On Writing: Writing Tips for New Mothers
Once upon a time, I had hours and hours of time to spend writing. But I didn't. At least not as much as hindsight now tells me I should have done.
Then I had a baby. And I now I don't have hours and hours of time to spend writing. But I do still manage to get some writing done. Sometimes, it's only a few hundred words in a week. Sometimes, it's more than 30,000 words in a month. It doesn't matter... as long as it happens.
It's fair to say that having a baby changed a lot of my thoughts and opinions about writing.
Before Baby Bird came along I would have said that writing was very, very important to me. Now he's here, I would say that writing is an essential part of my life and vital to my general well-being. In those early weeks when I was so preoccupied with a newborn baby, learning everything you have to learn - haphazardly and awkwardly - I physically couldn't do any writing, After a while, I remember feeling inexplicably but utterly lost. Yes, there were serious surges of hormones at work within me, but while I couldn't pinpoint the source of some of my woes, one was undeniable; I missed writing, desperately. I yearned to have the time to tap out a few words on my laptop, just a few. As soon as I developed something like a routine, I picked up my laptop again and it felt SO GOOD. I wrote a 4000 word short story in the fourth and fifth week of Baby Bird's life and while it was messy and rough (a lot like me at that time) it existed and the making it so made me feel like I had also come back to life.
Let me be honest. I haven't written a lot of new material since Baby Bird came along. I'm not yet back at my daily word count of 1000 words when I'm writing new material, or 3000 - 5000 words when I'm editing. In fact, I'm not even close, but I am writing regularly; I'm about halfway through the first draft of the follow-up novella to The Wait (you can see a sneak peak at some notes for it below), and I have published two new ebooks this year already, including a full short story collection. Admittedly the majority of the content for these two books was written before Baby Bird's appearance but as any indie author will know, publishing a book is not something that happens quickly or easily so I'm proud of these small achievements.
At nearly nine months post-partum, I know there is still so much more to learn before I can claim to be any kind of expert mother-writer, but I have learned many lessons already and a year ago I would have loved to have stumbled upon a post that offered tips to new mothers wanting to keep up (or maybe even start!) their writing habit. You'll note that these tips do not include the predictable "Write when your baby's sleeping" or "Stay up an extra hour late to write" because every baby has different sleep patterns and new parents really need their sleep. There are of course many other demands on your time at this stage in your and your baby's life; I am only able to write during about one in three of Baby Bird's daily naps because they are fairly short (30 minutes average - I know!) and there are other things to be done most days like make meals or tidy up the mess of the last one. I'm also unable to write much in the evening because once he is in bed around seven o'clock, I normally only have enough energy in me to make and eat dinner, catch up with my partner and maybe watch a bit of TV. I am in bed for 9 o'clock most nights and absolutely can't compromise on that until Baby Bird is regularly sleeping for longer periods of time. You may have other constraints on your time so no, I'm not going to say write while the baby sleeps.
They are more, I hope, a gentle warm word of encouragement that writing in those blurry post-partum months is possible, and a sharing of my personal experience on how I manage to find time to write.
You cannot predict anything, therefore do not plan anything.
Before your baby is born, you don't know what they're going to be like. You simply don't know if or when they're going to sleep throught the night (FYI, we're still waiting for that mythical thing to happen). You don't know how well your baby will feed, if you'll need some extra help with that or with anything else. You also don't know how their journey into the world will be and how much time you will need to recover. Do not compromise on this time for writing or anything else. Take as much as you need and spend some serious time getting to know your little one. Some newborn babies are perfect little eating-sleeping machines (ours nailed the eating part but almost from day one struggled to sleep for long periods of time on his own), but others will need a lot of attention for a lot of time. Do yourself a favour and do not put any deadlines or set any goals for writing until your little one is there and you're out of the truly crazy chaotic phase, however long that lasts. If you have time to write every now and then, of course, crack on, do it. But don't make any expectations of yourself; you'll only feel disappointment and that's the last thing you should feel at such a vulnerable time. I know this, sadly, from first hand experience when I set myself the goal of writing a short story every month in 2015. I knew I was pregnant at the time when I set myself the challenge and I thought it would be what I needed to keep me motivated to write when the baby was here. Turns out having a baby only increased my motivation to write, but conversely wiped away the amount of time I had to get it done.
Enjoy the time you spend "not writing"
My break from writing made me realise how much I love it and how much I need to write to feel like myself. This was revelatory in itself, and served to remind me that writing is how I want to spend my time and ideally, it's how I want to make my living. It sharpened my focus and like an old friend you miss when you don't see them for a while, once I began writing again, I treasured the reunion and what it brought to my life so much more than before. I only wish, in some ways, I'd taken a little extra time to enjoy "not writing" (as I mention above I was working on a short story four weeks after Baby Bird was here). I didn't spend hours and hours a day (or week) writing but I did write during a time when I would have done well to just sit or lie down with my baby boy who so craved my company at that precious period.
You're always writing even when you're "not writing"
If you're anyting like me, even when you don't have a notebook or a laptop open in front of you, you are still writing. My head is full of half-forgotten story ideas, opening scenes and character notes. Even when you're busy keeping a tiny infant alive, you can still rely on your imagination to stay active, sleep deprivation allowing. I wish I was better at keeping a notebook on my person, but I'm pretty good at emailing myself story ideas or nice little sentences I want to explore at a later date, and I did this as much as I could in those early weeks and months of life as a new mother.
I have often said that writing is what makes you a writer, and I believe this to be true, but I've come to see that all this exploring, and letting your imagination run wild and free is just as essential. Take advantage of those early months when you have removed so many other distractions and obligations to indulge your imagination.
Re-think all your previous goals, habits and expectations... and start valuing bonus writing time
A friend of mine who is also a mother said that while she was still pregnant one of her colleagues told her to lower her expectations of parenthood. A week later that colleague asked my friend if she had done that, and my friend said yes, she had been working on lowering her expectations. "Good," her colleague said. "Now lower them again. And again. And again."
This is good advice for both parenthood and for being a writer with a small infant. Before motherhood, I used to be able to look at the week and roughly guess how many words I could write, or how many hours I could spend on writing. Aside from the days when Baby Bird is at daycare, I no longer do this. I have set myself broad writing goals and I have given myself plenty of "contingency" time to achieve them, or get as close as I can. Any day when I'm at home with Baby Bird and I get writing done during one of his naps or while he's playing on the floor next to me, that is a bonus.
Accept and arrange help when you're ready
Of course, if writing was my main source of income, or that of my family, and I had an editor and a publisher setting deadlines for me then I would have to ensure I have enough time to write. But if that was the case I would approach writing the same way I now approach my work and I would arrange enough daycare hours for me to do what I need to do. At the moment, I'm (roughly) using two of the three days of daycare Baby Bird has (it was two days until this month) to work on client work and the remaining day is for writing, blogging and a mix of admin, "me-time" activities like getting my hair done or going to yoga, and the household tasks that are easier to do without a baby.
We are very lucky that (depending on your earnings) daycare is subsidised in the Netherlands and we can comfortably afford to send our son to a creche he loves, but we also do not have a lot of family or friends on our doorstep offering to babysit or look after Baby Bird so I rely heavily on these days, and on my partner giving me extra time to write at busier times, like when I'm close to the launch date of a new book or if I'm close to finishing a first draft and am on a roll.
I have struggled with a lot of guilt over sending my little man to daycare and I still don't think internally I'm going to be 100% convinced that it's the right thing because I still feel that physical pull to him. Maybe this will eventually fade, but I've known from very early on that I'm a much more level-headed, upbeat and content person when I have time to myself to write. I also know how much my son enjoys daycare and how much it benefits him - it feels like every evening after a day there he has learned a new noise or movement - at the moment it's also vital for us because he is being exposed to Dutch, a language we hope he'll learn alongside English.
Let it be messy
"LET IT BE MESSY!" is my new mantra for a lot of things now I'm a mother. But it couldn't be more true than when it relates to writing because no longer will you have hours and hours to neatly plan out every single writing session - not that I ever did that. Embrace the new messy way you write, grabbing five minutes when you can, skipping scenes in a draft because they don't come to you easily, starting at the end of a story and ending at the beginning. It doesn't matter what you write, as long as you write.
Get used to interruptions
If you think you've got thirty minutes of writing time ahead of you because of a sleeping baby or a happily playing baby, think again! I have found the constant interruptions and abandoned writing sessions the biggest frustration and the hardest thing to get used to. When I'm really on a roll and Baby Bird decides its time to wake up, or I spot him trying to pull himself up to standing with our hard wood floor under him, I hate having to down tools but I've definitely got used to this being my new reality. I do what I can to note down where I felt the writing was headed and then I make it really easy to find the document again - normally by leaving it open on my laptop. I've also got much better at planning my fiction in greater detail so I can pick things up easily or jump to a scene that I suddenly want to write so it could be said that actually being a mother has made me a more efficient and prepared, if conversely messier writer.
A little goes a long way...
Don't be put off by "only having five or ten minutes" to write in. I can write 100 - 200 words in ten minutes and so if I do that twice a day, five days a week for two weeks, that's practically a chapter of a novel done that wouldn't have existed had I been put off by the fact I only had five minutes to write because I knew Baby Bird was going to wake up from his nap.
And if you want a little help with writing quickly, these tips may help.
Make writing easy
Do yourself a favour and make your messy, sporadic, scrappy writing as easy as you possibly can. Have your laptop somehwere you can grab it and pop in the bottom of your pram. Keep a notebook in your baby's changing bag. Download a note-taking or writing app onto your phone (I use Evernote, or send myself emails). I used to take my laptop with me on walks with Baby Bird and would stop at coffee shops when he was asleep and would write until he woke up. Sometimes this was only a few hundred words but other times I managed to knock out a few thousand. Result!
Do it with the baby
If it proves impossible to be away from your baby, then don't fight it, embrace it! When your little one is in the "I want to be held all day long" phase, it is still possible to hold a baby and do some writing. One way I did this was by swaddling my son and placing him in my lap as I'm sat on the bed in a cross-legged position. This worked surprisingly well.... for a few weeks. Then I would prop him up next to me, again on the bed, and hold him in one arm and have my laptop sitting on a cushion close to the other. Again this worked until it didn't, but it helped me learn how to type with one hand (which I'm actively doing now as I pump milk - sorry!) and this became a invaluable skill. Later when he was happier being on his own, I would work standing at the kitchen counter, pushing him occasionally in his pram which was lined up so he could see me. I would often hope against hope that the sound of me tapping on the keyboard would soothe him to sleep but not my defiant little guy!
Since Baby Bird became more active, and even before that when he became really keen on his playmat (around 6-8 weeks), then I can now get a good two good batches a day of twenty to thirty minutes of time when he occupies himself with toys or by crawling around our baby proofed living area. That's not to say this happens every day, but I like that he sees me working and writing on occasion because...
Your child needs to know writing is important to you (and this will benefit them too)
I read a lovely article recently by a creative freelancer who explained that she doesn't say sorry to her toddler when she has to work, because she needs him to understand that her creative work is an essential part of her life professionally, personally and because it pays the bills. I want Baby Bird to know that I have this big joy in my life that I am pursuing actively and passionately. I want him to see this example and follow it. When the time comes that he can understand what I'm saying, I will remember not to apologise for taking time away from him to write, or for encouraging him to play on his own so that I can do a little bit of writing when I am with him.
Stay flexible but focused
I'm constantly reminded that nothing stays the same for very long with a baby. When I think about Baby Bird six months ago he's a completely different creature to what he is now, and the care and attention he needs is constantly changing. I can't be rigid about routine - for him or for writing - anymore so again I work towards grabbing messy bonus minutes for writing when I can. I try not to hope that it will become easier to write for longer or more often, but of course, I do. But I no longer hold fast to these hopes (like I perhaps did a lot in Baby Bird's early months) because that will lead to disappointment.
What I do hold fast to is the fact that taking time out to have a baby and to have my identity significantly altered when I became a mother has reaffirmed for me that I Am A Writer and I Want To Write. Even if I don't make it my full-time job. Even if my books are never read by another person ever again. Even if I never manage to publish another book. Writing brings me great joy and that makes me a happier person for anyone - especially my son - to be around.
Are you a parent with a baby or young children? How do you make time to write or pursue a hobby or creative goal? I'd love to hear any tips and tricks you may have.
Frances M. Thompson
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.