Motherhood and writing: a topic buried beneath mounds of advice columns, cries of frustration, and hurtful moral judgments on all sides. Most of what I hear are concerns a child will stall/delay/derail a career, coupled with ways to work around the child.
But this is a different sort of article. This is about the other side of motherhood and writing, the decision that opens the door for all those advice-guides and judgments, and the truth some writers fear to some degree or another.
It’s about accepting—choosing—slower career growth in exchange for raising children and caring for family.
It’s about putting motherhood first.
More mothers do this than talk about it. You won’t hear much about choosing to gaze into a baby’s eyes as she breastfeeds, but you’ll hear lots about one-handed typing to create a first draft while the baby eats. You won’t read many tales about how much more satisfying it is to help your child master riding a bike than it is to complete a solid first draft. And rarely will you see a writer claim that putting avid pursuit of a writing career on hold was the best damned decision of her life. You’ll most often hear the frustrations instead.
The perspective is out-of-step with the mainstream notion that “strong work ethic” is synonymous with, “works at the expense family.” It’s far more acceptable to say your progress faltered because certain plot points were challenging than to say your wordcount was low because you took your child to the park. Few would call a writer dealing with depression unprofessional if a book’s release date was delayed for mental wellness reasons. Many would call it unprofessional if the delay came from tutoring your child through a difficult school year. So mothers are more likely to publicly vent about their lack of progress than tell you how cool it is to instead what a tiny human grow and develop.
I can tell you all sorts of things I did to keep writing while adhering to the parental commitment I’d chosen, and I can expound at length on the number and diversity of complaints I made about never having enough time and brainpower. But that’s only the most-expected part of the story, the part that’s professionally acceptable and expected. There’s much more to it.
I offer this as a discussion of my own choices, not my moral judgment of the choices other mothers make, and as a perspective for new writers/new mothers to consider.
A little history so you know where I’m coming from…
My son was a surprise, showing up more than a year earlier than my husband and I had planned. For familial and financial reasons, we soon left the west coast and landed in small-town Indiana. I also left an unfinished university education, the lure of a teaching career, and a growing presence in regional theater. Some warned I was sacrificing my youth, ambition, talents, and success for mere motherhood. That by the time I returned to professional life, it would be too late to “catch up.” But rather than play the crazy-making game of trying to be everything at once, I chose to do a couple things in succession. Why not have everything I wanted in a sequence instead? And why was contributing to the next generation seen as a lesser calling?
When my son started school, I was jazzed to have more writing time (and the privilege of living in a situation that permitted me that time). Then, for a slew of academic reasons, I started homeschooling him halfway through third grade and my time went away again. In the almost-decade since, I’ve experienced poverty, the loss of my husband, and the low expectations of people who know me as “just a mom” living in Indiana. Our financial life might have been easier had I stopped homeschooling (provided I landed a job in the middle of the horrible recession), but it wouldn’t have been best for my son. Not by a long shot.
So… we kept up homeschooling, and gave up other things. That’s when I fully embraced parenting as my primary, no-hesitation vocation.
But something gave me comfort in the years of stress and loss, brought me joy in the midst of darkness, and motivated me to pick vegetables from 5am to noon, scrub toilets, and deliver the same basic academic lesson for the umpteenth time while wondering in the back of my mind how I was going to afford enough heating oil to make it through the winter.
It was not writing.
It was my son.
Even though my son was a surprise, my parenting decisions were deliberate. I believed my child would grow more willing to explore the world if he knew a parent was always available to back him up—not to keep him from falling, but to pick him up if he did. I believed he’d continue to share his thoughts and fears if I remained available, open, and accepting when he spoke them. I believed that, as he navigated adolescence—especially while grieving his father’s death—he’d need me to do fewer things for him and with him, but would need me to just be there more.
Growing up didn’t wait while I finished writing the next scene or revising the next book. The writing waited on my son instead. Whatever I lost by putting motherhood first was so much smaller than what I and my son gained.
And I knew he wouldn’t be a child forever.
I’ve reached the end of the child-raising part. My son turned eighteen in December, and though we’re still wrapping up high school studies, he’s transitioned into a person who shares the house rather than someone who is only cared for within it. He holds down a job and takes care of his own finances, helps with meals and chores, and talks with me every day. He knows he doesn’t need to ask permission anymore, but discusses plans anyway. At least a couple times a week, he asks to “run something by me.” Every now and then, he’ll knock on my bedroom door in the wee morning hours, unable to sleep because of worries or memories or something that just can’t wait until morning.
And all those times over all those years I lost sleep, lost brain cells, and set aside my writing at a second’s notice—because he needed to talk, or couldn’t wait to show me something funny the dogs were doing, or hit maximum frustration with his reading, or just wanted to hug or cry or vent about life’s unfairness—all those stalled-out writing projects and unpublished stories have paid off. He’s a good young man.
When I sit with a group of parents complaining about the rudeness, self-centeredness, rebellion, and distance of their teenagers, I have very little to contribute. In fact, I usually walk away, tired of hearing parents say horrible things about their own children. Their experience is not mine.
Do I have regrets? Oh, bright hells, of course I do! Most of them are small, more like random musings, the kind of regret that comes from having too many good options rather than a bunch of bad ones. Would I have found as much satisfaction teaching college-level courses as I have found teaching classes of my own making? Would I have settled in London for half the year? Would I have landed a few choice roles? How many books would I have finished? What would I have done had I not invested so much in motherhood?
The most painful regrets have nothing to do with lost writing time and professional opportunities delayed or gone. They are instead about times I lost my temper, or the day I cancelled a camping trip, or my inability to provide financial opportunities even in the midst of the recession.
What about those people who told me I’d regret sidestepping career choices in favor of motherhood? The corporate executives, college professors, and theater professionals? For their professions, at that time, they were right that I’d never recover from taking a eighteen-ish year time-out. Their success had depended upon a defined course, or the opportunities afforded younger women, or their ability to prove their careers came first. Most every mother today grew up hearing that women who don’t put a career above family must not be serious about anything but family—and women serious about family can’t be considered for much of anything else.
But writing isn’t like all those other professions, and indie writing is even less like them. No reader gives a flip how old or young we writers are, what our CV looks like, how many genre conventions we attend, or whether we’ve checked off the proper boxes of education and experience. The reader cares if we tell good stories and present them professionally.
When we reach the age when we’re told we shouldn’t even bother trying to recover a career in other occupations, writing provides us the potential of decades ahead. And the availability of indie publishing means the writer needn’t anticipate waiting years to receive form letters and more years to see her work available to readers. In fact, age and experience and maturity become incredible assets.
We don’t need to worry about breaking out before aging out.
And let’s be real: Were we discussing taking time out from a new or established writing career in order to earn a series of academic degrees, no one would be bombarding us with advice on how to churn out novels with a thesis on our hip.
So if you’re a new writer, and someone tells you you’ll lose writing years if you have a child, understand the perspective the claim is coming from. Women have been trained to refer to the years spent with their children as lost years, as time away from the world that matters, as a professional sacrifice, as something given away that can never be regained.
If I’d resented every moment taken from my writing, I’d have finished my motherhood years bitter and depressed. I’d have tainted my ability to write in the future, and broken my relationship with my son. (After all, children who constantly hear their parents complain about what they could be doing instead of parenting don’t gain much in the way of self-worth.) Instead, I chose to make parenting my highest priority, learned to be patient with myself as well as with my child, and discovered “missing out” was, for me, the best thing that ever happened.
Don’t let expectation determine your experience.
Sure, I swallowed my frustration plenty of times. Sure, I sometimes wonder what else I’d have accomplished if I’d had thousands and thousands of additional hours over almost two decades. Sure, I took the occasional trip to immerse in the writing life that was elsewise a mere figment of supposition.
But when I’m ready to look back from the end of my life, I will not think to myself, “Gosh, I wish I’d spent less time raising my son.” Because the absolute truth is this: I wanted to know my son better than I knew any business or craft because my son—and people, and family—are by far more important than the best damned story I could ever make up.