On being a writer and a mother (part two): writing about my children

Writing and motherhood on being a writer essays on writing essays on motherhood more on my blog, Our Story Time www.ourstorytime.co.u

As a writer who writes mostly in first-person, it is inevitable that I sometimes write about my children. I read once that: “Making the decision to have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” (Elizabeth Stone) and so I suppose it is only natural for me, as a writer, to put my walking heart and all its observations into words, to untangle this process with and through language.

I have written and explained before that my blog is a way for me to process my every day. It’s a way to both remember and cherish but also simply figure things out - whether that’s as meaningful as how to gently talk to my kids about world affairs or as dumbfounded as what to do when your three-and-a-half-year-old refuses to eat or sharing a way which helped our kids sleep better in case it helps someone else’s too.

I am more inclined to write about my children than I am to post photographs of them because that’s just how I am. I am careful about the images I share on my public social media feed, mostly but not always limiting them to some distance from their faces (as above) or some artful shots of the back of their heads. You might see less of my older son on my Instagram feed, for the simple reason he doesn’t always like to have his picture taken so I won’t ever insist, certainly never for the sake of my grid. There’s been a lot written about “sharenting” - parents who share photos of their children on social media publicly, parents who go into all sorts of details about them. I’m not all that into social media, and as I’m a naturally private person it makes sense to me not to overdo it personally on the one channel I do use.

But then I’ve found myself thinking: what’s the difference with writing about my children and how can I avoid oversharing through words in the same way sometimes people might overshare in pictures, Stories or captions? Because while I do not only write about my children, I do often enough, and sometimes I am paid to do so too. I’ve written about my parents in the past and my husband for that matter, and also been published and paid for that. So what’s different, when it comes to writing about my children?

Well, I suppose there is no difference. There is always a line of what I will and will not write about. It is strange to be in this position, to be both a writer, but also to still be a little uncomfortable with sharing too much. It is not as though I talk about myself or my children or my childhood memories all the time to people I might meet in person, for instance. But I do so frequently in my writing, because I write to reflect and to remember and to make sense of things. By sharing memories that are meaningful to me, I suppose I am offering people a pause to think, to look for what is meaningful in their own lives too. When it comes to writing about my children specifically, I share memories mostly because I just want to keep them for myself and I hope that maybe, if these memories are still accessible online by the time my boys are grown, maybe they might even one day be meaningful to them too (and this is sort of the inspiration behind Postcards Home, my new online writing course on writing your memories).

Will I continue to write about my children when they are older, when they are teenagers with all the challenges that may yet bring? I don’t know. As a teenager myself, I know I deeply valued my privacy and felt riled, hot and angry when I felt it invaded by prying parents or nosy siblings discovering my diary or reading my mail. So, I don’t think so. Or, if I did, I’d ask them if something was okay, just like I’ve asked my husband if he’s okay with me writing about us. Maybe I’d reference them in a more general way. Maybe by that time my life will have moved on from the intensity of the early pre-school years. Maybe I’ll have another lens in which to look at myself, my world, my every day. It is interesting that since my children were born, I’ve struggled greatly with writing fiction. I can’t remember the last time I wrote an entirely fictional short story, for instance, and I failed spectacularly to submit the first chapters of my novel when pregnant with my third child. I wonder if, once these early years pass, I might somehow write myself out of motherhood and more into the realms of imagination again. I guess I’ll see. Right now, it feels natural to write about them while they are still young because we sort of share a narrative, our lives so closely entwined. But I would like for them to find their own narratives when they are older, to maybe even write their own ways of understanding, and maybe in that way, I’ll find another narrative of mine.

In my Gmail, there’s a draft email I keep with “The things they say” typed in the subject line. In here, I write down almost word for word something I’ve overheard them say or watched them do. I quickly note down their sweet, enquiring conversations, a particular turn of phrase that softens my heart or sets it alight, or the way they might look at me with those brown eyes they all happen to share. I periodically cast my eyes over this draft email and write down the best of these moments on little postcards I keep stacked with my writing notebooks, so that I might keep them forever.

These are the things I keep only for me; the things your eyes will never read. These are the things I don’t want to forget. The things that remind me that time is passing faster than I would like.

One day, maybe, I’ll share it with them.

Write it all down

Postcards Home is my latest online writing course, designed not to feel like an online writing course but an inspiring nudge to help you want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming. Designed as a set of weekly essays, Postcards Home will gently, hopefully, remind you to look out for the details in your everyday, both your present and your past, and take note so that one day, you too might remember everything you want to through your very own written words.

Postcards Home starts on Monday, May 20th, 2019.


On being a writer and a mother (part one): How I manage my time

a child’s workspace vintage desk and chair - an essay on motherhood and writing; more on my blog Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

I am often asked how it is that I manage to be both a mother and a writer. I am, of course, not the only one in the world who walks this path. There are far more writers than me who do it with much finer accomplishment and many more books to their names. And there are, of course, many mothers - writers or otherwise - who also have more children than me. Here I think immediately of the novelist Roopa Farooki, who told me once that almost each book deal brought a new child. She has four children and six award-winning novels under her belt. In history, writing and the act of motherhood has always been considered a paradox (just think of Doris Lessing; “No one can write with a child around,” she once famously said); I suppose it is not unusual that we are so often asked how we manage it.

But the question of how I manage to be both mother and writer, if I'm altogether honest, makes me feel a little squirmy. This is because it’s a question that is always asked of women, of mothers, but so rarely asked of men who may also happen to be fathers. I cringe because it implies that being a mother should only take up all my time. Sometimes, though well-intentioned, the question makes me feel that if I'm doing both, then I must surely be doing one of them badly, or worse, entirely wrong. When the boys are on holiday from school and nursery, as they are right now, this is something I sometimes worry about.

Balancing a creative field with motherhood comes, I would argue, with its own set of challenges, which I do believe are different for those who return to work after more conventional and traditional office-based maternity leaves. Every mother, working or not, in creative industries or not, faces challenges. But often, though not always, mothers in creative fields are self-employed and work from home and so, in my experience at least, this means many people assume we don’t work at all. We are judged by the buggies we push immediately, in a way that mothers who return to work outside of their home, are not. As this article on motherhood says:

“To pretend that balancing motherhood against a demanding career isn’t often an exhausting, guilt-inducing nightmare is to suggest that it isn’t a problem at all. It also allows us to draw a veil over what is a depressing truth – that one of the biggest barriers to female creativity is the pram in the hallway.”

Here’s the thing. Being a mother does take up my time. I have three kids, aged five, nearly four and 19 months old (no doubt you will know this if you read my blog because sometimes I write about them too). While my older children are at school and nursery, my youngest stays with me - I will add here that is both my choice and my privilege to do this, and in turn I make no judgement on any other parent who chooses to do things differently at all. The choice to not have extra childcare for my youngest child is mine; one might argue I’ve made it harder for myself, but it’s a choice I prioritise. Writing takes up the time in between, especially now as I am in the thick of it in both productive and promising ways, with a brand new writing course out this week and a whole set of deadlines and essays and proposals and blog posts to write. Can I be both mother and writer, and do both well? Or must I be doing both badly? 

I suppose only time will tell.

I recall Rachel Cusk in her memoir on motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother in which she wrote: “To succeed in being one [mother or writer] means to fail at being the other. . . I never feel myself to have progressed beyond this division. I merely learn to legislate for two states, and to secure the border between them.” The optimist in me believes it doesn’t always have to be this way, because we always somehow muddle through.  Because we have to, because things always work out, because they always do.

That said, I understand why people ask me questions about how I make it work, because I admit, I ask them of others too. I too am always especially curious about the way other women blend different parts of their life together, especially when writing or some creative pursuit is involved. I also always want to know if someone has a better trick for bashing out 1000 words at nap-time or what they do in school holidays (my solution for this summer is to work hard, gather my ducks, and then take the entire month of August off).

“You make it look so easy!” is something people say to me sometimes, when they see my boys and me all walking down the street or when I’m at the school gate with all of them. Though I know these comments are meant sweetly, I wish they were thrown around a little less carelessly. Somewhere in there is the assumption that mothers, especially those of more than one child, must surely be falling apart at the seams. Yet so many of us do this every single day. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable or over-sensitive at taking this sort of praise. “But how do you it?” people enquire. I normally just shrug.

But because I know people are curious about this, because I’ve received emails and direct messages about how I make it work, how I balance my family life with writing while my boys are still so young, and because I’ve promised some of you this blog post for a long time, here it is.

How do I do it? How do I manage my time? Well, my answer is thus: as simply as I can. I don’t overcomplicate our days and in many ways I have time - I am not maintaining my blog or business while homeschooling, as so many other remarkable women are. Still, it is not always easy, but if I make it look easy, it’s because I keep things easy. There are no doubt millions of ways in which other people find their balance but for what it’s worth, and since you asked, here’s how I find mine:

Plan, and plan ahead. I allow more time than I need to either be someplace or get something done and like most writers, I keep lists. A small diary holds everything I need to remember for family life - doctor’s appointments, birthday parties, school meetings, swimming lessons. A thicker notebook dedicated to Our Story Time holds everything I need to stay planned - weekly things-to-do, a rolling list of books to read and blog post ideas, plans for my next online writing course. Another section outlines what I’m doing over at 91 Magazine. Writing things down, instead of keeping them in my head, helps me see how much time I need. It’s the simplest way for me to know how to balance all the things I must do.

Work ahead. Around Christmas time, I ended up with some time on my hands after a few plans were cancelled, so while the kids were watching Christmas movies, I wrote a blog post… and then another and then another and then another. And lo and behold, somehow I’d written all of January’s blog posts in a couple of afternoons before the year was out. Since then, I’ve realised how helpful this is and so I am now in a fortunate position whereby I write all my blog posts a month ahead. Before January, I had never done this before (I am writing this in March) but this stroke of productive luck means that I will hopefully have things under control at times like the school holidays when I don’t want to have to be playing catch up. If you’re struggling to keep up with your blog posts, give yourself a fortnight off to write up a handful of posts. Get ahead. It is always worth it.

Set boundaries I check my emails once a day, while my husband drops my children at nursery and school in the morning (and on holidays, I still grab this half an hour). And that’s it. I do this because otherwise, if I’m just flitting into my phone and checking throughout the course of the day, I’m distracted from whatever else I need or want to be doing with my children. After reading the book Make Time, my husband convinced me that it was not unreasonable to reclaim my time in this way. I’m not a head of state or a CEO. My emails don’t require immediate responses within minutes or hours or even the same day. So I set boundaries and I manage other people’s expectations by letting them know in an auto-response that I’m not always at my desk to reply but that they can expect to hear from me the next morning or the next. I find guarding my time makes me both more productive as a writer (dealing with my inbox in one concentrated daily shot, rather than in drips and drabs) and more present as a mother.

Manage your own expectations If you’re working without childcare then there’s only so much you can realistically do. Acknowledge this and then embrace it. For me, that’s knowing that while others may blog five times a week, once a week is more than enough for me (and if you’re curious, I work ahead as above like this: every Wednesday, I publish one blog post and then I write another, for the following month, in my baby’s nap time. So this blog post you’re reading right now? I wrote it in March with a few quick tweaks to update it before I hit publish today). If I had more time to build upon my writing courses, then my expectations of myself would be higher. But I don’t have that time - and I stopped beating myself up about it a long time ago, because honestly, I’m happy the way things are. And here is more on this, on cultivating patience for expectations.

Keep school nights simple  I have learnt to keep things simple not because of writing commitments but because I know from experience that when I say yes to too much or do too much - school-night playdates or too many after-school clubs or a visit to a friend’s place that might mean a baby falling asleep at the wrong time in the car - things become more complicated than they need to be. I don’t see the point in overcomplicating our daily routine unnecessarily. So we don’t. We keep things simple. It works for the kids (they only ever want to come home after school) and it works for me. Lest I sound joyless, it is not as though playdates are banned, not at all! Instead, we’ve slipped into a rather lovely rowdy rotating routine of inviting friends from school and nursery over on weekends, with parents in tow, entire families staying for dinner with the kids play and then change into pyjamas before heading home. It makes playdates a whole lot less stressful and a lot more of a family affair for all of us.

Prioritise nap time for work Once my older children are dropped off (one at school, one in nursery), my day is spent with my youngest. Sometimes we might head to a toddler group, but mostly  I prefer it just us. We have plenty to do - park trips, errands, laundry, prepping dinner. There’s a couple of reasons for this; firstly I’m selfish and I adore his company just for me. But also, I keep him by my side so that our day runs the way I need it to.

I know some parents prefer to blitz all these jobs during their baby’s nap times but I save that time to write, and this is the biggest way in which I manage my time. I have done this with all three boys, wrote a book this way and just launched my new online writing course this way, and I’ve only been able to do do all this because we made routines as a family and we stick to them. Routines aren’t for everyone but the predictability works for us as a family, for many reasons that go beyond my work. It was not always this simple - this time last year when my youngest was not yet one, it was impossible to know if his afternoon nap would be one hour or just half. But he is now at an age where things are a little more predictable. His naps afford me valuable hours to work - though I am careful to prioritise my own work and writing first, because I’ve reached that stage in my life when I feel I can. (And for those of you wondering what I’ll do when he drops his nap, by that stage he will be attending a Montessori so I will gain a few more mornings a week).

Keep meals simple This is not to be understated. Cooking food for a family of five used to stress me out and boy, it takes a lot of time. Our freezer is the size of a letter box so batch-cooking is impossible and then there’s fussy eaters to think about too. So now, I try not to over worry. I keep mealtimes as simple as I can. I have taken to making kid-friendly tapas - bread boards filled with chunks of fruit sat next to little bowls of pasta with slices of cheese and cut up fingers of vegetables. I do a version of this everyday. Plus I no longer do all the cooking. The kids eat early (sometimes as early as 4.30pm in winter) and so while I take care of their meals, my husband (see below) pieces ours together after they have gone to bed.

Share the load if and when you can I’m lucky. My husband works from home twice a week and on these days, in the time he would otherwise be commuting home, he comes in from our shared office in the garden and takes over the children’s dinner, bath and bedtimes (we do this on Sunday evenings too), while I shut myself away in the office. He loves it, because on his commuting days, he doesn’t even see the boys in the evening for they already long asleep by the time he comes home.  I love it, because it gives me an extra few hours a couple of times a week in which to write and work. I also love it, because it reminds me of the tapestry of marriage: how one of us picks up the needle and thread where the other left off.

So there you have it. It’s far from perfect, it’s not a blueprint, and it’s doesn’t mean my days are always breezy, but these little ways of managing my everyday help keep most headaches at bay.

Next week, I plan to write part two of this blog post, focusing on how I approach the inherent subject of writing about my kids.

Inspired to write in first-person? To present your thoughts, to capture the moments you wish to remember?

Then come explore Postcards Home, my new online writing course; a six-week course on inspiring you to write your memories.

Postcards Home starts on Monday, May 20th, 2019.

My Picky Eater

An essay on a little boy who doesn’t like to eat very much. Picky eaters. Fussy eaters. Small people. OurStoryTime.co.uk

I have a small three-year-old shaped person in my life who loves carrots. This is great, for he does not like many things when it comes to food. So carrots are what we do.

I slice them up in fingers, knowing that if his main meal is simply pushed about his plate as it so often is, the carrots at least will find a way into his mouth. Sometimes I roast them, drizzled with a drop of honey. He declares these delicious. Let’s build on this, I think to myself, and so we bake muffins together, healthy ones with Greek yoghurt and carrot and the juice of a big, fat orange and then we bake yet more. He helps me peel the carrots, my breath half-held for fear of a slip, and then I hold the grater still for him so he can shred his carrot, his little voice offering a running commentary as we go.

Carrots, carrots, carrots, he sings.

He sits in front of the oven, waiting for the batch of muffins to be done. He plays with his baby brother’s toy kitchen, making me a pie from a wooden aubergine and half a wooden fish. I pretend to eat it.

Yum! I say. I will eat anything you make for me!

I tell him this, hoping my little promise might slip into his own tiny subconscious.

The muffins are done; he jumps for glee, his fingers twitching like a live wire (a habit of his when he is having fun). I make tea while he blows all over them to cool them quickly. We sit down, a muffin on a plate for each of us, and just as I’m taking a poignant polaroid in my mind of how lovely this moment has been, just me and him, he tucks in.

But Mama.

(I should have known)

But.

(Here it comes)

But Mama, it’s got carrots in it!

(Accompanied with an adorable but still testing look of sheer disgust).

Well, yes, I say. Remember, you grated the carrots for me? You mixed them in?

But Mama, I don’t like carrots!

And so I am flummoxed, once again.

Perhaps I pushed the carrots too much. Yes, I probably pushed the carrots too much. But what else do you do, when some days your child won’t even look at his plate? With just one tricky eater out of three and an overall healthy approach, I tell myself I’m not doing too badly. But then I also know it’s just him, this little guy, figuring things out, learning to say no. I know he’ll get there eventually. He will, won’t he?

Still, though. I’d like him to eat.

All three of my boys fell in love with food from the moment they tried apple puree and mashed bananas and avocados as gummy babies weaning. My eldest and my youngest still eat pretty much everything. My middle one, this little one, used to until about a year ago. I never followed any particular rules when it came to weaning, choosing instead to introduce them in a common sense, simple way to the food we liked to eat as grown-ups too. He used to love avocados and hummus and tomatoes and cucumbers and olives; lunch was almost always meze. Tofu and rice was his favourite meal. Slithers of halloumi, a treat. Now, he won’t touch any of it. He tells me breakfast is his favourite meal, and I concede, this he will eat: boiled eggs or big bowls of cinnamon porridge or yoghurt with granola or pancakes on Sundays. But breakfast is not dinner (unless, of course, it could be).

The title of this blog post is a little misleading not least because I don’t intend to label him as a picky or fussy eater and forever think of him like this. Still, it’s a title. I am reminding myself if he ate well once, he will eat well again. It is hard to not feel glum, but he is happy with the choices he makes at mealtimes and I suppose that is what counts. Meanwhile, I am investigating nicer ways to deal with this all, ways that don’t include bribes of pudding or raising my voice or tears at the table. Here’s what has been helping me even when it feels like all we’re taking is the tiniest of baby steps:

  • Claire at Today We Cooked inspires me daily with her Stories of her kids helping her cook and of course, the most amazing vegetarian repertoire of dinners. She sort of throws everything together, and cooks the way I’d love to cook. Here’s hoping.

  • Claire also introduced me to Ciara’s account and cookbook, My Fussy Eater, which has given me hope to find ways to expand my own fussy eater’s tastebuds. Her pizza rolls are a hit with all three kids, made with her hidden vegetable sauce, which I had my own variation of before. Her healthier take on baked goods (almost always using a modest amount of honey over sugar) has also helped endlessly with snack boxes for school - her wholemeal oaty digestive biscuits and raspberry chia crumble slices have been a particular hit with the whole family.

  • I really appreciate nutritionist Laura Thomas’s perspective on encouraging intuitive eating for kids from a small age. You can listen to her talking about intuitive eating for kids in her podcast. I don’t (yet) have a success story to share, but the mood of mealtimes has vastly improved when I remind myself it’s not my place to force him into eating what he doesn’t want to. It’s hard not to feel defeated, but on we go.

I’d love to hear your experiences of this; let me know over on my Instagram or in the messages below. How do you deal with little people that don’t like to eat?