Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An inconvenient truth about mothers and writing

I had one of those chance conversations today that start small and finish really big. A lovely friend and I were chatting about plants and about pools and about travel, when we got onto the subject of writing. I know that she has writing dreams, so I asked how they were going.

"Not well," she admitted, before confessing that she had trouble finding the time to write. (We have discussed before my thoughts on making time, but stay with me here - I'm branching out, I promise.)

We went through a whole range of variations of how busy life is and how hard it is to find the time to do the things we want. But there was more to it. There's always more to it.

Like many women, many mothers, she's struggling to fit the thing she wants to do in around the things she feels she has to do. The things that other people expect her to do. Writing, particularly when it's not paid, looks like a colossal waste of time to non-writers - particularly to those people who might be working long hours to keep the family afloat financially.

Writing eats up hours. It is the kind of thing that can take you far away from the dirty dishes in the sink and the unmade beds and the general detritus of daily life. Right up until the point where the family comes home and you find yourself rushing around, trying to make up for lost time.

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

I was surprised to find that this quote was written by a man (Cyril Connolly to be precise).  To me, it is something a female writer might have come up with after the sleepless nights and interrupted thought patterns that accompany the newborn infant. Or perhaps even about the overriding sense of responsibility and selflessness that accompanies being a parent. A mother.

Writing is a selfish task. It is all about you. Most women I know find that particular concept very, very difficult to put into practice once they have children. I know that I have. My freelance writing is one thing - it's my job, it's paid, it helps with family income. But the fiction? Colossal gamble. Hours and hours and hours of my life in pursuit of a dream. Making myself sit down at 10pm at night. Getting up early (okay, once).

I know female authors who can't work in school holidays, no matter where they're at with their latest project. I know female authors who tuck their writing away from their families, hiding it from husbands who don't like the impact it has on family life. Compartmentalising.

Like a cuckoo in the nest, writing is viewed as a voracious beast that has the potential to disrupt familiar routines and interfere with family time.

Babies do not get that you have a deadline and you need them to sleep, right NOW, for at least two hours.

Children do not understand that you are in full flight, on a roll, chasing down the most glorious idea that you've ever had. They want their afternoon snack, right NOW, and it's time for swimming lessons, thanks.

Partners sometimes don't get why you'd want to give up quality tele time with them to get back to your computer and the particular juicy subplot that came to you in the shower.

Houses do not clean themselves.

I understand it. Family units work best when each family member is present. When I'm writing something, I spend a lot of time in my head. I can be reading a bedtime story to my boys while busily devising my own quite different plot point at the same time. After I walk the boys to school, I meander home in the sunshine, deep in my own thoughts. This is not always ideal in a smallish town where people wonder why you look straight through them on the street.

Most female writers I know have learnt to manage without the long stretches of writing time that is the 'ideal' for creating great work. They write in snatches, when they can. They work hard to get the writing done without inconveniencing anyone else.

But they still write.

What am I saying here?

If you're struggling, like my friend, with this notion that your writing is somehow inconvenient, that you should be spending your time doing more worthwhile things, find a way. Do it at a time when it affects no-one at all, be that 5am or midnight or during your lunch hour at work.

If you have stories to write, then write them.

You only get one crack at this life. Don't let dirty dishes and expectations stand between you and your writing dream.

To steal a catchphrase: You're worth it.

Do you find it difficult to fit writing in with family life? Any tips to share?


  1. Wonderfully brilliant and insightful post Al.

    It is so hard for non-writers to get why writers NEED to write and that it is a VERY worthwhile pursuit - paid or not. But I also get that when I go all vague on my hubby because my mind is on a particular piece I am working on, it drives him nuts because it tells him I am not present in the moment.

    It is a very very hard balance and I am forever grateful that I am a morning person and don't mind waking up at 5am to get that beautiful, uninterrupted hour or two in the morning. It is bliss!

  2. What a beautiful post. You have absolutely hit the nail on the head. I also agree with Kelly's comment.

    Writing to me is like reaching deep down into my soul, rummaging around a bit amongst the debris, the wet clothes, the smelly remnants of history past and pulling out from the recesses a beautiful and lovingly crafted tale.

    It makes my heart sing like no other job I've ever had. Brings tears to my eyes at the thought of how satisfied and fulfilled I feel when I write and press publish on my blog.

  3. Wow - what a beautiful post - I can't tell you how much this touched me - thank you. You are so right - we only get one life and the dishes will still be there. I remember when I left high school many many years ago I wanted to go into journalism but somehow I ended up in hospitality, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't find the time to do what I love - write.

  4. Like so many writing mothers I only write when the kids (and there are three of them) are sleeping. The days when the two year old and the baby tag team their sleeps, so at any one time *someone* is awake, are the days when ideas flow thick and fast, but I can't get them down, and they are lost and forgotten.

    I have signed up for NaNoWriMo next month and I am trying to figure out how I can possily write my 1,700 words a day and keep the kids alive and the house functioning.

    Something will have to give...

  5. I can relate to so much of what you have written and Kelly's comment as well. I am surrounded by children and non-writers and I find myself constantly feeling like I need to justify time I spend writing. There just seem to be so many other 'important' things that need to be done. And they are important for my children, my husband sometimes even for myself, so once again writing moves to the bottom of the list because it is only important to me.

    It's not just the writing time itself that causes confusion and conflict, it's the mental space that it requires - the preparation, the pondering, the research, the gathering of thoughts and ideas. To others, it just looks like procrastination (which it is sometimes, but not always).

    I'm looking forward to reading the comments here. For me, it's not just about making myself a priority. It's also about a longing to have those around me understand what this means to me. Maybe that's why I enjoy so many of my friendships on Twitter. I've found a wonderful network of writers and creatives online who understand and that has been a wonderful source of encouragement and support that is often missing from my 'real' world.

  6. Love, love, love this post. Thank you Al.

  7. "Writing eats up hours. It is the kind of thing that can take you far away from the dirty dishes in the sink and the unmade beds and the general detritus of daily life."

    Which is why we need to make time for it, because it stretches us and helps us to grow and change and see the world, indeed, see the unmade be and dirty dishes, with new eyes.

    It's not easy. I would suggest that finding time to do anything that feels like "ours" is a struggle. Yet it's a struggle we must wage if we are going to bring our best selves to the role of being a Mother.

  8. Hence I am here, at 5.04am, to give you a quick comment, before I write...


  9. Im currently away from home on a uni research conference thing and the best part is that through the breaks in the day and the talks I dont want to go to I can run away, sit down, and do some freelance stuff and some me writing stuff. I dont call it a hobby anymore I tell my kids Im working. I guess even though some of it isnt paid Im working on me.

    Thanks for articulating it so beautifully

    1. I do the same thing Sarah. My writing isn't paid, but I tell my kids and husband I'm working, and they respect it (sort of).

  10. Never truer words have been spoken Alison. The problem with writing as u say is that it is all consuming. You can be reading to your children, in the shower, or walking down the street and be far away in another world. I'm not so keen on that aspect of it and catch myself (or my daughter catches me) doing it. I want to be present in my life, not living in my head. On saying that though, Writing is a fabulous form of expression and can be wonderfully therapeutic. The author of Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says activities where we get lost in time are a motivational force that can lead to positive feelings and energy in our life. I know when I write I get into that Flow and feel like that. This is a good post. Finding time to write can be hard, but in small snatches it can be done without the rest of our worlds falling apart.

  11. Gosh you're a clever girl. You should really write a book. Or several.

  12. I'm a non-writer, but still understand everything said here. You see, I'm a reader. I've spent many, many hours deeply engrossed in whatever book I had going at the time, then surfacing only to race around the house getting things in order before the tribe got home from school. Admittedly, I'm a neat freak and there wasn't much racing around to be done, just after school snacks pulled out from the freezer, dinner preparations going, but I always found time to be buried in books. even with the kids at home. Of course reading what all you lovely people write is much, much easier than writing.

  13. I am bookmarking this post. Very, very helpful. Thank you! I often end up doing my reading and writing late at night, but that doesn't really work either. I love getting up early in the morning and having the house to myself so that's the way I'm trying to go now.
    Either way, you have to sacrifice precious SLEEP...

  14. Marion is exactly right. Writing - creating art - is what we live for. It's why we work hard, so we can enjoy the fruits of this life we've been given. And to not try to reach up for the juiciest fruit, well it's just a sweet shame.
    And as to why a woman didn't write the quote about the pram in the hall? She was too busy vacuuming the damn hall.
    Loved this post, thank you Al.

  15. Utterly brilliant. When I'm writing I feel like I'm stealing time from my family.

    Thanks for the nudge xxx

  16. Allison. Thanks for this well-articulated motivational post. I, too, can related entirely to this conundrum, apart from - of course - being called a mother. Yet I am well used, by now, to this short hand for the roles and responsibilities, division of labour and expectations that I have adopted as the non-breadwinner, primary-caring, home-economist SAHD.

    Last year, I had occasion to reflect on ambitions and the awful gap between having them and achieving things. Your 'pep talk' here is about taking personal ambitions seriously, against all the pressure of the world to stuff them down or push them aside. Drawing together a determination to overcome everything to step towards achievements is a big ask, which some people can pull off, but I think it is really still just a first step.

    As you say, writing is a pursuit that our own expectations and the expectations of those around us don't easily recognise as worthwhile. Even with a deep conscious desire to value and pursue writing, the internal and external pressures of evolution and civilisation stand as gargantuan oppostion. This extends from the caring resposibilities for family and home being assigned to individuals within atomised family units, to our instinctive animal bias to perceive, confront and address short-term issues. This last bias—for things right here, right now—is preyed upon by advertisers, marketers and persuaders everywhere we look.

    I know everyone already knows that pusuing ambition requires dedicaton and effort, but I think success is rarely just about taking it seriously and trying harder. In my reflections last year, I identified four broad strategies for pursuing ambitions:

    1. heroic, self-mastery
    2. habits and discipline
    3. involving others
    4. the Ulysses Pact, where we act now to bind our future self

    Heroic, self-mastery is this one about just about picking yourself up and getting things done by sheer will. All the other options are about working smarter to ease the demand on will-power, which is always finite and will wax and wane.

    NaNoWriMo is a great example of a Ulysses Pact, involving others and developing habits to pursue an ambition.

    I wonder what other strategies people have married to the ambition to get the writing done.

  17. This post made me tear up. I think I will show it to my husband.

    Thanks, Al xxx

  18. Al, this post made me very emotional. As I'm only starting on my writing journey it is such a hard thing to comes to terms with. Writing to me is selfish time, but just something I need to do. My husband doesn't get it AT ALL. He's from the thinking that if you are spending so much time on something it should be worth something - financially. I know one day, I will be paid for my freelance writing. I'm still working my way to that and have given myself twelve months to get there, but even so it will just be a trickle of income, not enough to support the household! And you know what, I am okay with that. He's not. I recently told him I was doing NaNoWriMo and he just didn't get it. He wants me to be present at nights not tapping away on my keyboard, and I get that. But I just can't fight this desire to write. Added to this is the fact that my inspiration kicks in around 10pm at night. It is a real conundrum. But thank you for your beautiful post. It has helped. xx

  19. Allison, this is EXACTLY what I needed to read today.
    I want to write. My head is a whirlwind of ideas and stories and posts. Some days I find a slot of time and I write to my heart's content....however it's the inconsistency that is bugging me. I had all of 2012 off work {maternity leave from my 'day job'} and when the year begun I had visions of how it will look and how much writing & dream chasing I'd get done. I figured the baby would sleep and the 4yr old would go to Kindy a few days a week and I'd write write write!
    Haaa! I didn't realise I was going to have a highly strung baby who rarely sleeps longer than 30mins during the day and wakes every hour during the night {still at 11months old}. Mixed with a busy 4 yr old who needs interaction...a lot.
    We're almost in November and yeah I've made a chunk into my kid's chapter book and landed myself some paid writing gigs....but I'm nowhere near finding balance or quality writing time. And the guilt....oh the guilt!!
    Love that you keep it so real Allison.

  20. What a fantastic post, I really needed to read this :) Thank you!

  21. THIS.

    So, so true, Allison. I feel like you've just opened up my brain and seen the almost daily struggle going on in there. There have been times when I have written a whole day away, only to look up in horror and see that it's almost 2.30pm and I have to pick up kids, the washing is still waiting to be hung out and dinner hasn't even been thought of yet. And all because I was in 'the zone' of an idea and had to get it all down.

    I've had this dream of writing a book for a very long time. The story in my head just won't go away. I really want to do it, even if I have to write it in 200 word blocks. That's about all all the time I can grab at the moment, what with family and work commitments.

    Thank you for writing this post, Allison - I really needed to see that today x

  22. Somehow you have been watching my life.......no but really as I drafted my blog in the front seat of my car with my boys asleep in the back (I was parked not driving) I thought to myself "I have to take what I can get". It's nice to know there are others like me out there.

  23. Thank you for this post. I often have to write in snatches and/or lie to my spouse that I'm writing an essay when I'm really tapping out a blog post. What I would give for a weekend away by myself!

  24. Thank you what a brilliant post, my family don't understand any of it, husband is yet to read one page of what I wrote so far. Instead of encouragement which for once in her life would have been lovely, Mom's words echo "Why bother you're not getting paid for it" There are always commitments, stuff that needs to be dealt with first thing but that is the best time I found to write. Lucky I don't have small kids anymore

  25. Great post, as per usual!
    And we Mum's are worth it!

  26. Love it!! Thanks Allison. So true and of course, I've been there too. My kitchen is full of dirty dishes and the floor beneath me is scattered with magazines, papers and books. My writing improved when I made the decision that it was what I wanted to do for a job. The only reason it is happening for me is because I took the initiative. But I must point out that my son is now in school and my partner is very supportive, which makes things way easier. If you posted this during school holidays, my comment may have been different!!

  27. Trying to write my second book with a toddler is so much harder than my first when I was single. But I'll find a way...for this & hopefully other stories. Thanks for this post - it makes me less alone in my typing in small frantic bursts between parenting duties.

  28. I want to write something pithy and relevant but I'm too tired after writing all day! (Yes, we had takeaway for dinner.)

    However, as I'm currently writing non-fiction for a book I know will be published it's kind of acceptable, 'legitimate' even. Writing fiction seems so indulgent yet it is in its own way a necessity.

  29. *nods at every SINGLE thing you've said*

    I sacrifice my sleep to write. It's totally worth it. I might be a total zombie hag at school drop-off every morning, but I'm getting books written.

  30. I was having a coffee with a school mum pal today and she was talking about this very subject, 'Read Allison's post," I shrieked and immediately emailed the URL from my phone to hers. When I did a writing course many children ago, the teacher said 'write for at least 15 minutes every day' and that's great advice... just to get into the daily, disciplined habit to write a wee bit. In fact Darren Rowse said that same 15 mins a day thing at PBEvent. It's manageable, it's something, it builds.

  31. You have it nailed. How it feels every day. All the conflicting priorities and the guilt for not having your head in the right space...ever. The tendency to put everything else first. And how writing fiction seems like the biggest indulgence of all. In a week where there has been precious little writing going on and a whole lot of sick kids, unavoidable errands and forgotten school excursions, I feel better just knowing I'm not alone. Thanks Allison.

  32. My babies never understand my deadlines! Fortunately my husband does. But I totally agree - make time where you can. Writing, for us, is as necessary as breathing.

  33. Al - I agree with this wrote my first book in a year during Play School and Bob the Builder...45 minutes a day...I had to squeeze the time from somewhere...

    But it's a funny thing because I know women with small children who play softball every saturday afternoon and train one night a week, I know women who go to the gym four times a week for example, I know women who sing in choirs...and no one makes them feel bad for doing it...that's maybe 4 hours a week...And some of them are consmed with it, it's all they talk about (there are few things less interesting than the politics of the local women's softeball team in my opionion). I don't go to the gym or play a team sport or sing...I think we're all entitled to have some time for ourselves that feeds our soul...

  34. You have just described the last 12 months of my life - a balancing act between spending my hours on 'paid' work versus writing...and dealing with life in general. It's very easy to become overwhelmed and difficult to justify chipping into my 'paid work' hourly allocation to write more. But gradually I am tipping the scales the other way, and stealing those precious writing minutes whenever I can. And it feels damn good. Thank you for such an inspiring post.

  35. Beautiful, love it, and you hit the nail right on the head. And it applies to all creativity, not just writing. On a personal front I've chosen to make massive sacrifices for the sake of children. Chosen - a conscious decision I was happy to make. Couldn't imagine life without them. But it still hurts to have to choose, it's painful, because the worst thing is, it's not appreciated by family or society - and other women are perhaps far more critical than blokes. Children pick up society's views by the time they're teenagers. Creativity (writing, painting etc) is like motherhood, really, these days - undervalued. If you're not in a 'paid' job, then what you're doing 'isn't worth much'.
    I did decide years ago that I didn't want to get to 80 and have spent a few years of my life doing housework. Still struggle with this as I like it to be presentable but it's simply IMPOSSIBLE to do everything & do it well. Good luck to all the other splendid people who have left comments above, it's great to support one another. We understand each other's situation! I've self published 2 books, rewarding, but the hours I had to put in were horrendous. Everything has a price!

  36. It's like you've been a fly on the wall in our house! And from reading the comments it seems there's a whole heap of us in the same position, which makes it all feel OK. OK to know that even though I'm wrecked, and will probably be up seeing to the kiddies once or twice a night, I'll still sit up to one in the morning writing, both because I want to, and need to. Thanks for making me feel 'normal'. :)

  37. Can totally identify. Fabulous post with lots of 'big sister' type acknowledgement that "You Are Not Alone.' Must read for for anyone who wants to keep on writing.

  38. Wow. If anything can make me stop whinging about finishing the edits I have due for novel number 3 (and those who live with me would doubt that) this is it. I have been writing seriously, for publication, for 14 years now. I'm at the point where I write three days a week while the kids are at school and no-one bats an eyelid- my books make (some) money, my psych work on the other two days makes more- and, with my 5th book coming out next April, my family just accept that I'm a writer.

    That sounds boasty. It's not meant to be- I guess I'm just reflecting on the fact that like so many of the commenters here I had some really hard, hard years earlier on where I struggled to fit books in around babies and earning a real living, and TBPH I'd almost forgotten that. Tonight, I am going to stop freaking out about the fact that edits are shitful, and rejoice instead that I have a publisher eagerly awaiting them. To everyone who is at the start of the hard graft: writing never gets easier, I have to say that, but it only gets more and more rewarding. Keep going. It's soooo worth it.

  39. I came to your blog via Maxabella.

    This has been a timely read for me.
    I am absolutely appalling at making time for myself and for writing.

    If there is a story to tell it should be told and if that story is mine, then it is my job to tell it.

    And, who am I kidding? Whether I am writing or not, my house is still a total shitfight and there are only so many episodes of Jamie Olivers' meals in 2 and a half minutes and/or Embarrassing Bodies that you can watch before weird things happen to your mind, so I might as well be writing, non?

    There is time but there is never enough energy.
    The action breeds the energy, so make the time.

    Great post. Thank you for the advice.

  40. Once again you know just the right (write!) things to say Al. I am forever feeling like I need to justify the desire to write, and certainly at best there are times it can only be done in snatches. Even if I only get an extra 200 words of my manuscript done, its better than zero (even if they are bad words - thank God for a re-edit at a later - more lucid - time!)

  41. Thanks everyone for your comments. My friend has read the post and your comments and takes much support from the fact that she's not alone with her feelings. Good luck everyone!

  42. I Love this post and feel it could apply to any love that we have that is artistic. Even reading, crafting, sewing or starting that consulting business. Such great advice al. Such great advice!

  43. Have you read the book "The Divided Heart: Art & Motherhood" by Rachel Power. It speaks of just this topic. I can't recommend it highly enough it you have not. A collection of interviews with artists (some of whom are writers), all are mothers, who speak of the pull to create and the joys and struggles of how they juggle family life with this.


  44. Ha! It has taken me a week to get back here to comment on this post about not having enough time to write! I work as a writer and have two sons age 6 and 3. I look back on my pre children writing life and think I wasted so much time!! I too highly recommend Rachel Power's book. I also agree with the 'snatch and grab' approach to time and writing. Snatch 15 minutes here, grab half an hour there and it does all add up to a finished story. Writers do have to write for their well being. And perhaps it is time to start 'inconveniencing' others so that we can fulfil our writing selves. As for housework, I follow The Organised Housewife's tip of making the bed within 15 minutes of getting up, dishes must be done before I write but folding washing can wait. Missing out on sleep is my other way to get some writing time I'd rather stay up late a few nights a week and enjoy the quiet than try and cram something in during the day. Good luck everyone!

  45. Thankyou for this post, Allison! It was exactly what I needed to read before squeezing in a bit of writing while the kids are happily occupied - and I felt guilty even writing that! (Bad, creative mother...should be baking cookies and ironing).
    It was also great to read everyone's comments and suggestions! Will have to check out Rachel Power's book- I have been wondering if such a book existed, and now I know it does! Yay!
    Allison, perhaps I will finally have time for that coffee when school starts again : )
    Kelly (from the library)

  46. I recall Betty Churcher talking about how frustrated one of her art school professors was that all his most promising female pupils were doing silly things like getting married and having families instead of producing art.

  47. I love this so much Al. If the kitchen isn't clean, and washing hung up by the time I put my writing slippers on, then it sits and ferments until the kids are home from school and I transition out of my thoughts into the real world again. Such a precious gift of time. I never take it for granted. Thanks for this clever Rewind topic.

  48. Love this and I think it actually translates beyond writing, to anything that makes us feel fulfilled as a person, as women we are trained to put ourselves last but it's so important to invest in ourselves. Beautiful post.

  49. Great post. I remember reading it first time around, but it's EXACTLY what I need to hear right now as I'm once again in the newborn child phase of life. Just write. Just do it (thanks, Nike).

  50. I so struggle with this, I'm trying to come up with a plan that I can present to my husband about how writing may eventually bring in extra money (even if it is small)to help us get through the financial quagmire of raising two teenagers. However, it is always a stab in the dark, and you don't know until you have written the thing if it is viable for publication.

  51. My favourite post of yours ever Allison. I reread it sometimes when it feels like all I've done is kid and school and family related stuff and NOTHING to do with me or writing. It's so easy to get caught up in 'stuff'. Thanks for the refocus.

  52. Have you read "Stravinsky's Lunch"? It's about women artists and how hard it is to be an artist when you also have a family.

    Writing is part of my life now and so far I am fitting it in. Even when I go back to some kind of employment, I will always find time to write, probably when everyone's gone to bed. Being a sole parent makes this easier as I don't have to take a partner's needs into consideration. Indeed, being a sole parent is very conducive to writing. Makes those lonely hours rush by.

  53. So true Allison - I've used this weeks rewind to revisit some fiction I wrote last year - I'm not looking to write anything to publish, its just for me but I haven't found the time for so long and I do miss it. Maybe it's time to start finding time again.

  54. I've already commented on this one, but it's so bloody good I just wanted to thank you for all your sage advice. Ever.
    Go easy on the heels! xx

  55. Wow! I feel like you've just stepped into my head from the last couple of weeks. My husband, while extremely supportive, does joke about the use of my writing (particularly when none of it is paid - but it does produce a fire in the belly that I know it is just what I have to do.) Thank you for this advice, it is definitely needed and that's why I find myself at 10pm on a Saturday night, madly writing... You've inspired me to go back and set a plan. (I've also taken some leave from my paid job so I can just write and write. Shhh, I did tell my husband it was to clean the house and organise his books for his business... :) )

  56. Even though I read this back when it was first posted, I am compelled to comment again. Now with one of those newborns you make reference to, who is unable to sleep (a) for long or (b) to any schedule, I find myself stumbling against bigger writing roadblocks than ever before. This though gives me renewed confidence to tackle the issue so I don't disappear altogether from the writing world x

  57. Completely on the same page (pun not intended ;)). I often wonder these days WHY I persist down this writing path with nothing but my own convictions powering me. And yet, I still try. Stubbornness or the lure of possibilities.

  58. I tend to get ideas and start to write something in my head, and then when I get a chance to sit down the words come out in a burst of fast typing. That's my favorite method, at least, and when I feel the most inspired. Sometimes I go through phases when I just sit and can't think of anything to write about.


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