. But when I write, I feel like I get in touch with who God made me to be, and everything else starts showing up the way it ought to. The important things look important again, and the silly things look really, really silly.
Caring for our daughter is in.
Writing is in.
Connecting with my family is in.
Basic self-care is in.
Everything else is bonus.
I am learning to simplify my exercise routine (… sometimes that means I don’t exercise, but progress not perfection, right?) and keep our weeknight meals really simple. This summer I got fed up with keeping house and kind of just quit. Turns out that isn’t sustainable for any of us, so last night my husband and I sat down over a glass or two of wine and made our very first chore chart. In five years of marriage and twelve years of living life together. I hope we survive this. (Just kidding– like everything I’ve written here, the chore chart is an experiment designed to help us figure out what works for us. I’ll let you know how it goes.)
The best part about writing again— writing even though I’m scared, writing instead of procrastinating, writing myself toward a career I have wanted since I was a little girl— the best part is that the more I write, the more I feel like… me.
I feel motivated to write. Ideas find me. I wake up with lines for a new poem or one in revision. I have more energy. I’m a lot happier and that means I am more focused when I’m with my daughter and family.
I don’t have this nagging sense of work left undone, of missing out on a life I want to live, because I’m living it.
Are you returning to a writing practice after becoming a parent? Please share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.