Tansy Rayner Roberts

How Does She Do It?

January 2nd, 2013 at 22:05

I love this picture. It basically sums up everything I’ve ever written about writing/mothering.

I came across an old post of mine, Writing While the House is Messy, and it sparked off a whole lot of recent thoughts I’ve been having about writing and parenting (specifically mothering which carries an emotional baggage and social expectation with it that is particularly weighty).

It’s school holidays, a shorter summer than we’re used to now that Tasmania is finally going to the four terms system. And what I should be doing is what I have done most other holidays, which is relax, read books, enjoy my kids without wanting to strangle them, and not put pressure on myself to MAKE WITH THE WORDS, MADAM.

But no, this summer I am writing. Not one thing, not a big pressing deadline (that’s for next month!) but I decided that I needed to put something on paper this January, to start as I mean to go on for this year. It’s now the 2nd of January, the first day that my honey is back at work leaving me with the two girls, and it’s already been a balancing act.

I always forget about the cleaning. There’s so much more of it in the holidays, because they’re here ALL THE TIME, and plates get dirtier, and clothes tear through the mud, and oh the toys, the toys get everywhere. Shoes are always underfoot, partly because Jem likes to stand in whichever shoes are closest (the more outlandishly big on her tiny feet the better) and tromp them from room to room until she can leave them in the perfect place to be tripped over later.

The detritus of Christmas is still partly with us – not just the tree and many of the more recently unwrapped gifts, but scraps of paper and plastic, stray ribbons and gift bags. Half open packets, and empty stockings. Sure, I could have tidied it all up by now. But frankly, I’ve BEEN tidying it up since December 25th, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any neater.

I swear, the walls pump out glitter and stray hair elastics across the carpet whenever I step into another room.

So am I crazy to want to write amid this madness, with the children wanting playdates and science experiments and painting activities and APPARENTLY LEARNING TO RIDE A BIKE, IT’S A THING. Well, no. Because if I wasn’t trying to write around it all, what would I have left? The children would still be giggling madly or trying to strangle each other (usually both), I’d still be picking Lego bits and stray Monopoly houses from between my toes every now and then, and chances are I wouldn’t be any happier than I am now, because I’d have all the detritus AND no wordcount down on the page.

Also, if I spent every waking hour trailing my children to tidy the crumbs and feminist action heroes and picture books they scatter from room to room, I’d probably end up yelling at them a whole lot more than I do.

Writing makes me a better mother. At least, I think it does.

So um, today I decided to write a book. Not any of the other many books I am working. A New Thing. A book about the balance of mothering and writing, and particularly the experience of trying to build a professional writing career while looking after young children. While a lot of it is going to come from me, obviously, and the anecdata I’ve been gathering from friends and colleagues for years due to being fascinated with the topic, I’d really like to be able to refer to the specific experiences of as many different writer-parents as possible. So I made a little survey meme!

If you identify as a writer and a parent, and especially if your parenting is of the “I’m the one at home on the front line” variety (though balancing outside work AND parenting AND writing is a mammoth, majorly impressive task, I am very grateful I have so little experience at doing all three at once) I would love it if you could answer some or all the following questions – in a comment to this post, in a blog elsewhere, in a private email (tansyrr at gmail dot com) or by any other means. Letter? Carrier pigeon?

How Do You Get It Done? The Writer Parent Survey.

How does your role as a parent get in the way of your writing?
How does your role as a writer get in the way of your parenting?
How has either of those issues changed as your kids grew up?
When is it hardest to write?
Do you have a separate space in (or outside) your house for writing? Why?
Does your family value or understand your writing?
What most frustrates you about finding the balance?
Are you a better writer because of your parenting? Why?
Are you a better parent because of your writing? Why?

[Please indicate whether it’s OK for me to quote your answers, and if you would prefer to be named or remain anonymous, either in my future blog posts on the topic or The Book]

I’d really appreciate it if you passed this on to anyone who you think would be interested in answering the questions, and that if you answer indirectly (like on you own blog) that you send me a link so I can read your answers!

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12 Responses to “How Does She Do It?”

  1. Nicky Strickland Says:

    I’ve spent years grappling with it (& I only have the 1). Will pass this around (via various methods). How long until you want the answers back?

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks! Within the next month or so would probably be the most useful.

  3. Thoraiya Says:

    Haha, let me be the first one to answer publicly on your blog, as I have an eager little person looking up at me right now asking, “what adventure will we have today?!”

    Hmm, I dunno, I was kind of thinking we’d have the adventure where you watch “Finding Nemo” for the millionth time, and I get 1 1/2 hours of writing done. But no! You’re clutching the wooden spoon puppet craft kit to your chest! (Who gave her that wooden spoon kit??? It should have come with an IOU note reading, “I promise to come to your house for 4 hours and do all the “ask a grown up to do this part” bits of the puppet-making” GRRRR!)

    How Do You Get It Done? The Writer Parent Survey.

    How does your role as a parent get in the way of your writing?

    Parenting as a job doesn’t have discrete hours. You can’t work super-efficiently, finish up with the parenting job and then switch your brain to “Immersion in a secondary world” because there will be no immersion. There will be “can you dress me up as the skeleton king?” or “I can’t sleep because my throat is hurting” or “I really want to go to London, I already packed my luggage with all the food in the kitchen” or “I didn’t throw that pillow at you, my invisible friend did. Can I have a candy cane?”

    How does your role as a writer get in the way of your parenting?

    Wanting to stay in when you know you should go out. She should be running, skipping, bike-riding, swimming. Not staring at a screen. Not only should she be more active, but as her role model, I should be doing those things, too.

    How has either of those issues changed as your kids grew up?

    When she used to have daytime naps, I could do my writing in them and then be active with her when she was awake. Now she’s awake from 6am to 9pm. School starts this year, though. I imagine that’ll be very different.

    When is it hardest to write?

    All the time that we’re together. I don’t know if it’s a man thing, but dads seem to be able to filter out little voices aking questions or making continuous observations better than mums. Is that my imagination? The Small One can spend an hour rattling off everything she knows about dinosaurs, and Action Man has no trouble listening to his woodworking podcast, but I just can’t. Maybe I personally am too easily distracted.

    Do you have a separate space in (or outside) your house for writing? Why?

    Yes, I do, but it’s nothing to do with parenting, it’s because my writing computer isn’t connected to the internet.

    Does your family value or understand your writing?

    Absolutely. My husband and my mother both have made a huge effort to give me child-free writing times, and when we go to cons, Action Man can be seen trailing around with the Small One, keeping her busy and letting me catch up with publishing folk.

    What most frustrates you about finding the balance?

    I’m hopelessly impatient. Children need patience and so does a fledgling writing career. Sometimes I think I have only enough patience for one of those things, but as if losing your temper at an editor isn’t bad enough, losing it with kids is worse. As soon as I can go back to archery, I will! It’s so meditative.

    Are you a better writer because of your parenting? Why?

    I think you’re a better writer the more different shoes you get to try on. You can understand more different types of people. Having said that, some paths eliminate others, don’t they? Now that I’m a mother, I don’t get to try on the shoes of the non-mother. Lots of people say that parenting makes them better at organising their time, but I’ve always been good at that. It’s just that, as I’ve said, little people don’t let themselves be organised into little chunks you can push around in a diary.

    Are you a better parent because of your writing? Why?

    When you’re a parent, it’s so important to save something for yourself that’s not child-related. I put my archery, painting, gardening and bushwalking on hold. Writing is the thing I kept, and although it’s lovely to say “I am a mother,” that really describes the part of me tuned to the needs of someone else. Being a writer takes care of my needs, and you can’t take care of someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself :)

  4. tansyrr Says:

    Thoraiya, thank you so much for this response! I think your parenting and mine has a lot in common – I have the same agonies about whether I am encouraging my children enough to play when it’s so CONVENIENT for them to be watching a DVD, and those lovely quotes about your daughter’s creativity felt very familiar to me.

    The gap between the loss of naps and the start of school is a very long one indeed – hope it’s a comfortable transition for you!

  5. Thoraiya Says:

    Thanks, Tansy. Good luck with The Book – and watch out for shoes. Mine does the clompy thing as well. I blame myself for laughing the first time I saw her in her father’s thongs :-)

  6. tansyrr Says:

    Oh, laughing! It’s DEADLY. You only have to laugh at a thing once and it’s in their repertoire forever. I have found myself lecturing Raeli strongly about the law of diminishing returns in humour – but mostly I clamp my lips together when they are doing something I never want repeated – except of course when I don’t, and rue the day.

  7. Liz Carroll Says:

    That sounds like a really good idea Tansy – I enjoy your posts on parenting and writing so much. I should really send you a copy of a book I bought a few years ago called The Divided Heart, which is about motherhood and careers in the arts. Reading Claire Bowditch’s take on motherhood and being in a band was fabulous – she called her group The Feeding Set for a reason. Who knew? :)

  8. Kate Elliott Says:

    I have been in the trenches on this. I made my first sale when I was pregnant with my first child and juggled books and babies throughout (they’re all out of the house now). I will try to work my way through the Qs although it will take me a few weeks. This subject was long of intense importance to me but i never had the energy to tackle it. So — yeah. Good on you.

  9. tansyrr Says:

    Liz, that book sounds great! I would love to read it.

    Kate, thanks for your words of support! I think that women (especially women) who write about the conflicts they feel between motherhood expectations and everything else are terribly brave, and I know I have only voiced a tiny amount of my own thoughts and feelings from that time – but whenever I did, I always got responses that made me feel like it was a really important thing to talk about.

    So, yes. I will try :D

    And I would really appreciate your answers whenever you can do them! The experience of a substantially published writer (especially over the whole length of your children’s childhoods!) is going to be necessarily different to one of a writer with fewer or even no publications, and I think all of those perspectives will be key to what I want to write about.

  10. Kate Elliott Says:

    Yes. And of course at one point I was a writer with few and new publications history. I must now go re-read Ursula K Le Guin’s “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” about this very issue.

  11. Kirstie Says:

    The toys! Oh yes the toys. Every room in our house is liberally scattered with toys. They just reappear within ten seconds of my cleaning or sweeping the floor.

    I’ve answered the survey in email form and just sent it off and I’m about to share it with some writer friends on facebook too.

    To Thoraiya, Toy Story is the hit with my son ;p he actually gets it out of the case and pokes me in the leg with it until I put it on.

  12. B Says:

    How does your role as a parent get in the way of your writing?
    There are only 24 hours in a day, and I need to sleep for at least 7 of them. For the last 11 years it has been WAY down on my priorities list. Between kiddo, hubby, school, and general ‘life’ it is no surprise to me that I haven’t even been able to finish one manuscript.

    How does your role as a writer get in the way of your parenting?
    You know when the word you’re looking for is right on the tip of your tongue, you can taste it. It really is a heart beat from popping into your head… that is the moment that the most dreaded word will come floating from some corner of the house. “Muuuuuuuuuuuum?”
    This usually causes a growl and a terse response. So the kiddo has an extremely early bed time to avoid this happening too often. I have also on the odd occasion forgotten to turn up at a school assembly because I have been right in the middle of a ‘good bit’.

    How has either of those issues changed as your kids grew up?
    School is the best idea EVER! 5 and a bit hours of time where you can ‘get shit done’. This however has been thrown into the not gonna happen basket with hubby switching shifts at work. I now have 2 hours of free ‘no people bugging me’ time of an evening. When my brain is already fried and all I can think about is how nice the fresh sheets will feel when I finally go to bed.

    When is it hardest to write?
    Your hero is about to slay the beast, and there is that witty repartee that needs to be thought of. This is bloody near to impossible with a pouting 11 year old sitting next to you sighing because she wants to play online doll dress up, and you’ve got control of the Ethernet cable. School holidays suck for the life of a writer with kids.

    Do you have a separate space in (or outside) your house for writing? Why?
    No. Because if you dare to hide yourself away, revenge will be had in the form of walls being drawn on, make up being boosted from your hidden beauty case and every chocolate stash will be eaten. Central position, near the fridge may not get much writing achieved, but in the 3 seconds you’re not hearing the words “I’m Bored”, or “I’m Hungry, what can I eat?”, “Are you done yet?” you’ll know the house is safe.

    Does your family value or understand your writing?
    No. Because it isn’t a paid profession. And until the miracle of finishing a manuscript happens (note this is to include but not exclusive to being handed the option of red carpet arrivals and 5 star hotels just for putting my fingers on the keypad) it is ‘just a waste of time’.

    What most frustrates you about finding the balance?
    Balance SHOULD be easier with the kiddo getting older and the hubby being around more. If the Australian Publishing Industry wasn’t so stodgy with getting their home grown talent recognised world wide, and the journey to becoming a best seller wasn’t viewed as a lost cause by the significant others of Mother (or Father) authors in Australia, we’d actually have a chance at getting the pages written.

    Are you a better writer because of your parenting? Why?
    Perhaps. Because, though the writing doesn’t happen as often as it should. It only happens when I have the next idea, once I’ve been able to make notes and flesh it out in my head. So it’s more a case of quality than quantity.

    Are you a better parent because of your writing? Why?
    Sure. When I write, I’m happier. When I’m happier, so is the rest of the family. Happy wife… Happy life.

    Quoting is fine, but for the sake of publication or future blogs perhaps only initials.

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