The Writing Parent: On Work

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.

I’ve been ‘working’ on this blog for months. I’ve decided it’s because the topic of work is so vast and furious and…so affected by so many things, it’s been incredibly difficult for me to keep it simple. Work has never been simple for me.

I’ve also decided after much deep searching about what I’m about to say that writers are never not working. Or writers are always working. However you say it – this is what I believe is true. Just like parenting – that never, ever ends and is always leading your daily choices, I have to say that writing is the same.

Writers are always working because we are always thinking about what we want to write. Just like parents are always parenting because they are always thinking about what we want/need to do to parent our kids. The thinking for both ‘jobs’ (if you will) is constant and complicated. For example, what to make for dinner is something I’m constantly thinking about. Right beside that thought (okay, probably a little ahead of it!) is what I wish I was writing or reading.

My writer’s brain is a never-ending cinema of sentences, words, visualizations and plot points for stories, poems, classes, workshops – all of the writerly things I engage in – plus pining for books that I wish I was reading and visualizing myself reading these books in some romantic (or in the least clean and quiet) setting.

My parenting brain is a never-ending cinema of worries, wonderings, hopes, concerns, scheduling, lists – for all the parenting things I engage in – plus a pining for books that I wish I was reading – you get what I’m saying here. I’ve basically got a double-feature of wants and needs looping and swooping in my brain – All. The.Time.

And it’s all work.

I’ve really struggled to not call it work. Struggled to try and convince myself to call what I do as a writer something more sophisticated or literary – more romantic or more artistic. But at the end of the day, when I lay in bed and my brain plays back the ‘What I Did Today’ film, I’m really only separating what happened between ‘work’ and ‘other things’. I’m kind of ashamed (though that’s a strong word) about the semantics of it all. But that’s really what’s been holding up the completion of my thoughts on ‘work.’

I feel a certain way in my body when I’m working. I don’t feel that way any other time.

I feel a certain way in my body when I’m parenting – when I’ve let my brain just ‘be’ a parent and not writer or any other ‘self.’ I don’t feel that way any other time.

Writing is work, but it is also love expressed creatively.

Parenting is work, but, it too, is also love expressed creatively.

Is it really such a surprise then that experiencing either role is so extraordinary? How about when you’re doing something that involves you being both a writer and a parent? Say, when you’re reading a book to your child and they read along or squeal with delight? Or how about when you’re helping your teen work on his short story for class because he’s so graciously asked for editorial support? This is when the two ‘works’ collide and I burst like a bud into a flower. This is when I feel more alive than ever because my ‘work’ as a writer is completely in synch with my work as a parent.

I’ve been searching for what’s at the core of ‘work’ – and I keep circling back to love and joy. Here comes the shame again…am I being too innocent? Too naive? Am I making what I previously said was ‘too complicated’ into something too simple? Maybe work can be that simple.

There are books on shortening the work day. Entrepreneurs who are changing the landscape of work – everything from how we sit at desk to whether there are desks at all! There are some huge companies that have buildings built like mini-cities – complete with food, gyms, sleeping pods and massage therapists. Where one works when they want so long as the ‘work’ gets done on time.

Writers already work like that. We don’t have ‘set’ hours. We don’t control when the ideas come and when the muse will take hold. We have deadlines, sure, but most, I would bet, are self-imposed. Writers write and read every day. For as long as they possibly can. And if we don’t, well then we start to not feel well –  we just don’t feel right in our mind and body and soul.

Parenting already works like that too, does it not? We can tell when things are ‘off’ among family members…when communication may break down or we’re not spending enough time together. We can kinda control what happens within our family units, but mostly we can’t. Parenting is like having your most precious stories out in the world and constantly wondering how they’ll survive…who will read them and love them. The rejection is there too. Your kids can reject your ideas…even your love. Others can reject your kids…their love.

It takes work to cultivate your best stories and be the best writer you can be. Same goes with being a parent.

One of my biggest work challenges is giving myself the time to write. Between the two – being a writer and being a parent – I always give priority to being a parent. That’s me. And sometimes, that’s not always the best choice for my career for it can strengthen the fear I have of following certain writing dreams that would pull me away from my family. The thought of a book tour, for example, is both invigorating and terrifying. I want very much to tour for a published book but immediately red editor’s marks pop up over the dream: you can tour but not too far away and only for one-to-two sleeps at a time. Or, I want to teach and offer workshops, but I can’t teach two nights in a row or attend events that busy up the evenings. There is a consistent adaptation and shifting of dreams for Vanessa-the-Writer outlined by Vanessa-the-Parent.

And this doesn’t even include the masterful art of prioritizing away the time to write the cloud-nine stuff – the best-seller-bound YA novel, the Academy Award-winning adapted screenplay (I dream. I dream.). Heck, when does this writing get to live? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out. For now, these dreams sit on the edge of my soul, legs dangling, fingernails munched to the quick – waiting.

I say the word work very, very often.

How many times a day do you say: “Kids, I have to work!”? As in: the writing of poetry, blogs, short stories, novels, etc. for pleasure or publication (submissions) for myself. Or as in: the cooking, cleaning, house management, driving and such for parenting. Or as in: the class prep, editing, teaching, social media, financial stuff for the small business. You can add travel to each of these categories as well.

What does work actually mean and how do we use it the context of our lives? Also, how does it ‘live’ in our lives? I say “I have to work” to my kids so they understand that writing is work even if I’m doing it on my laptop in the dining room where they can clearly see me and stop to ask me things like: Can you make me pasta, mama?

I think that sometimes ‘work’ can be troublesome for humans. Sometimes we make it mean everything – that the things we do for work simply must take precedence in our lives. We work ourselves ‘to the bone’ – get sick, lose sight and heart of people/things in the rest of our lives…money has too much to do with the ‘work’ and how it lives in our lives. Sometimes, we work, work, work and the input of time and energy doesn’t match the monetary compensation – and we’re no further ahead in living our dreams or feeding our families or paying rent and having a roof over our heads.

The socio-economic implications of work matter. Everything from the colour of our skin to the language we speak to where we live to who we love to the living history that clings to every choice we make – it all affects ‘work’ and how we experience it.

I am a white, 40-year-old, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle-class, married, cisgendered woman.

These realities affect what work looks like and feels like in my life. I have the privilege of choosing to be a mother first and build my ‘work’ schedule around taking care of our two children. I am able to write in the in-betweens of our daily lives, and even more on the days that don’t include my part-time job. I have been writing and reading my whole life so the practice of doing just that – stopping everything else to sit and write or read – is a habit I’ve formed fully. But I am also a master procrastinator – and that is a grand example of my privilege. That I feel comfortable and safe in the places I write (at home or elsewhere) is another example of how ‘work’ exists in my life. It wasn’t always this way. Not at all. There were times when work was all I did to be able to feed, clothe and shelter myself and my family – and this type of work was not related to writing. When writing was one of the few safe spaces to put my fears and worries, and tell myself not to give up hope for change.

I remember being ten and babysitting two kids under the age of three because ‘work’ started in childhood, and I wanted to be able to pay for a book to read instead of always borrowing it from a library. That was a privilege then like it’s a privilege now. It’s a luxury to be able to spend an hour perusing the journal shelves at a bookstore then purchasing a journal at all.

I can’t think about work without thinking about the baggage that it carries.

And here’s a truth I know about being a writer. It is not a 9-to-5 gig. The majority of the time we are not getting paid for the ‘work’ of thinking, creating and getting the words out of our heads/hearts and onto a page or a stage. The ‘work’ of an artist never stops. How does one get remunerated for thinking?

Some of us work tirelessly for writers – as members of boards and unions and groups that help support the importance of writing and the necessity of writers/illustrators in the world. There is a constant struggle for payment, for accessibility, for equality, for copyright (and more) within the literary landscape. The systems currently set up for us to thrive in are flawed and in flux. The flux is positive. Things are changing and it’s high time they are. However, it doesn’t negate the fierce competition for publication, agents, and validation for the work we live and breathe. This kind of work can weigh down the creative energy we need to do the work of writing.

Yet we barrel onward, don’t we?

Writers are some of the hardest workers I know. Writers exemplify what discipline, time/money management, creativity and self-confidence really can look like. We also exemplify what burn-out, sadness, insecurity, and utter desperation can look like too. We are single vessels with many selves battling in our brains and hearts to support.

But whether we’re cultivating a human child or a literary child – the choice to be a writer is simple one. If given the choice to write or not write, what is your answer? To parent or not parent?

The ‘work’ of being a writer and a parent is work I want to do every day, and I’m grateful that I can. I’m grateful you can and do too other writers – parents or not! – because without you, I couldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today – or the parent. So thank you. Keep it up. Keep up the great work!

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. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. Vanessa is the owner of Gertrude’s Writing Room – A Gathering Place for Writers. For all things Vanessa, visit her website: