Writer, with Kids

Of the fifteen of us who began the MFA fiction program at Brooklyn College in 2003, only Karla was already a parent. I don’t think any of us fully understood what it meant for her to have chosen to be there and what it took for her to do it. Her older son was two when she started the program. By spring semester of our first year, she was pregnant with her second. It took her four years (maybe more. My recall isn’t what it could be) to complete the two-year program. At the time I said to Billy that I wondered why she was doing it at all, that she was missing out on the intensity of the MFA experience. I didn’t get it. She had plenty of intensity already. Whatever writing time she managed to steal came at a price and carried with it tremendous pressure to produce.

If her classmates didn’t understand what she was going through, the professors who had children didn’t offer much more. During a Q&A following a reading by one of our professors, a well-established author and mother of a then-teenage daughter, Karla asked if the professor had any advice for a mother who wanted to write. The professor’s response? “It’s absolutely possible to be a mother and a writer, but you can only have one child.” Karla, her second child in her lap, said, “Oh.” And the advice offered in conference by Karla’s thesis adviser, herself a mother of three kids—one grown and two teenagers at the time—was that “You can’t expect to write when the children are very young. It just isn’t possible. Put it away for now.”

This is what I carried with me when I went to a month-long residency at Ragdale in the fall after graduating from the MFA program. I was barely pregnant with Kiddo—four weeks along—and convinced that I was now locked in a terrible race against that growing fetus. I had to get as much work done as I could while he was still on the inside, because once he was born my writing life was well and truly fucked.

Except that didn’t turn out to be true. Not for me, anyway. It’s hard to get the work done once you have kids. It’s damn hard. But it’s not impossible. I struggle with it, though. I find my writing time when the kids are at school or asleep, so for me it too often comes down to choosing the work over getting enough sleep. (I also nearly always choose writing over housework, but I’m comfortable with that. Until someone sticks to the kitchen floor, that is.) I worry that I’m not making enough time for the work. And then I’m deep into a novel and I worry that I’m living too much in my head, and I have to fight to keep myself present when I’m with the family, to stuff the novel down and quiet it until I’m alone with it again. I no longer have the luxury of getting kind of nuts when I’m sunk deep into a project. No matter what my characters get up to on the page, when I surface I have to pull myself back to a stable, reliable center. Or as stable as I get, anyway. That’s been the hardest part for me, surprisingly…shifting between those two realities.

My second, and last, child is about to turn two. I’ve found a rhythm now, between the work and the family. When she was eighteen months old the little one started daycare two days a week, and Kiddo is in kindergarten. If I don’t have a freelance editorial job on my desk, that time is for writing. The same goes for nighttime, after Billy and the kids go to sleep. (How to balance writing the novels with editing other people’s books for money? That’s a different story.) Once in a while I’ll sneak away for four or five hours on a Sunday and write in a café while Billy hangs out with the kids. God, those writing Sundays are fantastic. I come back to them a little manic sometimes, though. That shift from writer to mother is hardest on the café writing days, because I push myself to not waste any of that time so by the end I’m sunk way in.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is to be a parent and a working writer. Wondering how other parents manage it, how they make time for the work while still being present for their kids. I’ve invited some of the writers I know to come here and talk about their experiences as writers with kids. We’ll hear from several New York Times bestselling authors as well as writers like me who are still working to get that first published book out into the world. We’ll hear from parents of newborns and parents of teenagers and grown children. Mothers and fathers.

I’m so excited to post this series. I’m hoping you’ll share your experiences as parents, whether you consider yourself a working artist or not. How do we hold on to ourselves, our sense of who we are and the things that are important to us, as we move into these roles of mother and father? I think it’s going to be a great conversation. And if you aren’t a parent, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy these glimpses into the lives of some amazing writers.

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20 comments on “Writer, with Kids
  1. Mary K. in Rockport says:

    Good article. I’ll look forward to reading the follow-ons.

  2. I have been writing (with ambition and hope) for about 45 years, and publishing what I wrote for 30 of those years. I have 2 children (daughters) who are now thoroughly adult with lives and families of their own. But they were babies and entering school when I was struggling the most.

    Their mothers (each had a different one), who were not writers or engaged in any sort of artistic work, took a lot of the load. But the girls themselves were really good. They would each play quietly on the floor when I was working, and if they got bored, usually they fell asleep. They were rarely any sort of handicap to my work.

    My younger daughter was kind of proud of telling her playmates they had to be quiet because “Daddy’s writing a book.”

    Now I look back, and even thought it was really almost perfect, I don’t know how I did it. It’s a mystery. I have had no distractions from my work (except the ones I self-create) for at least 20 years; if I want to, I can write without any interruption or distraction for as long as I am awake, 15, 16, 17 hours a day. I don’t, because my brain won’t. I usually write about 4 to 5 hours a day, because that’s as much as I get before brain-lock. But I could.

    So I read your blog and your horrific twats about breast feeding and editing and cooking and gardening and running to and fro, and quiver with wonder. I am not capable. But what happens is that I think with my utter luxury of creative thinking time I should at the very least be doing Tolstoy writing. I have nothing to distract me from it, I have no excuses.

    For that, I rather much hate you.

  3. Patty says:

    while not a writer with children, I happen to be the child of not one but two artists. Father was a painter mom is into Calligraphy. On Sunday’s mom would take us to grandma’s to play while dad did the art gig. Mom really had to wait until we children were in high school to pursue her talents. Also note that my parents broke up in the late 60’s so mom was the only parent, breadwinner so the art really had to wait. There just wasn’t enough time in the day. Sometimes you give up things, people, other times you just have to wait it out. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Hard work.

  4. I’m calling bullshit on the idea that writing and childrearing are mutually exclusive callings. Parenting can be intensive, exhausting, and exhilirating (sometimes all at the same time), but for most of us, it’s an important part of our lives, even an essential human experience. Of course there is always a struggle to balance work and family, art and family, the needs of the individual to the needs of the group, etc. But if you deliberately carve the “distractions” of family out of your life, you drastically reduce your life experiences and may find yourself spending a lot more time staring at blank computer screens, wondering what to write about. I think art and life feed off of one another, and there’s always going to be that tension and that give-and-take between the two.

  5. Robin says:

    Never was I more productive than I am now, as a mother–Not that I was lazy before but I do look back on that solo lady and think what are you doing girl? Get to work! She was not lazy but definitely privileged. Of course there was more time… To waist a whole day at a coffee shop, to have lunch with friends, then see a movie, to go thrifting, or puttering, to just float about. Do not get me wrong I have always be highly ambitious, but my efficiency was never as honed as it is now. As a mother/working artist, every moment is precious, diving into things happens on a daily basis. There is no time for wading in and checking the temperature. Life happens in leaps for us now. Not only for me in my work but with my kid too. I am inspired by him, just doing his thing, riding nature, growing and changing, developing in lightning flashes. The velocity may be high and the intensity is much more than ever before, but when you are an artist and a mother and you are doing your heart’s work on multiple levels that shit is gonna be intense! But it is beautiful and real and raw… It gets ugly and messy too, But it is life, and we mom/dad artists are here to live it and share it and create within it. I am up for the challenge, I say bring it on!

  6. stefani says:

    I’m thrilled to see this, and had in fact been considering asking you if you’d write more about your own journey with mothering and serious writing. I think it’s a hugely important topic, especially for women writers. Because let’s face it, the *majority* of men writing and publishing are not also the primary caregivers in their families.

  7. Angela says:

    I am excited to see this series. I don’t have kids yet, but expect to in the next 5 years and I spend all my current free time making comics. I have been wondering how that will work with kids.

  8. Gina says:

    Yes! Looking forward to reading more about this topic. People always tell you that having kids will change your life, but there’s no way to understand the absolute challenge of TIME once kids are in the picture. I’m in the thick of toddler/preschool years right now, juggling self-employment with no office or place to work “away”. I struggle with being present and/or separating work from family time. There’s no way I would have understood the sheer luxury of time in a coffee shop, alone, before having kids. I do suspect things change when kids are in school and more self sufficient. Looking forward to hear how others do this!

  9. Caitlin says:

    I needed to read this. I’m planning on starting a family very soon, and all I ever seem to hear is that I will have to give up writing and distance running – the two things that keep me feeling sane and engaged with the world – once this happens. Hearing from moms who have somehow managed to make it all work will provide a nice counterbalance to all of the naysayers whose supposedly well-meaning honesty really does nothing more than make parenthood seem like a miserable endeavor rather than one founded in joy and fulfillment.

    • admin says:

      Caitlin, I’m so glad to read your comment. A new post in the series goes up on Wednesday by Sara Shepard, a novelist and a mother AND a marathoner.

  10. Cati Porter says:

    As someone who began an MFA program as the mother of a 6 y/o & and a 9 y/o, the beginning of this post struck a chord. I was told by a male writer that I respected (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless) that after the baby there was no way I’d ever be able to write with a baby in the house. But instead of letting that get me down, I took it as a challenge; remarkably, my post-baby period was probably the most productively creative of my life thus far, as sitting and nursing and writing was about the most I could get done on any given day for a long, long while. It’s still a challenge, now that my boys are 9 & 12, but the school day is a boon (except when they’re home sick, or on break) and they’ve learned to leave me alone when I’m writing otherwise they risk me barking at them from the other side. Writing & editing, mothering/parenting, it’s all creative. I think it’s good for my boys to see me doing something besides laundry and dishes, and it’s encouraged them to be more creative themselves.

  11. Roxanne says:

    I’m a poet and part-time yoga teacher with a full-time office gig and a baby due in July. My husband is a poet and photographer, and we’re both a little terrified of what’s going to happen to our writing lives in a few months. I’m feeling the pressure of needing to finish my poetry manuscript NOW before the baby comes and worrying that if I don’t, I’ll never be able to. Thank you for doing this.

  12. Kate Hopper says:

    Cari, I’m so happy to know about your blog (through Cheryl Strayed’s facebook page). I was JUST on a panel about this very thing at AWP in Chicago. I’d love to chat (and I’d be happy to do a guest post in the future). Thanks for your words!

  13. Elisabeth M says:

    Thanks for this. I have an 18-month-old, I’m a freelance writer, and I’m trying to get a novel published. For me, it works because my husband works part-time and I have a network of childcare with a friend (another mom). We juggle. It works. I tried sacrificing sleep for work, but it was ruining me, so I stopped.

  14. Lizbon says:

    Finally got to read this series of posts, and just wanted to say, I think it’s a brilliant idea to explore this. Must forward to my friend who’s going a little nuts with her toddler, self-employment, and art. I think maybe a little reassurance that it’s not all going to fall apart would help her.

  15. Such an important topic! When I entered an MFA program in 2002, I was ten weeks pregnant with my first child. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I’m glad I didn’t put either off–having a baby or beginning my writing career. And now, I have two kids, five and nine, and I homeschool them, and my third book is coming out next month. I think that, while it is really, really hard, mothering and writing are somewhat symbiotic–they each offer a kind of relief and escape from the other.
    This is a great post and a great series. Thank you for this.

  16. marita says:

    I only just found your site and am enjoying reading these interviews. When my middle child was first born, I started a similar interview series with Canadian writing mothers on my blog a couple of years ago and it really helped me figure things out. So good to see yours here.

  17. Hey Cari, this is a great series. Thank you for putting it together so people like me can benefit from it. There’s nothing better than knowing you’re not alone out there with the mom/writer puzzle. I especially loved what you said about struggling to get out of your head when you’re deep in a novel, when it’s time to close the laptop and rejoin the land of the sticky children. Man it’s hard! Glad to see all’s well. Peace out.

  18. A friend (another writer) pointed me at this blog.

    I’ve been writing for years, for far longer than my son has been around, but I didn’t reach the Holy Grail until he was three — that was when I sold my first story. Since then, it has been a juggling act. How many words can I get done while he naps? How long can I put off falling over myself so that I can get just ONE more page done?

    I carry a notebook in my purse, for when the muse strikes (OW!). I had an annual pass for the local indoor play-place that offer free wi-fi, and lets you bring in lunch. Once my son started pre-k, I wrote like a maniac during those three hours, and now that he’s in kindergarten, I write religiously every day. It helps that I am a SAHM, but there is still the house to keep up, and the errands to be run.

    Summers, though. Summers I take off. I try to work out my writing so that anything I have on my calendar that needs to be done is in the can by June 1. Summers are when I plan for the upcoming writing year, plan out next year’s novel, and do any edits that need to be done. So far, this has worked well for me.

  19. john says:

    Wow. Great work – and congrats on your first novel. :)

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Writer, with Kids"
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Writer, With Kids