My favorite line from Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which I read this weekend. I think you could say that a central task of adulthood for me has been stripping away whatever is unnecessary so that I can be sure to be present for the small and the daily, which is where I find life.
On my post marking nine years of blogging (O.M.G.) I asked if there were specific things people wanted to hear about. More than one person asked a version of how do I balance it, how do I make time for writing, how do I juggle the various responsibilities that are a part of my life. And then, about a month ago, a reader and friend wrote me an email with some more questions about making time for writing and it felt right to answer these queries in a post.
I’ve written about time before. It’s one of the themes I circle around, like a black hole, drawn inexorably into its orbit. I believe firmly that time is life’s only true zero-sum resource. My life is replete with both joys and responsibilities. I work full time. I have limited childcare because I want to be Grace and Whit’s primary caretaker. I don’t have a lot of help with household tasks and I am responsible for most domestic chores. I keep a pad of paper on my desk, between my two computers (I have a laptop for work and a laptop for personal things, on which I do my writing and my blogging). On that pad of paper is a running to-do list for household/life things, and I fill the page every couple of days. I’m looking at it right now, and it says: UPS store, laundry, Whole Foods, Grace Thanksgiving food contribution, birthday card to Alexandra, post office, dry cleaner, order holiday gifts for godchildren, send book to Gloria.
One thing I know for sure is everybody feels busy. No matter what our lives consist of, they all feel full. And this feeling is all that matters. I don’t participate in the societal glorification of busy that I see all around me, and I refuse to compare my life to anyone else’s. That is just irrrelevant. As I tell Grace all the time: run your own race. That’s all any of us can do.
So how do I do it? When do I make time for writing? What does my life look like? I wish I had good, clear answers here, but I don’t.
All I know is this: I have prioritized what matters to me. I’ve made choices. I’ve let a lot of things go.
Once you know what you prize above all else, then how to allocate your time becomes radically clear. I’ve stripped away almost all claims on my hours other than those belonging to work, family, and writing. Because time is zero sum, things had to go. I have many dear friends I very rarely (never) see. We are often not invited to social events anymore, maybe because I said no several times and maybe because I’m boring. I’m not on non-profit boards and I rarely go to adult events in the evenings or weekends. That time is for Grace and Whit. This, the idea that how we spend our time reflects what we value, is a theme I’ve touched on many times before. We know from Annie Dillard that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend your lives.” Your week is a map of matters to you. I am deeply comfortable with my map.
I am an extremely structured person so many have been surprised that I have a fluid approach to work/life/writing balance. I actually dislike the word “balance.” Maybe it feels better to say that I have a fluid approach to integrating the various essential parts of my life. I used to write after the children went to bed, but Grace and Whit stay up later now and that doesn’t work anymore. I also find I am absolutely fried by the end of the day.
So on an average day, I wake up early – 5, 5:30. Maybe 4 days a week I will go out for a run at that point. I like being up before most of the rest of the world and find the dark and quiet very soothing. When I get home, I have my first cup of coffee (this is one of my very favorite moments of the entire day) and take a shower. Sometimes I still have half an hour before Grace and Whit get up, and I’ll use that time to clear out my work and personal email and to skim the blogs I read daily.
Then it’s up and at ’em. I wake the children up, make breakfast for them, and take them to school. I try to leave my phone in my bag during this hour, because I’ve found that I’m materially more present and relaxed with them when I do that. We live less than a mile from school and could easily walk, but we usually drive because I’d rather they slept the extra 10 minutes in the morning. By 8 I’m at my desk and starting my work day.
While my office is in my house, about 3 or 4 days a week I have to go into Boston or elsewhere for meetings for work. Most of my days, Monday to Friday, are composed of work. Occasionally, if I have a 30 minute break in my schedule, I’ll read blogs or check twitter or, even, sometimes, write a quick blog post.
This is true answer to the question of when I write: around the edges of the rest of my life.
There’s no doubt that working at home is essential to my life operating as it does. Despite the fact that I work a lot of hours, I have a lot of flexibility and I’m hugely grateful for that. I have wonderful babysitters who pick the children up from school during the week and bring them home, but I’m also around most of the time. Parenting children of this age feels less outsource-able than any other time before. I don’t know when it is that they’ll want to talk, and I want to be sure I’m here when they do. So I put that desire above almost all else.
Most days I take a break from the work computer around 6 to have dinner with Grace and Whit (usually something easy that I put into the oven earlier in the day). Our babysitters have usually left by then. After dinner I’ll do another hour or so of work while Grace and Whit are showering and finishing homework or simply puttering. Many days we have to fit a practice in here too, so I drive several children to the hockey rink or make sure mine are ready to be picked up by a carpool. My favorite days are the ones where we don’t have practice and life has a slightly slower rhythm.
I spend time with both children before bed, often quietly. Sometimes we all pile into our bed to read books together. Sometimes I read Harry Potter or The Golden Compass to one child. Sometimes we talk about a math problem that is particularly thorny. Sometimes we discuss what happened that day at school. In between time with Grace and Whit I’ll check blogs or twitter again, and my email a last time. I try to have all screens shut down and put away by 9 and that has made a difference in my sleep. I read 30-45 minutes of an old-fashioned paper book in bed before I go to sleep.
My days tumble by at alarming speed, and many of them have a similar shape. There is a lot of work, some domestic chores and responsibilities, and time for simply being around my two children. Matt travels for work and is here some of the time but not all. As you can see, there isn’t a ton of time for prolonged, focused writing. I try to spend a couple of hours during the weekend doing that, and I’ve been known to sit at the hockey rink with my computer during a weeknight practice. But I haven’t written a book yet, that much is clear, and maybe this is part of the reason why. Blog posts lend themselves to brief windows of time, but sustained narrative works don’t.
I have often exhorted people to stop hiding behind “I don’t have time” and to recognize that what they value they make time for. If I believe that – and I do – I should own up to not prioritizing writing a book. When I do work on longer form things (and I have, multiple times) I use Scrivener. I love this software for structuring a book-length work. I write essays for places other than my blog in Microsoft Word. I write my blog straight into WordPress.
This entry is long-winded and unstructured, but I think in that way it echoes the topic at hand. My life, and the days that compose it, aren’t rigidly ordered, either. I put my professional life and my family life at the top of my priority list (those are the rocks in the jar of my life) and writing and reading come next (the sand that fills in the gaps between the rocks in the jar, to continue that metaphor).
Of course I feel sorrow sometimes at the things I haven’t done and those I don’t do on a regular basis. I wish I had more time for yoga, more time for my friends, a published book under my belt. But when I look hard in the mirror, my choices hold up to scrutiny (my own, that is – and nobody else’s matters, does it?). On the surface, my life may look small, but what I have realized is that tight focus on what I truly value allows me to access a deep, glittering cavern inside. My life is simultaneously narrow and wide. I don’t have any true regrets about what I prioritize in my life, and I feel comfortable that anyone can extrapolate from a description of my days what it is I most value. Do you feel that way?
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