Emily, I know you began writing seriously when you were a new mom. As a young mom myself, I wonder how the busyness and craziness of having young children affected your writing. What was your day like?
—Birgitta Nybeck, Bloomington, Minnesota
I’ve been looking forward to answering this question, Birgitta, because it brings back a time that was crazy, as you say, but also pretty special. I was primarily a stay-at-home mom as you are, and it was tremendously challenging finding enough time to write. When my daughter was a baby, I could put her on a blanket on the floor next to my desk and get some work done while she wriggled around. And I used her nap times for work. When her morning nap was gone and she was more mobile, I had a schedule in which I worked before she got up in the morning and then, again, during her afternoon nap. I tried to cobble together four hours of writing time a day. By the time I was expecting her brother, she’d decided she’d outgrown her nap, and I was a little frantic wondering when I was going to have time to work. I kept up the morning period of writing and grabbed at any quiet periods I could find. Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street might have helped. I’m actually a little blank. I think her dad took care of her a couple of hours on the afternoons when he wasn’t teaching.
It was crazier, of course, when her brother was born. She did go to nursery school three afternoons a week while he was napping and that was absolutely inviolate writing time. Not many people knew I was trying to write and I suspect some of the neighborhood moms thought I was stand-offish because I didn’t join them for social activities during the day. I also taught piano lessons after school when my son was a baby, so I had to fit that into the schedule. And there were various other part-time jobs that came along, such as subbing at the university and managing the books for my husband’s extra job of delivering newspapers on weekends out in the country. Those great university salaries!
When child number two hit the no-nap era, his sister was in school and I’d been spoiled again with blocks of time while he napped. Once it was clear his nap had disappeared and wasn’t coming back, I found another nursery school and spent the afternoons two or three times a week that opened up for me writing in my husband’s office. Since I loved having little kids and was glad to be at home with them, I mostly felt OK about my schedule, though I remember how hard it was to reach that twenty-hour goal some weeks and how frustrating it sometimes felt trying to use every spare minute for my work or, worse, having things interrupt that carefully scheduled time.
In spite of all that, it felt like a luxury that I could do the two things that were most important to me—write and hang out with my kids, though I was maybe less focused on teaching them specific things and planning activities than parents often are. I did some of that, particularly when we moved to the country. I had to make a real effort to see that my son had other children to play with. But our time together was pretty unstructured aside from the fact that I was always there as a reference point or commenter or comforter and sometimes playmate. I remember reading an article by a psychologist who’d observed children and their mothers and said that a lot of teaching comes from a mother just glancing over at an exploring child and making a small remark such as oh, it rolls, when the child is pushing something across the floor. It’s like a wheel. I was that kind of mom when my kids were little.
I’ve often thought how lucky I was to be a writer since it did give me that time with my children. There were other perks. You don’t have to dress for it. Usually you don’t have to drive anywhere. You can make your own schedule in the odd bits and pieces of a day. You can goldbrick without any repercussions but your own self-criticism. When I see my daughter and daughter-in-law and my young working friends managing jobs and young families, frankly I’m in awe. And the truth is I’ve never been able to answer the question for myself of what I would have done if the work I’d wanted to pursue had taken me outside the home for long hours over long stretches. If it had been necessary, I guess I would have done it, but I know I would have felt torn, which makes me really feel for the women who are making choices about these fundamental parts of their lives, and I know most women are. All I ever managed was to walk up to the idea of thinking of such a challenge and then to retreat, unable to decide what the answer would be for me, particularly as someone who has always been child-centric but found work defining.
I want to add something else here. I think because of the fact I was home with my kids when they were small and rarely bringing in an income, my life was shaped in other ways. I had a big garden and canned a lot of food. I cooked most things from scratch and made a lot of my clothes and my daughter’s (until she rebelled when the school principal complimented her on a corduroy and scrap-wool outfit I’d made her). If there was a way to save money by doing something myself, I did it, whether it was tuning the piano or laying a carpet or spending hours with the kids picking gooseberries to make jam for my dad’s birthday. I guess I was a little bit Ma Ingalls at that time, somewhere between the prairie and the big woods. That also meant I learned something about the process of doing many things, whether it was building a fire in a stove for heating our house or seaming sheetrock. Ultimately, that helped me as a writer because it gave me a sense of how to do some of the physical things my characters needed to do.
When both my kids were school age, my schedule became a lot more flexible. It still revolved around them but I had all the hours they were gone to work at writing. My time in my study expanded, which was helpful. It was also all in one piece, and that meant that when my family was at home, I could pretty much shed my sense of myself as a writer and be all about them and the various needs of the household. It was liberating on both ends of the equation.
And here is one maybe useful, odd bit. There were times when I had a deadline of some kind and had to work when the kids were at home. They made me signs that said, “Mom’s Study. Knock. Quiet.” Though those directions weren’t always observed, I found that, as my children went through grade school and junior high and then high school, if they needed to talk with me about something when I was working, they were always somehow respectful about it. It was as if I had a station in my study, tiny as the room was, that was different from the open-access rest of the world. It wasn’t planned that way, but I thought of it as being a little like the Virginia Woolf idea of a “room of her own.” I’d recommend that separate space at least as an experiment to other young moms. It was good for all of us.