Can You Be a Writer and Still Have Kids?

IMG_3922It’s Spring Break time. My children, I have three, had a week off in late April. We used this break to meet my mother and aunt in Tucson, Arizona. It was a bright, loud, active, social time. We yakked on about everything from politics to the name of my daughter’s new doll. We went swimming. Ate pizza. Drank smoothies. Broke up arguments about who’d done the right or wrong thing. Walked around the desert. Watched birds. Avoided touching cactuses. Shopped. Cleaned. Laughed. And all else interactive and external.

While the interactive and external are vibrant experiences, they are not conducive to creating art. Creating art requires silence, focus, imagination, the inner voice. Children, by their nature, annihilate these qualities. Their presence is what’s present. Not you. Not your characters. Not the dialogue you heard upon waking. Just the innocent banging of a stick on a rock, just the random piping of a recorder, just because that’s whatever their experience is at the moment.

I think about how the external and internal first clashed when we adopted our children. I was in low-residency graduate school and was living in Poland with the children, by myself, in a tiny apartment. (My husband was working to pay for it all, back in Seattle.) Every night, I’d put the children to bed, get out my laptop, and work on my thesis, a novel. There was no other choice. The blur of activity that began in the gray dim of morning that lasted until seven-thirty at night was their time. It was “Let’s make leaf imprints” and “Get scolded for cutting our own hair” and “Take a bath in a shower stall” time. It was new for me. And I was happy to be a mother.

But a writer yearns to tell the story she has to tell. And I still yearned to tell my story. In fact, in graduate school, you’re on the hook for it. So I did the best I could, when I could. I hired a babysitter, even there in Poland, and I went to the mall, where I could get free wi-fi at KFC, and worked on my manuscript. When we came home from Poland, I hired another babysitter, and went to the coffee shop and worked on my manuscript. On weekends, my husband took the kids to the playground, and I worked on my manuscript. These were not ideal situations. They were difficult. They occurred in small chunks of two to three hours at most. But I finished my thesis and earned my M.F.A.

Six years later, this is what I’ve come to learn from having kids and being a writer. Time is limited. It comes in small chunks (sometimes suddenly cut off by an unexpected event or accident), but it comes. You can clear space for that time. And if you’re serious, you must. Because the idea that you’ll have as long as you need to render your inspiration on paper disappears. (As I write this, I hear the car pulling into the driveway, I hear the doors slamming, I hear annoyed voices. The quiet is about to be blasted into noise, the stillness of space broken by bodies and jerky movement.)

And so, I head for the door to our office and close it. I ignore the conversations swirling outside the room. I let the guilt of knowing I should get out there and help my husband go. I plod on. I keep working on the words. I block out the responsibilities I have of “elsewhere.” This pushing out while trying to stay in the creative moment is the paradox of what some call a “selfish” mother putting herself first. But it’s not selfish, it’s vital to my sanity. The creation of art gives me the blissful state I need to return to my children with fresh energy and love. 

Still, interruptions are inevitable. Sometimes the child bursts into that office, already in mid-sentence about a petty grievance. And so, I’ve learned to accept that my work will get done more slowly. What would take a childless writer three days to accomplish will take the mother writer three weeks. Just when you get into a daily routine of producing quality work, a child unexpectedly must be picked up from school with the flu, there’s a teacher work day, a dental appointment, a grandma visiting, and then, when all of that has ended, another weeklong school break around the corner.

But now, I’ve surpassed the feelings of frustration, of constant resentment. Yes, it is frustrating, but with each passing year, the child grows and matures. They want their own independence. The youngest child can actually read to herself and give me an extra fifteen minutes (to finish even this). The siblings can play with each other, or retreat to their bedrooms for drawing or microscope fun. And while my (currently well-deserved napping) husband is the true savior in this story, I have to say the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that we all make time to do what we truly want. And if you want to write, whether you have multiple children or not, and if you can drum up the gumption to be “selfish,” somehow, you will make time to write.