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a conversation on: writing with small children


Photo credit: the fantastic Brook Andreoli Photography (click here for more info)

So here’s how these conversations will work. I’ll post about the topic with my opinion/ideas. Then we’ll talk in the comments. And please bear in mind, that I always know that I’m just sharing one person’s ideas. I know these things won’t work for everyone, that lives change, that I could be writing a completely different post myself in one year’s time. It’s just about getting the conversation started. πŸ™‚

I started writing seriously at about the same time I became a mom. Which was nice because I’ve always built the writing around the kids–but also challenging in its way too. I’ve been doing this for 7.5 years now. And here is the only secret I have learned: things change.

I used to write during naptime, then during naptime/preschool overlap, and then when I had my third son, I realized that three schedules very seldom overlap. But it’s still very important to me to write every day–I’m a somewhat slow writer, in that I complete about one book per year–and that’s the way I get it done.

So what to do?

In the past few months, I’ve been able to hire my adorable and lovely college-age cousin Caitlin to help out with the kids for six hours a week. It is sort of stunning how much you can get done with an extra six hours per week. But that isn’t something I had during the first seven years I was writing.

Here are a few ways that I make writing work with small children:

*I cannot do two things well at once. I can’t write when the kids are awake or when they need me. Answer an e-mail or take a phone call here and there, yes. But really write? Really create? That needs my full-time attention–and, even more so than that, so do my kids. They are crazy and cute and the reason I quit teaching was to be at home with them because I knew it was the right choice for our family. (Definitely not trying to tell anyone else what to do!) So I have to find/make the time to write at other times.

* This means evenings and weekends, for the most part. My husband’s job is such that he works every day after he gets home once the kids are in bed. So we work side by side at our computers almost every evening. Such is life in the Nerdery. And then, on Saturdays, I always get in a good block of time–say 4-8 hours. This is very, very important to me because it’s when I can do lots of drafting and really dig in.

*I write a little every day no matter what. The hardest time to write was when I had two small children and was the house mom in a sorority of forty girls. I lived in the sorority and was in charge of running the house, the staff, looking after the girls, etc. While parenting. And writing. My writing was definitely the slowest then, just 300 words a day sometimes. I did get discouraged. But I tried to be very disciplined and at the end of the year I had a book. Not a great book. But a book, and I had gotten better at writing.

*I don’t write on Sundays. This is for religious reasons, and I’ve found that a side benefit is that it is so good to have that day off, to let go of the manuscript and just live.

*I keep notebooks everywhere to jot down ideas that come to me so that I can get back to them when it’s time to write.

*I accept (some times more gracefully than others) that this is a situation that requires constant calibration and balance. What works now will not work later. No solution is permanent.

*I accept (some times more gracefully than others) that I’m not as active online as I feel I should be. When I sit down at the computer, I usually know that I don’t even have enough time to write, let alone do all the other stuff I feel like I should be doing (like blogging more, being a better commenter on other people’s posts, etc.).

*I accept (some times more gracefully than others) that–for me–being a good mom/wife and writing are the only two things that I can really do right now. It’s like letting go of a bunch of very bright, very beautiful balloons that represent different lovely or good things. (And I have to admit that maybe I’m sort of gleefully popping some of these balloons, like the one about having a clean house. Really, was that ever going to happen anyway?) But some are harder to let go. Goodbye, training for a marathon. Goodbye, television shows I once loved. Goodbye, all hopes of my children having updated photo albums. Goodbye, making homemade bread. Goodbye, learning how to ballroom dance, doing a great job of keeping in touch with old friends, taking that economics class at the university, etc., etc.

But here’s why it’s okay. Because those other two balloons–the ones I hold to very, very tightly–are the ones that lift me up and make me feel like flying.

Let’s discuss in the comments: what questions do we have for each other about writing with small kids (or making time to write in any situation)? What tips do we have?




+ comments (46)
  • Georgia
    August 17, 2010

    I love the image of having to let go of some of the balloons… I find myself gripping tightly to all of my balloons not wanting to let any of them go (except maybe the laundry and dishes ones…) and then not being able to have time for the things I truly love.

    My boys are finally ALL in school this year, the youngest is in afternoon kindergarten which affords me a little over 2.5 hours a day all to myself. I hope to use this time as my writing time. I may have to set rules for myself, and disconnect from the internet while writing, and turn off the phone etc. I get distracted so easily.



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Georgia, congratulations! On the kindergarten and the writing. And I think you are so right. Setting rules and not answering the phone, etc., make a big difference (when I make myself do them). I am easily distracted too. πŸ™‚



  • NatalieWhipple
    August 17, 2010

    Great post. I have just been through a change in my routine! Farewell, naps. It’s been tough so far, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. And then figure it out again when it changes!



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Natalie, I read and loved that blog post of yours. It’s hard, isn’t it? I like to be able to count on time to write. I think it helps me mentally. Which is why it is so hard to see naptime go…



  • Lauren @ Embrace the Detour
    August 17, 2010

    I not only love this post, but needed it. I’m printing it and hanging it on my wall. I have three balloons right now (as of yesterday) and cannot wait to let go of the newest addition (my job)!



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Lauren, I’m glad there was something worth reading in that mass of ruminations. πŸ˜‰ And good luck with your new balloon! I should add that at one point I was also working at a different job while writing and parenting (house mom in a sorority–long story). It is hard but you can do it!



  • Julie Hedlund
    August 17, 2010

    This is a beautiful and perfect summation of both the challenges and rewards of balancing motherhood and writing. I am going to share this with my husband and say, “THIS is what it’s like. Now you know why the laundry doesn’t get folded and the toys don’t get put away.”

    Love the balloon analogy too.



  • Julie
    August 17, 2010

    wow great post about balancing all those jobs of wife , mother, and trying to do what you love. I agree housecleaning can go away for all my concerns. grateful I will have 4 monkeys in school this year but with a dh that works alot..totally understand that need to not do certain things.



  • Jess
    August 17, 2010

    This will also be my first year having all of my children in school. I am a full time film student, and this fall I will be writing my first full length script. I am nervous, and excited about writing this script. I am however thinking that my day won’t be spent relaxing while the kids are in school, but rather writing like a fiend.



  • Sandy Shin
    August 17, 2010

    Thank you for this amazing post, Ally. Not being a mom, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to write with children. However, the letting go of balloons analogy is such a great one — I definitely need to accept (perhaps more gracefully) that there are things I won’t have time to do because school and writing should take precedence. :]



  • I really needed to read this post! I always wonder how other mom/writer’s do it! I have two small children at home and my husband works from home as well so occasionally we switch off and I get a few hours during the day to write. BUT…most of the time I write at night and into the early morning. And there are many nights when I get on my computer and my mind is like NO WAY! Are you kidding me??!! I just want to eat cookies and milk and laugh at reality television! I find on those nights the best thing to do to get my head back into writing is to go through what I wrote the day before and edit. By the time I get to the new stuff I’m totally ready to go!



  • KearyTaylor
    August 17, 2010

    It’s nice to read a post like this and hear about so many other mom/writers out there. Some days it feels like a loosing battle. It’s hard to remember what is highest priority in the family/work/writing/church/life balance. Thankfully my 10 month old takes a good 2 hour nap in the morning and my almost 3 year old is happy to watch cartoons or play in the playroom while I get some writing done!



  • elissa
    August 17, 2010

    great post! I’ve been getting better–as my children have grown and said goodbye to naptime, and as my writing demands have grown as well (external deadlines, omg!)–to do *some* of the parts of the creative writing process while they are around. My true writing time is still pretty much confined to late night, though, and as school starts and my teaching job gets into full swing again, that squeeze will get tighter.



  • JessieHumphries
    August 17, 2010

    I love to hear all the comments about writing as a mom and how others do it. Especially a successful writer like you Ally! And dang it…I have like 10 baloons right now. Maybe its time to make a priority list. But for me, I get up every morning at 6:00 am and write until my kids start yelling at me to come and get them (which is usually somewhere around 8). Also, every Wednesday my husband lets me have my “writing night,” and he has his “daddy/kids night.” The kids love having time with their dad and I love having some time alone:) I am usually at the bookstore in my cozy chair from 5:00 until they kick me out at 10:00. This has been my schedule for the last year, but lately I am getting burnt out on revisions and sometimes have a hard time not hiding the alarm clock under my pillow and going back to sleep!



  • Ann Marie
    August 17, 2010

    I took a “tickle your muse” online course once, and holy smokes all the exercises were things I did pretty regularly with my kids: they bring so much variety and freshness and wonder to my days whether we’re going to fancy museums or whatever or not. So yes, definitely yes! to all the family/child reasons for being able to be present for them, but there are direct creative payoffs as well. (And yes, meanwhile I keep on working on my attitude of patience.)



  • Enna Isilee
    August 17, 2010

    “Such is life in the Nerdery.” Ha! That’s awesome.

    Me? I have two little brothers, and I’ve always kind of been the 3rd parent since I’m older than them, but I’ve never had to deal with this problem yet. And honestly, my writing has taken the backseat these last three years so that I can focus on school. Maybe someday I’ll have this problem. Maybe.



  • aimee bartis
    August 17, 2010

    I love the balloon idea. Sometime I feel I will be carried away by all my balloons. My trouble is that there I can’t let go of (work) and other don’t want to let go of (the kind of mom I want to be, sometimes work). Unfortunately, those 2 balloons often involve attaching other balloons.
    I set the goal of having my book done by the end of the summer. That worked like same sided magnets – I did almost no writing. I teach and that’s important to me so I take on projects to make things better for my students. So, I spend my summer on those projects. I didn’t even make it through my summer reading. Not to mention everything my boys need from me and what I want to do with and for them.
    The hardest thing is beating myself up about not writing and not even reading. I’m just at a point that I can’t figure out what or how to let go and put a higher priority on my writing. It’s frustrating. It’s something I’m working on every day.
    I need to offer myself more grace. But I don’t want to become complacent.



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Sorry about the lag. Back now. Children are fed and half-fighting/half-playing.

    Julie Hedlund, so glad you liked the post. And the dishes are pretty much never done at my house. πŸ˜‰

    Julie, four kids! That sounds so busy (and exciting). A DH who works a lot adds a whole new factor to the mix, too. You’re amazing.

    Jess, congrats on film school! And on writing like a fiend. πŸ˜‰ I definitely think that most moms aren’t lounging around while kids are in school. There is always so much to do, which is both a blessing and a curse.

    Sandy, I’m glad you found something too. πŸ˜‰ I think most of us have busy and beautiful lives and prioritizing can be painful because of what we have to let go that we love. Thank you for always being so generous and responsive with your comments on this blog. πŸ™‚



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Shari, I am laughing and and loving your comment because I am the SAME WAY. Writing at night can be so hard. My mind is so tired. I love your idea about editing things from the day before to get back in the swing of writing. That’s good stuff.

    Keary, I’m very glad you liked the post–and so glad your kids are napping and you are writing. Go you! I hope the writing is going wonderfully.

    Elissa, it sounds like you have so many great things going on. I often wonder if I would be able to balance teaching with writing. And you are doing it! Good for you.

    Jessie, having a writing night is a great idea! Your husband sounds so fun and supportive. I hear you on the wanting to go back to sleep. Sleep is like my drug…I love it so much.

    Ann Marie, that sounds like a great course. And you sound like a great mom. And I need to be more patient too. It is definitely my biggest parenting challenge.



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Enna Isilee, I think that makes sense. We always have to do what is most important to us right now.

    Aimee, it sounds like you are doing so many wonderful things. And living a really great life. And that will translate into good writing and lots of things to say. But finding the time to say them is a killer. Hang in there!!



  • Kristin
    August 17, 2010

    Ally,

    Yes, yes, yes! Love the balloon analogy. My husband trains for a marathon every year, and I told him maybe someday, but I’ve always been a reader, in love with books and writing. Not running. And when you have kids @ home, nappers or not, you have to prioritize your own time (if there is such a thing).

    Thoughtful post. Thanks.



  • Carrie Harris
    August 17, 2010

    I write and cook at the same time. Seriously. I put everything in the oven or on the cooktop, stand there with my stirring spoon, and get a good 20 minutes of writing in while everything cooks. The kids have some unstructured play time, and we get a good meal at the end of it all. Assuming, of course, that I don’t get really into the scene and end up burning everything. πŸ™‚

    This is why I set alarms for EVERYTHING.



  • Kim Miller
    August 17, 2010

    I loved this post. And I read it right after I told my husband why we needed to hire a maid to clean our house. Working full time, being a mom to a fourteen month old, and making time to write – well, something’s gotta give. And I say, goodbye housework!

    I love the idea of cooking while writing. I just might have to try that. Of course, I’ll have my little man holding onto my leg the entire time. Maybe I’ll have to wait until he’s a little bit bigger for that one…



  • BeckyWren
    August 17, 2010

    Beautiful! You are so inspiring to me, Ally. I love the imagery of the balloons–and I’d love to see a picture of that hanging on my wall to remind me (kind of like the glass/twine balls). It’s something I need reminding of often.



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Kristin, I love running marathons! I miss doing it so much. But you’re right. Something has got to give. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for commenting!

    Carrie, those are fantastic ideas. Both about the cooking, and the alarms!

    Kim, I’m dying of laughter. Maids ARE the solution! Too bad none of us have them, isn’t it. I love the image of your little guy hanging on to your leg. You have a lot going on–I’m so impressed. And good luck with your writing!

    Becky, I miss you. You are inspiring to me. I wish we could still get our kids together and talk life. And isn’t the image amazing? Brook is incredible.



  • Susan Auten
    August 17, 2010

    You sound exactly like me. Being a mom and wife, and being a writer are the most important things. It means giving up practically everything else. I have found that balancing everything makes me a better mom and writer. If I let myself get too consumed by any one part of my life, I start feeling drained. Balance is the key.



  • Samantha Rowan
    August 17, 2010

    I love the imagery. It really reached me as I had a baby last year and juggle him, my job and my book. I write whenever I can – and then some. It takes discipline but it’s working. Sometimes I wonder if it will be worth it. I have faith.



  • Kristin Levine
    August 17, 2010

    We tried something different this summer – my husband is a teacher and I stay home with our two girls. Usually he teaches summer school for a little extra income, but this year I convinced him to stay home so I could get some good writing time in every day. I aimed for about 3 hours of writing a day and got so much done. And as an extra bonus, my husband had a fabulous time staying home with the girls and getting to spend so much time with them.

    Too bad school is starting again soon!



  • ally
    August 17, 2010

    Susan, you are so right. Balance. Why is it so hard to achieve? Kudos to you for being in a well-balanced place in your life.

    Samantha, it WILL be worth it. Keep it up! (And congrats on your little one!)

    Kristin, that sounds like a great system (and how fun for your girls). πŸ™‚



  • Julie
    August 17, 2010

    Great post, Ally. I love reading about how you’ve made it work, and the balloon analogy is perfect. And I’ve loved reading the comments of other writer moms.

    I think the hardest and most important thing I’ve had to learn about writing with four small children is that nobody will ever hand me time on a platter. Nobody will ever say to me, “why don’t you just run off and spend the afternoon writing?” Nobody.

    That means that I’ve had to become a person who wants something so much that I’m willing to rock the boat in order to get it. And that is a completely different person than who I have been for most of my life. But if I want to succeed as a writer (and I do), I have to care about it so much that I’m willing to fight for it. I have to take it seriously, and take myself seriously as a writer, or else my success will float away like one of your abandoned balloons.

    Having a husband who really likes to spend all of his free time with the family (me being the number one favorite member of the family), this has been a really hard thing to do. I have to battle guilt. I have to consider the needs of my relationships first. I have to negotiate, and compromise, and try to redefine some generations-old assumptions about roles and responsibilities in the home. And I have to do it over and over and over again. If I don’t believe my writing is worth the sacrifice, nobody else will believe it. So I have to be my strongest advocate.

    The other thing I’ve learned is to snatch moments. My kids all love taking baths, and I will often put them all in the tub at the same time and sit in the hall with the door open (so I can see them) and write. I sometimes have to put a towel around my laptop to protect it from the splashing, but I can usually get at least half an hour in. I snatch ten minutes when I tell my husband I’m going to take a shower–I take a really quick shower and spend the rest of the time writing. I take my laptop with me when we’re driving to the in-laws’ for Sunday dinner. I write while my husband drives and the kids scream in the back. Sometimes I wear earplugs. πŸ™‚

    And among all of that moment-snatching and standing up for myself, I have to walk a high-wire of a balancing act between my priority of being a good wife and mother and my dream of being a good writer. Some days I lean more towards one side or the other. But I think as long as I’m always checking and striving for that balance, I’m going to make it safely to the other side.

    Thanks again, Ally.



  • ally
    August 18, 2010

    Julie, you’re very right. We have to be our own best advocate. I do know that I’m very lucky my husband is so supportive.



  • Sara B. Larson
    August 18, 2010

    I know that you are an amazing mom, and do an incredible job with those balloons. In fact, I’m pretty sure I need to do better with all the balloons I’m holding or maybe let some go, but oh well. I just keep getting tugged along by all that helium, to and fro and all over the place I go. πŸ˜‰

    I, too, am lucky to have a husband who is supportive, willing to take over with the kids after dinner so I can have a few hours to write when I’m on a deadline, or whatever I need. If I’m not on a tight deadline, I will wait until they’re in bed and then write for a few hours. I also try to write during sonB’s nap because SonA will just play quietly or watch a movie. Sometimes I worry about that, maybe I’m a bad mom that I let my older son watch so much TV/movies so I can write? But he loves to do it, and I’m still sitting by him most of the time… I don’t know. It’s a hard balance to achieve, and one I’m sure all of us author-moms will continue to struggle with as our children grow and their needs/schedules change or we have more children or whatever the case may be.

    Thanks for an inspiring post! By the way, any hints on training for a 10K, since you loved (gulp) marathons?!?! πŸ˜‰



  • Ruth
    August 18, 2010

    This made me count the balloons that I have in my grasp and I was surprised by the amount. More than I thought and more than I want. And some things I’m not doing very well because of it. Time to prioritize and find some balance. And I’d throw in a little bit of discipline in there too.



  • Julie
    August 18, 2010

    Just to clarify: My husband is amazingly supportive about all of this writing stuff. My point was just that it takes work to find the right balance in your specific relationships, but that the end result is worth all of that work. In my opinion. πŸ™‚



  • Karen_St_Louis
    August 18, 2010

    I enjoyed your post, Ally (and everyone’s comments) because I’m really wrestling with this “balance” stuff too. I only started writing seriously when my fourth child was a baby. I’d just realized that this is what I really want to do and had started to get into the groove of it when – surprise! – baby 5 came along. (She’s seven months old now.) I find that one of my biggest challenges is finding not just the time but the energy to do everything that I want and need to do. I tell myself that things will not always be this tough, but sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ll ever be able to get the balance right.

    And unfortunately, a messy house makes me crazy (which means that I feel crazy most of the time…)



  • ally
    August 18, 2010

    Sara, as long as you have a good pair of running shoes (NOT cross-trainers) and a good training schedule, you should be good. A 10K is a great distance. Long enough that it’s not a sprint, but not so long that you’re totally trashed when you’re done.

    Ruth, what a great comment. Discipline is key. Sometimes I find myself complaining about lack of time and what I’m really complaining about is my own lack of discipline.

    Julie, so true.

    Karen, I am with you. I sometimes wonder if I will ever get the balance right, or if I will ever achieve balance and then have it last more than a couple of weeks. And I hate that my house is messy. I think I like the writing because the words at least stay written. Ha ha! Until revision, of course. πŸ˜‰



  • Kalina Converse
    August 19, 2010

    Isn’t it so hard when you have a good scene in your head and you are literally DYING to write down every detail but you can’t because you have a child calling you, a toddler destroying everything, and a baby at your feet? The dishes can wait, the laundry can wait, my story can wait, too. Because they will ALL be there when the kids go to bed. But someday… the kids will grow up and move out and when that happens I really hope that Im not staring at my computer screen wondering what happened to their childhood. Thanks for the post… I am constantly struggling with balancing these two balloons. You would think juggling only two things would be easy… not so much. I dont know how other people can juggle ten! πŸ™‚



  • Kalina Converse
    August 19, 2010

    Oh, and this comment is for Sara Larson- I do the TV thing too when daughterB is napping. I seriously think we are pre-designed to have that mommy guilt built in. It helps to know that other mommies do it, too. We can’t be perfect. πŸ™‚



  • charlotte
    August 19, 2010

    I LOVE this entry, Ally. It’s perfect!



  • Katharina Gerlach
    August 20, 2010

    “But here’s why it’s okay. Because those other two balloons–the ones I hold to very, very tightly–are the ones that lift me up and make me feel like flying.”
    I felt like crying when I read these words. It’s just the way I feel. I’ve got 3 kids, two of them are disabled and it takes so much time to take proper care of them that I have to schedule my writing time very carefully. But, oh, it’s soooo worth it.

    Thank you for writing this.



  • ally
    August 20, 2010

    Kalina, thanks for your comments! I completely agree with you. I already agree that this time is going by way too quickly…a lot of stuff can wait.

    Charlotte, so glad you liked it!

    Katharina, I am VERY glad (and touched) that you liked the post. Thank you for your wonderful comment and best wishes with your writing, and your kids too.



  • Debbie
    August 20, 2010

    I love this post. It’s so true that some things work for a time. And for that time you’ve got to love it and relish it and enjoy it because when it changes you’ve got to change to and find a new way to make it work.

    Also that ‘trying to balance 3 schedules thing’ is right where I’m at right now.



  • ally
    August 22, 2010

    Debbie, you’re so right. Change is always going to come, so learning to enjoy and relish is important (I am always trying to get better at that).

    And oy, the balancing schedules thing. I’m balancing three kid schedules and my own and yikes!



  • Lisa Ahn
    August 22, 2010

    Thank you so much for this post. I love the balloon imagery, and will try to keep it in mind. I definitely think I have too many balloons in hand right now.
    You said that you write slowly — one book per year. It took me 2.5 years to get my novel done — and I’m still revising! πŸ™‚
    I have two kids, ages 6 and 4, and I home school them. I used to write during nap time, but that is gone. Now, my kids do “quiet time” in the afternoons for about 2 hours. They know that this is mommy’s writing time. My younger child tends to interrupt, but somehow I work it out — better some days than others. Sometimes I write in the evenings too.
    There are other balloons that I think I need to let fly. I think it’s always a creative balancing act. It’s never just right, but as long as I write for at least a little bit each day, it feels like its working.
    (Oh, morning walks/runs are where I write a lot, or work out a lot, in my head — paper and pen nearby).



  • Kalina Converse
    August 22, 2010

    Okay, I read a book that had a metaphor much like the balloon one. It is called Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson and it’s a really sweet (but sad!) book on the importance of balance in one’s life. Here is a little blurp: “In the book, Life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. Every day you keep them all in the air. Then you come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls are made of glass. When dropped, they will probably shatter.”

    Just thought that I would share that little tidbid with everyone since so many people can relate to the balloon analogy.



  • Lesley
    August 26, 2010

    Ally and everyone,
    I thought I’d put my two cents in since I am definitely the “grandma” of the group though I’m still technically waiting for the grandchildren to arrive. All of your comments brought a lot of feelings to the forefront. I hope you know that all the things you are juggling would still be there even if you didn’t want to write. It would just be something else vying for your time. Any self-aware woman is constantly trying to keep all those balloons afloat or trying to not feel guilty for letting some go!

    I used to love to write but never thought of it as a serious thing. Maybe someday. For me, that is a balloon I’ve had to let go. I’ve always had to work full-time and be the mom/wife, church callings, support the husband, etc. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, keep at it all of you! Life does constantly change and we have to adapt but we should always find some “me” time every day. Even though I don’t like getting up at 4:40 a.m. on weekdays to exercise, I do it because I find I’m happier if I’ve gone to the gym. (Wish the scale made me happier -sigh.)

    I was just telling my daughter today that I might have to wait until I quit working before I can really start a blog. I so want to, but it just isn’t happening. Kudos to all of you mothers who are also writers or not. We can do it! Remember, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”




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