Ahh children. They give us so much - a new perspective on life, a reason to take up lego or colouring-in again, years upon years of sleepless nights - but they also take one big thing from us parents: Time.
No matter how you look at parenting, it's a time-suck, and from my experience if you're nodding your head and wondering who sped up the passage of time the moment you held your first child in your arms, then congratulations, I'm pretty confident you're an amazing parent because time is the most important thing you can give your child. That and love, and good taste in music.
However, that doesn't mean you can't do other things like go on amazing holidays, or build a creative business that helps others, or try the National Novel Writing Month challenge that is writing 50,000 words of a first draft in the month of November. It's okay to claim some of your time JUST FOR YOURSELF.
Why doing NaNoWriMo will make you a better parent
If anything, doing these things and taking that time will make you a better parent because you're working on yourself. I am reluctant to use the term "Happy Parents, Happy Kids" because I think that implies everyone has to be upbeat and happy all the time and that isn't always realistic when life brings you ups and downs all the time. Instead, let's say "Balanced Parents, Balanced Kids". And taking a little time for yourself to feel more balanced (and yes, happy) is how you achieve this.
If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I am a passionate advocate for both writing and for NaNoWriMo. I believe that regardless of where your writing takes you the act of writing can radically improve and enhance your life. Not only is it fun, but it's a worthwhile way to spend your time. When you write (no matter what it is) you use your brain in ways you may not always do. You create something that didn't exist previously. You explore new ideas, emotions and ways to communicate. You will meet challenges and you will feel tested, but you will invariably learn something about yourself or your work when you do. I still maintain that finishing my first draft of my first book Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel at the end of my first NaNoWriMo was the biggest and most satisfying sense of achievement that I'd ever felt. And while amazing, finishing and publishing my subsequent books hasn't really come close. The joy I find in writing is something I want others to share and this is a primary reason why I now blog so much about writing, and why I created WriteNOW Cards.
1667 words a day? With kids? How does that work?
So these are the reasons you as a parent (or caregiver) should do NaNoWriMo (and here are many more), but how do you actually do it? When you already have full days of work and child-rearing, how do you find enough time to write (on average) 1667 words a day?
Well, the answer to this will be different for everyone. For some you'll be able to carve out a little time early in the morning or at night when the children are in bed, but I am NOT going to advise that everyone does this. My main reason for this is because I believe sleep is a number one priority for parents. Tired parents are not balanced parents, and tired days as parents are real struggles. You'll also not enjoy NaNoWriMo as much if you're knackered and will find those word counts harder to achieve.
This leads me to say another important thing, if you will have a newborn or you have other demands or complications happening during the month of November, be realistic about what you can and can't do. When my son was three months old I took part in NaNoWriMo and while I gave it my best shot and wrote as much as I could, I only managed around 35,000 words. This was during a time when I would only get between 4-5 hours of broken sleep each night, and I was experiencing severe symptoms of post-natal depression and anxiety. I know see it as a miracle that I managed those 35,000 words, and "losing" that NaNoWriMo was one of the most educational and memorable experiences for me. My point here is, if you know finding time in November is going to be hard, but if you still really want to do NaNoWriMo (or any other creative challenge) STILL DO IT!! Please don't not try, but be good to yourself and be realistic about what you can and actually should achieve. Don't do anything at the cost of your own health. And if you do have a young baby I wrote these writing tips specifically for new mothers.
So, be realistic, and don't think you have to go without sleep as you embark on NaNoWriMo.
Right, so HOW DO YOU DO IT, FRANKIE!!!!
Well, here we go.
Look at your current schedule and identify what can give for a month
This is the same advice I give to anyone (with or without children) who wants to do NaNoWriMo. Writing 1667 words a day takes most people between 1-2 hours. That's a lot of time for most busy people in full-time work, and it's even more time when you have people to feed, clothe and referee once you get home. That's why I always say that doing NaNoWriMo requires sacrifice and saying "No" to some things.
Look at both your schedule and your childrens' and think about what can give for one month. Or alternatively, think about ways you can take more time away from them. Organise more playdates at other peoples' houses (and promise to return the favour in December), or think about the places you can go with your children where they can play or be occupied (safely!) and you can get your laptop out. If needs be - and you have the funds - book additional childcare or find out if a friend or family member can help you out. Needless to say, ask your partner to help you out and take the children out during weekends so you have big batches of writing time scheduled.
Personally, I will be a lot less social in November. I'll probably not go out with friends and I will probably spend a few evenings a week in my office rather than watching TV. I'm also going to be deleting social media apps from my phone as I know this will give me at least an hour back each day and I'm now used to writing my fiction on my phone using Evernote. This is what I'm prepared to sacrifice (rather than sleep!) for NaNoWriMo. You just have to think about what you're prepared to give up... and remember it's only for a month! Your children will survive if they see you a little less or if they see you working on something you care about, in fact, I think this is actually good for them...
Don't hide it from your children
Since becoming a mother I've struggled with the idea that I have to pretend to be 100% a mother to my child, and then when I'm at work I have to (to a certain extent) pretend to be only a freelance writer/professional. I think it's healthy for my son to know that Mum works hard and occassionally has to do a bit of work in front of him. My partner and I have chosen to freelance and run our own businesses so that we can spend more time with our boy, but it would be irresponsible of him to think that achieving this status was easy (it wasn't!) and that we don't take care of our professional responsibilities when we have to (and we can!). For that reason I won't be only writing outside of my son's gaze.
If your kids are old enough to understand, explain to your children that you are doing a creative challenge and so you will need to be on the computer a bit more this month. Tell them it's like a race and you have to write as many words as possible before a certain time. Tell them they can help you by letting you write for half an hour or so. Set them up with an activity they can do close to you (or not!) and set a timer so they know when you'll stop. Have a regular Sunday afternoon movie session, or treat them to some Saturday morning video games or cartoons. Talk to your kids about the challenge, tell them about your progress and be sure to mention how much you're enjoying it and how nice it is that you're doing something creative for yourself, in the same way that they may enjoy painting, or making models or building houses with lego - they will understand this!
Get them involved
If they're old enough, why not set them up with a similar challenge. I was "writing" books as soon as I could write, complete with my own (terrible!) illustrations and I loved putting them all together on craft paper. Yes, this may mean a bit of extra work and planning by you to help them, but if it then buys you time to work on your own book, then I see it as a win-win, especially as you're gaining extra parenting points too!
Set up a new routine
My son is too young to really understand Mummy spending more time on the computer than usual but he does connect well with routine so I've already started to spend a bit more time on my laptop next to him around 9.30 during our mornings together (I'm with him by myself on Thursdays and Fridays). If I set up him with playdough or paints I can normally grab around 20 minutes of (admittedly interrupted!) writing time as he plays next to me. In the afternoon when he's a little tired, I put the TV on for him normally around 5pm which is when I start to make dinner, but during November I will also try and take some of this time for writing. I will also have my laptop or my phone close to hand throughout the month so if I see him playing nicely by himself I can get straight back to my work in progress... I hope!
Let some things go...
So November will see us eating a lot of quick and easy meals. I will be swapping the time I would spend making meals for writing, or I'll be making a lot more of the same meals that require minimal effort and time. We're lucky that in our family we like soups - and that we have an Instant Pot similar to this one! - and that we can eat fairly healthy ready meals and take-away from places in our area. I'm also lucky that my partner and I have always shared cooking quite naturally and because he knows I'm doing NaNoWriMo he will do a bit more than his fair share in November. It's okay to take time from domestic things if this the only time you have to grab. I will probably do fewer loads of washing in November and my house will be a bit dirtier at the end of the month, but if I have 50,000 words to show for it, I know I'll be more than okay with that.
The first few times I did NaNoWriMo, I kept it a secret. I don't think I told my partner until I was ten days into my first NaNo because I was so scared I would fail and I didn't want to have to share that sense of shame with anyone. But once I told him - and others - I felt more encouraged and motivated by their support, and also it meant I could relax about saying "Hey, sorry I can't meet you for coffee or that drink" because I could explain what my reason was, and I didn't hold back about how important that is to me. If someone was training for a marathon you wouldn't hold it against them if they couldn't meet up for a drink because they were busy doing training runs for a few weeks? You may be surprised how supportive people are...
Ask for help
Depending on how supportive friends and family are, ask them for help either taking care of your kids for a few hours one day when you want to get ahead or catch up on your word count. Alternatively, ask for their help in other ways. Could they do a few extra school pick-ups? Do they have any meals in their freezer they could donate? What are they up to at the weekend - could your kids and partner tag along? Could they even have a sleepover for your children? It sounds extreme but if you're really tight on time, these are the ways you grab a few extra hundred words.
Whenever you can write, write
When I'm waiting in a queue at the post office, waiting for the kettle to boil, or sitting down for ten minutes before I have to go and get my son from daycare, my tendency is to get my phone, open up Instagram and scroll. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. Or anything where I can get my scroll on. Not in November. (That's why I'm deleting all my social media apps!) Ten minutes could mean up to 300 new words for me. So two or three ten minute batches gets me over halfway to my daily word count goal. Of course writing in these (often interrupted) sporadic spurts isn't easy and isn't good for a work in progress, but it's worth remembering that NaNoWriMo isn't about perfection or connecting all the dots in your story, it's about getting words on paper, no matter how badly spelt or put together they are. Remember this in November.
It's not about winning
And if this is all sounding like too much hard work than it's worth, and 1667 words (or 1-2 hours a day of writing) feels impossible, I understand. But don't let this be a reason not to do NaNoWriMo. Don't give up on a dream or curiosity about writing before you even give it a go. It is in giving it a go that you gain so much.
If I haven't already emphasised it enough, NaNoWriMo is not about 50,000 words, or "winning". It's about writing regularly, or more than you ever have before, and it's about creating something. Even if you only manage 5000 words in 30 days (which is 166 words or around fifteen minutes of writing a day), that's an incredible start. That's you exercising your creative muscles. That's a whole chunk of time you spent on yourself. That's you doing something that is better for you than scrolling through social media. That's you investing in yourself in a way I imagine as a parent you don't do enough of.
You deserve to do more of that, and NaNoWriMo can help set the tone of this.
And if you do decide to take part in NaNoWriMo be sure to follow me and my progress! I'll follow you back!
Also if you'd like a bit more encouragement and motivation, get some WriteNOW Cards - daily affirmation cards for writers to help you feel more positive and able in your writing practice. Orders placed before 13th October will be delivered in time for NaNoWriMo!
Frances M. Thompson
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