You know having kids is going to change your life forever. You know it’s going to disrupt your previous routines and habits. You know your forthcoming little bundle of joy is going to irrevocably alter your way of looking at the world.
You know all this, yet when they’re born you’re still surprised at just how much things change. All those knowing warnings from those who’ve trod this path before, particularly about how exhausted you’ll feel, come true with surprising force.
So how on earth, when you’re faced with the crying, beautiful, terrifying, whirlwind that is a newborn baby, do you keep on top of the other things that matter to you? The things that make you, well, you?
The answer is…with great difficulty. Which may not be what you wanted to hear, but I hope to offer you some tips based on what’s worked for me over the last couple of years as a stay-at-home dad.
Be kind to yourself
Accept that your writing routine (actually, all of your routines) flew out of the window the day your little bundle of joy arrived.
Your days and nights (oh god, the nights) are going to be based around the needs of a tiny human whose sleep cycles are either nonexistent or seemed designed to counter your own at every turn.
Simply getting through the days, and the nights, is a major achievement. Fitting in some writing alongside that?
Clap yourself on the back my friend, you’re a bloody superhero.
Our son was born a month early, and there were a few complications that meant we had to stay with him on the neonatal ward for a couple of weeks.
By the time we got home I’d used up my statutory paternity pay, and all my paid holiday, and was straight back 40 hours a week at my day job at our busiest time of year.
Our son wasn’t a great sleeper for the first few months, so my wife and I slept in shifts. Both managing about 3 hours a night.
I gave myself a few months off. Our son was born in September, and I didn’t even think about writing until the new year.
When I did?
Little and often, but not every day
It’s likely that you’ll be unable to write every day. Some people will tell you that you have to write every day to be a ‘real writer.’
I’d tell you not to listen to prescriptive advice, because for many people it’s impossible to write every day.
You might have small children that throw a spanner in the works from time to time, you might have a condition that induces brain fog or can sometimes prevent the focus and clarity required to write.
Whatever it is, you do not have to write every day.
It’s okay, let that sink in. If you write, you’re a ‘real writer.’ Whenever, however, you can fit it in.
For me, that started over breakfast. My wife and son were usually still sleeping when I got up for work in the morning, and I’d get out my laptop and write a few words in 20 minutes or so while I ate my breakfast.
This was often the only writing that would occur in a day. Very often it didn’t happen, as my wife and son might wake up and needed (and deserved) my attention more than the book I was working on. But by working in this way I was able to write, edit, and publish a novella in 8 months.
I listen to a few writing podcasts alongside The Writer’s Mindset, and it was the 200 word a day challenge by the Bestseller Experiment that helped me accept writing in small chunks to get the job done.
The point of their challenge is that if you average 200 words a day, you’ll have a 73,000 word novel within a year.
I’m not so worried about writing every day, but the fact that writing a small number of words often enough adds up to something big was a good mindset shift for me.
Once free time was much less of a thing, and I couldn’t spend hours upon hours pondering my work, this was an important thing to learn.
(The lack of time was also behind my move from pantsing to plotting, but that’s a story for another post.)
Grab what writing time you can, when you can
I write using a piece of software called Scrivener, which is designed with writers in mind and great for working on long-form projects.
If you have an iPhone or iPad, they also offer a mobile app that works in tandem with their desktop software so that you can work on the same projects across devices and write on the move.
This came in very handy during those long nights rocking my son to sleep. When he woke in the night I used to have to let him fall asleep on me, then wait until he was deeply asleep before transferring him to his cot.
Otherwise he would wake up and the whole cycle would begin again. So being able to write on my phone became very useful.
You obviously don’t have to use software like Scrivener for this. Google Docs, Word, Pages, Evernote, your phone or tablet’s native note taking app; you can get your thoughts down on any of these and most will sync across devices.
They’re all handy for when you’re rocking your baby to sleep, get hit by inspiration on your commute, are waiting to pick up your kids from school or an extracurricular activity, or wake up in the wee hours of the morning with an idea.
This happened to me whilst house sitting for some friends. I was somewhere between waking and sleeping in the wee hours of the night when what became the opening scene to my first novel, The Swordsman’s Lament, popped into my brain.
I woke up fully, grabbed my phone, and tapped out my half-dreamed story. The scene as published is astonishingly close to what I got down in that 3am moment of inspiration.
J.W. Judge referred to this as ‘writing in the margins of life’ in his episode of The Writer’s Mindset: How to Juggle Writing and a Full-Time Job. Which is a phrase I like. I might have to put it on a t-shirt…
Give yourself time
Whether you’re a parent who works a 9-5, or you stay at home, your time will get a lot more limited when you have kids. They will disrupt any routine. And you, you lucky parent, will just have to roll with it. Be realistic about the deadlines you set yourself, or accept from other people.
Before having kids, I always set myself ‘if everything goes to plan’ deadlines. Because I knew how my days would go, how much free time I had, and how long it was likely to take me to complete a task.
Now I allow myself contingency. Because I’m going to need it. I take my gut instinct of ‘if everything goes to plan’, then double the time I think it’s going to take. Because things rarely go to plan.
For example, I couldn’t take my son to nursery yesterday. We live on a small island (St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, one of the most remote communities in the UK) and the nursery is on a neighbouring island.
I take my son over twice a week for his time at nursery, during which I get some writing work done, but the weather yesterday was so bad that all boating was cancelled and we were stuck at home.
And by bad I mean 50mph winds and waves over seven metres. So boating wasn’t just cancelled, it would have been impossible. Particularly in the small boats we use between the islands, with a three-year-old!
So, instead of having those precious hours of solid work time, I took my son to our Island Hall. (Our community centre, for a community of 130 people on a tiny island.)
I made it into a positive and treasured the three hours of play we had using the soft play and toys there, before returning home. Then I made up the lost hours in the evening.
Ease yourself into new routines gently
I always thought that when our son came along that I’d be one of those ‘5AM Club’ writers. You know the ones. They get early nights, rise at an ungodly hour, and write before the rest of the world wakes up.
I’ve tried it a few times. In fact, any time it seemed like our son was going to start sleeping through the night. I’d get an early night, set my alarm for 5AM, and prepare to dazzle myself with my prolific output.
It would work for a day or two. Then my son would hit a sleep regression, or a fresh bout of teething, and after a few nights of interrupted sleep my early starts were abandoned.
Our second child was born in October, and it seems like having two kids is the thing that might drag me kicking and screaming into being a morning person. Almost by accident.
I’ve gone back to my old day job while my wife’s on maternity leave, for which I get up at 6.30AM. I’ve been trying to fit in some work on my ADHD (what I call my ADHD practice) before our three-year-old wakes up at 7AM but there just wasn’t time.
So I’ve set my alarm thirty minutes earlier. This means I can shower, get dressed, and do my ADHD practice before my son wakes up. I’m enjoying this new morning routine.
My next step is to bring that alarm forward by another thirty minutes and fit some writing in. Once I’m used to that, I’ll bring it forward again.
Then, what do you know, I’ll be getting up at 5AM.
Jumping into an entirely new routine with both feet just ended in failure, at least for me. So my suggestion is to ease yourself into these things without making sudden, huge, changes.
Otherwise you might set yourself up for failure.
As a writer who is also a parent, you will be short of time, your routine will be disrupted, and you have to get used to those facts.
But there are many paths to success, and one of those involves acknowledging, learning from, and then building on the limitations of your situation.
As my wife says, parenting is like juggling with a mixture of glass and plastic balls. It’s okay to drop the plastic ones, but the glass ones must never be dropped.
Your kids, they’re a glass ball in this situation. Your writing? It’s plastic. Don’t worry if you drop it from time to time, you can always pick it up again.
I treasure my time with my son, as I know so many parents don’t get that when their own children are small.
It’s not a luxury for us, to have one parent at home, but is part of our circumstances in a remote community where childcare isn’t always accessible.
But it’s also important to have something for yourself. When your day is totally wound around your tiny humans it’s easy to lose sight of the things that make you, you. Those things that sustain you and keep you going.
So make sure to carve out those pockets of time for yourself. For writing, reading, or just vegging on the sofa with your favourite TV show.