Sharma Shields, author of: Favorite Monster: Stories (Autumn House Press) and The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac: a Novel (forthcoming from Holt in 2015)
Age of kids: Henry, age 4; Louise, age 2
What was your writing schedule (ideal and actual) like before kids, and how has that changed?
I was a bit scatterbrained before children. Back then, I probably described myself as “spontaneous” or some shit, but really I was a mess, and unfocused. I wrote sporadically; once or twice a week at best, mostly in the evenings. I lost a lot of good writing time to excessive drinking and the resulting hangovers.
Parenthood did three astounding things for my writing: first, it forced me into a daily routine; second, it gave me a contrary activity from which writing was a welcome and much-needed intellectual reprieve; and third, it sobered me up. My writing, and my personhood, has only benefitted.
How do you remain present for your family even when you’re sunk deep into a current project?
I hire a babysitter. It keeps all of us sane. I slip away for 3-4 hours a few times a week to do nothing but tunnel into the writing netherworlds, and then I return and am fully present for the kids and my husband. It’s been difficult paying for babysitters because of how tight money can be, but man, it’s really worth it.
My husband is a writer and an artist, too, so we also give one another additional time away from the children to work on our individual projects. We know how important it is, and we’re eager to help one another. It’s much easier to be focused on the kids and on one another once you’ve gotten a good chunk of work out of the way.
How has parenthood changed the work itself, if at all?
That’s a great question. I think it’s possible to write with emotional depth and clarity about children and parenting even if you don’t have children; I think writers are capable of imagining someone else’s world, whether or not they’ve lived it exactly. That said, my work certainly explores pregnancy and parenthood more now. My recently completed novel features women giving birth and having postpartum depression and raising young children. That’s no accident. I was likely writing those details because they are consuming me at this time.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist and a parent?
The most challenging aspect for me has been sheer exhaustion, which is considerably aggravated by my multiple sclerosis. I’m not really concerned with how exhaustion affects my writing – I write in the morning, typically, when I’m relatively fresh – but I hate how it affects my parenting. I become the stereotypical tired mom: grumpy, impatient, sometimes screamy (I’m working on this, believe me). And I really hate myself for it. It’s been extremely helpful to learn that parenting was not the sole reason for my exhaustion. I was diagnosed with MS in October of 2013, and I need to take care of the disease much as I take care of my children, by nurturing it and resting, stopping and listening to it if it starts to whine. When the kids go down for their afternoon naps, I go down along with them. That used to be time I would write. It can’t be any longer, and I’m learning to accept this. If I skip the afternoon nap, I’m a noodle in the evenings and can hardly move. MS keeps me on a tight tether, but if I respect it, I can regain some freedom after I give in and rest.
Do you have any advice to other writers with kids or who plan to have them?
Half-jokingly: if you have a decent hometown where your family lives: MOVE BACK TO IT. We get a lot of loving help from Grandma (and aunts and uncles) around here.
And this: expect the love you’ll feel to knock your socks off. It really does. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m almost used to it now, bearing this love around with me like a perpetual spear in the heart, but when it first struck me, I was completely bowled over by it. These children! I love them so much. And I’m so lucky to have them and my writing career and my fearless husband; it’s a great life, even with its flaws, and I’m so grateful.