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.

Books that make me want to write

Books that have inspired me to write. How to write stories. How to be a writer. Ourstorytime.co.uk

I’m often asked how I became a writer.

I used to answer with my most self-deprecating voice. I tried to pretend like it was nothing, just some happy accident, like it wasn’t what I’d spent my whole life working towards. Like it hadn’t always been my dream.

Oh, you know, I’d say.

I try not to do that anymore. Now when someone asks me how I became a writer, I explain that I was a journalist for years but that at some point I started writing less about the news and more about myself.

But how did you write your book? they then ask.

And so I explain how an editor at a publishing company once noticed my work in the paper and how he asked if we could meet and, oh, if I could also bring along some book ideas with me.

I might then explain how I was seven weeks pregnant at the time, and that this made everything a little fuzzy because the signs of sickness were already beginning to lurch and I was otherwise preoccupied.

I’d explain, too, that the sickness was why my initial book ideas weren’t that great but that it didn’t matter because he offered me a deal right there and then, in a pub opposite Earls Court during the spring season of the London Book Fair (and here, I’d warn them: don’t sign a deal without an agent. I wish I had known this but I didn’t, not until my own agent signed me a few months later). And then I’d tell them that I don’t remember what happened next because I had to run to the bathroom, pushing past a strange man in a top hat on the stairs (a top hat; perhaps a book fair thing), where I was promptly sick - not because of the book, but because of the baby.

But really, those are just details.

The truth is, I’m a writer, because I read a lot of books and some books pull at my heart so hard that they make me want to write like that too even if I’m nowhere near as good or ready yet.

I split these books into two. There’s my inspirational books, the ones that made me want to write, and then my practical ones, the ones that help me to write. My inspirational books are the ones that tore me to bits with their beauty or their intrigue and weaved some sort of spell on me. These are the books I turn to, again and again. Some of these are the books of my childhood and my teenage years, which weave in with my memories and remind me of certain places, faces and times. These are the books that make me want to write as beautifully and simply as I can.

Then there are the more practical books, the ones that took me out of the ten-word intros of the newsroom and into more longer, thoughtful, crafted prose. These are the books that help me polish up my words instead of wasting time. These are the ones that I’ll turn to all the time when I need a good talking to about what on earth it is I’m trying to do and why I’m trying to do it.

You’ll find my two sets of books below. I’d love to know which books have made you want to write too.

The Books that Made Me Want To Write

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I was seven or eight when I first read Little Women, and I still have my childhood copy. This book made me want to be a writer because I, like so many other little girls, wanted to be Jo. Like Jo, I had wild and long and thick hair as a girl and I often wondered then what it would be like to hack it all off. But mostly, I wanted to be Jo because she was smart and she was a writer and that made me want to be a writer too. She gave me a glimpse of what it meant to be strong-willed. I’ll never forget imagining what it might have been like, to be Jo.

The Catcher In The Rye, by JD Salinger (but also everything JD Salinger wrote; see also: Franny and Zooey, For Esme With Love & Squalor and Raise High The Roof Beam)

I read The Catcher In The Rye when I was thirteen or fourteen and then I re-read it and re-read it countless times. I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and all his troubles and I remember thinking, as a teenager, that he sounded so real and I wondered how anyone could do that, how anyone could make a person on a page, who did not even exist and had no skin, feel so real. Later, I came to learn that The Catcher In The Rye was a lesson in the most amazing narrative, dialogue and character and then I read everything else that Salinger wrote. For Esme With Love & Squalor was the first short story I’d ever read and I remember pulling it apart then piecing it back together again and marvelling at the whole damn thing.

Salt And Saffron by Kamila Shamsie

After I lost my father, I began to search harder for novels in which I could see myself and find myself, my family, my history. I wanted to taste my father’s world and I wanted to somehow make sense of my own. And then I found Salt And Saffron, a magical woven tale of Pakistani family trees and stories and summers in London spent sorting fact from fiction to try and figure out who you are. I loved the protagonist, and more than that, I felt like her too. I felt like I understood her need to understand her past in order to make sense of her present. By this point, I was already writing short stories in my spare time outside of work, and I began to realise through this book that I could maybe even write about who I was, or at least about the worlds I inhabited.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri

This book made me want to write because it showed me how the simplest of writing is the most beautiful. It showed me, too, that I could write about my heritage and my south Asian culture and let it simply sit there, without it needing to be the biggest point. Through this book, I learnt the depth of writing quietly and the importance of being an observer. These short stories taught me to shift my focus, look in the background, consider the details, and make those the story instead. I always come back to Unaccustomed Earth whenever I am feeling lost in my writing or even just in my soul. A line from one of Lahiri stories inspired the title of my very own collection of short stories, In Spite Of Oceans, too.

The Books that Help Me How To Write

I have a small section of my bookshelf set aside for the books that talk about the nature and the art of writing. These are the sort of books that help unpick the essence of writing to its seams. My favourites change like the seasons, but out of that section, these are the two I’ve been returning to again and again lately:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Part memoir, part writing-motivation, this book is warm and generous and full of everything you need to hear when you want someone to make you a cup of tea, sit down in front of you, hold your hands and and tell you what to do when you are faced with writer’s block. Allow me to explain the meaning of the title:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

So, bird by bird, I mutter to myself when I find myself avoiding my desk, rather wiping down the counters or mopping the floors or tidying the toys away again. Bird by bird, my husband says to me, when he takes over bedtime and ushers me into his office so I can have an evening uninterrupted to work on chapters. Bird by Bird. It works (almost) every time.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A well-thumbed favourite from years ago, I studied this book in depth before writing my first book. Even though I’d been a literature grad, I don’t think I fully understood the weight every single word might hold. I never fully understood the significance of every word being a choice. This book helped me re-read in a different way, in a slower way that asks questions and provokes as it ambles along.

An extra little thank you to Gemma, for suggesting I write this post.

A little note to say that this post includes affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost whatsoever to you.

Interested in crafting your writing skills? In June, I’ll be launching a brand new summer course. Sign up to my Writer’s Letter to find out first!