Monthly Archives

September 2017

Embracing Chaos (Or: Bringing Your Baby to Writing Group)

Nothing prepared me for the amount of isolation I felt after giving birth. I was astounded by how desperate I was to return to my old routines. For me, that meant gaming and writing group. A week in, I was ready to leap back in, but it wasn’t like I could leave the baby behind—he still wouldn’t (and would never) take a bottle, for one thing.

And this is where it became important that my friends are fucking amazing people. My gaming group played in our living room and passed the baby around lap to lap. My writing group conducted a critique of a short story (this one), hollering a nuanced analysis of the underlying themes over a screaming baby as I rocked him desperately.

As a new mom, overwhelmed by love and fear, feeling my identity shifting and crashing like tectonic plates to create a whole new, chaotic landscape I couldn’t begin to map, I needed to write. I needed to remain part of my community. I needed to know that motherhood was not shutting the door on the most important parts of who I was, or cutting off the relationships and people I valued most.

The baby disrupted meetings. He bogged down games. He distracted everyone. But I had a community of people who prioritized supporting each other, even when it made things less than ideal and efficient for a little while. I could trust my writing group to let me lean on them during a period of intense upheaval, and they trusted that I would get my own feet under me when I could. It was disruptive. It was an imposition. It was temporary, and for me, it was a matter of survival.

A few months ago, my parents hosted a house concert to celebrate my brother’s wedding. The musicians’ childcare fell through, so we hired someone to watch both babies upstairs. Neither child cooperated. And so much of the concert was conducted hours after bedtime, with a baby on “stage” in Mom or Dad’s arms and another grooving in the front row, shoulders waggling to the music.

Life is imperfect, and babies want to get into the midst of things. Sometimes the solution is to stop thinking in different spheres of life and work and creativity, and let them all get messy together.

Ages, Stages, & Pages, Chapter One: Newborns

Congratulations! You now have a baby!

Newborns are a paradox. They possess a really low difficulty rating—they haven’t discovered things like existential crises, the charm of your smart phone, or backtalk yet—but also incredibly high—they need you just about every second of every day to do everything for them or they might die. They are pretty weird looking—jaundiced and peeling, wrinkly and hairy in weird places with pointy little butts–except yours is literally the most glorious child that was ever born. No question. You feel bad for other people, having their subpar kids. It’s tragic. Newborns are boring—the “potato stage”—and they are terrifying. Did you know that after you’re born you have to learn how to breathe properly? You do now.

Bright side: Portable

Newborns have one job: grow. To do this, they basically eat a lot and sleep a lot, so if you want to do things during this chapter of your baby, it’s not impossible. Pop them in a bassinet and presto! It’s practically just like before–sleep deprivation and possible trauma to your body, notwithstanding. Once they’ve gotten a semblance of an immune system, take them to the movies or fancy dinner or a coffee shop—they’ll sleep through it all, only waking up for a little milk now and then.

Dangers to Productivity: You.

First, babies have the evolutionary skill of mesmerizing you. You can waste a lot of time staring at them. It can be really hard to walk away and let someone else take care of them for an hour or so, even if that someone is their other parent, who would also like some time to stare at them. Third, you are tired. Fourth, you are learning uncountable new skills. Fifth, you are rebuilding your whole life and—dare I say it—sense of self to include this new person.

Plus, if you are the one that carried that baby, you are riding out a hormone shift that would make puberty blush, while recovering from either the equivalent of a hundred marathons (…pretty sure) if you also ran marathons on your crotch, or major abdominal surgery that may have come with a side of alchemically intense stress-terror. Or if you’re like one unlucky mom friend of mine, both! And if you did not carry your child, you may be helping someone who did recover–making sure they eat, hydrate, sleep, ice, take some pain meds, stop getting up–which is a critical and demanding role. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Suffice it to say, this is not your time to shine. This is your time to be gentle on yourself and to focus on that recovery and those new skills and, oh right! The baby. Celebrate what you do get done. Avoid hard, immovable deadlines, if you can.

Perfect Pages: Wild, Arty Passion Projects

You know that one project? The one you always shift to the backburner? The one where you want to use three different tenses to convey the shifting alliances of the point-of-view characters? The one where you kill the protagonist at the midpoint and reveal that the story you’ve been following was not the one in the foreground? The one that’s written entirely in trochaic tetrameter, because Dies Irae, that’s why? The one where you know it’s probably not commercially viable, yet in the small hours, when your other projects are boring, you still think of how cool that would be?

Man, do that. What’s in your way? You can’t count on getting something solid done, so get something fun done.

Are you sleep-deprived? Of course you are! And with sleep-deprivation comes a wandering brain and weird logical leaps–stuff that might get in the way of crafting something solid and traditional, but might uncover amazing creative insights on something you need to stop being too critical about. The critical part of your brain is probably busy anyway, keeping track of when the baby last ate, how many diapers she’s gone through, and whose eyes does he have exactly? So unleash the wild creative part and do something you don’t need it for.

 

 

Musical Chairs, Office Edition

I started writing again before I could walk properly, clawing at a sense of normalcy—trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t completely different. Despite the fatigue and the fact that I couldn’t actually sit upright for more than five minutes at a time, it went well. The great thing about many newborns is that they’re basically potatoes. You can stick them next to you wherever and they’ll sleep.*

It didn’t last long. He started to wriggle, to roll, to play, to peep, to crawl, to stand, to walk. Every few weeks, our pattern shifted. And we quickly figured out that it’s a hell of a lot easier to move a desk than convince a hyper toddler that just because you can REACH the keyboard, doesn’t mean you should SMASH ALL THE KEYS.

So here are the office configurations I’ve gone through, as the baby has gone from a potato that poops to a cat-tackling, phone-stealing, music-obsessed tornado.

The new desktop model is working out well.

Potato

Pros: Sleeps a lot. Can’t escape. Few opinions.

Cons: Complete, utter exhaustion. Newborns are kinda boring. Sitting hurts. Baby slings: why so complicated?

I probably shouldn’t have gone back to writing as soon as I did. But I needed to prove that I could, and newborns have the advantage of being easy to keep track of and prone to sleeping all day. I could prop Oberon** next to me just about anywhere and just write. We were living in the basement apartment of my parents’ house when he was born, but we’d taken over a ground floor bedroom, and I mostly wrote at their kitchen table (stairs being no bueno thanks to my baby’s bigass head).

(Safety note: don’t leave your baby on a table or asleep on a pillow. I was never out of arm’s reach; no babies were dropped in the making of this photo.)

With a newborn, make sure your set up is flexible. The baby’s going to nod off without notice, and you’re never going to know how much time you have before it’s off to the milk-fueled races again. If you have the benefit of a small, light laptop, get used to writing wherever you have a safe space to set both it and your baby down. But really? You have a newborn. If you can (I couldn’t), take some freaking time off. You deserve it.

Cinderella’s animal friends did shit for her. These guys just mooch.

Wiggly Potato

Pros: Still a good napper. Is always right where you left him. Have now mastered hands-free nursing.

Cons: People look at you funny when they find you propping your keyboard on your kid’s legs, for some reason. Cat competes with him for lap time. This changing diapers thing is getting old.

Okay, so we have to swaddle him now. But he still naps easily in the midst of whatever’s going on, and drops off to sleep all on his own.

I spent a lot of this stage with a wireless keyboard on my lap and the TV serving as monitor, with the baby tucked next to me on the couch. And the cat on the back of the couch, rubbing against my head. And the dog at my feet. I was like the world’s most frazzled Disney Princess.

Getting your kid used to napping in the midst of the daily action, rather than tucked away in his room, is a huge boon at this stage. Eventually ours grew out of the ability to sleep anywhere there was stimulation, but for months we could just tuck him next to us like this. A routine might be starting to develop, and your brain might be starting to reboot a little. You might benefit from a dedicated work/nap location. Or, if you’re in desperate need of more sleep, keep taking time off and take naps with your baby. You still deserve it.

The morning staff meeting is called to order.

Wiggle Worm

Pros: Kid just gets more fun when he can move and interact. Naps start happening on a predictable schedule. Able to critique flaws in three-act structure and identify use of leitmotif.

Cons: Inching toward mobility, and thus ability to cause trouble. More opinions. WRONG opinions.

At the four month mark, we moved out of my parents’ house. The new house has a huge master bedroom across the hall from a petite room perfect for an office or nursery. I claimed it as an office at first, letting the baby wiggle contentedly on a blanket at my feet or nap in his rocker. He would spend hours kicking the toys hung over his blanket, with the dog watching in forlorn envy.

I loved having my own, dedicated office. But bedtime was a nightmare. Swaddling ended, and he wouldn’t sleep except in my arms. We decided he needed his own room and an earlier bedtime, and I waved my office goodbye. We moved my desk into the master bedroom, gated off half of it, and made that half a baby paradise.

The baby rebelled. He screamed and cried, clinging to the bars, even though I was right on the other side. So we moved my desk inside the baby jail. Problem solved.

There’s an ever-evolving list of things that need baby proofing as babies become more mobile and mischievous. This was the stage where things changed almost every day, moving gates, desks, crib, and so on. We made lists of small pain points during the day, and brainstormed layout changes that could address them. Stay flexible, and make your workspace suit your needs; don’t try to warp your behavior, much less your baby’s behavior.

A room of one’s own. Sort of.

Wiggle Pig

Pros: More and more of a person. Less hyperdependent on having me and only me around. Able to formulate internal arcs for primary and secondary characters and interrogate psychological verisimilitude of character’s interior landscape.

Cons: In a beatnik phase. Won’t stop smoking and keeps insisting we “hit the road.” Also likes to grab the mouse and/or keyboard and/or me at the least convenient moments.

This summer I had a major deadline, and so Mike took point with the kid. Which meant it didn’t make sense anymore to have my desk be in the baby’s space. Plus, he’s been getting less and less content to play around me, and wants to play with me, which means most of my writing is done during naptimes anyway. So we moved our den into the living room, and moved my office into the den. Once again, I have a dedicated office. It’s usually strewn with toys, but it’s my space. When the baby is awake, I hang out with him in his space. When he naps, I work.

Moving furniture around into new configurations has always entertained me. We’re constantly talking about how we could reshuffle things to reflect how we actually use our spaces. Staying flexible and creative like that has meant that every time the kid comes up with a new way to cause chaos or shifts his schedule and needs, we can set up the house to support it.

If you can have a dedicated writing space, even just a corner of the living room that is all yours, I recommend it. Being able to sit down and know in my bones that I’m in work mode—even if, as right now, my desk is covered with one baby shoe, a stacking cup, and a monkey with a rattle in its belly—keeps me from feeling completely consumed by the mom side of my writer-mom identity. I can close the door on the dirty dishes and the cat and the floors I really, really need to vacuum, and focus on my work. It helps me remember for a little while that I’m not a full-time stay-at-home parent–I’m a working parent. And it’s time to work.

So, how about you? How does your workspace support both your parenting and your writing—or what about your physical space is a barrier to getting things done? I’d love to hear about your solutions and your challenges.

 


*(Some newborns are Wailing Potatoes. Mine was a very quiet potato, and people frequently forgot he was in my lap for hours at a time.)

**Oberon is my child’s internet nickname, not his actual name. We did not name the child Oberon. Promise.

Unspeakable Things

When I first got pregnant, everyone warned me that I would shit on the delivery table. They all told me this in hushed tones, as if the penalties for revealing this indignity were unspeakable. No one warned them, they all said, but they were warning me.

While I started out appreciating the spirit of this warning, it started to irritate me. Is shitting that bad? Isn’t it obvious you’re going to shit? A skull is coming through the next lane, everything’s gotta pull over. It’s not like the nurses and doctors and midwives aren’t ready for it. And if pooping in front of my husband was going to destroy our intimacy, well, I would think I married the wrong dude. I started telling these people I was having a water birth* because it made their eyes bug out.

We offer warnings because we don’t want others to experience the same trauma or embarrassment. We tell our stories, in the hopes other people gain something from them and do better than we did. We tell them because they’re funny and they make us memorable, but we also tell them because the truth is important.

The truth is that writing with a baby is a lot harder than you probably appreciate before you try it. The truth is that it’s also a lot easier than you imagine before you start. The truth is if you’re having a baby, you’ll probably shit on the delivery table and if you’re becoming a parent, you’ll probably have to relearn how to be yourself. The truth is you can.

We don’t always listen to warnings because we don’t know we need them. We haven’t stood in that spot and we don’t know what we need to hear. When I had my first son, everyone also said “Having a baby changes everything,” to which I (mentally) replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah: Hallmark stuff.” It’s amazing! It’s wonderful! It changes everything! I didn’t understand the warning therein.

What I wish people had told me was that having a baby forces you to remake yourself from the ground up. You can do it fast. You can do it slow. You can do it painstakingly, or slap yourself together and figure out the mistakes down the road, but everything changes and I think we should all be clearer that’s serious up front. After I had a child, everything was different because when something that big comes along you have to figure out how to adapt to it. You realize what’s precious to you, and what you’ve only held onto out of habit. What must be done, what you’d like to be done, and what you need to be done so that you can keep being you. It’s hard to say, until you have done it, what’s going to be difficult or traumatic or funny.

The truth is you don’t know how you’re going to feel about shitting on the table until it’s already happening. You don’t know how much you have to rebuild yourself until everything changes and you have to add “somebody’s parent” to your identity.  The truth is I’m not you and you’re not me, but I’m warning you all the same, because I know the path’s not easy and you can’t avoid it, and once you’re through to the other side, you’ll look around and know how it’s done.

 

*The answer, I am told, is “aquarium net.”

 

 

 

 

 

Conception

When I was four years old, I informed my mother that rather than bathe my children, I would simply “sell them away.” Around the same age, I wrote my first short story on the back of a phone bill and declared that I would write books one day.

I think my priorities were pretty clear.

I always assumed I would have children; I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t until I was married that it occurred to me that the two might be in conflict. For reassurance, I turned to that font of endless good advice: the internet.

This was a mistake.

Writing and parenting, I discovered, was in fact impossible (and possibly immoral). Horror stories abounded. Your brain will turn to mush, they said. Forget writing, you’ll be so brain-dead you’ll put your pants on backwards. You’ll put writing in the same dusty, forgotten box as sleep, date night, and conversations that revolve around something other than poo.

I found well-respected authors advising writers not to have kids—or if you’re foolish enough to ignore that, stop at one. Whenever a conversation about writing and parenting cropped up, the discussion devolved into a litany of difficulties, one writer after another declaring it impossible to have small children and write.

I did the sensible thing: I plugged my ears, said “lalala” really loudly, and plunged ahead.

Then, three months pregnant, with my first novel stumbling its way through a lackluster debut, it became impossible for me to tune out the people—women in particular—telling me to give up on getting any writing done for at least the first year. Or three years. Or until the youngest is in school. Or out of school.

They said it like it was a gift. Like they were letting me off the hook. Instead, it terrified me. Writing is my livelihood, and the thing I love most that isn’t a person. I had professional obligations that wouldn’t magically go away for a year (or three, or ten). I had anxiety and depression inextricably linked to my ability to produce words.

So I did the smartest thing I could have under the circumstances and emailed Erin (who had just had her second child less than a month before) in a flailing panic.

“O wise and benevolent Erin,” my email reads. “You write. You do not appear to be, as these writers assert, a cyborg, independently wealthy with a staff, or a myth (I’ve met you and everything!). So please, tell me: am I doomed to write nothing but facebook updates about the consistency of my child’s poo? Or is there hope?”

Erin’s email was exactly what I needed: optimistic, practical, funny. You can do this, she told me. In detail. (There were bullet points.) So I started reaching out more to my community of writers, and instead of asking about parenting and writing as a general topic, I asked for stories of success. I asked for practical tips to make it work. I asked for solutions.

It turns out that when you stop asking can I write with kids and start asking how to write with kids, the conversation changes.

That’s the conversation I want to have here. My son is sixteen months old. In the past sixteen months, I’ve written almost half a million words, had a novel come out, sold another one, revised and rewritten and despaired and rallied and changed so many diapers and, yes, had a lot of conversations about the consistency of poo. I hope that talking about how I’ve succeeded and where I’ve failed will help the worried mother or mother-to-be—or father, or parent—find strategies to get words on the page. To balance book and baby.

And hopefully, to sell one of them.

The book, I mean.

Obviously.