The challenges of raising kids and a career under one roof are impossible to enumerate. So it's a good thing so many parents are experts at finding rhythms and routines that work best for everyone in the family. The questions that are good for the kids are good for the mama (and papa), too: What would simplify your morning routine? When do you feel most productive? What shortcuts would help you set aside more time to write?
The answers to these questions are a start, but—as you well know—family life can be a tad unpredictable, and those "routines" can fly out the window before the ink dries on your well-meaning to-do list. So I've put together some concrete ideas for plucking spare moments to write between child duties/activities. Morning, noon or night, the time is there—you just have to know where to look.
For starters, break your weekly tasks down in advance, based on what you think you can accomplish in the amount of time your kids will be occupied. (Sunday night is a good time to do this.) For example: A beginning writer might plan to write one article per week during the times her kids watch "Sesame Street." As the week unfolds, keep in mind the following breakdown of potential writing moments.
MORNINGS: RISE AND WRITE
GET UP EARLIER: I know, I know—this has never been a very popular suggestion. But it doesn't have to be painful. Perhaps you and your spouse could trade off night and morning duties, so you can get to bed earlier on some nights. In other words, your spouse oversees the bedtime routine, and you oversee the morning routine—after you get in an hour of early-morning writing.
SKIP THE BUSY WORK: If morning is your most mentally productive time of day, don't waste your energy on things that could just as easily be done later: folding laundry, talking on the phone, making grocery lists.
PRE-PREP MEALS: Prepare lunches, set the table for breakfast, set up the coffee machine and put out the nonperishable foods the night before. Making this a habit will better prepare you to meet your day while giving you precious extra time during the hectic morning hours.
TAILOR TO FIT: Create morning routines to suit each family member's personality so they'll be self-directed and leave you to your writing. For example, your 6-year-old may love to pick out her clothes the night before and lay them out for the next day, but your teenager may view this as a major violation of his rights. No need to micromanage; just help each child find a system that works. The operative word here is "works."
TURN ON THE TV: Of course, moderation is the key, but you can use television, VCRs and DVDs as part of a regular routine to carve out writing time. Remind everyone involved that watching television is a special treat. Let the kids know you'll be working while they watch but that you're available if they really, really need you. Explain that you expect them to behave and give them a preview of what's coming next. For example: After "Arthur," we'll take a walk to the park (or have a play date, or color, etc.).
MULTITASK: Don't forget morning activities that give you a little time here and there. Can you get a few notes written in the waiting room at a doctor's appointment or during children's classes or activities? Some groups require your participation, but others, especially after toddler age, don't. (In fact, your kids may prefer if you let them do their thing.) I recently roughed out several pages while my daughter was in a morning dance class, and those pages came faster and more easily than anything I wrote in my office that day.
AFTERNOONS: EVERYBODY RECHARGE
LET 'EM EAT SLOWLY: At lunchtime, toddlers can be notoriously slow. If you're blessed with a pokey or picky one, make use of the time you spend sitting at the kitchen table. Keep a notepad handy and pull it out after you serve lunch for brainstorming ideas while the kids eat.
GET A HEAD START: If you have kids of various ages at home, lunchtime probably isn't going to yield any literary breakthroughs. If you spend your time wisely at lunch, however, you can earn time before or after dinner when back-up (your spouse or older children) arrives. So go ahead and set the table for dinner after lunch, get the recipes and ingredients out for dinner and, if possible, get a jump-start on preparation while everyone's still finishing their lunches.
DECLARE QUIET TIME: If you're a really lucky writer mama, your child's naps afford you valuable extra work time. But even if you don't have a napper, you can declare an hour or so of quiet time in the afternoon. During quiet time, all children must go to their rooms, play quietly and leave mommy alone (unless it's urgent, of course). Discourage interruptions that aren't absolutely necessary.
REST UP: Alternately, you can go ahead and take a nap yourself during quiet time so you'll have more energy to write in the evening. Just crash with your kids or find a resting spot within earshot of their stirring. You'll be more energized in the evenings even if you don't actually fall asleep.
EVENINGS: WRING OUT EVERY SECOND
HOMEWORK FOR EVERYONE: If you have older kids, they likely have homework. While they work, you can work. Or they may have practices, Girl Scouts or other activities that allow you some quiet time. And if you have very young children, chances are they go to bed fairly early, which can open up your evening hours.
STRETCH IT OUT: After dinner, you may want to just get to your desk and get straight to work—but a 15-minute power walk around the block, a quick dance or a big stretch will help you revitalize yourself so you can work more efficiently.
EASE IN: Once you sit down, set a timer for 20 minutes and do something easy or fun right off the bat. Type up a funny anecdote from your day. Or rough out an inspirational article. Go in a direction that feels easiest for you or that you associate with warming up. Then, when the timer rings, you'll be ready to ring out some nitty-gritty research for an article or edit the draft of your personal essay for the zillionth time.
STAY IN THE ZONE: When the sitcom laughter from another room starts to lure you away from work, grab your timer again, but this time for the tough stuff. Here's how it works: Respond to e-mails—20 minutes—go! Draft article—20 minutes—go! Proofread yesterday's draft, plan for next week—you can get a lot done in short bursts if you practice working that way.
LATE NIGHT: LAST REFUGE FOR THE DESPERATE
Writer Heather Sharfeddin awoke in the middle of the night with the idea for her first published novel, Blackbelly. Fortunately, she'd been dealing with insomnia long enough to already be in the habit of shuffling to her computer, where she'd write until sleep beckoned her back to bed. For some mamas, late-night hours are the best you can get. But hey, you can still make it work. Just be sure to get the rest you need to function the next morning.
CONTEST: ARE YOU A WRITER MAMA (OR PAPA)?
Writing's hard; parenting's harder. Only the strongest souls would consider doing them both at the same time, and we applaud that spirit.
Writer's Digest wants to hear from you on the topic of: "When Parenting and Writing Collide." Write your best original, unpublished parenting-and-writing story in a 500-word essay and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Writer Mama contest" in the subject line. Christina Katz, author of "Writer Mama," will select the top three entries. The first-place entry will be published in an upcoming issue of Writer's Digest magazine; second- and third-place entries will be posted on thewritermama.com. All winners will receive a signed copy of "Writer Mama." All entries must be e-mailed to email@example.com by March 31.
The entry must be written in the body of the e-mail; attachments will not be accepted or opened. Each entry should include your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address. Only the winning writers will be contacted, and entries will not be returned. "Writer's Digest" retains first-time rights to run the winning entries in the magazine and/or on our website or associated websites, after which all rights return to the author. The decisions of the editors are final.