Column by Vanessa Shields
I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.
As I was considering what to write for this next column, I sat in my living room while the kids watched Arthur on PBS Kids. I thought, why don’t I ask the kids what they think about my writing life?
Over the years, my writing life has changed significantly. It went from writing whenever I wanted, unfocused, barely disciplined, free in an I-have-all-the-time-the-world kinda way to writing in the in-betweens (nursing, cleaning, cooking, sleeping, crying…) in a very focused, disciplined, scheduled in an I-have-23.5-minutes-to-write-now kinda way. It’s true, I am usually an arm’s length away from my laptop or a book or a piece of paper and pen. It’s true, I have many a time, been typing and the kids are asking for snacks or for my help with something and I say: “Just lemme finish…this…sentence…” Certainly, the possibility of me asking (pleading?) for the kids to give ‘gimme one more minute’ has increased significantly as they’ve gotten older.
When Jett was an under a year, and I was on maternity leave, I was incredibly productive with my writing. Who knew? I didn’t sleep or clean while he slept, I wrote. During that time I was working for a local magazine and doing exciting interviews with folks like Henry Winkler (we were both in our pjs for this phone interview!), Robert Munsch, and Bill Cosby (pre-allegations). I was writing for money, and with it came stress, time management, a small payment, and some excitement.
As the kids age, are able to fend for themselves, and find joy on their own, more time opens up for me write. It is both invigorating and maddening. Because I can settle more deeply into an ‘in-between’, sometimes it’s hard to stop to, say, cook dinner. The only time I don’t think about food is when I’m writing…apparently that extends to not thinking about food for my children either!
This is not news, a writing life changes when any major part of a life changes – one starts a new relationship, one starts a new job, one changes living situations, one loses someone special, one has a child, one gets a pet (our dog, Oscar, will literally sit on my laptop and nudge my hands with his snout. It’s difficult to type with a dog’s butt on your keyboard and his wet nose in your hands)…the list goes on. In my case, having children made me a harder working writer – in that, I had to become creative with my time and my ability to manage it, become focused on my writing goals and ideas, and continue to take care of myself and my family. It’s not easy, but that’s fine. I don’t feel like it’s about easy or hard, really. It’s about living my life’s purpose – to be a mother, a writer, a teacher, a friend.
What is the lesson here? That the writing life must be adaptable. That a parent’s life must be adaptable. No matter what, the living part of life must happen in order for there to be fodder for the page. Especially if you’re like me and you write about what you know – your ‘lived in’ life. Adaptability takes time. Like creating a habit. Like practicing something enough you become an expert.
I hear myself say out loud to people, ‘oh, I wish I could write all day’. It’s bunk, really. I think I say it because it sounds and feels so damn romantic. It sounds so Woolf-ish (as in Virginia), but who can really do their art all day, every day, without any of the ‘living it’? And what does that do to your relationships with your ‘people’? Your family, your friends, your self?
It’s the same for parenting. One needs to have breaks, to have time away from that which uses so much energy (positive or negative or both). There are many parallels to the ‘parenting’ and ‘writing’ life, in this regard. Before I had kids, writing brought me massive joy – it’s all I wanted to do. Then I had kids, and experienced a love different than my love for writing, and even more massive (I can say the same about when we got our dog as well!) if we’re talking measurement! Everything changed – from my body to my mind – and I had to adapt my writing life to my parenting life.
Now, after almost ten years of consistent adapting, my writing life has shifted into a wider ‘in-between’. And the kids have opinions about this. I should let you know that Jett, our first born, is going to be ten on May 28th. He’s awesome, smart, and funny (his words). Miller, our second born, is seven. She’s fun, an artist, and she loves electronics (also her words).
Here’s our little conversation:
Me: What do you like about me being a writer?
Miller: You can tell me stories. You can teach us how to write on the computer.
Jett: I get good marks when you help me with my stories for school. I like that you’re happy doing it. It’s kinda the perfect job for you.
I had to smile at these responses, especially Jett’s comment about me being happy writing. Did I mention that when I don’t write, I get cranky and lost? Even the kids notice! This is one part of adapting that I haven’t been able to master – the not feeling like myself phenomenon that occurs when I don’t write. Does that happen to you too?
Me: What drives you crazy about me being a writer?
Miller: That you’re always working.
Jett: That when you type, it gets annoying – the click clack.
My family makes fun of how fast I type. They say my fingers hitting the keys sound like I’m ‘fake’ typing. I find it funny that the kids use the word ‘always’ to describe the amount of time I’m writing. It’s maybe, ten to 15 minutes at a time that I work while they’re home with me. They wouldn’t let me get more in! But to a kid, 15 minutes feels like always, doesn’t it?
Me: If you could change anything about my writing life, what would it be?
Miller: That you could make hours to work when we’re not home instead of just working when we are home, because sometimes we just wanna have fun with you.
Jett: You’d get a book deal and get one gazillion dollars.
What Miller doesn’t know or understand (yet) is that I do write when she’s not at home. I also do all kinds of other life-management (schedule doc appointments, do groceries/laundry, buy gifts for people’s parties, visit with friends, mentor, edit, do jury work – oh, the list is endless!) things specifically while she and Jett are at school precisely so I don’t have to do them when we’re together. The thing is that there’s too much to do in the five hours while they’re at school. Most days, I’m playing catch-up with my list of to-dos. And writing, my personal writing, gets put down at the bottom of the list. Sometimes, my writing spills into my ‘mom’ time. It has to. I don’t mind her seeing me work hard. She keeps me in check if I’m working too much.
Ah, Jett. Jett and I talk about me getting a grand book deal, followed by a film deal, and the ‘loads’ of money that comes along with it. Right? I mean, that’s how it works, right? Jett and I talk dreams – the biggest dreams we can imagine – all pretty and perfect, tied up with a Giller and an Oscar-style bow. His answer is a direct reflection of our dream conversations. I’m hoping that our conversations help him create and live toward giant dreams like mine.
Me: Who are your favourite kid’s book writers?
Miller: (Was too distracted to answer.)
Jett: Robert Munsch, Oliver Jeffers, Cressida Cowell, Peter H. Reynolds.
We read A LOT. There are many authors not listed, doesn’t mean we’re not reading their stories! I do love that at the ripe old age of almost-ten, Jett has favourites. I hope it means these stories are making lasting impressions on his heart and creative soul.
Me: Do you think books are important? Why?
Miller: Yes. Because they help you understand things and they talk about things you don’t even know, but then when you get older you learn them and, um, you understand.
Jett: Yes, very. Super duper. Because you’d have nothing to learn from them if they didn’t exist.
I think it’s safe to say that my writing life, my reading life, and my mothering life are all impacting the lives of my kids. Books, writing, reading, thinking creatively – these things are very important in our world. I think I’m doing a fair job at adapting my writing life to my parenting life – and when one gets overloaded, my kids will let me know or my body and soul will let me know – or both. I’m grateful for how things are going. I feel like I’m (mostly) able to balance my mothering and writing life pretty well. And then, there are days/weeks when it all goes to sh*t. But the words…the ones I write, and the ones the kids use to steer me forward, the words are always there to guide and support. We’re in this together, me and my family, and the words. I love it.
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. A forthcoming book of poetry will launch this fall. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website www.vanessashields.com.