Reader Request Week #7: Writing and Babies

Jess Nevins (who not too long ago sent me a rather spectacular gift which I’m not sure I ever actually thanked him for, so thanks, Jess, and the next time I see you I plan to reciprocate in some way) asks:

How did you manage to be a productive writer in the first two years of your child’s life?

Which is to say: what was your work schedule like? How did you manage to produce coherent text when you were exhausted from getting up every three hours to feed the baby? How did you manage to be productive and not let your wife feel like she was having to do everything herself?

(Why, yes, I have selfish reasons for asking).

Heh. I’m sure you do.

I had no problem at all with writing when Athena was an infant and toddler, to tell you the truth, and in fact I found it much easier to write when she was that age than I did when she was older. Here’s some of what I did:

1. I was a night owl back then, and Krissy got up reasonably early, so we’d divide feeding responsibilities according to our own sleep schedules. I’d handle the 10 pm, 1am and the occasional 3:30-ish feedings (from a formula bottle, to be clear), while Krissy slept. Then she’d handle the morning feeding before she went off to work and that would take care of Athena until 9am or so. So I would get a reasonable amount of sleep.

2. I was the stay at home parent, so you would think that would cut into the time I had to write. But it didn’t really. Infants when they’re young tend to sleep quite a lot, so for me it was reasonably easy to get work done while Athena napped (I would make business phone calls while she was asleep, for example). I’d do shorter work during the day, and then as I was also on the night owl schedule, I would do a lot of longer writing at night when everyone else in the house was asleep and I’d have stretches of time to work. You have to be able to be both flexible and disciplined to do this, but it worked for me.

3. One thing I did which seemed to help was that I put Athena’s paypen into my office with me, and made sure she had lots of stuff to keep her amused. That way she was generally fairly content because I was in the same room as her, and she had things to keep her occupied. As she got older we moved from a playpen to a larger, gated area of the office, and then to a toddler gate at the office door. And of course lots and lots of toys.

4. I did make sure that I took breaks during the day to focus attention on Athena, which served two purposes: One, it was good for her to have directed play and two, it was good for me to step away from my computer every once in a while and give my brain and my typing fingers a break. A little of this could go a long way for both me and Athena.

5. When she was edging into toddlerhood, I bought a new computer, set my older computer on a kid-height desk, and then bought a bunch of toddler software. It was sort of astounding how quickly she took to it, and how it would keep her occupied. One has to be sure the kid doesn’t get completely swallowed into it, of course, but it was fun for her and it helped me get work done.

In all, the first two years went pretty smoothly, in terms of work, and I can tell you when it became harder to get work done: Once Athena started talking (in complete sentences rather than words), because then she wanted to have lots and lots of conversations, and started making real — albeit totally adorable — impositions on my work day that she hadn’t before. She still does, although now she’s at school half the day, so I have time for longer work. Even so, on balance, I was more productive during those first couple of years than I was in the years immediately after.

Now, I did have a couple of good breaks in there: Being stay-at-home and not having to conform to a set schedule gave me more flexibility than most people have, and oddly enough I found that when I was doing corporate work a lot of my clients were more than happy to work around my baby-tending schedule, I think partially because stay-at-home dads were still something of a novelty when Athena was a baby. We could go off on why it is that me caring for a baby was seen as a positive by corporate America (or the part I consulted for) while it would have been seen as a liability if a woman were doing it, but that’s a whole other slice of thing that would take lots of time to work through. Unfair or not, it really wasn’t a problem for me. And of course, it was huge that there was another parent in the household and that both of us were willing to work out a schedule that had each of us taking a lead role while the other had time to rest and depressurize.

I think ultimately for writing when one has a baby around the secrets are: Be flexible in your writing schedule, and make sure you do, in fact, get enough sleep. Both take a little scheduling and patience, but both are worth it, if you want to get that writing done.

38 Comments on “Reader Request Week #7: Writing and Babies”

  1. Oi. I was hoping for better news.

    My son has insisted on directed play almost exclusively since he was about one. He’s bigger than most toddlers his age so he can get into a lot more trouble, which requires constant supervision (at his two year check-up two weeks ago he was 37″ tall and 33lbs–toddler gates present no problem for him).

    I found the first year to be fairly easy too except for the total lack of sleep–poor kid has night terrors–but it got progressively harder after that. I was looking forward to it getting *easier* as he got a little older as he would be able to self-entertain a bit more. And you’re saying it’s going to get harder still?

    You totally harshed my mellow man.

  2. I have a kid approaching his one-year birthday, and this is my strategy:

    * Take the bus to work (about an hour each way)
    * Get a laptop

    Viola: about two hours of time for writing or reading each day, without substantially reducing the time I get to spend with my family in the evenings. Of course this works because writing is still a hobby, mostly, and so I only need about two hours a day to make progress on my projects. It also helps that I have a pretty self-directed kid, who will noodle around on the floor by himself without needing a lot of attention if I want to write after getting home.

    I just have to keep him from eating the power cables, since they are evidently his favorite toys.

  3. We could go off on why it is that me caring for a baby was seen as a positive by corporate America (or the part I condulted for) while it would have been seen as a liability if a woman were doing it, but that’s a whole other slice of thing that would take lots of time to work through.

    My corporate-type husband went to 80-percent time for the first three years after we began having children, while I was still in graduate school (also part-time). He also got nothing but support from everyone around him, and it didn’t appear to delay his promotion at all.

    He works at a fairly family-friendly company, but I often thought that part of what made it so 100% positive is that many women had already gotten the ability to go part-time and, as far as he knew, he was the first dad to ask for long-term part-time status for child-care reasons. Though whether to allow an employee to do this is at the supervisor’s discretion, I figured that the company might be concerned about becoming the target of a sex-discrimination lawsuit if they did anything to obstruct the first male who was asking for the same privilege that numerous females had already obtained.

    Besides, in some circles, being a member of a minority group (as long as it’s the right minority group) automatically gives you a cachet of coolness, right?

  4. I recall having a similar conversation with you back at VP last year.

    I’ll second the requirement for flexibility. When the kids were small enough, I was able to work through the many naptimes during the day. Now that they’re older (4 and almost 2), naptimes are much shorter, and the older one doesn’t really nap at all during the day anymore, so I had to shift writing time to the evening, after everyone else is asleep.

    Finding time to write as a stay-at-home parent is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s perfectly doable, provided you have the will to get it done. It’s easier if you don’t have elaborate routines and requirements when it comes to writing (special room/beverage/time of the day/music/etc.), and you can train yourself to just write in quick dashes of quiet time. Sometimes you get an hour, sometimes only fifteen minutes…but a hundred words here and three hundred there will add up at the end of the day.

  5. That is a GREAT picture of you and Athena. The adoration on your face makes my heart all warm and stuff.

  6. I love the Athena pictures.

    Word to the wise: it’s much easier to balance spousing/parenting/working as long as there is at least one more adult than there are children.

  7. My own naive parenting story involved Nanowrimo. I decided to try it out back in 2002. My son’s due date was on the 22nd and I was taking a couple months paternity leave. I figured if I just kept up the first couple weeks I could power it all out on that last week off.

    I think I managed five paragraphs after my son was born.

    I am a software engineer by trade and have had real difficulties working at home. Programming is not something that is particularly compatibility with random interruptions and noise.

  8. I really enjoy reading your site. Might want to fix that “condulted” typo though

  9. It really depends on how good the kids are at being left alone. My daughter (now 14) was content, even as a newborn, to lay in her bassinet next to me as I did things – fold laundry, cook dinner, whatever. As long as she could hear me, and as she got a little older and more focused, see me, she was happy. She also slept through the night at about 2 months old, which was a godsend.

    As a toddler, she was quite content to play alone, although she of course -loved- playtime with Mommy or Daddy.

    I have friends who had infants who demanded to be held for the first six months, though. My ex-sister in law remarried and had a baby a week before I did, and she came by one afternoon. B was in her bassinet in the living room, and I was sitting on the couch folding clothes and talking to her, and Pam looked at me, looked at the baby and said “You mean she just lets you LEAVE her there?”

    She’s always been fiercely independent, from birth. One of the reasons we didn’t have another one in those first few years was we weren’t sure what we’d do with a kid that wasn’t as laid back as B.

  10. I’ll point out the “paypen” typo, but you should just leave that one alone. Something about the idea of a coin-operated kiddie corral just amuses me deeply.

    “Oh, out of quarters already, Athena? That’s too bad. No, you can’t run a tab.”

  11. You and Jess are totally spoiled. I’ve got two five-month-old infants to take care of, and a part-time job, and the occasional freelancing. I can’t get crap done, and my blog has pretty much fallen into a black hole and died.

    And bloody hell, nobody told me that formula and diapers for twins costs over $50 a week. <grumble grumble>

  12. I agree that it totally depends on how low-needs / high-needs your kid is. Kavya was medium-needs, I think. I got a fair bit of computer work done while wearing her as an infant in a sling, but the older she got, the less feasible that became. Now (22 months) I only write when we have childcare present, or when she’s sleeping. Thank god for the transition to a single long (2-3 hr) afternoon nap.

    John, at what age exactly did you set her up with the computer? And what toddler software do you recommend?

  13. My son is about 17 months now, and he hasn’t cut into my writing particularly — I work like hell during naps and in evenings, do some creative co-scheduling with my wife, and generally try to be flexible. When he was about 4 months old I wrote an essay for Clarkesworld about writing as a new dad (

    I actually find it much easier now, as he’ll happily play by himself for pretty long stretches while I work. I do expect productivity to drop once he gets chattier though — he’s only saying a few single words intelligibly at this point. But, you know, I’ll adjust to that too.

  14. Mary Anne Mohanraj:

    “John, at what age exactly did you set her up with the computer? And what toddler software do you recommend?”

    She got her own dedicated computer at 16 months and was playing on mine (and complaining when I didn’t let her) a month or so before that.

    Toddler software: We started with Jumpstart Toddler and sort of grazed through whatever was available at Staples when we went. It’s all pretty much the same in terms of educational/engaging content, I’ve found. And it’s all relatively inexpensive.

  15. Yeah, I totally agree that the personality/needs of the child are a factor in how much you can get done. I went back to school (university) when my daughter was 15 months old. I finished my degree when she was 3 1/2 years old. During that time, I worked part-time at the university library and came home and made dinner for the four of us (my husband and his grandfather) nearly every night. I think being young and more of a night owl helped. My daughter was always fairly independent and could amuse herself with her toys as long as I was nearby. Toys that stimulate the imagination help and these can be fairly simple and inexpensive items. Plus, I found that as long as I kept her on a good napping/sleep schedule and spent some quality time with her, I could manage to find my own time. Having other adults around to help out made a difference, too. She would watch baseball games with her great-grandfather and he would also read to her sometimes.

  16. Last year, I think, you wrote (or Athena actually) that she didn’t like it if you posted pictures of her as a baby? Has that changed or do the toddler pictures not count?

  17. Steve Burnap @7 wrote:

    I am a software engineer by trade and have had real difficulties working at home. Programming is not something that is particularly compatibility with random interruptions and noise.

    Ditto for me, as well (the brief “About JP” blurb on the front page of my blog reads “Frustrated writer in the guise of software developer. To the Batcave!” – which is just endlessly clever, I know). I’ve an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old, and our home office doubles as their playroom. Working at home when they’re awake is well-nigh on impossible… a fact which my wife, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to get, especially on snowy days when I’m dragging my ass through multiple inches of the white stuff to physically go to work, rather than telecommute like a sensible person.

    (To be fair, it’s really only the 2-year-old that’s the walking interruption, even if she is unbearably cute; to be fairer still, my wife gets stuck with the sprogs at home on snow days and the like and has to deal with the crazy, so there’s that to consider, as well.)

    It is, however, funny to watch the blank look descend on my children’s faces when they ask me what I do for work and I actually tell them (this is what we call the “mmm…bacon” look, which I think might just be self-explanatory).

    To address the actual topic of the thread: how did I write when the wee sprogs were even more wee? Simple, I say: I didn’t. Which caused me no end of psychic pain, but sleep and the day job won out in the end.

  18. Cute baby! I want to throw in a couple cents, here. I had a ridiculously high needs infant who typically slept maybe nine or ten hours a day–barely more than I slept myself. A standard schedule involved struggling to get him to sleep at night (it usually took over an hour) around 11 pm. I would then fall into bed exhausted, wake up 2-3 times for night feedings (he was breastfed), and then he would get up for the day around 8–the same time I did. He would take two naps of 30-45 minutes during the day as an infant, and later a single one hour nap. He gave up his nap when he was two. All the rest of the time, he would spend fussing, wanting to be held or entertained, or getting into stuff (depending on his age). Playpens or other types of confinement were abso-f-ing-lutely out of the question unless you like hours of screaming. And “toys”–what are toys when you can have MOM? I DID accomplish lots of work, however, when he was a baby and toddler. I even kind of miss it. One thing I would do is grab a paper notebook and push him in the stroller until he fell asleep. If I was lucky, he would fall asleep and I would grab a park bench and get some writing done. I also managed to get a bit of work done while entertaining him sometimes–and, yes, I did let him watch TV or play on the computer sometimes. Sometimes we’d get to the park and he wouldn’t sleep, so I would scribble while he ate sand or whatnot.

    I find in many ways life with a big kid is more complicated. For example, I lost an entire day of productivity today, due to a weird, and totally unpredictable event at school. Unlike when he was a baby, I have a hard time getting anything done when he’s in the house. If he’s not pestering me because he’s bored or “snuggling” with me while I’m trying to work, he’s wrecking my kitchen with some mad science experiment, or needing some problem solved. Additionally, facilitating his busy social life and all of his hobbies and activiites is a part-time job in itself. When he was a baby, I never had other babies show up to play with my baby, and, say, trash the master bedroom while I’m downstairs oblivious, or dig a huge hole in the back yard or something. Oy!

  19. In terms of software for kids, at least 4+ year olds, is a goldmine. Tons of free flash games/movies.

    My son is six now, and it is certainly easier to work than when he was a toddler, now that he kind of understands “daddy’s working”, but still, while sometimes he’ll contentedly draw for hours with little parental interaction, other times he’ll treat you to an never-ending monologue. Which mode he’s in is impossible to control.

  20. Sweet post.

    Our boys are 6 and 4, and Daddy’s getting worse and worse about saying “You two go in the back yard and play in the mud pit or something.”

    When they were smaller, some daycare was the answer. We, um, might even have hired an illegal but totally hot Brazilian nanny for the second guy when he was still an infant. Gotta work!

  21. Looks like the two of you got to bond fantastically well really early on.

    I envy you, and I don’t even have a kid. Your experience just seems so special.

  22. Sure, discipline is definitely key and so is enough sleep. However, my two boys were demons from hell. They didn’t sleep. They liked to tip over the playpen and pop the gates from the doors by running at them full tilt. One broke his crib. The other one hung out windows (yeah, I know, how the hell did he figure out how to get the screen out?) And they liked to scream incessantly for hours and hours. I gave up writing for ten years. Now that they’re older, I have realized that (unlike my friends who had darling babies and toddlers and now have evil teens) my children are angelic teenagers. I delight in their misery and laugh at them, which makes me happy after all those years of “advice” on how to calm my kids down. And I’m finally writing again. But it still takes discipline and timing and good scheduling. Reading your post and the other comments, I’m convinced that children and their behavior is completely random and you have no choice but to roll with it, doing the best you can.

  23. mythago @26

    Thus the mantra “Calm mother, calm baby” in our house. It didn’t work on the baby, but it helped me. Mine were busy little buggers, but we hired babysitters for a few hours a week, and that gave me time to work. Foolishly, I believed people when they told me I would have time more to write when the spawn went off all day to be er, educated. Yes, they do go to school, but their lives have become exponentially more complicated, and therefor so has mine. Writing time diminishes exponentially in relation to school field trips and someone is always having a field trip.

  24. You know — I appreciate the ideas behind the post and wish I’d been reading them concurrent to when you were working them. (My oldest is about a year older than Athena).
    But the post still made my day, with the photos. I believe both my girls wore Power Puff “Nikes”. (My oldest decided to invent her own language when she was about 3. The second goes with the flow. Their brother thinks he owns the word, and the girls encourage him.)

  25. Don’t make me come over there, Edelman. I’ve got a full-time job and I watch the boy at night while his mom works.

    John, thanks for the advice.

  26. What you fail to mention, John, is that you not only have to have an even tempered kid who takes regular naps and can play by themselves, you also have to have a spouse/other who helps in the house by occasionally washing bottles, doing dishes, cleaning up, etc, instead of being as high maintenance as your kid.

    During naps, I wash bottles, the previous night’s dishes, clean up the wife’s messes from the previous day, eat lunch, sometimes (if I have time) take a shower, and try to get the house back in order for Round Two, the afternoon play time. By the time I get to sit and write, the little girl is normally waking up. Sometimes she only naps for 45 min or an hour, and I have to do all that stuff when the wife gets home, as well as cook dinner. I know I took on these jobs when I became a stay-at-home dad, but being taken advantage of was not part of the arrangement.

  27. Athena makes my cute-squee go into overdrive. I’m glad she’s okay with your posting them, John.

    @Jess; Full Metal Ox has shown me pics of your current workus interruptus. He too elicits the squee, but I shall refrain, only adding that I hope John’s advice will help.

  28. cathshaffer @21 — My son (now 15 months) is like yours was. Not only did he spend his first six months or so demanding to be held (to this day, the playpen is only used when there is a desperate need for confinement), but he started walking just before 9 months and has been pushing the boundaries ever since. There is no working, no writing, no anything while he is awake, and he does not like to sleep (his naps are random, and if he goes to sleep at a regular bedtime, he wakes up and wants to be played with in the middle of the night).

    My daughter was more like Athena — willing to play near me in playpen or bouncy seat, took regular naps, and so on. It got tough when she gave her naps up (18 months), but she went to bed at a regular time, so I was still able to work around her schedule.

    My solution in both cases is that when deadlines loom, you’ll find me in one of the nearby coffee shops. (Yes, I know, I read the book.) I watch the kids during the day and do whatever work I can, then after dinner, my husband takes over and I take off.

  29. This question is applicable to the last six-seven years of my life. My youngest son (of three) is now two and I am still writing. Woo! I haven’t been as productive of late, but I have managed to pound out a novel (editing now) by getting up early at about 5 am every day, writing until 8 or 8:30 and then heading off to work…it has worked out so far!

  30. I think writing with children is terrible. They wiggle too much for good penmanship, and dunking them in the inkwell is just cruel.

  31. #34 Yeah we parents of “one of those” babies recognize each other. It’s like a secret club. My son is now nearly ten, and he’s a wonderful kid. I have almost no discipline issues with him. He is extremely bright and talented and a perpetual delight to me. (Said with no irony whatsoever.) Although it’s not the case that there is a baby karma, and people with easy babies are punished later, I have noticed that “those babies” usually turn into exceptional children and that the early fussiness and neediness does NOT become disobedience or foul temper later. And at the same time that many of their peers are going through unpleasant stages (Christine #35, I do laugh a little, as well, because I’m still pissed off at all the people who blamed me for having a fussy baby.) The reverse is not true, of course. Easy babies can also become exceptional children, as we’ve seen with Miss Scalzi. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my little genius is pouting because he wants to use my laptop.

  32. David–sure. Ice cream, like coffee and Red Bull, is essential to getting through this. And if your children are like mine, they will like slapping your expanding belly, which is a plus.

    Deborah Brown–thanks! Henry is adorable, yessiree.

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