Juggling Motherhood with Being a Writer: You CAN do it!

The final proofed pages of my latest novel, on their way back to my publisher, complete with Random Toddler Attack
The final proofed pages of my latest novel, on their way back to my publisher, complete with Random Toddler Attack

Top Ten Tips for Being a Mama and Getting Your Writing Done!

I see so many interviews out there where a female writer is asked how she manages to write while also being a mother. And I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I’m yet to see or hear the same question asked of a male writer. Now, I could pose a lot of theories of why that is the case, but since it is a topic that doesn’t seem to go away, I thought I’d put my two cents in as well.

Firstly, I want to be very clear in that I don’t think there is any difference between a working mother/writer and a mother who is also working as a teacher, nurse, psychologist, chemical engineer, astronaut, television host or cleaner. Right? It’s all a job or career and so we’re all faced with the same challenges. In fact, the ADVANTAGE of being a working writer and mother is that your time is infinitely MORE flexible. (That can also be a double-edged sword, but see below for that.)

So like all working mothers, working writers have to make choices about what is right for them and their career, their time, their family and their children. Nannies, daycare and grandparents are all considered, perhaps working part-time to allow for some sort of ‘balance’. Or, you might like to work full-time with full-time childcare. In my own case, we battled on with (expensive) in-home nannies for the first two years after our son was born (I got my literary agent five weeks after he was born… yikes!), and then he showed us he was ready to go to daycare two days a week. My dad and stepmother (luckily) adore him and they have him with them another day a week. So that gives me three days a week dedicated to writing. This works for all of us right now.

Before I had a child, I could write whenever I wanted to, for the most part. Now, I have to do it on my ‘working’ days. It’s not always easy but, again, any other job is the same. Some days we don’t want to go, right? But if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid. Sometimes I will work at night or on weekends, and every now and then I throw in a weekend away for a writing retreat to get some intensive uninterrupted time with my novel.

The tough stuff for me is when things happen on days that aren’t ‘writing days’: stuff like interviews, photo shoots, interstate travel, publicity events and commitments etc. Then the juggling does get tricky and this takes some whole family commitment to changing timetables and so on. And of course, often those other commitments DO happen on ‘writing days’ (because it is impossible to do a photo shoot with a toddler in his “Hulk” phase testing out his power by upending furniture), so that means that no writing actually happens and that puts pressure on the word count targets.

But I wouldn’t change any of it because I think I have the best job in the world for me.

I do know that the big pressures come when you are as-yet unpublished and are trying to work out how to work, and raise children, AND write a book. That’s tough. But still do-able. It takes a lot of compassion for yourself and belief in your need to write, as well as some creative thinking and support from your family. And it’s okay to ask for help, ya know?

Some tips:

  1. If you can, take back some time by hiring a cleaner to come for a few hours a week and spend every minute of that time writing. And if you have mama guilt about that, USE it to fuel your word count goal to prove to yourself how useful and productive you’re being. (As an aside, I don’t actually subscribe to this sort of fear-based motivation, but if you need to use it in the short term to get yourself moving then by all means DO IT!)
  2. If you can write in ten-minute or thirty-minutes snatches of time, I bow at your feet! If, like me, you’re not really like that, try to find at least ONE HOUR at a time (many writers do it at 4.30am or 9.30pm) and write like a demon for sixty minutes. Better yet, maybe it’s even more valuable to negotiate one whole weekend every month or two and just delve down deep into your book. You might get more done in that time than you would in six months of half-hour snatches.
  3. Writing brings with it incredible flexibility in terms of the time of day you can write and where you can write. This is awesome. Use that flexibility…
  4. …BUT! Be warned. This type of flexibility also means that when the child is sick and can’t go to daycare, when the car needs to go to the mechanic, when the plumber needs to come to the house etc. etc., it will likely be YOU that is asked to give up your writing time to deal with the domestic need. And, often, this happens because ‘your job’ isn’t ‘earning any money’ at that time while your partner’s job is. Oh, the mama guilt that goes with that! And look, the reality is that you do need to keep money coming into the house, right? But just be very aware of this trap. Learn to set boundaries and be patient with yourself as you learn to protect them and learn to claw back that time that you lost with the plumber on another day. Learn to negotiate. It can be tough; I get it. (Even now, as a published author whose income contributes considerably to our household, I still find it difficult.) But you need to do it.
  5. Work while disconnected. I use Freedom, a cheap, neat little program that BLOCKS THE INTERNET on my computer while I’m writing. What a difference it makes! We are too distracted and too distractible. If you’re on limited writing time than for goodness’ sake, suck the marrow out of every minute you have.
  6. Remember that you can plan a lot in your head while you’re playing with train sets and play dough. You can THINK about your book at any minute of the day.
  7. I think having a child actually makes me a better writer. It focuses my attention and time and forces me to move through procrastination and blocks much faster than I would do if I didn’t have the time ticking down to when I had to leave to pick him up from daycare. He is pure imagination and play and makes me laugh all the time and provides an incredible wealth of new experiences, emotions, ideas and material for books. And I swear that reading children’s books makes me a better writer. This is all valuable stuff for your career.
  8. Working on hard copy (writing by hand, or editing on paper) is much easier to do when you’ve got little people around than carrying your laptop around or locking yourself away in a room. Your supervision is still good, the little person won’t try and take over your laptop, you can hand over paper and pens so that you can ‘work together’, and the cup of juice that gets spilt won’t ruin your notebook like it will your laptop. You can always type up words later when you’re tired and don’t actually need too many brain cells simply to read and type, rather than create.
  9. Fatigue can be a problem. Oh boy, I get this. You need to train.
  10. Finally, it all comes down to this. If you want it enough, you’ll make it work. You can do it. You can. You absolutely can. You MORE than can. You can…. I promise.

Happy writing!

Top Ten Tips: The Writer (and Mother) as an Athlete

Written on my fridge right now. Remind yourself--you are an athlete!
Written on my fridge right now. Remind yourself–you are an athlete!

I have often been heard to say that I feel like I’m running a marathon every day. And I hear a lot of other mothers say it too. What can we do? Here are some thoughts.

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I am an unashamed ‘Swiftie’ (that is, a fan of Taylor Swift), and I once heard her say how much time she spent at the gym. Now, I’ve been to a Taylor Swift concert and trust me that entire performance is more than any gym work out could be. Why on earth did she need to go to the gym as well? I asked this of my husband, who is a physiotherapist.

‘It’s a huge misconception,’ he said. ‘I see it a lot in guys who work in labouring jobs. They think that because they’re active all day that they don’t need to do any more exercise. But what they don’t understand it that to work continuously at their optimum performance, they actually need to be fitter and stronger than what they are required to do.’

Big. Lightbulb. Moment.

To get through everything in my life I need to think of myself as an endurance athlete.

A green smoothie I made with a stick blender - banana, flaxseeds, spinach leaves, fresh mint, parsley
A green smoothie I made with a stick blender – banana, flaxseeds, spinach leaves, fresh mint, parsley

It’s not okay to be just fit enough to do our jobs. We have to be MORE fit so we can do it easily AND have energy left over to play with our kids and have quality time with our spouses and make awesome food and maybe even play and have fun.

‘Writer’ and ‘athlete’ don’t normally conjure up similarities. In fact, most writers I know complain about how sedentary their job is and how much weight they’ve gained and how unfit they’ve become. It’s not even just that we’re sitting at a computer for many hours a day, as many people do who work in an office. It’s also that we don’t have to leave the house, so there’s a serious decrease in all the incidental exercise you get if you have to walk to and from a bus or a train, or escape outside the building for a walk during your lunch hour, or have to walk from one side of the building to the other to talk to a co-worker. I noticed this dramatically when I gave up work that required me to leave the house. My weight bloomed, almost overnight.

After writing for thirteen years through full-time jobs, part-time jobs, and even unemployment, I finally got my agent just five weeks after my son was born, and three book contracts very soon after. Suddenly, I had to juggle first-time new motherhood with serious contractual requirements, severe sleep deprivation, renovating a house and moving, and living in the country and driving obscene hours in the car with a newborn. I coped, but only just. And with a lot of coffee and chocolate.

I’ve come to understand that if I’m going to have longevity in the game of being an author, and be energetically and emotionally present for my child, husband, family and so on, AND look after my self, my animals, house, friends and all of that, then I have to think of myself as an athlete. I need to train regularly — and yes, I do mean with physical activity. I need to fuel my body with the best resources possible: protein, vitamins, juices, power smoothies, organics, fresh produce. I need to put energy IN in order to get energy OUT.

It’s so simple, isn’t it? And yet it’s so easy to overlook. And the more tired we are, the easier it is to reach for coffee and a bowl of cereal for dinner rather than juicing vegetables and cooking energy-enhancing foods. It becomes a vicious cycle, one that’s very hard to break.

This is still a work in progress for me, but I’ve been steadily improving for the past couple of months. And here are my Top Ten Tips for what’s worked for me. Maybe some of them will help you too.

  • Design a daily checklist of everything you feel you need to (or want to) do to help your body. Most of the time, I get so lost in the work I’m doing that I truly and simply forget to take my vitamins, get on the cross trainer, do my physiotherapy exercises, make a fresh juice, defrost something from the freezer. Checklist. Get one. Leave it on the bench in the kitchen and tick it off over the course of the day. Write down everything you eat. You’ll start to see patterns and it helps keep you on track.
  • You don’t need an expensive juicer! You can do almost anything with a stick blender. I was feeling blocked about juicing because we didn’t have a juicer (cheap or expensive) and have no cupboard space or bench space to have one. Then I worked out that you can do almost anything with a stick a blender. Throw ingredients in and whiz. Simple. The only things it will struggle with are really hard vegetables, like beetroot or carrot. BUT, if you want them, grate them first and throw them in. Simple.
  • Protein for breakfast. Salmon, eggs, protein smoothies (as supplements, not as replacements), steak, baked beans, mushrooms. Get your high quality protein in early in the day (rather than at the end). It reduces sugar cravings and keeps you going longer.
  • Grow some leafy greens. Seriously, spinach, kale and chard are SO simple to grow (I’m growing them in styrofoam boxes), so cheap and quick to sow from seed, and so fabulous to pick fresh and throw into a juice or smoothie for some LIVING food that is packed full of vitamins and energy boosting goodness. IMG_3178
  • Start the day with a fruit bowl. In our house, as I know is true of many others, we have resistance to eating fruit unless it is chopped up. So we now start the day with a fruit bowl of freshly chopped fruit. We take turns at making it in the morning while the other person is generally tending to our toddler. Your fruit is done for the day and it is yum yum yummy. (We also like to top the fruit with extras like chia seeds, flaxseeds or goji berries — you can buy in advance and store in jars or paper bags and throw them on).
  • Exercise. 20 minutes. Any time, any where. Every day. There is always something you can do. Personally, I am challenged with multiple (and complicated) rheumatic conditions, I’m always carrying at least one severe injury at any given time (which usually lasts a good six months or more) and have to be so careful about how I exercise. But I married a physio. And what I discovered was that it is a (good) physiotherapist’s job (and calling in life) to find a way for you to move. And they will. Example, if I lift even 1kg weights, I sprain my wrists. So, my husband bought me strap on ankle weights and strapped them around my forearms so no load goes through the joint. Presto. Problem solved. Find yourself a GOOD physio (because, like all things, they aren’t all created equal).
  • Stop drinking coffee. Oh boy, this can be hard. I never really drank coffee until I had a baby. (True story: My husband had never had a coffee in his life until we walked into the hospital to have our baby and he decided that it was going to take a while so perhaps he should start. It took him the next two years to give up.) After I had Flynn, I was shattered, in every way. Coffee became the only thing that would keep me safe on the roads and even vaguely able to do my job. But by the time Flynn was two years old, I realised that I couldn’t keep drinking coffee. It stimulated my adrenals and gave me a false sense of energy when really it was just draining me even more. Now, my rule is that if I think I need coffee, I will make a chai. And if I still feel like having coffee after the chai, then I’m allowed to have one. But I never do.
  • Spirulina / Power Greens. When all else fails, throw a teaspoon of high-density greens in powdered form into a juice. You’d be amazed.
  • Vitamin B. You burn lots of vitamin B when you’re stressed. Make sure you’ve got enough, are getting enough, or supplement with enough. Iron. Same goes there. I’d fallen into a false sense of safety with iron. I used to have to take it all the time but I thought things had changed. Wrong. I didn’t even have a clue until a GP randomly tested for it and phoned to tell me it was below the line. Wow. What a difference to your life iron will make.
  • Dark chocolate! Oh yes indeed! Dark chocolate is good, good, good for you. It’s a power food, people. Eat it. (But it has to be dark! I can eat up to 85% cocoa quite comfortably, but if you’re just beginning, try something around 40 or 50% and build up.)