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Juggling Parenting and a Creative Career? Here’s What You Need to Know
This is a guest post by Ali Luke: In six years of freelancing and writing fiction (with a fair few up and downs), the worst thing I’ve done for my creative career is starting a family. I have absolutely no regrets – with one gorgeous toddler, and a ra
Editor's note: This is a guest post by Ali Luke from Aliventures.
In six years of freelancing and writing fiction (with a fair number of ups and downs), the worst thing I’ve done for my creative career is starting a family.
I have absolutely no regrets – with one gorgeous toddler and a rapidly growing bump, my writing simply isn’t my biggest priority right now.
I’ve also got few illusions now about being a mother to young children and being someone with a creative/entrepreneurial career. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I don’t think any non-parent can fully grasp how much life changes post-children.
Quick aside: Much of this post applies to fathers, too. My husband was Kitty’s primary carer for several months, and we split the childcare roughly 50/50 now (though it’s his time that usually gets sacrificed in a pinch). But motherhood comes with a couple of undeniable extra challenges: being pregnant and giving birth.
Maybe you’re a mother or a father. Maybe you’re expecting (congratulations!). Or maybe you’re not quite that far on the road to parenthood yet, but it’s something that lies ahead for you.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far - and I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.
Pregnancy Took More of a Toll Than I Expected
For a couple of medical reasons, I expected to have some difficulties with getting pregnant. That wasn’t the case (and my husband and I feel very blessed to have been spared the heartache that many couples go through when trying to conceive). In an act of slightly poor timing, though, I got pregnant with Kitty just as I was coming to the end of a major writing project – my book Publishing Ebooks for Dummies.
As first trimesters go, I got off lightly. I wasn’t sick, but I was surprised at just how tired I was. For several weeks, I could manage to work for only 2--3 hours a day. I spent a lot of time sleeping, or lying down and reading.
Beyond the physical changes, I found that emotionally, I was all over the place – suffering from the sort of mood swings I’d not experienced since being a teenager. Some of my previous priorities, like my novel in progress, no longer held my attention; my focus was very much on the baby.
If you're preparing for pregnancy, be prepared to write off (roughly) weeks 5--12, and try to get any major projects out of the way in advance. You're likely to be sick, tired, or both, and it's far more important to rest than to panic about getting work finished for clients.
The Physical Limitations of Early Motherhood
Obviously enough, becoming a mother comes with certain physical limitations. For instance:
You’re unable to travel to attend conferences. I was planning to attend New Media Expo, which I’d spoken at twice, and hoping to speak and to sign copies of Publishing Ebooks for Dummies. Since I was going to be almost eight months pregnant by then, international travel was out of the question. (Immigration would’ve taken one look at my enormous bump and sent me straight back.)
Once the baby arrives, you’re limited by breastfeeding (if you choose to breastfeed). We had hoped to breastfeed, but had to switch to formula after the scary experience of ending up in hospital with a very dehydrated baby. Although I was very disappointed initially, it’s hard to deny that bottlefeeding does make life much easier if you’re keen to get back into your work soon after the birth.
You’re also recovering from the exhausting experience of labour and potentially from surgery. Thankfully, things went smoothly for us, but some mothers will need time to recover from a C-section.
You’re almost certainly sleep deprived. I have plenty of mother friends who’ve suffered through months of being woken multiple times in the night. Writing is high-energy, high-focus work and it can be incredibly hard to do when your brain is fogged through lack of sleep.
Parenting Is a MAJOR Commitment of Time, Energy, and Attention
Before I became a mother, I read plenty of books and blogs and daydreamed about the future. I knew life would be busy for a few years – but I don’t think I fully grasped what that would mean.
Babies and small children take up a huge amount of your time, energy, and attention. Assuming that you’re lucky and have a child who sleeps from 7 p.m.--7 a.m. and naps for a couple of hours during the day, that’s still a 10-hour day when you need to be with your child, taking care of him or her.
It’s not just time, though. Even if you’ve got childcare or you split duties with your partner, children can be a huge drain on your energy. When you’ve spent the morning occupying a small child, you may not feel like sitting down to work for several hours in the afternoon.
And then there’s the matter of attention. If you work from home – and many mothers do – then you may find it hard to “switch off,” even when someone else is taking care of your child. And if you’re in charge and your child is playing independently, it’s pretty much impossible to get into flow.
What about dads and partners? If you’re relying on their income, that can be a huge emotional burden. They’ll (hopefully!) be helping out in the evenings and on weekends, so they won’t get much downtime either. Plus, pressure from their boss, colleagues, or clients may be making things difficult.
Some Practical Tips
A word of warning: I've spent plenty of time reading about parenting, reading about productivity, and hoping to find some magical tip that'll make it possible to do everything I want to do.
That tip isn't out there.
While I passionately believe that mothers can shape their lives however they like – whether that means being a full-time mom, a stay-at-home mom, a full-time working mom, or something in between – there are always going to be choices and trade-offs. (Click to share - thanks!)
That said, over the past year and a half, Paul and I have definitely found some things that help me find as much time as possible to write.
Talk Things Through with Your Partner
Unless you’re a single parent, there’ll be another person heavily involved and invested in bringing up your child(ren). If you’re planning to have a baby – or another baby! – then do talk through the practicalities and the various ways that things are likely to change.
This might mean:
Agreeing to cut down on your spending - We went through our monthly bills before Kitty was born and managed to cut back in several areas. A few dollars saved here and there could make a big difference.
Deciding how you’ll still find time together as a couple - We normally watch a movie together on Friday nights and we eat together each evening. Otherwise, it’s easy to get caught up in just being parents.
Routine, Routine, Routine
I'm the sort of person who thrives on a consistent routine - I don't think any of my friends or family would describe me as "spontaneous"!
When Kitty was little (up to about six months), we followed a loose, straightforward routine taken from Tracy Hogg's book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. After we weaned Kitty, though, we struggled to structure her feedings and we turned to Gina Ford.
Kitty instantly fit straight into Gina's recommended routine for her age, napped at consistent times for the first time in her life, and went to bed (and to sleep!) at 7 p.m. - giving us our evenings back.
Different routines will suit different families, and I know Gina Ford's methods aren't for everyone, but if you can develop a consistent bedtime and naptimes, it makes such a difference. It's hugely helpful, for instance, to know that I can safely schedule work calls between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., when Kitty always naps.
Ask for Help
I'm not great at asking for help. I have to remind myself that I love to be asked for help and to be useful to others, but even then, I worry that I'll be imposing on people.
My mom lives very nearby, and she loves seeing Kitty and normally takes her for a few hours each week. When we're on vacation with family, everyone loves to be involved with her, from our pre-teen cousins to our grannies. My dad, who worked long hours during my childhood, is also very hands-on and Kitty loves seeing him.
It's also well worth considering paid support, whether that's with childcare or with your work. A virtual assistant who deals with routine emails, for instance, would allow you to free up some hours for what truly matters.
Get Organised in Advance
In hindsight, I wasn't very well prepared for the realities of having a baby or for the impact this would have on my writing and career progression. But one thing I did do in advance – and I'm very glad I did – was organise my study.
It was great to be able to get back into writing, after a few months of maternity leave, and be able to instantly lay my hands on those vital bits of paper I'd actually filed in the right place for once!
Obviously you don't want to overdo it in late pregnancy, but if you can tie up loose ends and leave everything tidy, it's much easier to pick up where you left off – without spending hours or days trying to remember where you put a crucial notebook or where you saved your novel in progress.
Learn to Say "No"
Like asking for help, this is something I struggle with, and I expect that you do, too. It's not easy to turn people down, but if you're going to remain a productive worker while you have kids, you'll need to get comfortable with saying "no" much more than you say "yes."
I've found it helps to:
Focus on the bigger "yes." Perhaps it's your blog or online platform, the book you’re writing, or the new product you’ve just launched.
Say "later" rather than an outright "no." This can be easier, especially if you think someone's going to be pushy or if you're worried that you'll give in. Tell people that you're too busy right now, but to ask again in a few months. In many cases, they'll find someone else by then or solve their problem themselves.
Stick to it. If you say no, don't go back on it. Otherwise, you just train people to think that they can argue or persuade you to do something you really don't want to do.
Working on Acceptance
It might not be something you want to hear, but your career is going to slow down, at least for a year or two.
Maybe you'll watch friends and peers storm ahead. Since I got pregnant with Kitty, the amazingly prolific Johnny B Truant (along with Sean Platt) has written and published something like 30+ novels and novellas. I'm still working on the one novel that I was already partway through.
On a slightly more human but still hellishly prolific level, Joanna Penn wrote four novels and a bunch of short stories and other stuff in that time.
And they both kept up with their blogs and podcasts and Twitter accounts.
I have tons of admiration for Johnny and Joanna, and it would be all too easy to look at their achievements and feel bad about my own.
But the truth is, they're at a completely different point in their lives than I am. And that's okay. I'm not as prolific a writer as I was when I could work full-time, and when we didn't have quite so much laundry and so many dishes, but I'm also more efficient and self-disciplined than I was before.
If you're struggling to see the big picture, remember that your kids will be this age only once. Of course you should keep up with your writing, art, design, or whatever it is you love – for your sanity, if nothing else! – but don't feel that it has to be a race.
I definitely don't have all the answers, and while I think it's perfectly possible to stay in touch with the working world while navigating the early years of motherhood, you may need to settle for something that's considerably less prolific than your previous norms.
Whether you're a mom, mom-to-be, dad, or grandparent, or have no intention of having kids at all, I'd love to hear your take on this and your tips and advice in the comments.
Ali Luke's seven-week e-course On Track helps writers who've stalled get going again. If you've not updated your blog in months, your novel has been languishing in a drawer, or you've had a short story on the go for weeks, find out more and join today (it's free).