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The Parenting Break: Finding Your Way Back to Literary Citizenship

If you’re a parent (or a caretaker to parents or other loved ones), chances are you occasionally fail to fulfill your duties as an exemplary literary citizen. Here are some strategies for banishing the shame, finding your way back, and reengaging in meaningful ways.

In 2015, just a year after my second novel, The Art of Floating, was published, I turned in my good literary citizen card and, for the most part, dropped out of sight. I didn’t plan this sabbatical. I loved teaching, blogging, speaking at literary conferences, hosting reading series, engaging in bookish conversations, mentoring emerging writers, and bellowing from the social media mountaintops about beloved books and authors. But with a seven-year-old and a newly adopted two-year-old, I found myself unable to connect beyond that all-consuming triad. Every ounce of energy was funneled into parenting.

For the next few years, I limited myself to two things: parenting and writing. As the years ticked by, my kids grew, my new novel Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything sold to Alcove Press, a bit of space opened in my life and mind, and I, once again, began to long for that deep connection with the literary community. I needed to reconnect with writers and readers around the world, to teach and share and uplift, and to be an integral part of this very special something. But how?

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Redefine “Good Literary Citizen”

First, I revamped my definition of what it means to be a good literary citizen. Prior to my “deep parenting years,” I clung tightly to a do-or-die attitude. Give back to writers no matter what. Today, I abide by the in-flight Oxygen Mask Rule: “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” In other words, take care of your own writerly self, then help those around you. You’ll all fare better in the end.

Accept Your Limitations

In the years leading up to our second kiddo, I’d convinced myself I’d be able to continue doing it all once we brought our son home: write, read, connect, teach, uplift, share. I’d read articles about that one wildly successful author mom who wrote her novels at the kitchen table with five kids climbing on her head and a pot of homemade chicken soup bubbling on the stove. (Note: Don’t read these articles.) If she’d been able to hold onto her good literary citizen card while writing and parenting, dammit, I could, too. But within months of bringing our son home, the truth knocked me silly. I was not that mom. I was not that author. I could not do it all. Chances are, you can’t either. And guess what? It’s ok.

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Banish the Guilt and Shame

The further I drifted from the writing world in those deep parenting years, the more I was consumed by guilt and shame. How could I turn my back when so many writers had supported me on my journey? “I’m a wretch,” I’d moan to my husband from a worn spot on the couch after my two darling hellions finally went to bed. I’d peek into writerly conversations on Twitter and wince (then start snoring.)

Somewhere in the middle of this, I realized that the writing world wasn’t going anywhere, that it would be there when I was ready to return, and that there were plenty of other writers shouldering the load. I let go of the negative feelings. You can, too.

Give in Ways That Work for You

As I slowly reintroduced myself to the writing community, I decided to stick with what felt good. I love Twitter, so I tweet. I love Instagram, so I share images. Someday I’ll teach again, and, when I do, I’ll reserve a couple of pro bono spots for writers who wouldn’t be able to afford the class otherwise. I don’t blog and likely never will again. I don’t do TikTok (yet).

Take Advantage of the New Normal

In an unexpected plot twist, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped me to re-engage. With so many literary events offered virtually, I now attend three or four every week. With one ear tuned to Zoom and the other to my tween describing a new island in Roblox, I’ve gotten to know work by authors I’d never even heard of before. Social media gives me the opportunity to share their work with an even broader audience. I encourage you to do the same. There’s nothing like tuning in from your bathtub, backyard, or treehouse.

In the end, parenting defies logic. Sometimes it is easily paired with literary citizenship; sometimes it’s not. During those “not” months or years, go easy on yourself. Do what you need to do. And when you return, give what you can. That’s really what it’s all about.

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