You’ve told yourself that you’re not going to be able to write anything for four years or so. And you’re OK with that – you accept it. You have to. Four years, you think, just four piddling years, that’s no time. It’ll zoom by, four years of gummy smiles and sticky little hands and rainbows and sunshine and then the kid will be in school and you’ll have plenty of time to write – that’s if you haven’t had a second kid by then (which you won’t have, because you’re not that fucking stupid).
It’s fine, honestly.
Your baby is your finest creation, your masterpiece.
Easy Peasy. Piece of piss. Piece of cake. Easy peasy piece of pissy cake.
This is you, lying to yourself:
You’ve got that cavernous void, see, that needs filling with words and stories, and you can’t fill it with religion because that’s just not your thing, and you can’t very well fill it with booze and drugs because you’d rather not ruin your child’s life, and besides, you’ve already done all that and it was awf. You can’t fill it with sex because you’ve been with your partner for over ten years and you’ve started to imagine their face as a baked potato with a talking hole slashed into it, and anyway, even if you did fancy a bit, it’s not like you could find the time or the privacy.
Let’s say you could – will these one or two rushed shags a week manage to fill that echoing abyss you once crammed with daily, frantic prose writing?
No. You could be undressed by multi-coloured cartoon birds in a haze of warm sunlight and fucked silly by the man/woman/orc of your fantasies until you come so hard that your eyeballs explode and your toes curl like quavers and it still wouldn’t be enough.
That’s a quote from Charles Bukowski. I have it tattooed on my arm. I’m sure there are better quotes about writing for sanity’s sake but this one does the job for me. I’ve kept my void well-filled these last ten years with the words I write – I know what he’s talking about. Though in my case, it should be amended to say,
‘These words I write keep me from falling into a depressive fart cloud of self-loathing that constitutes watching Netflix all day in pyjamas that smell of fanny while my dog looks at me with sad eyes because I haven’t walked her in five days and my child drags around a nappy so dense with piss that it’s scraping the floor.’
So I couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t be writing for four years. I’ve got a history of depression and alcohol and drug abuse (behold, the void!) and that, coupled with a high risk of post-natal depression, meant I might be in for a hard time. No one wants their firstborn to bring with it a wave of melancholy. That’s like meeting your soul mate then finding out that they secretly vote UKIP.
Everyone told me to enjoy these early years. ‘They’ll be gone before you know it.’ Quite right. ‘I’m not going to be one of those mums who doesn’t enjoy these early years,’ I told myself. ‘I’m going to cherish the shit out of this. I’m going to fucking win at cherishing it.’
But at the same time, I didn’t want to sacrifice my entire being for this child. That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? A mother who doesn’t plan to diminish her entire sense of self for the biological endgame of her reproductive organs? Diiiisgusting. Burn the witch. But hang on – I fully accepted that I’d sacrifice most things for my kid. I understood that I would love her so much that I would die for her. She could have my life, but not my identity. I wasn’t going to be just a mum. A mum-faced mumrah with muminess pouring out of her mumholes. Anyone who tried to guilt me about this could kiss my udders. Dads are rarely defined only by their dadness.
So. I’d need to find a healthy balance. A went through a mental list of my priorities. They read like so:
- The child.
- Exercise and diet.
- Down Time (TV etc)
- Half-arsedly look for a girlfriend on Plenty of Fish during the one week ovulation window in which I had a sex drive.
Housework has never been a big thing for me. I hoover once a week, if that. Bear in mind I have a dog and two cats. I clean the bathroom when it gets too gross to ignore. I splash a bit of bleach in the loo now and again. Now here’s a confession: I have gone months, actual months, before changing my bedclothes. Three months once.
But who cares? I wear pyjamas; it’s not like they get full-on smelly.
Alright, six months.
My whole outlook on housework was shaped in my teens by watching the scene in The Witches of Eastwick where Daryl Van Horne is trying to convince Alex to fuck him.
Different parents will have different priorities and those priorities are going to swap themselves around as time goes by. Case in point – my daughter’s favourite thing to do as a two year-old was making a mess, just for the hell of it. It was her primary play-joy. If there was a half-drunk coffee left out, she wanted it on the floor. Same went for remote controls, cushions, books, plates of food, phones.
‘You think you can have coasters?’ she would say, ‘You have deigned to believe that you are allowed coasters for your fucking tea? Really? And you didn’t think I’d have something to say about that? On to the floor they go, moron!’
The mess got so bad that I just couldn’t cope. It was superficial mess sometimes, easy to pick up, but it was also crumbs and raisins and bogeys and small salty puddles of my tears. I could remember how, many years ago, me and my then girlfriend used to live in my grandmother’s attic room, the pair of us crammed into that small room with all our belongings. It was our bedroom, living room, dining room (and sometimes toilet) combined. Sometimes we’d have a bunch of friends over and enjoy drinky druggy benders, and by day three, waking up in that foul room and observing, with cruel sobriety, the mess of empty cans, spilled ashtrays, food wrappers, greasy plates and pints of piss, was enough to make me want to reach for another beer and just carry on getting drunk forever.
My daughter could (and still can) make this level of mess in half an hour. Just replace lube with jam, fag ash with ketchup and vomit with – actually, you don’t have to replace the vomit. I had to move housework up the priority ladder a couple of rungs.
And what about writing? That sacred silver trophy of mine?
Well, I had to move that around too. And of course there are always more things that need doing: I had to fill in tax credit forms and shop for new bras (who doesn’t want to end their life just looking at those two sentences?). I went back to work after maternity leave, I was training toward getting my black belt, I had an MPhil to finish, so let’s add academic research and essay writing into the pile. I couldn’t submerge myself in academia and write novels at the same time.
That’s the thing about parenthood (especially working-class single parenthood as in my case): you have to choose. You can’t have exercise and writing and delicious homecooked meals and a tidy house. Some days you can only choose one.
Here are my tips for a writerly parent.
OK, so you don’t have to accept that you won’t be doing any writing for four years, but those first six months or so? You ain’t doing shit. And you need to accept that so hard. Until the baby is sleeping through, your life is not yours to live. Six months to a year. Even longer if your baby is a dick.
But listen; there’s something nice about that. My most content time as a mother was the first year. Granted, it was partly because my daughter was immobile. An infant that cannot move – glorious. But it was also because I had fully accepted that life was on hold. I’d succumbed to the utter inertia. So all the usual niggly voices – Why aren’t you writing? If you miss your karate class you’ll feel like shit. Don’t you think it’s time to wash your bedsheets? You’re isolating yourself, you should see friends more. Why have you stopped drawing your eyebrows on? You look horrible – all these restless voices, off they fucked.
There’s something to be said for spending six months sat on a couch bra-less and in comfy clothes, expressing milk and watching Rupaul’s Drag Race marathons while a beautiful tiny creature snuffles about on your lap.
A small caveat – I actually did manage to get some writing done during those first six months. I was lucky enough to have a babydaddy who didn’t work (yes, I said lucky, and what?) so we organised all the feeding and sleeping into shifts and I would get the odd half an hour free. Because we were platonic friends and not lovers we didn’t need to worry about trying to retain any romantic intimacy by sharing a bed. We had a sort of unspoken agreement those first few months – I would support his need to go to the gym every morning and he would support my need to write. It didn’t always work out, but I wrote some days, and this, alongside the Sertraline, kept me sweet.
OK, so it’s six months later and your honeychile is sleeping through, you’ve got a sort of routine going, your mental faculties are returning after the toils of chronic sleep deprivation. The hard times are over, right?
Try again, fool.
It’s never over.
This is you realising that:
Littlebabydumpling is fucking busy. It doesn’t just want to lie there and gurgle anymore. It wants to be bounced and sung to as well as all the old stuff – you know, fed, cleaned, kept alive. When you do get a spare hour your mind is too frazzled to deal with language, let alone narrative. You look at that blank screen with the word count at zero and you can hear your baby shifting in its cot – stay asleep, stay asleep, please stay asleep – and you are so daunted. You are the Duchess of Daunt. You see your reflection in the screen and you look like a melancholic Goon from Popeye. Please stay asleep, please stay asleep . . . and the clock is ticking and that zero is just sitting there like a prick and all you can think about are those luxurious days gone by where you could spaff out two thousand words in one languid afternoon, with time for tea breaks, wank breaks and long dog walks.
You need to get those days out of your mind. Gone. Gone as a gone, gone thing.
This is what you need to do: Down some coffee and write three hundred words. That’s all. Three hundred words. Pfft. You could trip over a shoe lace and write three hundred words on the way down to the floor.
The next day, same again. You do this everyday, when you are physically and mentally able anyhow. Maybe some days you get carried away and write five hundred or seven hundred because all that daunt has been taken away and the screen no longer fills you with torment. But you never write under three hundred words.
I’ll do the maths for you: 300 words every day gives you 110,000 a year. Nothing piddling about that.
This is what I did. Except I aimed for 500 words a day. But like I said, I was co-parenting with an unemployed father. And I was still doing fuck all housework at this point.
That’s right, you heard me. Go and get help. Run out into the street with your half-naked baby spewing liquid shit out of its arse and find the nearest person and grab them around the shoulders and shake them a bit and scream, ‘Help me!’ into their face.
Seriously though, ask your family members for help. This is parenting advice 101 so I won’t go into it too much, but what I want you to take away from this is this: ask for help and don’t feel guilty about it, even if you’re an unpublished writer and no one takes your need to write seriously. Grab your mother-in-law around the shoulders and shake her a bit and scream, ‘Help me’ and make sure some spit gets on her face, and if she doesn’t look convinced, whisper, ‘These words I write keep me from total madness!’ And if that still doesn’t sway her, add, ‘If you don’t take her for a couple of hours, I’m going to raise her to call you Nana Big Flaps.’
I’ve been equally cursed and blessed with the whole help thing. I had a babydaddy who was battling illness throughout parts of the early years and consequently passed away a few months after our daughter’s second birthday. Hard, really hard. But luckily I had family ready to help – family who are so in love with my daughter that sometimes when they have her for a day or a night it feels like we’re doing each other a favour.
I get a lot of help. And I don’t feel guilty about it. What with feminism and all. If you are a woman in a similar situation, follow my lead: Grow some labes and take the help. If someone tries to make you feel guilty about not desiring total mummy-martyrdom, take them down.
(This blog is aimed at both mothers and fathers, since plenty of fathers do put in the work. But I do feel like mothers get more guilt-tripped than fathers, since there is still, in this delightful society of ours, the expectation that mothers should totally self-sacrifice, whereas for fathers it seems optional.)
Be Kind to Yourself
This is the most important piece of advice and it’s applicable to all new parents, not just writers. Again, it’s pretty standard advice that you can find in any parenting article, but I’m going to say some swear words and do some jokes to, like, freshen things up.
There was a period of almost a year throughout early parenthood where I felt like total rundown shit. I had no energy, especially in the afternoon, and certainly no motivation. I was catching cold after cold. It was like my immune system had sashayed away forever. It all read as depression but I didn’t feel depressed. I felt in my waters that it was physical. So I lubed up and plunged into some seriously hardcore googling. I wondered if it was my thyroid or a vitamin deficiency, so I went to the doctors and they did some blood tests. Fine. I wondered if I was eating too many carbs, which sort of made sense because I always felt my worst in the afternoons after lunch (the afternoon slump, it’s a thing). I cut out carbs for a few days – no difference.
Of course parenthood is notorious for bum-fucking the immune system. Maybe this was typical. Granted, my daughter was a good sleeper so I was getting plenty of rest, but what about all the germs, what about her using my T-shirt as a hanky, what about being on guard for hazards 100% of the time like a presidential bodyguard?
This was me worrying that I was being poisoned by WiFi:
And then there was the tattoo. I was having a ¾ sleeve done in a bid to compensate for weight gain and general frumpery. Every two weeks I was having a two hour session.
‘You’ve not heard of tattoo flu?’ my tattooist said one session, after I’d moaned once again about my rundownness.
No I had not.
‘Well, it fucks with your immune system. You should make sure you load up on vitamins and stuff before every session’.
So I did. Magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, tons of garlic. I started brewing my own water kefir, I took apple cider vinegar.
Yet the lurgy remained.
And then I had a sort of epiphany (a drunken one – the best kind). See, for the longest time I’d been telling myself to be kind to myself. Every time I missed a karate class due to feeling unmotivated, along would come the guilt. ‘No, Crystal,’ I’d tell myself. ‘Be kind to yourself. Motherhood is hard.’ And I would mentally sing ‘Take it Easy on Yourself,’ by the Walker Brothers, and then I’d get into my pyjamas, slap on some Netflix, and start to feel OK about missing the class. If, one evening, the child in bed, I decided to drink wine and watch five back-to-back episodes of The Walking Dead, there’d be the same song floating between my ears. ‘Take it Easy on Yourseeee-eee-eeelf.’
It worked like a shot of opium, that song.
Me, listening to it:
But here’s the thing: I wasn’t being kind to myself. I was getting into a serious rut. Netflix or YouTube every night. I’d count down the last couple of hours until my daughter’s bedtime so that I could de-bra, crack open a beer and switch the TV on. I was getting addicted to TV. It had crept up my priority list to number two. Before writing, can you believe? Not cool.
Being kind to yourself does not mean giving into your every lazy, hedonistic urge. It means doing what is best for your mental, emotional and spiritual health. Sure, there are times when you need to forgive yourself for having a lazy day. But not every day.
So. I signed up for a mother and baby gym in my area and started going to fitness classes. I went to the library and got out some books. I vowed to limit my TV viewing – from now on, no more hunting for any old shite on iPlayer, I would only watch the shows that I 100% valued and the rest of the time, I’d read or write. And this is what I did. Come baby bedtime, out would come the library book or the netbook. No wine – I didn’t want to be hungover for tomorrow’s Legs, Bums and Tums. It worked; I started feeling newly-energised.
Then the new season of Orange is the New Black came out and I binge-watched it over the course of three evenings. Oopsy.
But the next day, there I was, back at the laptop, back in the book, back in the saddle.
So be kind to yourselves, new mothers and fathers. You need to stay healthy if you want to stay sane.
Do Not Waste Nap Time
Think of the things you can do with your child around. Housework? Sure. It’s challenging, what with the kid following you around turning off your Henry Hoover every ten seconds (it just never stops being funny!) or throwing your entire CD collection down the stairs while you’re busy scrubbing the bathtub. But it’s do-able. Reading or watching TV? Also yes, within reason, especially in the early months.
Getting stuck into some writing? Not so much. Writing requires focus and absorption.
So when nap time comes along, write. Jump on it. You might want to lie on the sofa crying/hating yourself/chasing the dragon or you may decide that now is a good time to bust out the duster and finally tackle those high shelves. Resist. You can do that shit when he/she wakes up, even if to do so is a hassle. Down that coffee and write.
Obviously, this advice doesn’t apply in the early months. You might need that time to nap yourself.
Find the Positives
There are some unexpected bonuses to being a writer with a small child.
- Say your spouse/lover/co-parent/family member kindly offers to take the goblin for one afternoon. You have three to five hours to write uninterrupted. Because you know that this might be the only opportunity to write at leisure you’ll get all week, you will write like there is a gun held to your head. The child will return home and you’ll glance at the word count and be fucking floored by the number. Consequently you’ll skip and pirouette across the landing like Maria Von Trapp and swoop up your little darling. Compare this to how you used to write. A whole day stretching out like a dehydrated tongue, you’d write a hundred words then reward yourself with an hour of YouTube videos showing kittens tripping over their bollocks and dogs vomiting rainbows, then another fifty words, then an unsatisfying wank, then an episode of Come Dine With Me, then a hundred more words, then a fishfinger sandwich, then a nap….eight hours later and you’d totaled five hundred words. Three hundred once you edited all the cack out.
- When you do manage to write something of substance (say, when the child is napping or busy playing with knives out the garden), you feel like you’ve really achieved something. Five hundred words feel like five thousand.
- You can now write from the POV of a mother or father with greater depth and confidence.
- As your child gets older they’ll see you tapping out stories and poems and this might influence them to explore their own creativity.
- Ever had a half-arsed inclination to try writing children’s lit but couldn’t quite muster up the motivation for it? Well what better motivation than owning an actual human child. You can even write your own bedtime stories.
This is your grateful, adoring child listening to your highly original, subversive and feminist take on the classic fairytale narrative: