How to Balance Your Writing Career and Family

Author: Gary McDowell

When you first got into writing, did you imagine or expect to be both a parent and a writer?

Until moments before my wife and I, just two years after getting married, decided to give procreation a whirl, I never once wanted to be a father.  Growing up I was surrounded by kids.  Good kids, lovely kids, amazing kids.  My mom ran a daycare out of our suburban Chicago home, and I saw kids come and go, year after year, most of them vital and integral parts of my own maturation, but I never wanted to have kids of my own.  All through college and early adulthood, nothing changed that opinion.  The girl I dated—and to whom I was engaged—throughout college shared the ‘no-kid’ dream, and that worked for me.  When that relationship ended, bitterly and explosively, it just reinforced my immature attitude of who could even think of bringing kids into this ugly world?  Of course, I was stupid.  Young and stupid.  But it was essential that I felt that way at that time.

I had started writing seriously toward the end of that college romance, had begun entertaining the idea of an MFA and teaching and writing and tenure and publishing.  Then, as my writing progressed and I started to apply for grad school, I met my wife through a mutual friend.  Our relationship was fast.  But we agreed, no kids.  Ever.  We dated for almost two years before we tied the knot in 2005 and at no point in our courting did we argue about having or not having kids; we shared the view that we just weren’t meant to be parents.  There was, as they say, a ‘mutual understanding.’  

During the last year of my MFA (this would have been the spring of 2007), my wife came to me and said words I thought I’d never hear: I think I need to be a mom.  At first I fought her.  No.  Nope.  No way.  I’d invested myself in my writing and my potential career, and I wasn’t going to give hours of every day and years of my life to raising a child.  I knew, from having watched my mom as a kid, how damn near impossible it was to do it right.  In short, I was incredibly short-sighted and moronically selfish.  Eventually, to make a long story short, we talked about it more.  I heard, finally, more than a year later, what she was saying: her instincts, her body, her brain were telling her something.  It wasn’t, after much talking and thinking, that I didn’t like kids.  I loved kids.  I just didn’t want to give up my time to something else, someone else.  It was, like I said, selfish.  When those feelings of selfishness started to subside, I burrowed down to the real emotions, the real reasons I didn’t want to have kids: I was afraid I’d make mistakes, not be up to the task, make a mess of something so potentially beautiful.  Now, years later, I know that these fears are entirely natural and shared by men the world over, but at the time I took them to mean that I shouldn’t have kids.  In reality, those feelings meant that I was ready to be a father, that I was supplied, finally, with enough fear and uncertainty to make a good father.

What are some boundaries you’ve had to set to maintain yourself as a writer? To maintain your role as a father and spouse? 

In all honesty, I’m still setting those boundaries, still testing new ones and jettisoning old ones.  Sometimes it’s extremely hard to make time to write when family and work are both in full bloom, but I’ve resigned myself rather easily to the fact that being a father and a husband are more important than writing.  That doesn’t mean that writing isn’t damn important to me, because it is; it also doesn’t mean that on some days I’d much rather write or read or do just about anything else than give two screaming, twisting, messy children a bubble bath.  I’ve just had to readjust my priorities.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be overall, but there are days when I curse myself, ask why I’ve chosen the path I have.  I suppose most folks think like this sometimes though.  One reason of many that I love Rachel Zucker’s work is that she has the courage to say, in not so few words, I don’t like my children sometimes and My husband is a dumb-ass.  Yes!  I feel that way, too!  My kids are obnoxious and loud and time-consuming and frustrating.  And I’m an asshole sometimes…a lot of times.  And my wife, well, she’s my wife, God bless her, and it’s a damn hard job to be my wife.  But then Auden, my 4-year old boy, will say something hilarious and poetic (I’m the King of circles; welcome to my square castle!) or Jorie, my 2-year old girl, will ask for a hug and a smooch and everything’s better again. Everything’s always better again.

Talk a little bit about your experience having a family in graduate school. What sacrifices did you have to make?

We made a lot of sacrifices, but we also gained a lot.  We, as you might expect, weren’t rolling in money, so that was often difficult.  Grad students don’t make much, but we managed.  We sacrificed vacations and new clothes and new cars and expensive foods and a lot of other things, material and not.  In retrospect, we probably could have done an even better job of sacrificing than we did.  I, for one, could have been much more humble.

The biggest sacrifice I made personally, though, was time.  Mandy, my wife, was terribly ill during both her pregnancies, so I was on constant call.  At the time I didn’t have to be on campus much (I was usually taking two classes and teaching one while working on my Ph.D. at Western Michigan University), maybe two or three days a week, and so I worked from home a lot, and with the distractions there (Mandy, TV, Wii, the dogs, etc) and my horrible will-power I didn’t write as much as I would have liked, but I was able, thankfully, to be there for Mandy and her many trips to the doctor.  When she was on bed-rest the last few weeks of each pregnancy, being home a lot was a huge blessing (she had several scares, and the stress was intense), but those weeks and the weeks and months after each birth were vacuous of poetry; once the kids were born time to work on poetry dwindled even more, but what I learned, what I experienced during those early months was far more beneficial and loving and heartwarming than any poem I may have written.  Plus all those hours with the babies, which I definitely don’t see as sacrifices but rather as blessings, led to many poems later on when time allowed pen to touch paper.

Even here I feel incredibly selfish detailing my sacrifices during Mandy’s pregnancies and the subsequent births of our babes.  She’s the one who sacrificed, both her body and her time, not to mention her emotions.  So what if I didn’t write as many poems as I should have or didn’t go on vacations or buy new clothes?  We have two healthy, beautiful kids, and the sacrifices were infinitesimally small compared to the joys.

[Wow, so I just reread what I wrote there, and I wanted, at first, to edit it, to make it sound much less sentimental, but then I stopped myself and realized that this is maybe one of the sacrifices I’ve made: things and experiences matter differently now.

Also, I’ve written about this before.  Check it out: http://pebblelakereview.com/archive/2011_v7_1_spr_sum/nonfiction_BeforeDaddyWalks.html]

How has your wife’s interaction with your work changed over time?

I love this question for two reasons.  One, it supposes that my wife has some kind of interaction with my work, and two, it allows me to talk about something I think a lot of other poets married to non-poets are embarrassed by. 

My wife has read only a handful of my poems.  Ever.  And only then because I more or less begged her to.  She’s not a poet.  She’s not a poetry reader.  She is, however, a voracious and wildly opportunistic reader of most every other genre.  This year alone she’s read over 50 books on Tudor England and the life of Henry VIII and his court.  Last year she read whatever the weekly free book was on her Kindle: history, politics, chick-lit, etc.  Previously she’s read all the YA series: Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, The Sookie Stackhouse novels, and so forth.  But poetry doesn’t interest her.  She comes to a lot of my readings and so has heard the poems, but she doesn’t read them.  Honestly, I’m fine with it.  At first I was a little perturbed, but I realize now it’s just not her cup of tea.  We have so many other shared interests and responsibilities that her not reading my poems seems trite and meaningless. 

When we met I worked at a pharmaceutical company as a tech writer and had some vague ideas about grad school, but I wasn’t identifying myself as a poet, and so our relationship matured before I started to think of myself as poet and professor.  In that regard, I suppose my writing poems and teaching poems and dreaming poems are outside her and our shared world.

All of that said, she is, and she knows it, often the trigger for many poems.  She’s my fuel, my muse, and, sometimes, my exhaust.  I love her.

What tips do you have for someone graduating from an MFA and who wants to start a family?

One thing you quickly realize when you’re about to become a parent for the first time is the vast array of unwanted advice you begin receiving from parents (and, surprisingly, frustratingly, non-parents alike).  Whatever you do, only use cloth diapers.  Breastfeeding is the only way to go.  No TV until they’re 4 years old.  Don’t hold him THAT way!  So, my first tip: have selective hearing. It doesn’t matter if it’s Grandma or the weird old man at the grocery store: do what you want to do and damn the rest of them.  You’ve got to be comfortable with yourself as a parent just as much as you have to be as an artist.  You don’t apply every piece of feedback you get in a workshop, right?!

Tip #2: Whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun.  You have to laugh, at yourself, at your kids, at the world.  It’s hard work, being a parent, as anyone who has kids can (and will, like me right here) tell you.  It’s exhausting in many ways, but it also, at least for me, produces the most unending sense of purpose.  Certainly you can have great purpose in life without having kids; many people do.  But for me, it was, in retrospect, what I would have missed most in my life had I not done it.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see it.

For what it’s worth, here’s an incredible poem that speaks to me on this subject, “How to Make Fatherhood Lyrical” by Gibson Fay-LeBlanc: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2012/08/weekly-poem-how-to-make-fatherhood-lyrical.html

A final tip: find balance.  It’s all about balance.  You have to find what balance is right for you and your spouse/significant other/co-parent and kid(s).  It’s possible to be an artist and a parent simultaneously, but there’s no one right way to achieve the balance in life needed to do both extraordinarily well.  I write like crazy when I can, and when I can’t because of familial obligations, then I don’t.  I’m still not satisfied with the balance in my life, but having two kids under 4 will do that.  Having a career will do that.  Having dogs and extended family and a house and a yard and groceries to shop for and bills to pay and books to read and classes to teach will do that.  You have to continually work to find a balance that works for you.  I’ve written poems on the backs of receipts and while giving a 3AM bottle to the baby.  I wrote my dissertation entirely while bouncing my colicky newborn on my knee all night every night.  We’re writers.  We’re parents.  We find a way.  And in the meantime, I’ve diapers to change and dinner to make and babies to bathe and Dr. Suess to read and poems to write…in that order.