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?

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