When Does a Busy Mom Write?

March 28, 2008 @ 7:31 am | Filed under: ,

Sarah N. asked:

I have a question for Melissa. How do you get any writing done when you are living in the moment and really enjoying your kids? I’m also a writer but I can’t get any work done when I really feel like I’m in sync with my kids and really being present with them (I’ve already given up the standards I’d like to have for housework and other family management so I can’t steal much time from that).

When I wrote my Little House books, Scott was a work-at-home freelancer too. I wrote quite a bit about our work-and-family schedules in the “I’m No Supermom” series a couple of years ago, oh, and in an article called “The Homeschooling, Freelancing Life.” Back then—and mind you, that was before Rilla was born—Scott worked from 9-3 while I was with the kids, and I wrote from 3-6 while the children played with daddy. It was an idyllic arrangement, and we were deeply appreciative of it for the whole lovely eight years it lasted. (He quit his editor job to go freelance when Rose was born.)

In July of 2006 Scott returned to the editor’s side of the desk. I have much less writing time now, and we knew that would be the case when we made the decision to accept the job offer. My children won’t be little forever and I want to savor these all-too-fleet years!

But still, I must write. If I don’t write my head gets swirly with pent-up words and I am no use to anyone. We’ve worked it out so that I get about 1 1/2 to 2 hours a night, four nights a week (Scott has a class on the fifth night), and around four hours on Saturdays. That isn’t a ton, but it’s enough to get some work done.

If you’re interested in the specifics (I know I always like to hear the details of how people manage their time), it goes like this. Scott gets home from work at around 7pm. By then, the kids have already eaten. Sometimes I eat with them; sometimes I wait for Scott. We take a few minutes to catch up and then he packs me off to the bedroom with my laptop. He does the dishes and gets the kids ready for bed. He has always been the bedtime story parent in our family.

I work until about a quarter to nine. Then I open the door and Rilla runs to see me. She’s the only one still up—Wonderboy is asleep and the girls are all reading in bed. Scott is usually finishing up a load of laundry. (Yup, he’s still the laundry guy.)

I get Rilla into her pajamas if she isn’t already, and Scott joins us in the living room, and Rilla falls asleep on the couch. Scott and I have the rest of the evening together (and we stay up pretty late). Sarah mentioned that she would love to find time to write but doesn’t want to give up evening time with her husband, and I can totally relate to that. I used to have Scott at home all day and I miss him! So while I could work longer hours at night, I choose not to.

This means my writing pace has slowed w-a-a-a-y down, but that’s all right. All too soon my kids will be big and I’ll have more writing time than I know what to do with. Don’t forget, Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t write her books until she was in her sixties. Right now, I do think it’s important to write down the stories about my kids, as they’re happening. Blogging is an important part of that. But definitely a busy mom has to make choices about where she puts her time, and if I’m choosing to spend more time writing posts, I’m giving up some novel time. It goes in waves for me. My current work-in-progress has been in progress for quite some time.

I know other writers who get up early, very early, to work. I used to, myself, before Rilla was born. Too tired now!

As long as I’m on the subject of time management and not being a supermom (not hardly!), let me add a few more thoughts. People often ask me how I “do it all” and I tell them the truth: I don’t!

Blogs are great in so many ways, but one way they are bad is in giving the false impression of being panoramic views of people’s lives. In reality, they offer a series of snapshots, very close up. My blog is not a diary; it’s more like a scrapbook, a collection of moments I want to remember. Funny moments, quaint kid quips, heartfelt reflections, encounters with beauty and big ideas…each post is a glimpse through a window. But there is no way any blogger can open up her life like a dollhouse, so that viewers can see into every nook and corner of every room. Much more goes unwritten than gets written into a post. Life is too big, too busy, too rich. If I blogged everything, I’d have no time for living.

People have different reasons for blogging, and different approaches. I blog to capture the moments I want to remember, to celebrate, to revisit in years to come. Very, very seldom do I blog to vent. (Doctors’ offices bring out that side of me, and the occasional newspaper op-ed piece.) When I need to blow off steam, I vent to Scott, or Alice, or other close friends. My blogging time is limited, and I don’t want to spend it on negative things.

Here are some questions from a very sweet reader. When I answered them, she wrote me back to thank me for “demystifying” myself for her a little. I’m posting her questions and my replies her in hopes of helping others see into the “house” of me a little more completely. It’s a very messy house with many parts still under construction (you get that this is a metaphor, right?), and it most certainly is not a superhero’s lair.

You mentioned some TV shows (including my favorite, and the only one I watch, The Office!) in your most recent post. And I couldn’t help but think, “wait — she has time to watch TV too???”

This gave me such a big smile. Yes, Scott and I love television. Really. We rent DVDs of TV shows from Netflix (so no commercials). We pick a series and watch one or two episodes a night, almost every night. Without commercials an hour drama is only forty minutes. In Scott’s line of work (comics) it’s necessary for him to keep up with pop culture. Many of his writers also write for TV and film. So in one sense, our TV time at night is work-related. 🙂 But also fun of course. If we watch a movie, we usually split it over two nights.

I’ve already been wondering how you manage to blog frequently,

Well, I go in waves with blogging. Sometimes more and longer posts. Sometimes quickies full of links. Sometimes nothing for a week! When I did Lilting House, that was a job, and I had a weekly post quota. Blogging at Bonny Glen slacked waaaay off during that gig.

including long posts and comment responses during the day,

I am actually notoriously bad about responding to comments. (And emails!) I hardly ever give private comment replies and seldom respond on the blog itself. I’ve been responding to comments more often since the relaunch earlier this month, mostly because there have been some meaty things to talk about like the CA court ruling. And the patience post was a surprise! I never imagined such a response. I am loving the discussion. But always, always, when one activity takes up extra time, other things fall by the wayside. I haven’t done much book-reading all week.

scour the Internet for cool links,

Most of them are things I find through other blogs (I always hat-tip) or stuff Scott sends me (I never hat-tip him! how rude!). He is the real genius at scouring the internet, let me tell you. 😉 Switching to del.icio.us autoposting of my links saves me all the trouble of having to think up posts for them myself. I can just quickly tag & share neat stuff.

write for publication (including books!),

(Answered above.)

read great books,

Ohhhh how my reading has slacked off in recent years! I go in waves with that too…if I am reading more, I’m doing other things less (including blogging). I tend to immerse in an interest and go whole hog for a few weeks. Reading, or crocheting, or gardening…whatever it is, it crowds other interests out of the picture. So while it may seem (over the course of many months) as if I’m doing tons of stuff, I’m never doing it all at once.

keep up with friends,

How I wish I were better at this. I have one friend I talk to almost every day, but the others? Oh, I’m terrible. I’ll leave emails sitting in my inbox for WEEKS, even months. I always think I need to wait until I have time to write a thoughtful letter, and that time never materializes. Then we have to cram all our catching up into a phone call every other month or so. And I am even worse about returning phone calls than I am about replying to emails.

teach a Journey North class …

Oh gosh, there’s no prep at all for that! The kids come over one afternoon a week, and we all work on the graphing and guesswork together. One of the other moms very kindly sends me the answers to all the week’s calculations (she’s a gem!), so I don’t have to check anybody’s math. I barely even do any real cleaning for it (the house is always a wreck afterward anyway, as is right and proper after a funfilled gathering of many young people). The other moms might notice my cluttered corners and dirty floors (not gross dirty, just lots-of-kids-live-here dirty), but that doesn’t bother me. I can’t host anything if I have to be too stressed about House Beautiful.

And I love hosting Shakespeare (also zero prep required—I am not teaching a class; we simply get together to read plays aloud) and Journey North! And I know the truth is, the other moms really don’t care what my house looks like. If I were killing myself cleaning for it, they probably wouldn’t notice much difference. I am such a flaky hostess that sometimes I even forget to buy snacks. Last week I had to put out a big dish of Lucky Charms (our special Saturday morning cereal) for the kids to snack on!

AND give lots of time and cheerful, patient attention to five children, including two wee ones?

Not always cheerful, as I have admitted before! But time with the kids is the main thing in my life, more important than writing, more important than housekeeping.

Oh, and keep the house in some semblance of order?

“Semblance” is the operative word. Something that resembles order but isn’t really. I keep the front rooms in reasonable order. But if you could see my closets, oh the horrors. Under the beds, in the back rooms…the minivan…these are war zones, let me tell you. I don’t care. My kids will only be little for a short while. I just can’t spend these years being organized!

You never seem frazzled

You should see me at the grocery store. Oh, how I hate shopping. Seriously, I have lots of frazzled moments. I blog about them less often because when they involve the kids, I don’t want to be complaining about my kids on the internet. The older ones read the blog, they’ll ALL read it someday, their friends and relatives read it, and basically I know I would hate to have my mom griping about me to the general public. So of course we have conflicts and struggles, and I’m not trying to present a whitewashed picture, but I respect my kids’ privacy too much to write about their mistakes. I’ll write about MY shortcomings and do try very hard to show my warts and all on the blog.

The blog is glimpses of our life, but I could never manage to show it all. And if I’m only going to share glimpses, I want to share the funny things and the beautiful things, the stories I want to go back and reread myself. The things I want to remember. I don’t really care to remember in detail every frustrated and frazzled moment!

and my impression from reading your posts is that your kids are very happy and sweet.

They are, but I have a couple who are pistols. Hot tempers run in the family. We have plenty of squabbles and rough spots. Far fewer when I am parenting mindfully, respectfully, applying the golden rule.

I only have three, and there’s no way I can spend time on the computer during the day except during their one-hour “quiet time”, which means if I do that, no time for hobbies either (like scrapbooking).

Yup, I won’t be crocheting or reading tonight. I blogged instead. It’s a choice.

I have written a few things for publication but haven’t pursued it much because I’ve chosen to dedicate this season of my life to being present with my three young children, whom I am homeschooling.

I totally respect that choice. But if writing is something you need to do, for your own peace (for some of us it really is!), then you find ways to fit it in. A page a day, or a half an hour early in the morning, or Saturday mornings while the kids watch cartoons and eat Lucky Charms, or sometime. I took two years to finish my last crocheting project. (Still not finished, actually—I never put the buttons on Rilla’s sweater.) But I HAVE to write.

But you seem to be able it fill ALL of it in, and rather than just cower in my intimidation, I had to ask.

Here are a few of the many things I don’t fit in:

° Meal planning. I always fly by the seat of my pants and am miserable at shopping for what I’ll need, using what I’ve bought, thinking of stuff everyone will eat, etc. It’s my worst shortcoming as a housewife.

° Organizing paperwork and packages. I’m terrible about getting things into the mail. I made two baby gifts for friends’ babies born in December and January, and those gifts are STILL sitting here unmailed. Pathetic.

° Managing the kids’ clothes. Their closets and drawers are a nightmare. When they outgrow stuff I wind up shoving it all into the same box, mixed sizes, and then when someone else would have grown into it, I can’t find it.

° Exercising, except for walks with the kids.

° Keeping my nails nicely manicured. I bite them. Gross.

To name a few.

How do you manage your time? What does a “typical” day look like for you? Do you have outside help, like a babysitter or housekeeper?

Nope, no help. I would have much cleaner floors. 🙂 Scott does all the laundry. That’s huge.

Typical days are hard because some days we have activities and some days we don’t, but a general pattern is: I get up first, an hour before the rest. I check mail, maybe answer some of it. The kids begin to wake and we cuddle on the couch, I’m maybe reading blogs, maybe just chatting with them. We talk about things I’m reading. Kids eat breakfast, usually cereal. One kid likes eggs, so sometimes I make her some. If we have to be out of the house, we’re in a rush, always. If not, we’re in pjs till nine most days. If we’re home that day, mornings are when we read and play games and take walks, look stuff up on the internet, I help them with craft projects, etc. So that’s all great stuff and fun and we’re learning, but that’s not every day, and not everything every day. Over time, we do a lot. On any given day, not many, but much.

Lunch is loose and casual, usually sandwiches, stuff kids can fix. Rilla naps. The girls have always liked having some down time after lunch—they go off to read or play. Wonderboy watches Signing Time or The Wiggles, and I’ll either do computer stuff or house stuff, maybe talk on the phone, maybe read. But usually computer. After quiet time (what we’ve always called it though it isn’t mandatory), we usually do a quick tidy-up and then decide what to do that afternoon. Sometimes the boy has speech therapy so we run out for that. Sometimes we get together with friends or do touristy San Diego stuff. Mostly we hang out around the house, the kids play computer games and ride their scooters, I putter, I read to various people.

Do you feel guilty when you’re on the computer instead of interacting with them, or do they just accept that as your “job?”

They get that it’s my work. They get their evening daddy time and I get to write. During the day, I keep my online time limited—but if everyone is busy I might jump on for a few minutes. I used to feel guilty if they “caught” me back on the computer, but then I hit upon an idea that made all the difference: when a child appears, I make it a point to look away from the screen immediately. I make eye contact, smile, and give my full attention to the child. What I think this shows them is that yes, the computer is important to mommy, but kids are way more important. They don’t resent my being online because they know that they rank higher than it does.

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9 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Sally says:

    Lissa, thanks for posting this. I keep struggling with similar dual demands and never feeling that I’m getting it quite right — my kids want me, my editor (I do some off-and-on article-writing for First Things) emails me to say, “DO more,” and I struggle to keep blogging and online time limited so that I can focus on those two things, but . . . I’m finding it tough.

    I keep thinking, “WHY can’t I make myself finish this one book article I said a month ago that I’d do?” And I think the real problem is not time, but ability to concentrate long enough on one thing to produce something that’s coherent and publishable. Blogging is easy, because I can just bang on about whatever is in my head — and I like the daily-journaling aspect of it. Journaling is a valuable writer-thing. But it’s much harder to switch gears from “Mom talking about Mom-things” to “would-be pundit-type talking about grownup books” . . . even though the grownup books I’m writing about usually have to do with things I care about as a mother!

    It is really good to get a peek into the lives of homeschooling mothers who also write seriously. When I was in grad school working on an MFA, nobody had kids — it was “my career! my art! my all in all!” And then I had kids, and eventually we started homeschooling, but then it was hard to find other mothers with the same kind of bent. So I’ve kind of felt I was wandering in the wilderness, trying to find some life paradigm that actually fit . . .

    Anyway, thanks!

  2. patience says:

    Lissa, another wonderful post. I must admit I read the first half avidly and the second half fleetingly, because my own internet time is running out! I can so much relate. I too have the *need* to write, and sometimes I think I miss the luxury of time I had when I wrote professionally before my dd was born. But not really. I’d give up all writing tomorrow for this joy of motherhood. What a blessing a busy family life is. And yet its always great to read how other writer-mothers fit it in – it’s inspiring and gives one ideas about how one can arrange things better. Blogging is my saving grace. I can write in little bits every day and that calms The Need somewhat.

  3. Sarah N. says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all these details about your life! I saw so many of my own dilemmas about how to divide my time in this post beyond just writing.

    I think it’s marvelous that you have found a system that works for your family and allows you to get some writing time even if it is much less than when Scott worked from home. Right now, I get about an hour during the baby’s morning nap on the mornings when my 4.5 year old is in preschool and about 3 hours one weekend day. But as I’ve considered homeschooling I’ve had trouble imagining any weekday time without giving up more sleep than I can sanely sacrifice. Thanks for letting me see how you manage to get some of those pent-up words out of your head 🙂

    My husband and I also like to rent seasons of tv shows and tend to watch one or two episodes a night together. And I also tend to get really into reading books or gardening or reading/posting on blogs and cycle through my hobbies in bursts. Thanks again for this wonderful glimpse into your life and how you fit in what you do and choose to leave out what doesn’t matter.

  4. Angel says:

    Thanks for posting about how you write. When I only had two or three kids I would write when they were napping in the afternoons, which gave me about an hour a day. I wrote a couple of (unpublished) novels like that. Now that I have 6 (4 under 5), the little ones never sleep at the same time and I suddenly have an extrovert (how did that happen? LOL) who likes to talk to me while the other kids have “quiet” time. At night my husband and I have to work together with the kids to make the house manageable and to get everyone ready for bed… if they sleep! There’s never really a time for my dh and I to even sit down together without kids (considering my 11 and 8 yos don’t go to sleep until 10:30) — which is tough on us as well.

    So… sometimes I have to do a reality check because it’s easy to guilt myself into “why I am not writing more”. It would be easier to totally give up writing, I guess, but that would make me into an icky person. Right now my blog is serving as my only writing outlet, which I have a problem considering as “real” writing. But since it’s the only thing I’ve got at the moment, I suppose it will have to do. It is much more important to be Mom to my kids, and sometimes I need to be reminded of that. 😉

  5. Meredith says:

    I really appreciated your snapshot here too Lissa, in fact I printed it out for my dh to read. He is keen to the idea of me doing more writing as well, and his biggest question was “But do you NEED to?” she NEEDs too. And of course my reply was that uh, yeah I NEED to write too. He gets it :))

    Loving all your strains and trains of thought as well as everyone else’s!

  6. Jo says:

    This post really strikes a chord with me, as I am contemplating giving up my on-line children’s bookshop to spend more time with the family. It’s breaking my heart, but really, life just isn’t tenable. My husband has a very strssful job that he loves, and I have found that as the children grow older they need more time, not less. Less physical chores, which really, you can do while your mind is somewhere else, more time where it is necessary for brain to be fully engaged – dealing with conflict resolution and having heart to hearts and negotiating all the big teenage issues. And there are the little ones as well…there is no slack anywhere in our lives, and so something has to give. I’m not really being a martyr, because there are parts of being in business that I despise – the bookwork, the tax, the filing! And I really resent not being available to the children because I’m doing a stocktake! But I love the writing and the connection with so many people I don’t even know in discussion about good books. And it gives me an identity apart from the ‘mummy’ tag, which I wear proudly, but is it enough?

  7. Alli ~Mrs. Fussypants says:

    The Rilla’s sweater post was one of my favorites.

    Excluding all the HS posts that have totally shaped how I HS! 🙂

    It was honest, funny and so real to life.