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.