As a freelance writer, I’d always been able to fit my work around whatever else was going on in my life. While my paydays, like those of most writers, are often delayed or indirect, writing has been my most consistent source of income for most of my adult life. I thought I’d naturally figure out how to juggle my new responsibilities and my existing obligations and ambitions; I think I mentioned “writing while the baby naps” more than a few times when people asked me how I thought I’d do this. Nine months in, I’m only just now realizing the many ways I set myself up to fail. I had no idea how much having a child would change me — a cliché, but one that rings true for me. And since I draw on “me,” in one way or another, in order to make a living, the repercussions extend to every aspect of my life.
Before I start describing the pitfalls I encountered when trying to combine the kind of work I’m best at with the exalted, but financially unrewarding, work of taking care of a baby, I have to say up front that I know I’m fortunate to have choices that many women don’t. I’m incredibly lucky to have a freelancer’s somewhat flexible schedule and workload, to have a supportive partner who can also move his schedule around to accommodate mine, and to have found a babysitting arrangement we can afford that allows us both to work and to spend time with our baby. In a country where the law doesn’t protect women who are still, in my friend Lydia’s memorable words, bleeding into the giant maxi pads that you have to wear for a month postpartum, I feel bad complaining at all. But.
If, after a few months of paid or unpaid leave, I’d gone back to work at a full-time job — and by “a full-time job” I mean the kinds of jobs I’ve actually held, at media organizations or publishing-adjacent startups, not in an ER or a five-star restaurant — I probably could have gotten away with phoning it in slightly. As long as I was physically at my desk and responding to emails and performing my duties with baseline competence, no one would have noticed that I wasn’t giving 100%. Writing doesn’t work like that. If you haven’t slept, or if your mind is irretrievably elsewhere, you’re pretty much just screwed.
While I got back to some forms of work — answering emails, editing, maintaining the status quo — within weeks of Raffi’s birth, it has taken me so much longer than I’d expected to begin having worthwhile thoughts and ideas again. Back when I had the luxury of entire uninterrupted work days, I never realized that it takes a lot of non-writing time to be able to generate thoughts that are useful during writing time. It recently took me three months to get through two drafts of a long book review, which in prepartum life might have taken a couple of weeks.
And though lots of people have told me anecdotes about the brilliant women writers who’ve cranked out drafts of their novels while their infants napped, I did not find myself to be one of those women. Instead, I threw out 30,000 words of a draft I wrote at top speed when I was pregnant and worried I wouldn’t be able to focus once the baby came. It turns out panic mode is not, for me, conducive to my best work either.