Dear Readers, I just want to let you know that I wrote this blog post, and intended to send it, before my second son was born. But the baby outsmarted me and turned out before that… Hence both the delay in my fortnightly post and the outdated references to the baby growing inside me. He’s very much in this world now so the struggle over my writerly soul has begun… Happy writing to you and thank you for your ongoing support!
Almost two years ago now I blogged about my experiences as a first-time mother and a lifetime writer. I felt then that, for me at least, motherhood was more compatible with writing than I had imagined it would be. Indeed, since I have had my child I’ve managed to finish a PhD and a book, and, more recently, have written quite a few short works while also doing the festival circuit and other events to promote my memoir which came out late last year. I could only accomplish all this, of course, with the support of my very-helpful husband and by resorting to part-time childcare. Still, I’d been feeling some smugness as to how I managed to preserve my adult identity. But now that a second child is growing heavier and fiercer inside me, keeping me awake at night, and is about to materialize in person this month, while the first one is in the throws of Terrible Toddlerhood, the stakes are getting higher. I feel fearful again about how to manage both writing and breeding. Can I have it all and remain sane?
This is not to say that I am cutting back much. My first post-birth literary event is scheduled just four weeks after I deliver, and the anthology I am co-editing with the author Maria Katsonis is due to be finalised in mid-January. Am I deluded in thinking I can do this all? To survive the next few months, I decided to pick the brains of those writers I know who have managed to mother or father more than one offspring and still maintain their writing output. Hopefully their advice will speak to some of you the way it did to me.
Nicola Redhouse, an editor and writer whose short works have appeared in such publications as Meanjin and Best Australian Stories, manages to do her work while caring for two boys under the age of five. Her best tip for coping with the arrival of the second child, which of course means even more fatigue, is all about patience and parenting as a source of inspiration: ‘Try to sit with the frustrating feeling of not being able to just write whenever you want by remembering that it will come once the children are a bit more independent. In the meantime, absorb the experience of observing this new kind of existence, as that in itself is part of the fabric of life that will feed your writing.’
Leah Kaminsky, whose record of raising three children, running her own busy medical practice and giving birth to eight books leaves me dizzy, thinks taking small, incremental steps towards our writing projects is possible even when the children are really small: ‘I had my first two children fifteen months apart, so deprived sleep changed to absolutely no sleep once the second came along.’ Still, during that non-sleeping period Leah managed to keep a journal where she’d write phrases, sentences and brief scenes, which she later ended up using in her novel, The Waiting Room.
Irma Gold is the creator of three children’s books, a collection of short stories and three kids. Legend has it that while Irma labored with one of her children in a hospital bed, at the same time she also completed an application for some literary grant which she later indeed received. While such heroism is outside of my capacity, Irma’s approach to the ongoing practice of writing feels more doable: ‘I’m not one of those writers who can get up before dawn or write into the night. So the only way I was able to carve out any time to write was to blinker myself to the housework. I was fortunate that all my children had three-hour daytime naps. So having put them down, I’d march straight past the mound of dirty dishes and the overflowing laundry basket to the computer, where I remained for the full three hours. Parenthood has forced me to learn how to write in the cracks of life. I take my chance anytime, anywhere.’
The philosopher and author of seven books, who fully shares the care of his two children with his (also writer) wife, Damon Young, highlighted for me the difference in a writer’s life between having one as opposed to two children: ‘With one child, kid-wrangling by one partner meant freedom for the other. With two, there was more labour, and less liberty. So when Ruth fed our second child, Sophia, I played with Nikos. If I took Sophia out to one spot, Ruth had to get Nikos to kindergarten elsewhere. One slept, the other woke up. And so on. Obviously I could take both kids out to give Ruth time to write, and vice versa. But it’s more complicated with a three-year-old and a baby. I wrote my second book when Sophia was a baby, and Ruth was finishing a major project. Writing, for me, was basically a few hours here and there at cafes, while Sophia slept or fed and Nikos was at kindergarten.’ What helped Damon to persevere with his work were his excellent writing habits which make great sense to me: ‘1. Writing every day. Not because it’s necessarily high quality, but because it keeps up practice and maintains identity; 2. Writing quickly and without distractions. For example, find a good café where kids can play or sleep. If alone, use good noise cancelling earphones to stop the chatter; 3. Saying ‘no’ to the right things, and explicitly doing so for family reasons; 4. Delegating logistics to things. Use Scrivener to keep an overall plan of that essay/poem/novel. Make or record notes. Send texts, emails. Do not trust memory.’
Finally, the most fertile writer I spoke to, the award-winning author of YA fiction and mother of four, Ellie Marney, reminded me of the importance of keeping writing time and time with children separated: ‘With four kids, I’ve had to learn how to compartmentalize the part of my brain that is writing and the part that is parenting. So you become a bit split personality – but hey, that’s okay! Make sure you make time for yourself and writing – take that time out and don’t feel guilty, it makes you a saner parent. Be present for your kids when it’s kid time (as much as you can), but don’t feel bad about giving yourself time for you.’
With all this wisdom in mind, I am now taking leave from this blog for the next four months to get used to my new predicament and, hopefully, find my way out of it. Once I am back, in February, I’ll let you know how all this goes. Meantime, I wish everyone happy writing and, if you are inclined so, then happy breeding too. And if you’ve got any more advice for me on the topic, please leave a comment here.