Writer and Parent? Tips for Finding Your New Balance

by John Scalzi

My daughter Athena was born in 1998, and once my wife completed her six-week maternity leave, I was and still am the stay-at-home parent, caring for our daughter Athena during the day. Along the way I’ve also managed to write a dozen books and literally thousands of articles and entries for magazines, newspapers, blogs and online sites. How have I managed to juggle kid-watching duties with writing work? Here are my five secrets to making it work:

1. Schedule: When my daughter was an infant, I would slot my work into the times when she was taking a nap during the day. This required me to be both opportunistic — to take work time when it happened — and also to focus and get as much work done in the time between when she conked out and when she woke up. Later on, my work schedule synced up to my daughter’s school schedule.

The point here is that even with a child underfoot, you can strategize and schedule your work for when your child doesn’t directly require your full attention. With a little practice you can learn to take advantage of even small bits of time available to you. Related to this:

2. Share your space: When my daughter was an infant and toddler I found that keeping her in my home office while I fiddled around on the computer was better than trying to keep her in her own room; your kid wants to be near you even when you’re not directing all your attention to her. So I used a baby fence to create a small “playroom” between my desk and one of the bookshelves and filled it with her toys and books. It made my daughter happy, and to be honest it made me happier too, since I always knew where she was and what she was doing. I was then able to get some work done even when she was awake.

3. Prioritize: Some work better suits different circumstances. When my daughter was awake as an infant and toddler, and when she was home from school in her early student years, the work I would was shorter, more contained stuff, like blog posts, shorter bits of consulting work, or answering e-mails and otherwise corresponding with clients. Work that required longer stretches of attention, like book writing, was reserved for later hours when my wife was home or, later, when my daughter was off at school. If you have a variety of work to perform (and we often do), then match it to the time available to you.

4. Recognize Your Limits: One of the simple facts of being a stay-at-home parent and a writer is that you are not in charge of your schedule, your child is, and as the adult you’ll have to make your life accommodate that adorably unreasonable human you’ve brought into the world. That being the case, one of the things you’ll have to recognize is that often you won’t be able to do all the things you could before the child arrived on the scene — because of time, because of mental bandwidth, and because (something that’s often overlooked) you might want to spend time with your kid, because, hey, kids are kinda fun. You need to be honest with yourself about the work you can do, and the work you’re willing to do, at any given point. When your circumstances change (for example, when your kid goes off to school) you can look again at what your capacity is for writing. Recognizing your limits is a tough thing for folks to do, especially since the limiting factor here is someone else — i.e., your child. But it’s important to have a realistic view of what you’re able to do, so that you can do the work you can, as well as you can.

5. When available, accept help: I make no bones about the fact that as a writer I was very fortunate to have a supportive spouse, who when she came home from work every day took our daughter off my hands and gave me a stretch of uninterrupted time to do work that needed my full attention. If you have a spouse or partner who is willing to do the same for you, be very glad (and be sure he or she knows how much you appreciate it!). Beyond spouses, there are often family members or friends who may be willing to give you some extra hours to  get your writing done. Ask, and of course be willing to return the favor of helping out the friends and family who help you out. Also, when your novel comes out, thank them in the acknowledgements. People love that.

12 Responses

  1. Roger

    Mr. Scalzi,

    I want to thank you for giving me some great advice this past week, both pertaining to writing (go figure!) first was your blog post that basically gave me a kick in the pants (can’t remember the title of it and I am too lazy to click back to your blog – sorry) by telling me to basically poop or get of the pot! And this one where you show me the wisdom of scheduling. Now if I only had one child and worked from home… Alas, I believe it can still be done, and I shall try it and you better believe that you will be mentioned in my acknowledgements. Have a good day!

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  3. Eric

    Due to some medical issues my son Liam needs round the clock care so the family keeps some odd hours to fit his 24 hour schedule. My most productive hours have become the midnight to 4am block. I tinker on the laptop in the dark next to Liam while he should be sleeping. First time in years that I’ve been able to block a decent amount of hours for writing and reading. If Liam decides he doesn’t feel like sleeping that night it’s a win-win for me because at least I get to spend some time playing with my son and even being a productive writer can’t beat that.

    Still, I’m amazed at the output of great work you’ve been able to produce around all of the surprises that parenthood brings. Great piece and advice.

  4. VK

    Ah, I remember the days of having only one child. I do look back on those days with a certain nostalgia now that I have four children…. where writing was concerned they were the walk in the park days. Not that I’d go back to having one. :)

    Anyway, for absolutely mad parents who have many I would also suggest working after bedtime at night. It means skipping a relaxing evening of TV with your spouse, but the value of the quiet can’t be underestimated.

    Also, I recommend learning to write during small increments of time. Don’t wait for large blocks of time because they may never appear. Don’t continually revise, but get in the habit of picking up where you left off. You can always edit/knit all the bits together later in the quiet time.

    Also, I have used a dictaphone effectively- although I hear you can get an App for iSpeech on the iPhone these days that will record your dictation while you’re out and about (or playing) and translate it into a document later.

  5. Amy Lavender Harris

    Good advice, to which I’d add:

    1. Very early mornings (or late at night, if you’re that sort of person) offer nearly unbroken stretches of time to write. Early mornings work especially well because you’re less likely to be worn down by the weight of the day just past.

    2. At some point you have to make a choice about how much (or little) vacuuming, laundry, errands, etc. you can avoid or delay doing. For me it has been an unsurprisingly easy choice not to vacuum for months at a time.

    3. It’s been my experience that writers write because they cannot help but do so. If you find yourself prioritizing other things, or struggling not so much to find the time to write but to force yourself to do so, you might want to reassess your literary ambitions.

    4. Rather than working on only one one big thing (e.g., a novel) write a bunch of small things as well–essays, articles, blog posts–to keep your hand in the field. Good bits of writing almost always have a home somewhere, and they’re a good morale booster if you’re feeling isolated or caught up in kid-wrangling.

    5. It’s well worth maintaining some sort of professional life: I’ve continued to teach and research part-time since my kid was born, and it’s contributed greatly to literary productivity.

    6. The myth of ‘mommy-brain’ (or daddy-brain, as the case may be) has been fairly thoroughly debunked. If you’re having trouble focusing, either you’re not getting enough sleep or it’s time to cut down on the morning cocktails.

    7. Supportive spouses deserve far more than gratitude. They are also owed time to pursue their own literary or intellectual interests.

    [My forthcoming book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, fall 2010), was contracted a month before I became pregnant and written almost entirely while my now two year-old daughter slept.]

  6. Catherine Shaffer

    Excellent tips! I found that being flexibile about my process helped a lot, too. As a toddler, my son would only nap if I pushed him in the stroller, so I would grab a notebook and walk until he fell asleep, then I’d find a park bench, get out my notebook, and work. If I tried to take him home and take him out of the stroller and put him in his bed, the nap would be over. But by being willing to work somewhere else than my office, and in some other way, I could get stuff done.

  7. Dave H

    Another point in favor of prioritizing jobs to fit the available time: you get the psychological boost of actually finishing something. When you’re three years into a one year project, frustration can mount. Schedule yourself an easy win now and then.

  8. Mindy

    Great tips. I think I will have more time to write once both my children are in school. But not I get overwhelmed with trying to take care of everything. Oh how I miss writing.

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  10. John Walters

    I have five sons and my wife and I both work full time. The economic situation being what it is here in Greece we are also both looking for extra private teaching lessons to do in whatever “spare” time we have. Though she works in the morning and I work in the afternoon and evening, so much needs to be done in such a complex household that there are long stretches during which I cannot write a thing. This does not mean that my calling as a writer is in question but that my creative energy must be temporarily channeled into other concerns – for example, helping teenagers with their multifarious problems, school and medical emergencies, and so on. In the past I would read about other writers doing their thousand words a day or five hundred or even two hundred and I would schedule myself likewise, and sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes I would have only two or three hours a week free for literary pursuits, and then during those times too something would come up. I have had to come to the realization that parenting is a creative endeavor as well and, since I am responsible for a number of people’s lives and welfare, I have to be willing to forsake the writing temporarily to be sure I am doing the best job I can at it. However, when I am given a block of time I go full speed ahead. I am a teacher and so don’t work during the summer. Two summers ago I did my thousand to thousand and a half words a day and wrote a novel. This past summer I put a push on and turned out a number of stories. Now work has started and writing time has constricted again. To sum up, the main thing I want to say to all you other parents out there is, don’t feel condemned or less of a writer than anyone else because you can’t devote the time to writing that other people can. You are no less a writer because of the time you have to devote to the lives of others in your care. I have to look at it this way or I get no peace of mind.

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  12. Kristin Boldon

    I appreciate this no-nonsense approach. Having a kid is not romantic, and neither is getting writing done. Writing was way easier with one kid than two. One of the things that has helped me is swapping with other stay-at-home moms to get chunks of time.

    The thing I think I’ve struggled most with is wanting that chunk, though, and not being good at stopping and starting, especially when my kids behavior deteriorates. I think valuing the big chunks of time, but getting good at the start/stop, is a good balance.