In answer to some questions I’ve been getting lately, I’m reprinting here an article I wrote for the Virginia Home Education Association (now the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers) newsletter about three years ago. Naturally, there have been some changes since then…the two-year-old in the piece was, of course, Beanie, who is now about to turn five. And our current two-year-old, Wonderboy, wasn’t even a guess when I penned this article. How impossible, now, to imagine our home without him!
I must also disclose that we do in fact have two vehicles now. When I wrote the article, we had three children whose carseats and boosters fit snugly—perhaps a trifle too snugly—into the backseat of our Saturn. Wonderboy necessitated a larger vehicle: I now drive a minivan. Since the Saturn was already paid for (and consumes less fuel), we kept it to use for outings when fewer than four children were included.
Other than those changes, the patterns of our days continue in much the same rhythm as I describe below. When I’m on my game, I try to do a lot of the dinner prep in the mornings now; I rely much more on my crock pot than I used to. (Although with the run of illness we’ve had this month, I admit I have emphatically NOT been on my game in the dinner department lately.) We’ve had to weave Wonderboy’s physical and speech therapy into our days, and as the girls get older they have more out-of-the-house interests and activities. The details shift, but the big things remain. And Playmobil is just as popular here as ever.
“How on earth do you do it?”
That’s the question I’m most often asked when people find out that I write novels for a living while homeschooling my three children. If the conversation occurs in person (instead of online), I can see the raised eyebrows, the quick reassessment of first impressions. Oh, so the tousled hair and crooked sweater are because she’s an ARTIST, not a slob! Why, look at those kids climbing all over her, and yet she still manages to write books! She must be some kind of superwoman!
Nah, you were right the first time. I’m no superwoman. My sweater is buttoned wrong because I put it on while supervising a toothpaste battle, and my hair’s a mess because my two-year-old fiber fanatic can’t keep her hands out of it. I write detailed historical fiction about life in eighteenth-century Scotland while chomping on gummy bears and listening to Playmobil princesses shriek at intrusive Playmobil sheep directly above my head.
But still, it works. I spend most of the day with my kids, “playing school” (as they call it) or just plain playing; and in the afternoons I go downstairs to our basement office and write novels about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother and great-grandmother. It’s my dream job, my dream life. Our dream life. My husband is a freelance writer, too. Mostly comic books, in his case. He’s the one listening to the rat-tat-tat of little plastic sheep feet during the part of the day that I’m upstairs.
Scott quit his job as an editor at DC Comics when our second daughter, Rose, was born. Our oldest girl, Jane, was three years old then, in the midst of a harrowing chemotherapy regimen to battle leukemia. (I am extremely thankful to be able to say that she is now, at age seven, a healthy, lively chatterbox with a penchant for Narnia books and messy experiments.) After eighteen months spent shuttling between hospital and office, Scott wanted to be home with his girls. We gave his health insurance benefits a regretful kiss good-bye and took the plunge.
At the time, we lived in a cramped New York apartment with one bedroom for the four of us, and an office roughly the size of a filing cabinet. Three years and another baby later, we moved to a beautiful little town in Virginia—thus realizing another dream Scott and I had shared since our undergrad days at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. Virginia. We couldn’t wait to get here, and every evening when I watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge, I know why.
So here we are, the five of us (so far). As I said, it’s an ideal arrangement—provided new assignments come in at the right time. My schedule is fairly stable: I have a certain number of books under contract, and nervewracking but predictable deadlines. Scott has a more fluid schedule, taking jobs as they come. Usually that’s exactly when I’ve got a giant deadline breathing down my neck. (Deadlines always have bad breath.)
Deadline panic is one of my biggest challenges. Another, and perhaps the biggest, is managing to actually sit down and write. By 3:30 in the afternoon, which is when my writing shift begins, my brain is tired. I’m more in the mood to curl up with a good book than to attempt to write one. The first half hour is a struggle. But the office is peaceful, and if I can stay away from email until I’ve got a page or three behind me, I’m all right.
Another challenge, of course, is surviving on a budget. Freelance writers aren’t the only people to know that pinch. Like everyone else, we find ways to make it work. We have only one car (don’t need another, since no one has to leave home for work or school). We rarely eat out, and of course you don’t need a big clothing budget when your only coworkers are your spouse and children.
When Scott first quit his job to go freelance, friends asked us how we were going to handle being together all the time. Won’t you get sick of each other? Ha! Not hardly. On work days, we’re two ships passing in the stairway (at least until dinnertime). A dozen times a day, I have to resist the impulse to run downstairs for a quick chat. It’s so tempting, knowing he’s there.
Sometimes he’ll use a coffee break as an excuse to visit us during our lesson time. “Lesson time,” by the way, is a term I use loosely. We have a relaxed approach heavy on literature, handcrafts, and nature walks, with comic relief provided by the aforementioned two-year-old. Most mornings, though, there’s an hour or so during which the girls and I are clustered around the table discussing history, math, and German, which they are learning faster than I am. Suddenly Daddy will appear in the doorway. Those are the best moments, when I sit back and watch, grinning, while the girls trip over each other to get to him first and tell him all about what we’re doing. “Look at my cursive F’s!” “Look at this goat I sculpted out of beeswax!” “Wookie ME, Daddy!”
There are other moments, of course—plenty of them—the kind that involve rapid increases of blood pressure. I have one of those moments every time I pay the health insurance premium. Scott had one just now, while I was writing this article. The usual hum of high-pitched voices over my head was suddenly punctuated by a horrified shout and a roar. “LISSA!” This was no Playmobil princess, nor an obstreperous plastic sheep. It seems a diaper explosion of the most nauseating kind had coincided with the boiling-over of a pot of broccoli. I raced upstairs just in time to save the broccoli and (whew) too late to help with the diaper. Sorry, honey.
Scott winds up with dinner duty most nights, since I work in the afternoons. (I take Thursdays off and he takes Fridays off, allowing us each a full day with the children for field trips and such, and a full day of writing to make up for too much time spent enjoying each other’s company earlier in the week.) He also does the laundry, the vacuuming, and most of the shopping. I do all the tidying and most of the cleaning. That’s my answer to the “How do you do it?” question, by the way. I can “do it” because I’ve got help with the big bundle of stuff that comprises our IT. I can do it because we’ve figured out a good schedule and a fair workload for everyone in the family. When we stick to it, it works.
Of course we rarely do stick to it faithfully, not for long. Stuff happens. Life intrudes like a Playmobil sheep. It intruded for six weeks this summer, when four out of the five of us had chicken pox, one after the other. (My bad luck not to have gotten them out of the way as a kid.) Few things wreak havoc on a writing schedule like chicken pox. Except for five or six things that have happened to us since…
It’s a constant juggling act, and sure, juggling is a risky art. Sometimes a ball comes hurtling down to whack you on the head. But you never have your hands on all the balls at once. One task at a time, one purpose for each moment.
Sometimes, early in the morning, the girls will come padding into our bedroom and climb under the covers to snuggle with Scott and me. I’ll hear the schoolbus go growling by our window in the gray dawn, accompanied by the urgent footfalls of neighbor children hurrying to get to the corner. It will occur to me that the lights had to come on in those other houses an hour ago or more, commencing a frantic effort to get up and out on time. At times like this I know that my question isn’t How on earth do you do it? but Why on earth wouldn’t we try?