On writing and publishing books when you have little kids
How do you do it? By accepting that it's time for you to stop asking other people how to do it. Now ignore what I just said and read this newsletter full of advice.
You’re not the only one questioning how to juggle a creative career and family.
When people find out that I have three kids under age 8, their response is never the question I’m hoping for. (That would be: “how can someone so young and toothsome POSSIBLY have a seven-year-old?! Why, the math just doesn’t add up!”)
Instead, what they usually ask is everyone’s favorite back catalogue staple: How Do You Do It? My work partner and I run an agency with more than 100 clients! My life partner and I have a large family! I also write this Substack! Hobbies! Meals! Deodorant! Words!
I would be lying if I said the question annoyed me. Please: it makes me feel smug AF. No one ever asks a man How Do You Do It, but in 2021, it is so profoundly flattering to hear anyone marvel at one’s facade of total life togetherness that I don’t even think men would mind.
There’s also this: most of the people who ask me how I do it aren’t trying to blow smoke up my ass. They genuinely want to know. Most are mothers—or thinking about becoming mothers—and they want a new case study to chew on.
I get this. Deeply. So deeply that I maybe keep a mental list of every other woman in publishing who has three kids. I watch on social media how THEY do it and remind myself that I’m not the only one trying.1
It’s never easy to mix career and kids, and it’s *very* not easy in book publishing. Whether we are writers, editors, publicists, or agents, all of us do work that combines deep, all-consuming, amorphous, creative thinking with time-sensitive admin every day. And all that is profoundly difficult to wind around the demands of family life, especially when one’s kids are under 5.
The equation of publishing + kids does not compute for everyone—and how it’s doable, if it’s doable, is different for us all.
Other parents’ case studies are comforting, sure, but as you’ll swiftly learn after becoming a working parent yourself, they’re not a blueprint.
Every single one of us parents who work in publishing has a different system for making our lives workable. Everyone. Because we live in America, baby! And there is no base model support available. So when/if you start life as a working parent, you’re going to need to make the whole-ass car from scratch.
The childcare system of every working parent in America is a Rube Goldberg machine made from whatever happens to be in their metaphorical garage. Money. Neurology. Your needs. Kids’ needs. Relatives. Hired help. Cost of living. Psychology. Company policy. Beliefs. Socialized expectations. We’re all just making things up based on whatever cobwebbed shit we found behind the garbage cans.
Computer programmers might call this a “kludge” solution. (Shout out to Darryl Campbell, the client who taught me this word.) Kludge is about as pretty and sculpt-able as it sounds. It does not reward foresight, ambition, or perfection. It does reward adaptable real-time thinking, but only sort of. Because you can’t think your way out of everything.
Kludge is about making do. Which makes it an act of self-abuse to blueprint your own kludge plan with the parts you’ve seen in someone else’s garage before you’ve surveyed your own. You just don’t know until you start what you’ll be working with emotionally, neurologically, financially, and socially when the time comes.
The good news is that you ALSO don’t know quite how much hidden potential you’ve been overlooking in what you do have. Mom friends are a great example of this: when I had kids, all kinds of randos came in from the wings of my life to say they also had had kids now and wanted to hang. Thither did the friendly acquaintance from my group of 2008-2009 drinking buddies reemerge as my emotional and practical mom-friend lifeline. (LOVE U, NICKY NEILY.)
With time and practice, working parents become better and better at spotting new opportunity and expansive possibility in their preexisting lives. But said time and practice can only start after one is actively parenting. And no one else can tell you in advance what you might find.
You might find nothing at all. Not only is there no “right” way to be a working parent, there is no way period for many, and that is awful. Please, please do not beat yourself up if your current pile of kludge simply can’t be assembled to support a writing or publishing career. Many—most?—caregivers with little kids simply do not have the time or money to do anything but survive. And this is not their fault.
Keep this in mind: Unless you are actively dying, you do not need to have a successful career in writing or publishing nownownow.
On the contrary: it’s better to wait and let your creative mind steep in boredom and insecurity than it is to kill yourself in order to produce something rushed and mediocre. Quality is EVERYTHING in this industry, and sometimes quality, like a seed, needs a fallow period to develop underground.
Here’s how I personally do it.
If you are anything like me, you are probably tapping your feet right now, like: yeah, yeah. Stop stalling and give me the Money Diaries dirt. HOW DO YOU DO IT?
OK, let’s go to awkward town, baby. I’m upper middle class. That’s how I do it. Open the hood of many creative-career moms’ childcare systems, and you’ll immediately spot socioeconomic privilege as the engine. It’s definitely mine. I work hard, I’m talented, and my boss, who is me, is very tolerant of my unpredictable schedule. But fundamentally, it’s because I can afford to hire help.
My husband and I employ a wonderful full-time nanny. We also get a lot of free help from my parents, who live 15 minutes away. My parents, who are in their late 60s and early 70s, have time and energy to spare (knock on wood) in large part due to genetic luck combined with a lifetime of class and race privilege and Boomer-era work benefits. Like me, they are also talented and worked really hard! But. Come on.
Thanks to my parents, I graduated from college without student debt. My husband went to public college and also has no student debt. I’m on his health insurance. This all obviously makes it much easier to pay for childcare.
On top of all this, my 25-year-old nephew, a trained teacher, recently moved to the area. We hired him to help our older son with remote schooling this year, and he has stuck around for additional childcare and company since. Right now, he’s helping our nanny by leading summer camp-like activities with all the older kids in our house, including her own 8-year-old son.
Oh, and: while it’s a sad reflection on Society and my own internalized sexism that I even feel the need to say this, my husband is a fully participant childcare partner and then some. He’s the parent who’s much, much better at the presence and the playing on the floor with the kids; I’m the one who’s running around checking off to-do lists. We are a team.
Together with school fees, our family childcare setup costs an absolutely gobsmacking amount of money. It’s more than our mortgage. It’s much more than private college cost when I was in it. I do not want to say the number out loud, but suffice to say it’s horrifying.
I am larded with privilege. Larded. And it’s still—still!—really, really hard for me.
You can decide if this makes me weak, but it’s the truth.
I never, ever feel “on top of it.” I struggle every day with the overwhelming conviction that by being so slow, I’m disappointing everyone in my life: clients, colleagues, friends, husband, kids. Someone is always demonstrably angry or at least frustrated with me. Three to five people at any given time are trying to get my attention. One or more of them is often quite small and quite loud.
I get dozens of text messages and hundreds of emails a day. If I don’t silence my devices, the pings and buzzes are continuous, continuously grabbing at my face just like my two-year-old, who is otherwise a lovable butterball, literally grabs at my face when he wants my attention.
On a given day, I can only whack about 80% of the moles in my existential whack-a-mole. The best I can do is just try to evenly distribute the long-term failure ratio among the individual moles.
I feel like I take forever to do anything, yet I’m somehow always frantically doing 3 things at once. The sheer fight-or-flight panic of this shreds my brain so hard that I have to declaw it with 200mg of Zoloft a day. I don’t make enough time or space for sleep, rigorous exercise, or nourishing meals; I weigh about 60 pounds more than I did before I had kids; I’m never not tired.
This all feels good to barf out. To be clear, I am not sharing all this in hopes of receiving pity, reassuring compliments, or advice. Rather, because I have it great, and I objectively do, I want to give you a look behind the scenes so that you understand that this, THIS, is what constitutes “great” in working parenthood.
I spend most of my time feeling like a two-leggéd, 2000-pound booger. I have no idea how working parents even cope without my level of privilege, and that is the overwhelming majority of people in America. Jesus H. Christo.
My life isn’t really something I want to “fix.”
Even with all the above, I’m proud of me. I love my work. I do well by my clients. My clients bring real and true and good things into the world, changing so many lives forever and for the better. All three of my kids are nommable and wondrous and funny and— “love” doesn’t even begin to describe.
It also helps to know that if I drop a ball at work, no one’s going to bleed to death. Book publishing is not an ICU, and I am not a trauma surgeon. (Bahahaha, can you even IMAGINE?)
I feel that we who work in this industry do not make adequate time to celebrate how hard it is for us to commit negligent homicide in the workplace.
In therapy, I’m doing the slow, hard work of easing up on myself emotionally. That’s all anyone really can do to improve their bumpy ride through the little-kid parenting years. (Well, that and I guess I could ease up on the simple carbohydrates.) These years are just plain hard for everyone.
Most of the “fixes” circulating in advice books are comically wrong for me, anyway.
Said wrong-for-me advice includes but is not limited to:
Getting up at 4 or 5 am to have more Me Time. I was born with a brain that will—no joke—wail in confusion and despair all day if I disturb it before 7:30a.m., no matter how many hours of sleep preceded said disturbance. If I ever tried to get up early in order to write, I think I’d just write “kill me” over and over.
Trying to manage my day with apps. The minute my eyeballs lock onto a screen, they’re off to destinations far, far away from my executive function. Planning needs to happen on paper or a whiteboard for me.
Instagrammable home organization. If I can’t see something, I forget it exists. Which means that sure, I can build organizational systems for myself, but they need to be ugly: giant scribble-filled whiteboards, random stacks, surface piles, overstuffed displays. Nothing opaque. Nothing with a lid.
I’ve learned all this from trial and error. And I’m not sharing it with you as advice, per se—more as the buildup to my real advice, which is that there’s no “right” way to handle one’s shit as a working parent. You should feel fully empowered to do WHATEVER YOU CAN COME UP WITH to kludge together some semblance of tolerability for yourself. ONLY YOU can and should set your own priorities.
You don’t have to be an on the ball room parent at school or even a consistently hygienic person at home, provided you’re not going out in public or giving your children gum disease.
Just make sure you and your kids are vaccinated and make eye contact and laugh together at least once a day.
How other women in book publishing do it
One writer I know wasn’t really able to hit the ground running with her career or life until she divorced her husband. Court-ordered 50/50 custody was how she finally got her children’s dad to carry his half of the workload.
Another recently hit pause on writing books. She’s got a day job and a little kid, and this year has murdered her ability to multitask. Whereas I have decided that routinely disappointing people and taking forever on editorial work is an OK price to pay in order to continue doing the work I want to do, this was too expensive for my friend. She values timely execution and keeping her word on follow-through timing very, very highly, and I admire that.
To save her sanity, this friend undertook a calm, searching audit of her current workload and biophysical limits. From there, she set priorities, made realistic choices, and spoke hard truths. One of those involved whispering “not now; I’ll be back” to her idea for book #2, which would have turned rancid in the bottle if she opened it right then.
If you have never done a self-audit like this and/or just don’t know how, I encourage you to learn how and practice. All you really have to do is set aside a full day or two (A FULL DAY OR TWO), think about everything you theoretically have to do or have going on, and write it all down.
It’s such a relief to surface these considerations in your conscious mind and then make choices about them. Most book ideas are shelf stable. It’s okay to keep them in the pantry for a long time.
Another woman I know had her career harpooned many years ago by a jealous, abusive husband. Now a single mom, she writes about how she’s still struggling from the long-term career damage. She feels so much anger and grief. No neat conclusion there.
School is the answer for lots of women. They let up on the career gas pedal until their kids are in school, and then they floor it. Money is the answer for others. Or family. Or lottery-level-luck admission to a low-cost, high-quality day care.
I could go on. But none of this is really important for you. What’s important is that you understand this:
Just be a working parent first. Figure out how to be a working parent as you go.
Working parenthood is improv. Ditto any creative work you throw in the mix. Stop trying to script things, and stop feeling bad when you don’t remember “your lines.” Because they do not exist! Any lines you’re vaguely remembering are from a completely different play, some other show you were in years ago. They are not and never were what you needed to for your role in this IMPROV SHOW, Celeste.
Let all your new experiences and doubt and painful feelings be. Let them churn around in your days like grit in a rock tumbler. Do not try to bag yourself up with denial so the painful grit doesn’t touch you as you churn around, slowly asphyxiating because you’re in a bag.
In time, see what these feelings do to your sharp edges and mud-caked cynicism. At a ludicrously slow, demoralizing pace, these edges will erode. In their place, new and beautiful things, things you might never have realized were inside you, will emerge. In yet more time—provided you are patient—they will start to make you shine.
Lauren Wein, Sarah Burnes, Serena Jones, Georgia Bodnar, Jordan Pavlin, Katie Adams in like a mont—what no YOU’RE a stalker. ::mouthbreathes::