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Mincemeat: on writing
  Writing and Mothering: How I (sort of) Do Both

At some point in the young and hopeful stage of my writing career, I realized that two things rarely went together—successful writer and successful mother. Oh, there are plenty of father writers, successful in at least one of those trades, but many of the great literary women I could think of, and most of my women writing professors, did not have children. I read a quote by Jamaica Kincaid saying that she could not have produced her earlier works if sheíd had children at the time. The thought frightened me. There was nothing in this world I wanted as passionately as having a family and being able to write books, and I feared that the two just could not go together.

Happily, I was wrong! Let me confess that I am by no means an expert at this subject. At this writing, I have one child, age 15 months. Iíve met fabulous women who somehow mother 6 children and create great works of fiction, and Iím tiny and shivering in their shadows. But quite often I get the question: How do you write and be a mother? So here are my thoughts.

I got a head start. Obviously, this tactic wonít help everyone. I know many women who did not start to write until their littlest one was in school, but in my case, I was quite lucky to figure out at a young age that I had to be a writer. By the time I got married, I had received an MFA in Creative Writing and been in the habit of writing every day (except I take Sundays off). Habits are powerful and much easier to form, Iíve noticed, when I have leisure time. When my first child was born, the goose girl had been published, and the week before Iíd sent my final draft of enna burning to my editor.

I make and meet goals. I really know of no better way for any writer to finish a book, with or without children. In a motherís case, itís a non-negotiable. My goals change. Before Max, it was 1500 words/day, when he was a newborn, it was 800/day, and now itís 1000/day. I find a goal that is challenging but possible, and I keep it. If I donít make my daily goal, I stay up at night writing, and if I simply canít do it one day, I make it up on Saturday. I donít think Iíve missed a weekly goal in a couple of years. Itís like dieting—the first time you cheat, itís that much harder the next time you see a Snickers.

My writing time is sacred time. Not everyone understands this one. I know Iíve come across as uncooperative to many folks as I turn down lunch invites and requests for author visits, but I have to be so firm with myself. Maxís naptime is my writing time. I turn off the phone (repeat: I turn off the phone, non-negotiable), I resist responding to emails or exploring websites or playing mind-numbing rounds of computer solitaire (Vegas game rules). I donít even eat, often getting around to lunch at 4 pm. This is not especially healthy, I know, but those 2-3 hours are my writing time. If I didnít set aside a certain time every day and stick with it, Iíd probably be well fed, but my books would be starving.

I make Max my world. There are days when I have to leave Max with a sitter to go do author visits or even go out of town, so I make sure that my mornings and afternoons alone with my boy are wonderful fun. We play hard, we talk and read books, putter around, go outside, visit dogs. It makes it easier to have my writer times when I feel confident I am devoting myself the rest of the time to my family.

I accept the fact that my house will never be clean. OK, really I should say, I plan on accepting that fact any day now. I wish my carpets were vacuumed weekly, that I had a meal plan and didnít panic when 6 pm rolls around and the kitchen is stone cold. Our backyard is literally a back yard, and I still canít manage to keep it weed free and full of happy plants. Really, youíd be shocked. And donít look under my bed. But my priorities are: Maxís needs, husband time, writing, feeding self, sleep, bathing self, church volunteer responsibilities, paying billsÖhousework comes somewhere down here, maybe after Essential Grooming.

I know I need to write. Itís easy to feel guilty as a mother. There are endless demands on us, particularly as the number of children grow and as they grow up and are expected to be taking piano lessons, dance lessons, nuclear physics lessons. Children need their mothers to read to them, do homework, listen, anticipate disaster and chop of its head. But I also know that Max will always need a mostly sane mother, a happy mother, a mother to be proud of. And I know that when Iím not writing, Iím not happy, and the unwritten stories start to haunt me and tug on my sleeves and demand words on a page, and I cease to be the functioning kind of sane and start swatting at invisible characters. Mamas need our creative output, too. My finger painting is books.


UPDATE: November 2007

Before I begin, let me acknowledge that there are superstar moms who have nine children and still write, so I know I'm not particularly harried. But I have reached that new stage, that more awkward stage, where there is more than one child and one never naps. How do I keep writing? When do I find the time? Here's the truth: there's always time. It is not easy. If you wanted a nice easy hobby, you wouldn't have picked writing books. You'd be knitting scarves or raising an orchid. You want to write books because you must, because those stories and characters and words won't leave you alone. So you will find the time. Here's some more thoughts on how I've adapted to my new situation:

I mostly fail. It feels like that most days. And I have to let myself be okay with it. My output is significantly decreased, my wordcount goals very tiny. But I am first a mother and second a writer. And I love being a mother of small children. Life is very, very good. Times and seasons for everything, my mother-in-law reminds me. Times and seasons.

I try to know my limits. I'm not going to keep up a book a year. I can't do as many book tours, I can't answer email and do local school visits and book clubs. I can't make homemade Halloween costumes or keep my scrapbook up to date. I can only be a mother and write a little on the side, and occasionally take a shower.

I get my 15 minutes a day. Everyone can make this a reality. Fifteen minutes. That's reachable. And sometimes opportunity allows for more. Sometimes the baby is napping and my toddler will sit still and play by himself while I write for 45 minutes. And sometimes he sits beside me and holds down the spacebar. Ah, helpful, helpful lad. You win some, you lose some. And it's okay.

I use my brain. Whenever I have some space for thought, I've trained my brain to return to the story. Showers are particularly productive. Driving. Folding laundry. I can keep writing even when I don't have time to sit at my computer because my brain keeps working on the story. This, for me, is absolutely essential. I could not be a writer if I didn't allow (and insist upon) daydreaming about the stories.

Keep notes! You get an idea for a line, a scene, a character, and you think you'll remember. You won't. I have to make myself to write it down. Sometimes they're bad ideas, many I'll never use, but I write them all down. Keeping a notepad in my purse (aka diaper bag) and by my bed really helps. This helps me focus on my kids more, because once I write the idea down, I know it's safe, and I can let my attention leave worrying about it and return to them.

I keep reading. I know so many people who give up reading once they start writing, but I find reading good books (besides being a blast) inspires the same part of my brain where I create stories and sentences. I really believe being a reading writer will make you a better and more productive writing writing.

I take advantage of what I can now and not try to wait for a mythical era of free time. Megan Whalen Turner, fabulous writer and mother of school age children, recently told me, "a number of people warned me that I shouldn't expect to get any real work done until my youngest child was in school full time. But, I didn't find small children any impediment to writing. I hired a babysitter (several great ones, actually, thank you Trisha Falvey, thank you Nancy Schaffstall!) and wrote The Thief and The Queen of Attolia. It wasn't that hard to find someone to feed babies, change babies and take babies to the park. Then they grew up and went to school. You can't pay someone else to go on field trips for you, or help them with their homework. Never mind that when you hire a babysitter you get to set the schedule and hire them when it is convenient for you. The elementary school is just not as accommodating. So write, quick! Quick!"

The truth is, if I wasn't a mother, I could get so much more done. For one thing, I could say yes to all the local school visits and book clubs and signing requests I get. I could tour the country more, doing 20-city tours instead of 4-city tours. I'd sell a lot more books. I'd make more money, have a wider fan base...and I wouldn't have my amazing little sweethearts. Sheesh. Not even worth it. I'm so so so happy to be a mother, so honored to have these little people in my family. Whatever your passion is, you can see it through and still be a mother. Somehow. Bit by bit. And all the rest of us working mothers, creative mothers, fitting-it-in mothers will be hooting for you and shouting, "You rock."

UPDATE: June 2013

One of the most common questions I get: How do you find time to write and be a mother? I've written twice about this, when I had one kid and again when I had two. I reread what I wrote before and find everything is still relevant. But I want to add, because now I have four small children, ages 2 1/2 - 9, and life is very tricky. Even if I wasn't a writer and didn't work outside the home, having two school-aged kids and two toddlers makes for a tricky, tricky day. So how do I manage to do both?

I need help. Before, I could manage to find sporadic writing time here and there. When I had one child who napped, nap time was writing time, without fail. By the time I had 5 published books and two non-napping children, I realized this writing thing was technically a career and I didn't have to be a martyr and I could give myself permission to get help. Originally I had a sitter that came over 9 house/week. This past year, it's up to 17 hours/week. And it's not enough to do all I could/should do. But it has to be. Because I don't want to have a full-time nanny even if that was feasible. I want to be a stay-at-home mom. And I don't want writing to take over my evening-husband time or my weekend-family time. So my sitter has saved me. And for the most part, I seem to be writing as much as my non-parent full-time-writer friends even though I have a part time schedule. I think I've learned how to make the minutes count.

The balance is insane. I constantly have to check myself, make sure I'm making enough time for my kids and making that time count, make sure I'm not letting unnecessary things encroach on my writing time. I constantly have to remind myself that I have to say no, no, and no, again and again, to the many requests and pleas and invites I get. I feel guilty constantly. I get angry emails. I disappoint friends and extended family. I'm accused of not giving back enough. Sometimes I think only other writers understand how hard you have to fight to keep your writing time.

I can write. I can mother. And that's it. As a writer and a mother of two children, I thought I didn't have any spare time. And then we added twins to our family, and I wondered what I used to do with all that spare time. I cannot give up my writing. I would go insane. I would be the woman staring at the yellow wallpaper. So we've figured it out. I'm lucky that my husband has always been the primary wage earner, so I haven't had that stress. Still, there's a lot I've given up to keep writing and keep being a stay-at-home mom. Like social anything. Lots of book publicity. Networking opportunities. Hobbies. Yard work. Housework. Driving my kids to lots of classes and activities. Sports and interests and some friends and loads of potential friends and just about anything you can name. I've had to sacrifice it in order to keep writing and yet still have heaps of time for my family. I am not capable of doing it all, whatever it is. Not everyone can or is willing to live the kind of life being a writer mom demands, and I respect that absolutely. But those two things mean everything to me, and that's how I keep going.

I take a day of rest. I usually don't write on Saturdays and I never write on Sundays. I need a day of rest. I go to church, spend computer-free time with my family, visit relatives, read, cook, relax (as much as one can relax with four small children), try to do good works. I think this day is an important day. The demands of my story are always there, nipping at my ankles whenever I leave my computer to do my mom stuff. It's a little exhausting. So having a day where I tell myself, "No writing today" is good for me, a way to turn off. 'Cause the rest of the week I'm obsessive.

Writing is not a hobby. I've talked about this before. Writing is not safe, comforting, something you can pick up now and again like that pretty cross-stitch pattern you've always wanted to finish. It's demanding. Writing a book is like adopting a child. She can't be neglected. You can't leave her home like a pet when you go out--the story goes with you everywhere. She needs lots of attention. Attention you want to give. But treating novel writing like any other hobby would leave me unfulfilled, frustrated, and novel-less.

I just can't stress enough: to make something as demanding as writing work while also immersed in something as demanding as full-time parenting, I have to be so committed. Ruthlessly committed. Willing to sacrifice all other distractions. Since adding our twins, I eat less. I shower less, do my hair less, rarely wear makeup. I read less. I don't go to plays like I used to or keep up with penpals or take care of chores and errands in a timely manner. I weed less and cook less and do all those other things that used to feel like non-negotiables a lot less, because these two little cuties demand more of my time, and I have to find other things to cut out of my life in order to save my writing. I'm brutal about it. And I'm hardcore.

I know it's the right thing for me. I would be so unhappy if I didn't get to write. Being the primary care giver to four small children takes a lot of focus and energy and is exquisitely rewarding in its own way, but it doesn't always use my mind or creativity the way I need. As well, I'm addicted to progress and completion. Motherhood never ends. Books do. I need those page and draft and book completion milestones to help me measure my productivity and feel like a useful human being. Writing helps me be a better mother, helps me relax and enjoy the mothering moments more. When mama's happy, everyone's happy. I know some judge me for my choices, and by no means do I think my choices are right for everyone. But I couldn't do what I do if I wasn't absolutely sure it was the right choice for me.

Writing is one thing; publishing another. The more books I have published, the more business and publicity demands on my time, and the less time I have for writing. That's one reason when I meet writers who are asking me about how to get published before they've even completed one book, I tell them, please, slow down, concentrate on your craft. Do not hurry this. You won't be able to depend on publishing as a primary income for a long time (I still don't), so there's no reason to hurry it. Do not worry more about that other stuff than about how to tell the best story you can. And all of that is a lot a lot a lot harder as a mom. Writer dads I know who aren't the primary care giver have a different situation. They can go off when they have a deadline to a hotel for a few weeks and write, or they work from morning to night for weeks on end and their wife picks up the slack. But I'm the primary care giver, and I don't have that luxury. I don't want it. But figuring out how to do both is stressful. Meeting deadlines, keeping up with daily word counts, juggling one draft at the same time as the copy edits come in for another book and they need it back in a week and there are publicity requests and emails and a sick baby and homework and a school recital and no one but me can do it all. Certain mother tasks cannot be hired out. And none of my writing tasks can be. So it's stressful. And I would say, if you'd be just as happy knitting and mothering or scrapbooking and mothering as writing and mothering, then by all means, do those instead.

But if you can't, then you know who you are and what you need to do.

I don't think anyone should feel like they need to write. But if you are one of the unfortunates haunted by the need, and if you haven't found a good writing routine yet, let me recommend an experiment. And this goes for whatever your passion is, not just writing. Art, music, gardening, cooking, sewing, crafting, getting that degree, starting an animal shelter, whatever. Starting tomorrow, for one week turn off your internet and TV. All week. Scary? No smart phone except for phone calls. No watching movies or shows or clips. No internet at all except--time yourself--10 minutes/day for email and then cut yourself off. Without those time fillers, reexamine your week. How much free time do you have that you didn't think you did? How can you use it? Be brutal. Be hardcore. Start taking your passion seriously. Do it today.



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