A whole new world

Last month I wrote about being in limbo in more than one sense. I was in the 9th month of pregnancy, waiting for my first baby to arrive; I’d sold my first trilogy but not yet published the first book. Well, the first waiting game ended the night after I wrote that entry, when my son (whom we’re calling “Mr Darcy” as his nom de net) arrived in a night of emergency surgery and high drama. Now I’m in an all-new world: I’m still a writer, but I’m a mom, too. And the rules are suddenly completely different.

In the first couple of weeks after our baby was born, I did no writing at all. In fact, for the first time in approximately 27 years, in the first few days after his birth, I didn’t even read. My husband brought books to the hospital where I was staying, but I ignored them, too caught up in the haze of devotion and awe that comes with a new baby, especially one born in dangerous circumstances. All I did was gaze at our baby, too fascinated and amazed to need any other entertainment. Even when I started reading again (as a way of staying awake during late-night feeding sessions), I still couldn’t imagine writing. Writing had been my top priority for over 20 years, but suddenly it had been replaced. I was so wrapped up in the moment, so exhausted and purely drained from the combination of surgery and sleep deprivation, that the well hadn’t just run dry – it didn’t even seem to exist any more.

And there’s the funny thing about writing as a career. With every 9-to-5 profession, there’s a built-in time-out for that crazy, hormonal, miraculous, terrifying time after birth. In England, where I live, women get paid maternity leave for 6 months, and can take a further 6 months off afterwards without pay. Even my friends in America with the worst maternity leave still get 3 months off. But writing – or any other freelance career – doesn’t have those built-in time-outs. Luckily, my editor is fantastic, and she’s been very understanding. We agreed that I would take a maternity leave of about 2 months before getting started on revisions to my novel. I was hugely relieved, for about 2 days. And then…

…slightly freaked out. Not writing? For real???? Of course, I have no time to write (at least not 2-handed) right now, with a tiny baby who feeds constantly. More than that, I’m so tired that the ideas are only slowly beginning to bubble back up into my brain again, and only in the vaguest forms. And yet…

And yet, I’ve been an obsessive writer for decades. I don’t remember the last time I took off more than a week from fiction writing. And as much as it makes sense right now…well, I’m realizing that writing isn’t just a pastime or even just a career: it’s an addiction, and I’m not good at setting it aside. So, in the past 2 weeks, since officially starting my maternity leave, I haven’t worked on any novels, but I have:

  • Started a new short story
  • Written blog entries of my own (which have frequently been godsends, when my cries for parenting help have gotten wonderful, smart responses from longtime parents)
  • And, perhaps craziest of all, started a new blog co-written with my husband, mixing my favorite kind of fiction with our son’s experiences: Mr Darcy’s Blog: A Surprised View of the World.

Yeah. So, I’m not writing…novels, that is. But I clearly can’t shake the drug from my system completely. And more and more, as time goes on, I’m itching to dive back into the world of my novels – even if I have to do it typing at turtle-speed, one-handed, while I hold my baby.

What about you parents out there? How do you mix those two big loves, writing and children? I’m flailing about in this new world, and any advice would be very much appreciated.

In the meantime, though, Mr Darcy is awake and waiting for his feed…and maybe while he’s eating I’ll be able to think of some new story ideas. Or maybe I’ll just fantasize about sleep…

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    So in 20-some years, some lucky young woman who is holding out for Mr. Darcy is going to actually meet him? -)

    “Even my friends in America with the worst maternity leave still get 3 months off.”

    Not true for everyone! Some employers are a good deal less generous.

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    My wife and I foster four children (so far) and have a toddler of our own. The only way we can handle that and do the things we want to do is to share the burden. I write in stolen moments – when my wife is taking care of the children (or best yet, the children are taking care of themselves!) – or I write in the moments my wife gives me as a gift.

    It requires supreme self-discipline, which I suck at, and it’s a terrible balancing act to determine what to do with the stolen moments when I have them (do I write? do I blog? do I fix something in the house?).

    I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I cannot be a full-time writer for a while. So consider yourself blessed for the time you do have. And while you’re at it, consider the time you have with your son a blessing as well, because every season is temporary.

  3. 3. Tricia Sullivan

    Steph, it’s so generous of you to share these deeply personal moments and thoughts with all of us.

    The writing/motherhood carnival is something I could write tomes about IF ONLY I HAD TIME haha–I am reading your entry at 4 am because my youngest, still breastfeeding, woke me up at 1:30, my middle one, with a stuffy nose, woke me up at 2, and then the youngest woke up again and started playing with a wind-up Thomas the Tank Engine by driving it over my hair. I am now AWAKE and they are asleep. I keep a little, silent notebook by the bed and I jotted down some ideas that won’t make any sense in the morning. And made to-do lists.

    You have been through the toughest part already. Now, I’d say, the things that will probably rule your life are the principle of two steps forward, one step back, and the concept of compromise. You can do most of the things you want and need to do, but everything will be tempered by these two things.

    I found it very hard in the early years not to be able to go full throttle. I was always a deadline writer, motivated by adrenalin. It took me a long time to accept that when you only have one hour a day, you only have one hour a day. I thought the writing I did in that hour would be terrible. It wasn’t. It just took A LOT longer to cover the ground I was used to covering in a shorter time.

    I think you already know about this in a health sense. The writing side is more of the same, I’m afraid!

    And, frankly, there is a lot of meta. I’ve spent SO MUCH TIME working out strategies to get the writing in, puzzling and pondering how to get more time, do more in the time I have, etc., and half the time it doesn’t even work because something goes wrong and spoils the plan!

    I think the fact that you are addicted to writing will be a great asset to you. The key is, don’t punish yourself for the fact that you drop a ball or two in the juggling act. It is inevitable. And, the baby days don’t last long. Right now, every day is an adventure. When you look back, you’ll think, ‘where did it go?’ because that tiny baby will be an articulate bundle of energy and questions and action.

  4. 4. Stephanie Burgis

    Karen – aack, I was horrified enough by the 3-month maternity plans – the idea of employers being allowed to offer even less is…well, “less generous” is definitely the kind way to phrase it!

    But yes, absolutely to your other point! Of course, every mom thinks their own child is the best potential “catch” in the dating world, don’t they? ;)

    Adam, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I am so impressed at your productivity in those circumstances. The idea of giving time as a gift is one that sounds really powerful – my husband and I will definitely be doing that for each other, as we’re both writers looking for that time to create. And I really like the idea of thinking of this as a season in life – it’s good to be reminded that it’s ephemeral, both to get through the hard times and to value the good ones even more!

    Tricia, thank you so much for your comment! And I can’t believe you were so articulate and smart with so little sleep. I hadn’t thought of this in parallel to the health situation, but you’re so right – some of those coping skills will definitely transfer, and it really helps if I think of it that way. And oh, it is hard to believe that this tiny little 1-month-old baby is ever going to be running around talking and playing and doing his own thing and not needing to just cuddle in my arms all the time…wow. It feels bittersweet even to type those words!

    Time to nuzzle his soft little baby hair again…

  5. 5. cindy

    congratulations on your new bundle of joy!
    i hope you work out a nice routine between
    you–it’s a huge learning curve with your first.

    i’ve always wanted to visit yorkshire,
    but have never been that far north…

  6. 6. Stephanie Burgis

    Thank you! And you’re so right about that learning curve. Every time I start to feel (over-)confident, suddenly POP! here comes something new…

    Yorkshire is really beautiful – especially out in the Dales, which are just magnificent. And if you go out to one of the big old abbeys in the Dales – my favorite is Bolton Abbey – the combination of history & incredible scenery is just jaw-dropping. You should definitely visit! :)

  7. 7. Owldaughter

    My son was born at 31 weeks, thanks to premature labour. I had just begun correcting the galleys of my second book, and the deadline for the third book was three weeks away.

    He was kept in the neonatal ICU on oxygen and whatever protein/antibiotic cocktail was in the IV drip, so I was going mildly crazy in my own room. I made my husband bring me the galleys, I finished them in the hospital, and got them back to my editor on time, to her astonishment. I needed a four-week extension on the third book’s deadline, but she readily gave it to me, commending my above-and-beyond. I don’t think I could ever make her understand that it’s part of what kept me sane, because I was sent home but my son was kept in hospital for four weeks until he hit a certain weight and could do certain things.

    For the final three weeks I wrote while he lay in a Moses basket by the side of my desk. :)

    After that, though, I pretty much lost the ability to focus on the bigger picture when it came to writing. I could write brief snippets of dialogue between unknown characters, or a few words about a ‘what-if?’. I did a lot of reading while nursing, and I wrote blog posts when I could. I made a lot of notes in my writing notebook about ideas and such, which I eventually turned to when I started writing book-type stuff again when he was approximately fifteen months old. (Hmm — coincidentally, that’s not long after he stopped nursing entirely. I wonder if they’re related.) Around that time i started leaving him with a caregiver for one or two days a week, and I gave myself writing goals for my “work” days. And not long after that I proposed and sold another book, so everything settled into a new routine” two days a week I’d drop him off then come home and write for fiveish hours, then return to pick him up. And I’d write during his naps, too. But I found that it took me a while to ramp up to fully immersing myself in what I was working on and get it flowing.

    The dynamic shifts; you find a new rhythm. Now he’s in preschool and I find that I can’t return to my old pre-baby rhythm; I’m having to find yet another new rhythm.

    All the best to you, your husband, and little Mr. Darcy!

  8. 8. Stephanie Burgis

    Mr Darcy was only in NICU for about 11 hours after he was born, and even that drove me completely crazy with worry – you have all my empathy and admiration for getting through all those weeks of waiting, and finding such a positive way to channel your energy! I totally understand why you needed that distraction to stay sane.

    It really helps to read about other people’s experiences. Thank you! And good luck with finding a new rhythm for these new preschool days. :)

  9. 9. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’d like to say it will all get more predictable, anyhow, but I don’t think it does. I sold the Path books right when I had my son and then I had a daughter. I still work full time and I’m still juggling madly. And even though as they get older they can do this and that without me, freeing up time, they can’t do that or the other without me, so bye bye time. All the same, ain’t it wonderful? The writing doesn’t leave, but you evolve to handle everything differently. I did the same though. Didn’t do any writing at all for the first few weeks. Same sort of problem–total infant love. Oh, yeah, and some exhaustion and do they ittie-bitties ever not eat? When is this sleep thing that people say they do?

    But then things stabilize. For awhile. Then it all changes. And then stabilizes and then . . . .

  10. 10. patty

    i have a seven month old son–my first. getting back some writing time was hard, until i figured out the trick. (at least with an infant…) i write when he sleeps, either one handed, which you have discovered, and i’m doing right now, btw:), or when he is in bed. knowing that i’ll get that time lets me focus on my munchkin when he is awake and not feel “lazy” for not getting my writing done.

  11. 11. Stephanie Burgis

    Hi Diana and Patty! Sorry I took such a long time to reply – back to the unpredictability of parenting…this past week we had a big health scare w/Mr Darcy (luckily all taken care of now), and until he started visibly doing better yesterday, I was just too fuddled & stressed to write much of anything, even journal comments. :(

    Thank you both so much for sharing your experiences & advice. Patty, that makes so much sense – feeling that there’s a real balance must make it much easier just to focus on each job at a time. And Diana, you’re so right – difficult times sleepless nights & all, it really is so wonderful. :)

Author Information

Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer who lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, their son "Mr Darcy", and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya. Her Regency fantasy trilogy for kids, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, will be published by Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, beginning with Book One: A Most Improper Magick. She has also published short stories in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. You can find out more, or read/listen to her published stories online, at her website. Visit site.



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