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Alana: Is writing compatible with children?

Virginia Wolf didn’t think so. She sacrificed being a mother for being a writer. And didn’t one of those early women writers actually give up her children so she could write? And can we even put down the proliferation of our best-loved Irish writer, Maeve Binchy, down to the fact she has no children?

OK, I hear you saying, what about JK Rowling? Millions of words and millions of pounds later, she’s a shining example of successfully combining motherhood and writing. Aha, I suggest. She writes children’s books. That means she probably gets all her ideas from them, and can count reading over her work as quality child time. She can even arrange playdates with Daniel Radcliffe.

A room of our own? That’s a laugh. I don’t even have a pen of my own. My office? My desk? My room? A large Orla Liely bag which contains all my current musings and laptop that I clutch to my breast looking for a quiet corner of the house. Sometimes the bag retreats to Starbucks and sets up office there. I’m a writer in waiting: waiting for the kids to sleep, waiting for the Dora half hour on TV, waiting for my time to come after everyone else in the house has been taken care of.

I met John Boyne recently. I discovered he wrote the first draft of his bestselling, multi-award-winning, Hollywood-film-showing novel, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in two and a half days. TWO AND A HALF DAYS! That’s how long it takes me to scrape the Wheetabix off my laptop so I can find the delete button to rid myself of the appalling drivel I wrote the previous week in between cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, shopping, arse-wiping, knee-kissing, jigsaw constructing, rocket making (cosmic pink with tinfoil windows), and remembering to breathe. Like all good writers, it seems I need a wife. But my kids need a mother, so what’s a woman (writer) to do??

I’ve just had to stop writing this in order to construct a rather fetching ‘tent’ in the playroom by draping some blankets over some chairs. I’m pretty sure Stephen King doesn’t have this problem. (Not that anyone is likely to want to get in a tent, no matter how pink, with Stephen King.) Still, the point is, it’s hard. I know enough wonderful women writers who are mums struggling with the same issues as me (and actually, I’m sure it’s not restricted to writers.) How do we find time to do what we love amid doing what else we love? To clarify, I mean being with our children is the other thing we love. I did not mean, and never will mean, thinking about what food to give us all, shopping for the food I’ve still not thought about, cooking the food I’m still not sure what it’s going to be — just something that starts with the left over onion in the fridge and see where my (lack of) inspiration takes me, washing up the dishes the food was not eaten off, hoovering the food off the floor, and washing the clothes that are covered with the food I’ve been thinking about all day.

How do I correlate wanting to be a full-time mum with being a full-time writer? How do I even correlate being a part-time mum with a part-time writer? I can’t, because I can never be a part-time mum or a part-time writer. Both are in my blood. Both are what I am. I cannot successfully be one without the other. If I was no longer a mum, I would have no inspiration to write. If I was no longer a writer I would be a terrible, disgruntled unhappy mum.

I don’t know if that makes me bad at both, or just in one of those places that no matter how often I ask the question, there really just is no answer.

So I’ll carry on being both, doing both, shunting one in front of the other occasionally, trying to find the balanced line. I’ve just danced with them to Abba, and read the Princess book. Again. Now they’re having tea with dad, and I’m clutching my Orla Kieley bag to my chest. My time.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Juliet #

    Oh my God – this is so funny, out-loud laughing. Yes, you are a writer. Keep it up kids – you’re making a great writer out of your mom!

    November 18, 2008
  2. I used to think that “real artists” don’t have this problem but by now I think that isn’t true. Stephen King probably spends a lot of time talking to journalists, and lawyers, and whatever. When you have a look at Neil Gaiman’s blog, for example, or any other successful author out there you find that even they write in between other things, in coffee shops, and on planes.

    On the other hand I, like you, find it hard to make room for writing, and music in the midst of teaching, and parenting, and housework, and people. It’s a bit easier when the children are in school but I think it’s hard for everyone.

    The hardest thing may be the feeling that one gets constantly interrupted. Sometimes it takes me an hour to re-claim my own thoughts. And by the time my son is in bed I’m usually too tired to do anything. But, still, when I write a bit every day it’s easier to get back to it.

    (Sorry for writing such a long comment.)

    November 18, 2008
  3. cathy #

    that little book by woolf is a pin in our sides, eh? my copy stares up from the nonfiction section by my desk while i nurse and type one handed. i say pin b/c i remind myself, she was such an unhappy camper herself even with a room of her own, that she walked into the ocean to her demise. at least a character in ‘lighthouse’ did, and i know she took her life, too, by whatever means. if i keep that in mind, i can try my darnedest to have both a writing life and a mom life.

    i think, in essence, writing, kids or no, always has a feeling of being squeezed in around the edges of things. if we don’t LIVE, how can we write about life? and for many of us, even if we make a living by writing, what we write for a living isn’t necessarily the writing we love. the fiction writer is writing news articles, the poet, copyediting, etc…

    November 18, 2008
  4. Kristine #

    I’m also a “writer in waiting.” (I love that phrase!) For me, it’s waiting for everyone to go to bed so I can spend the twilight hours on my laptop writing my novel.

    I also struggle with the full-time mom vs. full-time writer–and part-time freelance editor–pretty much on a daily basis.

    Great post!

    November 18, 2008
  5. I hear ya, sister.

    Lately I have been so frustrated by my chronic dream deferred, that I have considered just throwing in the towel. So what if agents want to see more of my work? And so what if I have a finished manuscript? It’s taken me since the end of October to rearrange a few chapters and re-write the beginning of the book. And yes, I’ve been sick, and yes, my son has been sick, and yes, I have had other mommy duties that have eaten into my time, as well as a workaholic husband with a deadline to meet, that turned my mommy shift from 12 hours to something closer to 18.

    But I’ve done the best I could, I whine. And nobody, myself included, is interested in my sob story. If publishers don’t want to see a milk stained manuscript covered in cheerios, then they also don’t want to see a poor downtrodden mother and her sad attempt at a book (that’s taken her 3 years to write) when someone unfettered by children can churn out a novel every 6 months that’s more coherent and less addled by mommy brain.

    I get angry. I become resentful. I abdicate all mommy duties and hole up at the local Panera and write for a couple of hours without distraction. And then I come home and my husband harrasses me about the coffee and the muffin I purchased.

    Money is tight. You’re not working. I pay for you to stay home and write. Not to go hang out in restaurants eating expensive food and leaving me with the kids all day. And then, once again, I become a failure. I’ve written, but in doing so, I’ve sacked the household budget while neglecting my children and husband. I cannot win. The only way to win is to become a bestselling novelist with a six figure book deal and a fat check I can wave in front of the noses of anyone who doubted I was serious and thought of my writing as a little hobby.

    But that isn’t likely to happen if I can’t even find the time or space to write, is it?

    I feel trapped in a vicious circle. Or like I’ve written myself into a corner. Part of me feels like this writing life is an exercise in futility. I just don’t particularly want to stop…

    November 18, 2008
  6. Brittany, not that it’s my place to offer you marital advice, but when it comes to being criticized by your husband for coffee and a muffin, I say this: ignore him. He was probably just burnt out by how difficult it was to stay home with the kids for a few hours (surprise, surprise!). Unless your husband follows Spartan rules and never dines out or picks up so much as a coffee during his workday, he was really unfair in even bringing that up. Forget about it.

    You MUST finish your book because a) agents want to see it b) you’ve come too far to stop now and c) it’s good. (I can speak with authority, because I’ve read part of it 🙂 )

    Also, just because this kind of got my goat, your husband does not “pay for you to stay home and write.” You each have a job; his requires him to go to work every day and earn a paycheck; yours requires you to care for the children, keep the home fires burning, and write. The fact that you stay home and care for the kids means that you’re saving a bare minimum of $12K per year versus putting them in child care, and likely a lot more ( You’d have to take that right off the top of any external job, not to mention work clothes, commuting expenses, etc. You are staying at home because as a family you agree that that’s what’s important and how you want to raise your children. No one should throw that in your face, or begrudge you a few hours of time to yourself with a freaking muffin (not to MENTION needing a little extra TLC in light of the illness you’ve just been through, and all the extra work at home). OK, now you’ve got me really riled up!!!

    Use it. Put the kids to bed and write in the evenings, ignoring your husband, if you have to. Take care of yourself as much as possible. Eat well, drink lots of water, breathe deeply so that you have the energy for evening work. Try for just 30 minutes if you’re too tired for anything more.

    Considering that you had to beg for backup support from your husband while you were seriously ill, you may not get much support from him in general; I don’t know. Regardless, don’t let him or anyone else take this from you. If you don’t follow up on the leads you have right now, you will forever be wondering “what if.”

    [insert mad pom-pom waving here]

    November 18, 2008
  7. cathy #

    i get a bit of brittany’s dh crit here, too, but i understand, usually, that he is stressed about the whole income thing. however, when he walked into the office this am and said, oh there you are, playing on the computer again, when i just turned it on, i gave it back to him. he hadn’t realized he said it! i said that is part of the issue, too.

    this is after the weekend we had in which i found myself ‘crying out in the wildrness’ again. nothing quite so isolating as sahm in the burbs. there is i believe, still a hold over of previous generations in which what we do at home is measured on a lesser scale b/c no income is attached. and my dh’s dad was primary caregiver, dropper off at school, maker of sandwiches and dinner in their house for majority of my dh’s later childhood while his mother was majorty breadwinner. so i honestly don’t know where this attitude comes from, except that i currently have no independent income.

    breathe, brittany, and message me over on fb!

    not to rant, but there is a certain inequity of perception here and at brittany’s. otherwise, today was a good writing day for me, and i had minor supportive comments from dh on IM about it, too.

    November 18, 2008
  8. just want to say i feel quite the communing of sisterhood here! that’s about all i can add. hang in there all! 🙂

    November 18, 2008
  9. Huge agreement with everything Miranda said. You must not feel guilty about having something that belongs to you (easy to write, very hard to do, I know). Although motherhood is a 24/7 job, it is not all you are. you are also a writer. and a woman, and a wife and a friend and lots of other things.

    so go eat as many muffins as you like, because you are not a slave to the household (yet again, i find this easier to write than to do.)

    I sent you a private email, but i’ll reiterate some it here. you have written a book. do you have any idea what an achievement that is??? there are literally millions of people out there who have failed to finish thier masterpieces (and many of them do not have children!). you have done it. you are at the final hurdle of re-writes and editing. keep going. keep at it. it might take longer than you hoped but that’s life and motherhood and we all have to accept they do alter the time frame of everything. but you will do it.

    we’re all sending you an extra burst of energy to get you through. keep the faith. the writer in you will prevail!

    November 19, 2008
  10. PS, Britteny, I love you blog. you do that too!

    November 19, 2008
  11. Juliet #

    Based on all the comments, you’d think I’d been reading a completely different piece. It’s not that I didn’t see the struggles and the pain that other’s saw, it is (I guess) that as one now removed from all that, I saw your brilliant coping mechanism of using humor in writing. I hope it helps to know that as an unembroiled reader, the piece was a delight.

    November 19, 2008
  12. cathy #

    juliet, i saw it your way, too!

    it is a very real issue, and for some of us, we are hotly in the thick of it. that’s why we’re commenting so much about the blog, we live it!

    thanks, alana, this felt like a coffee clatch.

    November 19, 2008
  13. Juliet–we segued from Alana’s life (the original post writer) to Brittany’s (one of the commenters). Hence the change in tone 🙂

    November 19, 2008
  14. Alana, SO well wrtten and so true I feel this every day:0

    January 16, 2009

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