[This article is generously cross-posted from Alison Wells’s blog, Head above Water.]
Alison Wells: My four children are between 10 and 3 years old. As a novelist and short story writer, I was interested to find out how other women writers with young children manage their writing time and find creativity among chaos. In this series of interviews we hear from writers from Ireland, England, France, the US, and Australia who are at various stages in their writing careers.
Maria Duffy (pictured with her family at right) from Dublin, Ireland is a mum (or mammy!) of four children: Eoin, 14, Roisin, 13, Enya, 9 and Conor, 7. She writes women’s fiction and recently signed with Curtis Brown agent Sheila Crowley. She has had stories published — in A Pint And A Haircut and in a US anthology called Saying Goodbye and she blogs fabulously for Hellomagazine.com, interviewing celebrity tweeters.
When did you start writing, Maria? Had you established a writing rhythm or career before or did it happen alongside the kids?
I’ve always been interested in writing but never did much about it. I was always the one to write the silly poem when somebody was leaving their job or celebrating a big birthday. I suppose I always wrote bits and pieces but never really had the confidence or belief in myself to take it any further. When the children were very young (I had four under six), I began to write a novel. It was a revelation to me because I fell in love with the art of bringing the characters to life on the page and exploring their lives. As the children got older, I began to write more and now couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
What impact has having children had on your writing career?
I would probably say it’s had a good impact. Before I had children, I had a fulltime job in the bank and worked long hours. When I had my third child, I gave up my job to stay at home with the children. It was really only then that I began to explore the idea of writing more seriously. If I’d stayed at the bank, I probably would have always written but not to the extent I do now.
How do you organise your writing routine and space?
I have a pretty good routine these days. It was certainly more difficult when the children were younger and I always had at least one of them at home with me. Now that they’re all in school, I drop them off at 9:15 am and the day is mine until I collect them at 3 pm. Although I write from home, I discipline myself to look on it like any other job and force myself to ignore the piles of ironing and the layers of dust on the furniture! I used to find this difficult and I’d often lose a whole day of writing because I’d decide my house was filthy and I just had to clean it! These days I tell myself that if I was out of the house working at another job, the housework wouldn’t be done so I close my eyes, step over the pile of washing and go and write! The other thing I’ve learned to do is to say no to offers from friends to go for coffee or shopping. I have a number of friends who have young children and we used to spend long mornings putting the world to rights over coffee. Now I just tell them I’m working and either catch up with them in the evenings or weekends.
Is it possible to maintain a balance on a daily basis or do you find yourself readjusting focus from work to family over a longer time-span?
I think it’s often difficult to get the balance right. In theory, I write while the children are in school and spend the rest of the day doing homework with them, bringing them to their after-school activities, making dinner, etc. But that’s the ideal scenario. As any writer would tell you, deadlines loom and pressure builds and sometimes the writing day can spill over into the evening or night. Sometimes I might be having a productive day and the words are flowing. On those days, it’s very difficult to just stop at a certain time and not do any more. Also, life is so unpredictable when you have children. It only takes one of them to have a tummy bug or a bout of tonsillitis for all my best-laid plans to go out the window. And don’t talk to me about mid-term…!
How do the children react to your writing or the time you spend on it?
Overall, they’re pretty good. They’re old enough now to understand what I’m doing and as they’re all big readers, they love the thought that I’m writing books. I also have the pleasure of blogging for Hellomagazine.com and sometimes interview celebrities. This earns me lots of brownie points with them. For example, I recently interviewed Jedward and my children were waiting outside for me. I managed to drag John out to say hello to them so I was the coolest Mammy in the world!
What do you find most challenging in juggling your roles as mother and writer?
The most challenging thing is the guilt. Although I try to divide my time between my writing and the family, I’m not always very successful at it. There are days when I plonk the children in front of the telly because there’s something I really need to get done and when a deadline is looming, I’ve been known to feed the children beans on toast or pasta and microwave sauce for days! When one of the children comes home crying because I haven’t given him the money for a school tour or haven’t signed his homework journal, the guilt is huge. Writing is one of those things that you can’t switch off from and I sometimes feel it takes over my brain and doesn’t leave room for anything else. Gosh, that all makes me sound like a terrible mother, doesn’t it? I think the most important thing is my children know they’re loved and I keep telling myself to stop beating myself up about the little things.
You’ve made breakthroughs, such as becoming a blogger for Hello Magazine and securing agent representation at Curtis Brown. When did your proudest writing moments happen and how did you feel?
My first breakthrough came when Poolbeg showed an interest in my first novel. I’d sent them six chapters and they asked to see the full manuscript. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful that felt, especially knowing they only ask a small percentage of people to send the full manuscript. That was two years ago and nothing came of it but it was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer and I began to think I really could make it as an author. I’ve since had a couple of short stories published and, as I already mentioned, I’m blogging for Hellomagazine.com, but my proudest moment in my writing career so far was when I was taken on by a fabulous agent, Sheila Crowley from Curtis Brown. I signed with Sheila six months ago and it’s been amazing. As a writer, sometimes you feel you’re writing into the wind, with nobody acknowledging what you’re doing and not getting feedback. To have an amazing agent like Sheila who champions me and believes in me is worth so much.
Do you think women face particular challenges in career/family life balance or is it something that both men and women face in equal measure?
I think these days both women and men face challenges in career/family life. I’ve already mentioned the challenges I face as a mother but in my situation, my husband faces those challenges too. He’s very supportive of me and my writing and he’ll muck in as much as he can to help. He works fulltime but has set up an office for himself at home in order to try to work at least one day a week from home. He does this so that he can help with the children/housework etc. and allow me to write. At times when I’m under pressure, he tells me to just keep my head down and write and he’s the one who ends up juggling work and children. I’m very lucky to have him.
(He does sound wonderful!)
Something has to give when wearing many hats. What is it for you?
Oh that’s an easy one — the ironing, the cleaning, the making of healthy dinners…! Put it this way, if I have an hour to spare, I’d rather sit and chat with the children and find out about their day rather than spend it doing housework!
What suggestions do you have for mothers or indeed parents who want to write or further a writing career?
Firstly I’d say that if it’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way to do it. We all have to juggle things and sometimes it seems like an impossible task but once you’re actually doing it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it before. If you really want to write, look at your day and see how you could structure it to find some time to do it. You’ll have to learn to prioritize; otherwise you’ll never do it. For instance, I used to be very stuffy about my house. I probably cleaned for hours every day and loved to have a house smelling of roses! I’m not saying my house is filthy now (honestly, it’s not!) but it’s certainly not as shiny as it used to be!
Get your children to help out more around the house. We, as a family, do a clean up hour on Saturday mornings. Of course I do the necessary stuff (like wiping wee off the toilet seat!) every day but the big clean-up is left until Saturday mornings. All six of us get stuck in for an hour and I give everybody jobs to do. It’s actually quite enjoyable to have us all buzzing around the place for a while and we usually have some treats afterwards.
The other thing you can do to free up more time is think ahead about dinners for the week. I often make a few dinners at weekends and freeze them –things like casseroles or stews that can be defrosted and heated up easily. I also make sure there are plenty of snacks in the house so the children won’t go hungry while I have my head in the computer!
Basically, if you want to write, nothing should stop you; there’s always a way!
Thanks so much for your fabulous answers Maria! Wishing you every success for publication of your novel!