by Kate Maruyama
I’m a second generation writer mama. My mom raised 3 kids and 30 books, and it wasn’t a goal in life, but I ended up being a writer also. Same with having kids: it wasn’t a goal in life, but here I am, and not unhappily so. When writing is something at the heart of your existence, something you have to do, and you have kids, it’s a scramble, but you somehow make it work.
Don’t get me wrong. I twinge with jealousy when I read write-ups of enormously successful writing men who, with kids or not, have a little less interference. I remember an entire article about the very prolific, fantastic writer Haruki Murakami who spoke rhapsodically of his uninterrupted writing day wherein he exercised for three hours, had the space to be alone and think for several hours and wrote for eight hours straight. He glibly talks about giving yourself, the writer, time to think, to dream. He cautions new writers to keep things quiet.
Kids are preoccupying. Kids get in the way. They are unpredictable, messy, sick, needy, volatile human beings who don’t go according to any sort of schedule. They have sudden phases that start up all at once and require your full attention. And then there are the meals. Don’t get me started on thinking up and cooking a new dinner every day. I love to cook, but the every day and thinking up parts wear you down. (quick tip: What the Fuck should I make for Dinner is helpful and hilarious)
As I write this, I am sitting with my high schooler who is struggling with present progressive tense in Spanish. He had a sub the beginning of the year for six months and the real Spanish teacher has come back to find the class is a bit verb deficient. He’s working through but needs help every third or fourth question. I am happy to help him, but this is what I would call a distraction.
Sorry, came back after an hour. Made dinner. We ate it. Fish tacos, yum. Cleaned up after. Got some laundry out. Back to the article.
When I first had my son and things had evened out as much as they could after four months (he was sleeping through the night and had stopped screaming all day), I started to work again and to write again. My own experienced Writer Mama mother warned me, “As soon as they are big enough to grab a keyboard, don’t write with them around. You’ll only resent them.” It was really the best advice ever. When I was growing up in our home on a college campus, she hired student babysitters to watch me from 9-12 every weekday until I was old enough to go to preschool. Student babysitters were cheap; it was doable. She wrote at least a dozen books in my and my brothers’ childhood. (She’s so well above thirty books now that I can’t keep track.)
Sitters weren’t a viable option for us (they are a bit more expensive now!), so I worked when the kids napped. I worked after they were in bed, at seven unless I had paid work (I read scripts for money at the time). When they got too old to want to nap, I maintained “quiet time” during naptime. They could stay in their crib/bed with a pile of books and bunny, and it seemed that this quiet time was a good mood evener. It took a bit of mild threatening, and had some interruptions, but the truth is they are both very good at finding quiet time for themselves as teens, and I think this will be a skill they take into adulthood. It’s not a bad thing to be able to find space in which to decompress.
I’m lucky enough to have a willing partner in this parenting thing: my husband would disappear the kids on Saturday mornings, so I had time to write.
This parenting shit isn’t for the faint of heart, especially for creative types. As I wrote in my article, “It’s time for Moms to Stop Judging Each Other,” motherhood is a highly individual thing, and we are all trying to do the best we can with what we have.
So all I can do here, Writer Mamas of all different backgrounds and income levels and levels of help, is offer some tips that have helped me and might help you for balancing (a loaded term, as you’ll see below there is no balance) the writing and the kids and the jobs. To frame things, you should know I’m a teacher and a writer, I have four part-time jobs (as my above article mentioned, I’m a WPWHKAFLPJ: Writer Person Who Has Kids and A Few Low-Paying Jobs), which I am lucky enough to do mostly from home, although I teach outside the house at night. My kids are also now at an age where I can leave them to go do this without worrying about a sitter, and I have the luxury of an extremely helpful partner in my husband.
But here are some things I have learned along the way:
- If you are the primary caretaker at home: don’t do any housework unless the kids are at home. When they are little and at preschool, it’s tempting to finally catch up on tidying up, grocery shopping, etc, when they are safely out of the way, but the truth is, the time they’re at school is your time. It is stolen time. Leave the dishes in the sink, the toys all over the floor, and honestly, your preschooler could give a crap what your house looks like. These might be the years you forgo having much company over-and that’s okay. WRITE.
- To quote my mom, When they are old enough to reach the keyboard, don’t try to write when they are around. You’ll end up resenting them. As I said before, quiet time, time where your partner can step in, or, if you’re a single mom, time when a friend or neighbor can watch the kids for a few hours. And single parents (hats off, you amaze me), school steps in eventually. Keep the faith; steal your time. Toni Morrison had a full time job and children. She set her clock two hours early every morning and wrote then. Once her kids were up, she surrendered to the day. If you aren’t a morning person, try the opposite schedule: write at night. You have to find your own creative rhythm.
- If you are a working parent, try going to work a half an hour early or staying half an hour later. Or try to use your office at lunchtime. Let your workmates know what you are doing and ask for space. Space around the edges is everything. And again, on weekends, carve out two or three hours for writing, by hook or by crook or by DVD or streaming movie. Give it a try. You may not get 8 hours in a day to write like Mr. Murakami, but you are no less a writer.
- Roll with it. Chaos is the norm. There are no perfectly scheduled days EVER in parenting. There is this misconception that you will find balance as a working parent, as a writing parent. It’s bullshit. But if you know that chaos is how things go, you can be a little less anxious about how completely out of control things are. You have allowed other humans into your life. They are chaos itself. You just have to roll with each day as it unfolds before you. Sometimes the time for writing arrives at its appointed time. Sometimes you have to give yourself up to the world of the family.
- NO GUILT ALLOWED. This is actually good advice for parenting in general. We are presented with so many images of supermoms—Job, family, home, WOW!—making all the correct decisions for their children every moment. And there are so many images of prolific mother writers. That feeling that you’re neglecting your children when you’re writing, or neglecting your writing when you’re spending time with your children? It’s a waste of energy. Let that shit go. Take the time as it rises up to you, seize it greedily. But let it go if it isn’t happening that day.
- Find other writer/artist/working mamas. Not only do they have your back when you need support for your kids, they GET it, get your struggle, get what you’re up against. They get how some days are derailed, how others go surprisingly well. It doesn’t matter where these mamas are located. I write long tomes to my Writer Mama friend Andromeda Romano-Lax, who has lived abroad for three years in Taiwan, Southeast Asia and now Mexico. Our conversations about creative energy, child rearing and novel-making keep me afloat as do conversations with my local Writer Mamas.
- And the last, biggest tip, the one with the most benefits: Invite your kid into your writing life. Really, in their early years, they don’t give a crap what you’re working on. But if you can go meta with them, talk to them about what’s going on in your life, it a.) teaches empathy b) lets them know they are not the only citizen in the household with needs and c.) lets them understand what is up with your present mood or situation.
I was rewriting a novel and starting another at the same time, and I was extra spacey because I had two whole plots consuming my brain even when I wasn’t at my computer. I forgot a few forms at school, dropped a few balls in the kids’ lives. I felt horrible, but once I explained my situation, my kids ended up being pretty damn forgiving, being helpful about stuff, repeating things as if I might not remember. It actually made them feel better about themselves as they were at a stage where they forgot everything—knowing they weren’t the only ones who needed help made them feel stronger. They’d help me find the car when we parked at the market and ended up being helpful with their things around the house. They also got more on top of those forms for school on their own. Letting your kids know you’re human is good for them. It is also good for the planet. My writing life in no way took center stage in the house. It was just part of the narrative of the family like their dad working on a project (he’s an animator) or us needing to schedule a school group project for them. We established an awareness that we were four individuals in a house with different needs and it was up to each of us to support each other or make those needs known.
As they got older I’d employ them when big things happened in my writing life. When my first book came out, I had them run the merch table at my launch.
They were 11 and 13 at the time, and dealing with cash and being a part of the party was exciting and fun for them. I read a part of my horror novel that wouldn’t scar them for life, and I invited poets to read, our friend to play music. They felt a part of something that night, which was fun. The next day we went back to our regular lives.
My daughter was sick for 15 days in 5th grade, none of them consecutive. I saw my writing time disappearing, and I was getting bitter and crabby (go back to # 2: “when they are big enough to grab the keyboard…”). So I put aside a horror novel I was writing and dove back into a middle grade book. I read it aloud to her, asked her for her thoughts and continued on. If she hadn’t gotten so sick that year, and if I hadn’t insisted on writing despite it, that book wouldn’t have been finished. It’s now something I’m quite proud of and is making the rounds with editors. My daughter was also pretty excited to be a part of the book, to have input. Instead of me working crankily off in a corner, she became part of the process.
I’m lucky enough to live in a fantastic writing community, so my kids have met all sorts of cool writer folk. I’m pretty picky about who I let into their lives, and I’m picky about the readings I take them to as a lot of the subject matter is beyond their years, but I’d say my writing world has been pretty cool for them. My son’s junior high band played in David Rocklin’s reading series, THE ROAR SHACK. We sent the boys out for the readings themselves, but they got to hang in between and play for some supportive awesome grownups. And I was thrilled a few weeks ago at the LA Times Festival of Books when I was stuck working at a booth and sent my sixteen year old boy off with WWS’s Ashaki Jackson and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. He didn’t come back for an hour. He says he “got caught up in conversation” at the Kaya Press tent. Neela Banerjee and Chiwan Choi were mentioned, and this made me very happy.
I’m not raising my kids to be writers, but a nice writery side effect is some very cool, generous people in their lives, some of them urban superheroes. Because of the writers in my life, these kids have learned about poetry, nonfiction, fiction, but also gentrification, inequality in publishing, racism, feminism, social issues and the power of language. They have attended Writ Large Press’s “PUBLISH” events and have “published” with Kaya Press. They have learned so much about the city they live in, and recently, they got to go on a fantastic tour of Downtown LA given by Mike “the Poet” Sonksen. Whatever my kids go on to do, their being a part of my writing life has opened up their perspective on life, their city and where they belong on the planet. And they are waaaay cooler than I ever was at their age and have a better grasp of the world at large. My boy published this article about LA in Teen Ink just last year that contained a perspective on the city I hadn’t thought of.
It’s not all fine and glowy all the time. My kids get bored in the summer, they fight. They have weeks in their life where their needs take center stage, with school, projects, life drama. Even on peaceful days, my daughter drapes herself across my typing arms and groans when I’m too long at the computer (I teach online classes, I correspond in my four jobs, I work on student work). I disappear for conferences for work. This AWP they were in charge of their own meals as their dad was working late. But when my girl forgot to call in after walking to a friend’s house, it led to a worrisome half hour as I tried to contact her, wracked with guilt at having abandoned her during her spring break (of course she was fine). I’ve given up on writing in the summers, which I call my reading time (I still work my four jobs). Once I let go of the idea of getting work done in the summer, the weeks became more enjoyable, and when the kids are back to school, I write like a demon. Kids get sick. My daughter had the stomach flu as I was doing copy edits for my novel Harrowgate. I had a ridiculous deadline and was working nine hours a day on it. I’d work, hear her call, get up, hold the bucket while she barfed, clean her up, get her settled with liquids and clean sheets and go back to work. Fun times.
It is not a glamorous life, Writer Mama. It’s chaotic and often frustrating. But I hope that some of the above helps some of you know you’re not alone, and there are ways to make it work. And the truth is, these kids, these chaos-mongers do grow up rather quickly and soon enough will move away. In the meantime, you’ve had a lot of stuff they’ve brought into your life that has taught you about humanity and relationships, you know, the things you’re writing about. My Writer Mama has had thirty years with all of us out of the house and has written some fantastic books. I can’t think that the chaos and outside information the three of us brought into her house hasn’t enriched her fiction to some extent. I know my kids have definitely enriched mine.
Kate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by 47North. Her short work has appeared in Arcadia, Stoneboat and Controlled Burn and is now featured in two new anthologies, Phantasma: Stories and Winter Horror Tales as well as on The Rumpus, Salon and The Citron Review among other journals. She teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles in the BA and MFA Programs and for inspiration2publication.com as well as for Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She writes, teaches, cooks and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.