Balancing Writing and Parenting

I’ve been asked on multiple occasions how to balance writing and family, and I’ve given a number of answers. “One day at a time.” “Prioritize and organize and schedule.” “Hell if I know!”

When you get down to it, the most honest answer I could give based on my life and experiences is, you can’t. Balance is a lie. An illusion that taunts us with its song. It’s freaking Shangri-La.

As a father, balance suggests to me a mystical state of equilibrium where I’m giving my children all of the time and attention they want and need, while at the same time devoting enough time to my writing and career. The trouble is, there’s no such thing as “enough.” There’s always more I could be doing with or for my kids, whether it’s quizzing my son on his multiplication tables or taking my teenage daughter out to start showing her how to drive, or just sitting down to play a three-way brawl on the Wii.

Then there’s the writing. I’ve got three short stories and three novels on my To Write list at this particular moment. Then there are the blog posts, the emails I’m chronically late in responding to, conventions I’d love to attend, anthologies I’d like to contribute to, at least one anthology I’d love to edit, and so much more.

The sad truth is that no matter what I do, I’ll never have enough time to write everything I want to. I’ll never have enough time for my children.

I quit my full-time day job a month and a half ago, and it’s helped some. I’m finding my writing groove and increasing my wordcount. I’ve also been able to do things like walk down to meet my son at the bus stop and pick up my daughter after school. On the other hand, I’m now the one who gets the phone call when something happens at school. I get the text messages when someone misses the bus. When the puppy horks up a big clump of half-digested grass — well, you get the idea. There are more interruptions and less stability and predictability in my day than I had before.

Just now, in the middle of writing this post, my son interrupted me to share some of his thoughts on pigs. It’s frustrating, because writing productivity is all about momentum. And it’s awesome, because I love him, and he has creative, often surreal thoughts about things.

Sometimes I resent the writing for taking time away from my kids. And yes, sometimes I resent my kids for taking time away from my writing. And I feel guilty about all of it.

Writing isn’t unique in this. I watched my coworkers struggling to find good day care for their kids, and I listened to their struggles to balance the need for a career with their role as a parent. But it never seemed quite the same. Maybe because writing still doesn’t feel like a legitimate career. I mean, we all recognize the need to work and support the family, but we don’t tend to recognize writing as real work.

I’m relatively successful as a writer, and it’s my primary source of income to help support my family. It still feels harder to justify spending hours focusing on the writing than it did spending hours sitting in a cubicle. Both take time away from my family and kids, but one is a “real” job. The other feels like a luxury. It feels selfish. This is something I want to do.

The guilt was exponentially worse when I was struggling to break in. When I couldn’t point to advances and royalty checks to justify the time spent in fictional worlds, away from my wife and children.

Part of the quest for healthy balance means getting that guilt under control. As parents, we can’t devote 100% of our time and energy to our children. Sometimes it feels like that’s what we’re supposed to to, but it’s not healthy for anyone. We need time to take care of ourselves, and as they grow up, kids need time to become their own people. It’s okay to take time to focus on writing. And it’s okay to step away from the computer to spend time with my family.

The Quest for Balance has no end point. No Big Boss you can defeat. It’s a daily struggle, and it changes from day to day. Do I have a deadline coming up? Did my son have a rough day at school? Is there a writing project I’m super-passionate about? How long has it been since I got to do something fun with my daughter? Is my email at critical mass? Is my son giving me puppy-dog eyes and asking me to play Mario with him?

How do you balance being a writer with being a parent? You keep trying. You accept that you’re never going to get it perfect. You listen to your kid(s), your editor, your partner(s) if you have them. You listen to yourself. You communicate. Sometimes I have to say no, I can’t play Mario until after dinner. When I talk to my editor and agent about deadlines, I talk about and factor in not only the time I need to write the book, but the time I need to spend with my family.

Balance is a process. Learn to set boundaries. Expect disruption.

In my case, I keep reminding myself that writing is my career, and damn right it’s legitimate. I remind myself that taking time to do something I love isn’t necessarily selfish or awful. I also try to recognize that spending too much time on myself can be neglectful, and I try to monitor that from day to day.

I love my children. I love writing. And it’s okay to love both.

Other posts from the Parenting and Writing/Editing Blog Tour.