On… how I write, right now

So, a few years ago my friend Joanna wrote an amazing series about working-at-home mothers. I was 8.5 months pregnant with Errol at the time, and it was almost giddy with relief as I read it and realized that other women, just like me, worked from home, loved their career as well as their babies and didn’t want to give up everything not diaper-related.

I also realized that everyone makes it work differently.  The question was how we would make it work. It’s not the same as having maternity leave from an office job (though obviously that sucks on a bunch of different levels, particularly in the US, don’t get me started). Being a writer like having a shop: if you don’t open the shop, ie, write stuff, people will assume it’s closed down for good. So I had to get back to work right away, editing my third book, so from the very start with Errol, we had a part-time nanny. She was amazing with him and took care of the endless arranging/laundry stuff you have with babies (ENDLESS NO REALLY IT IS ENDLESS). I fed him, and she burped him and put him down while I got right back to work. On the days she wasn’t working, I wrote furiously while he napped. I was tired from being up for night feeds, but I was determined, and when it comes to writing with a baby, determination is very, very important. But then he grew up. And napped less. We moved to New York and got a new part-time nanny. Fox was traveling at least 50% of the time for work. I felt like I was always racing against time to manage the house admin (laundry and food shopping and tidying and I-should-change-the-sheets and do-we-need-more-wipes and should-I-sterilize-the-pacifiers), on top of writing and actual mothering. I was majorly stressed out and felt like I never quite had time to breathe. Then I got knocked up again and threw up constantly, and my writing slate grew – which was wildly exciting, but it got even harder. That’s when we met our full-time nanny, who is incredible and takes care of the stuff that used to really stress me out, and everything changed. And that’s also when my work really took off.

Anyway, I figured, in case it was helpful to any other writer-mothers, I’d tell you how it works right now.

5.30am/6am wake up and write in bed. This has always been my absolute favorite time to write, because the world is quiet and my head is all mine. If I’m feeling sleepier than usual, I just lie in bed and think about ideas. I have a little file in my head of ideas for future projects, and dawn is a good time to take them out and give them a little shake to see if they’ve grown.

7am Fox (husband, 36) and I get Ned (son, 1) and Errol (son, 3) up. Cuddles and storybooks and milk and cereal and toast and fruit and pajamas and weewee and firetrucks and Lego and singing and chaos.

8am. Our lovely nanny arrives. I buzz off to this place for an 8.30am class a couple of times a week. The other days I shower and get straight to work. I have a little office off the living room. Once I sit down, I don’t mess around waiting for some muse to strike. I write hard. I write as though it might be my last chance to get everything I’m thinking out on the page. I write like I’m in love with whatever I’m writing – in fact, no, I write because I’m in love with what I’m writing. I am a teensy weensy bit obsessive – I call it focused, but yes, obsessive works. I don’t ever go on Facebook or IM or any of those timesucking clickbait Buzzfeed sites. I check Twitter once every few days. I rarely write blog posts. All I do is write my stuff. If I’m not writing, I’d rather be with the boys.

At about 11am Ned wakes from his nap so I come out of my work trance for a cuddle and some kisses. (Is that lame? Probably. But he is SO SWEET.) Then I get back to work. About 12.30, our nanny goes to get Errol from preschool, or sometimes I do (it’s just around the corner, about a three-minute walk). At around 1 I usually have lunch with them, and then play. At around 130, Ned goes back for a nap, and I get back to work.

At least once during the afternoon, probably four times, Errol will come in and say ‘FIRE ON MUMMY! FIRETRUCKTH TO THE RETHCUE’ and pretend to put out a fire on me, or beg in his little cartoon duck voice ‘Will you pleath come play trainth wid me?’. It’s impossible to say no to that without feeling like a heartless ogre, plus I like playing trains, so I usually (not always, not if I’m in a total trance, but usually) just play for a while and then get back to work. When Ned wakes from his nap he will often crawl in, sit next to my desk and lift up his wings like a chubby baby bird, wanting to be picked up, and obviously it’s impossible to say no to that, too. Anyway, the reason I work from home is to be around for this stuff. So basically, any writing in the afternoon happens in chunks. From memory, this happened in an office too: I’d write in between meetings, or phone calls, or someone playing The Seed by The Roots, very loudly, over and over again. I’ve said it before, but an advertising agency is in fact very good training for working with infants hanging off you, screaming for attention. I am good at slipping in and out of intense focus, and having inane conversations with people who might cry if I don’t play nicely. Advertising is also good training for having a lot of ideas, very fast, and for making brutal changes and edits without breaking a sweat. It’s not art, darling. It’s just copy. Anyway, I digress.

At 4pm or so, unless I’m on a really tight deadline, I usually shut the laptop. We all play trains (or bake cakes, or paint macaroni necklaces, or pretend to be cows, or whatever) and either the nanny or I makes dinner. If it’s summer, we go to the playground. (Right now it’s revoltingly cold and slushy outside so unless we go here, we’re always inside.) The boys eat at 5pm, have a bath, and are asleep by 6.30pm. Our nanny usually leaves about 6pm, and by then – blissfully – she has also cleared the living room of toys and the kitchen is clean for us to start our dinner.

And that’s my day. It can be tough and stressful sometimes, but I tell myself that everything worth doing is tough or stressful sometimes. And the benefits far outweigh the negatives. If they’re sick, I’m here. I get to hear Errol singing with happiness and Ned shouting ‘DADADADA’ and I get constant hugs and kisses. I don’t have to worry about silly time-consuming shit like commuting. I don’t have to go to the supermarket, or get dry cleaning, or run errands, or any of that stuff that seems simple and can actually take up hours of the day. New York is an incredibly easy place to live in that regard: a lot can be taken care of in the swish of an app. I constantly remind myself that I am damn lucky.

Oh, right. Evenings. The evenings have never been a stellar writing time for me. When I’m under a tight deadline, or exchanging work emails with people in LA (ie three hours behind), then I’ll slip back into the office for another hour or two, but otherwise, Fox and I just hang out together. We talk, cook, read books or the paper, watch TV, or go out for dinner. You know. Husband-wifey stuff. Sometimes I catch up on blog reading, sometimes write emails if I’m not feeling completely wrung out of words (I always, always owe my friends emails). I go on Pinterest or Instagram. All the usual stuff. I go to bed early, either thinking about stories, or thinking about the boys. Both send me to sleep pretty happy. (Pre-baby Gemma would be totally disgusted that sometimes I drift off, thinking about how adorable Ned’s chubby hands are, or how sweet Errol is now that he’s talking and asking little questions all the time, and okay, it’s pretty lame, but, well, whatever.)

And that’s it. Boring, I know… but the only way that I know how to be a writer from home with very small children is to sit down every morning and write, no matter what. Writing is my job. I do it every day. No excuses. I write fast, and I usually have multiple projects at the same time. When I’m not sitting at a laptop, I’m often still thinking about it, writing in my head. I will never run out of ideas or enthusiasm for telling stories. It’s the way I’m built. I love everything about it. Except maybe being alone all day – sometimes I really miss working with a team. But I figure this hermit stage of my career meshes perfectly with the boys being so tiny. When they’re older, life will change. For now, this works. Just.

PS I wrote this about how I worked, pre-babies, back when I was still working in advertising in London. That post also owes a rather big debt to Bridget Jones. (Vg.)

PPS Errol and Ned and me.


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