It is birthday season in the Stelter household. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of familial activity, so much so that I have had barely a chance to put pen to paper. With a four year old and a ten month old, even at relatively quiet times it is difficult to create the space to write. Sometimes my writer side is wholly swallowed by my family life. Each night I hear the whisperings of my characters as I stumble into bed, too exhausted to give them the ink they need to flourish. Then, as the days turn into weeks, it is harder to bring the characters back to life. My thought processes move on and the work feels stale and heavy because my absence from the page has sucked the life out of it. The problem is that without time to create, our writer selves all but disappear. So, partly sparked by Lauren Sandler’s article in The Atlantic last month, which many of you will have seen, I decided to write this week’s post about the challenges of combining parenthood and creativity.
In her article, Sandler lists women writers she admires, linking their success partly to the fact they only have one child. The sensationalist headline of the article itself – which was apparently an editorial decision – states that having one child is the secret to being a successful mother and writer. The article provoked a backlash. Zadie Smith, amongst others, commented that the real threat ‘to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse.’
My husband plays as full a role in the upbringing of our children as I do, so although Sandler focuses on mothers, I am going to stick with talking about both parents. Let’s just nip this in the bud straight away. To suggest that motherhood is a threat to creativity per se is simply ridiculous. Parenting is equally wonderful and tough. Sometimes your sense of your old self is threatened, but as with any change to circumstances, we are supremely capable of adapting. Zadie Smith is spot on when she suggested that time is the real issue and that supportive families and affordable childcare are part of the solution. Each of us experiences motherhood differently and what may be right for Sandler, may not be right for you and me. We all have a different approach to motherhood and a different reality, largely dependent on our personalities, support networks, cultural and economic circumstances.
What if you want it all?
Sandler does make valid points about how many cultures define motherhood as being nurturing and sacrificial above all other qualities. In addition to nurturing our children, is it not a parent’s job to show by example that each of us can follow our dreams? Let’s reframe the age old feminist question about whether we can have it all and apply it instead to writers of both genders with familial commitments. What if you, like me, want to be as committed to your family life as you are to your writing? I am not willing to be any less present with my family. Does this mean I am any less committed as a writer or that I am less likely to be successful?
I think you can have it all, just not all at once (I think it may have been Oprah who said that first!) For now, for me, winning time to write is a constant state of negotiation and this is a compromise I am willing to make. Besides, the experience of being a mother, like any other new experience, will ultimately fuel my craft, not destroy it.
Protecting your writing time
So to that end, here are my tips for writers in busy households:
- Claim a writing sanctuary, however small, just for you
- It is ok, Joan Didion, to say ‘Shush, mummy’s working.’ Just not always. Judge your moments.
- Take advantage of every five minutes you have to write
- Keep a journal or bath crayons, whatever works, to make sure you capture those fleeting writerly thoughts
Parenthood vs creativity
The balance between parenthood and writing will always be a delicate one, I expect, and never more so than when children are young. But just as I miss writing more regularly right now, I will miss my children being young when they are older. There will be plenty of time later for uninterrupted writing. For now, I’m going to be patient and resourceful and use the time available to me well. I’m not going to wish away these years when our children are dependent on us. How do you negotiate the balance between selfhood and the demands of others? Do you have any techniques for winning time that you can share?
There are no guarantees in life. There is no single route to happiness or success. Writing is my dream, Lauren Sandler, but if it’s okay with you, I won’t be following your advice. We have two children and I would love to have another. Just like the writing, I’ve seen her in my dreams.
‘We must use time creatively.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.
‘Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.’ Carl Sandburg