HOW: ON WORKING, MOTHERING, AND GETTING YOUR WRITING DONE
After my daughter was born, I asked every working mother I knew how working mothers got their writing done. One of my colleagues said, “Write while your daughter’s small? You won’t.” Then, when she saw the panicked look on my face, she added drily, “Did you want me to lie?”
Others gave the “stop whining, just do it, writing is all that matters” speech, and I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. Writing isn’t all that matters. Love matters, my neighbors matter, justice matters, hot meals and clean sheets matter, and anyway, I didn’t want a platitude, I wanted how. Concrete ideas, real things people do to create time to write, parent, teach, and maybe occasionally have a clean house, or go out in the sunshine. Maybe I couldn’t perfectly do all these things, all the time, but I still wanted to try for a life that leaned toward some sense of proportion.
So for a while, on the first week of each month, I’m posting from a series I call How. I’d originally meant to be writing for mothers who also teach and write, but then I realized that everything I have to say also rings true for fathers like my husband, who does 50% of the caregiving around here — and maybe not even just parents, but everyone with a very full plate. Which extends to nearly everyone I know.
By the way, I also love this interview project, Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts, by Molly Sutton Kiefer. ↑ ↑ ↑
Disclaimers: I don’t claim any of this is the right way to live, or is even realistic for everyone. I also realize I’m a bit of a list-maker, a left-brain type, an efficiency freak, a neat freak. But everything I post about will be about something concrete that made our lives easier.
This month, here’s a quick and small list of things I know better than I did four years ago, about time.
- Get as much child care as you need to do your job, or as much as you can afford. If you don’t get enough child care so to get your work done, you can’t be fully available to your child at home. After my daughter was born, I stopped bringing home papers to grade. Some days I miss the free-wheeling feel of my old life, but I love the way my work now stays at the office. When I look back on my childless life, I think that in some ways I was never fully off the clock.
The reality, of course, is that childcare is really expensive. No, really. The first two years of my daughter’s life, when I worked part-time, my entire paycheck after taxes went to our babysitter. It was our single greatest expense each month, including the mortgage. There are a lot of creative ways to make it work, though.
- There’s a difference between your job as you wish it were, and your job as it is. At some point early on, when I was having trouble getting my grading done, I told a retired professor friend that I didn’t have enough time to do the job I’d been hired to do. He answered, “You do enough time to do the job you’ve been hired for; you just don’t have enough time to do the job you want.” Maybe I didn’t need to grade faster or better; maybe I needed to grade less, or grade differently, and no one (including me) had to be shorted along the way. It was one of the most freeing things anyone ever said to me about the way I perceived my daily responsibilities.
- Learn how long it actually takes you to do something. Julie Morgenstern, in Time Management from the Inside Out, recommends that you estimate how long each task in your to-do list takes, then write down how long the task actually takes. She has you do this for two weeks. I’ve done it, and it’s eye-opening. I discovered that some tasks I dread really only take five minutes; I discovered that I’d been unrealistic about how long certain things take. The point, though, is that a day functions as a physical container, with room for only so much stuff. More isn’t going to go in.