God knows I do. I think about this all the time, so when Lauren Groff famously refused to answer the Harvard Gazette’s question about work-life balance, I was thrown.
Gazette: You are a mother of two. In ten years you have produced three novels and two short story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?
Groff: I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.
Hell, yeah. Talk about a mic drop. Like many of us, I cheered her on, but I was also frustrated. This IS of vital importance to me! As someone who often feels like I’m neither writing enough nor giving enough to my family, I was dying for an answer, and her admirable refusal made me all the more determined to get one.
I reached out to some of the most prolific writing mothers (mothering writers?) I know and asked what advice they had for us.
These are women who astound me with their supernatural ability to publish and mother without seeming to break a sweat. I was hoping they’d share a deep secret that went beyond my own limited tricks —waking up early, finagling the occasional weekend away, writing in the locker room while the kids play in the gym daycare. Instead of offering tips and tricks for being productive, they schooled me with their complex responses.
First, I went to other military spouse authors because they know what it’s like to fit your entire life into the demands of someone else’s career. Yet these ladies are still able to run circles around most other writers.
Andria Williams is a Navy spouse, mother of three, author of The Longest Night, creator of the Military Spouse Book Review, an editor at The Wrath-Bearing Tree, generous mentor to other writers, tireless promoter of military families and military-related writing. I once joked with another mil spouse that Andria must never sleep — little did I know….
“Groff’s response was celebrated by many, but I'm slightly torn. On the one hand, I appreciate her gutsy defiance. And I do believe that, if we want to be successful novelists, we need to prize our time the way men do, assume that the men in our lives will take an equal share of all housework and childcare [I have heard that Groff's husband has signed a contract to this effect], and 'write like men': if not in content and style (though that is often implied, though not, here, by Groff), in time devoted and energy and, well, selfishness.
On the other hand, though, in spite of her insistence that she 'feel[s] for everyone in the struggle,' I feel slightly snubbed by Groff's response, which exists in a world above the logistical and emotional realities of most women. Groff's personal work-life setup is a privileged one, and that creates in her answer just the same 'have it all' idea that stresses women in their childbearing years to the max -- except that the implication within her 'have it all' is 'have it all, in a husband': a man whose work life allows him to care for children 50-50 or to financially provide for childcare when he can't do it himself. This simply is not a reality for most women, and it's an absurd la-la land for a military spouse, whose husband's job is an overwhelmingly decisive factor in every aspect of her life, hours spent in child care being at the very top of that list.
Would I have been happier, though, if Groff had just given the perky, 'Woman's Day' magazine-style answer to this question? If she'd chirped, 'Just wake up early, prepare breakfast the night before, and remember to smile!' Well, no. There's the rub. Because for most women that translates to, 'Just work harder and harder, til you're barely sleeping and you're nearly dead.' I did this for years, and it's how I wrote my first novel, but I once briefly blacked out in a car WHILE DRIVING with all three kids in the car, on the way to a McDonald's school fundraiser at 5 p.m., because I'd been sleeping four hours a night or less for three years, and that was my wake-up call.
I don't have any answer better than Groff's, but in a nod to other women like me, who provide the bulk of care in the home and for children out of circumstance -- or, perhaps far harder, for women who are working full-time or more outside the home or who have partners who don't believe in their art and don't support it and build time and space for it -- I don't want to give a breezy response.
So I guess my advice would be: Maintain your passion for your work at all costs and do whatever you practically can at various points in your life to support it. Maybe you are not writing five hours a day when you have a toddler, and that is okay. Be demanding of yourself but also patient. Whenever you can afford it, hire a babysitter and write like hell. Wake up as early or stay up as late as you can be productive and healthy.
But mostly: the babysitter thing. :) "
Wow. Like I suspected, Andria can address this issue far more eloquently than I, and even though she didn’t offer up a magic solution, I felt solidarity and relief that balance is not as easy as she makes it appear. I also took her blackout as a warning not to push myself too far, and I felt more able to be patient with myself. But I still wondered if other mothers would be able to show me an easier way.
Enter Lisa Stice, Marine Corps spouse, author of three published books of poetry, poetry editor at 1932 Quarterly and at the Military Spouse Book Review, and a mentor at the Veteran’s Writing Project. She offered another way of coping that, while more optimistic, still shows how all-consuming parenting can be:
“As a poet, I think I have a bit of an advantage when it comes to catching those 5-10 min breaks to get some writing in. Poetry kind of fits in with the fragmented free time that can come with parenting. Besides leaning on poetry's brevity of words, I also incorporate elements of parenting into my poetry. My second collection, Permanent Change of Station (Middle West Press), takes inspiration from my daughter's playtime, bedtime, toddlerhood, and even borrows her own words and words/phrases from classic children's stories. Sometimes those moments that interrupt writing -- messes, tantrums, questions, snack requests, middle of the night waking -- have actually sparked creative moments.”
Beautiful, right? Totally the type of mom I expect to be when I first imagined having kids. Only, I don’t burn to write about my kids. I left that conversation wondering if it makes me a bad mom that it’s not my thing, which is exactly the type of BS that Lauren Groff would have us avoid.
Next, I went to Natashia Deón, who juggles about twenty million more things than anyone I know, writes prolifically and manages to look stunningly put together at all times too. Not only is Natashia the mother of two, but she’s a practicing criminal defense attorney, law professor, creative writing instructor, creator of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, author of the luminous novel Grace (New York Times Top Book 2016) as well as The Perishing, a novel just sold to Counterpoint, and recipient of so many awards and fellowships it’d take another few paragraphs to list
Here’s what she had to say about finding time to write:
“I’m sitting in my car right now waiting for my friend, Kate, to meet me for coffee. I was in court with a client until about 20 minutes ago and I’ll go back at 1pm. My husband is home with our daughter for home school and will pick up our son from school a little later. My son has half-day. I couldn’t be here without my husband available there. He’s working from home today.
I say all this because it’s all impossible. Especially if you’re a mom or dad. That’s what I have to accept. So any sentence I write...and it’ll be bad at first...is a triumph.
I have to trick myself.
What I give up is wanting my sentences to be perfect....or even slightly good. But I want to exercise the muscle because I’ve found it always harder to come back from scratch unless there’s a huge thrust of inspiration. And if we only wrote when we were inspired, it would be a tough road, too.
What I give up is the hope that I’ll have time later to write. I’ve been really sick before so I’m settled in knowing that “time later” isn’t promised.
When I don’t write, I feel anxious and off-balanced. But when I say “write,” it could be just the tiniest of sentences. Yesterday I wrote, “I am a fragile instrument.” It was inspired by my son’s favorite opera.”
I saw in this an echo of what Andria and Lisa had said — a suggestion that we (read: I) can fit writing in wherever we can and maintain that passion. I can only hope that I eek out the tiniest bit of the beauty these two magnificent women create.
Then I talked to a non-writer male friend who spun this on its head. Instead of fitting my writing into the demands of parenthood, he suggested I fit parenting into my writing life. My kids, he argued, could do with less of me. “Defrost some chicken nuggets, let them wear wrinkled clothes, and pop them in front of the TV. They’ll be no worse off than any other kid.”
That may sound flippant, and I’ll admit that I laughed it off at first, but then it resonated when I walked into my niece’s gorgeously-decorated birthday party. My super creative and nurturing sister had gone all out to design a Greatest Showman themed party. The dining room looked like a cool and modern circus tent, and OMG let me tell you about the party favors. She used popcorn boxes and filled them with circusey things like felt beards and pull-on tattoo sleeves. It was adorable. If I had the time or inclination, I would have posted some pics on Pinterest.
When my kids have a birthday, I throw up the same basic Happy Birthday banner that lives in the laundry room cupboard the rest of the year and hand out plastic goodie bags from Party City filled with whatever little junk toys and candy they sell. (Oh, the other parents love me!)
I was joking with my family about how different this party looked from one I would throw, and that’s when it hit me. My sister is warmer and more doting and more clever in the mom department than I ever will be, but despite having more natural writing talent than I have, she doesn’t have a writing career, MFA, or book. (Note: it was hard to write that because it sounds braggy, but that’s not how I mean it.) I admire the hell out of my sister for the things she does and the time she spends with her kids. But neither of us can do everything.
Conclusion: With a concrete example in hand, I am now quite happy to know I’m doing okay as a writer and okay as a mom. Everyone has a different balance, and this is mine. I may never be the prolific writer I once dreamed I’d be or the Pinterest-worthy stay-at-home mom I once imagined I’d be, but I do have both.
I was reminded of the old Dr. Phil catchphrase — “How’s that working for ya?” Now that I’ve really thought about it, I think it’s working just right.
How about you? Are you able to find a sense of balance? Let me know.
Although these authors’ responses are far more important than tips and tricks, if you want some ideas for how to write when life gets in the way, you might be interested in these other posts: