I have a confession: This assignment is due painfully soon, and I’m just getting started. I’d planned to start last week, but then my 18-month-old came down with a fever, which meant that instead of cranking out content, I spent an entire afternoon on the sofa in the family room, trapped underneath my sleeping son. Since then, the assignments have been stacking up like Tetris. I’m a day or two behind marking student homework, too. And don’t even ask what’s happening with my book proposal.
Such is the plight of the “write-at-home mom,” my term for those of us taking care of our children and managing a home while also attempting to maintain some kind of writing practice. For me, being a write-at-home mom means feeding, changing, and entertaining a baby while composing pitches, fielding emails from editors, and revising my latest chapter in my head. Maybe you’re working on a novel – when you’re not chauffeuring family members from one activity to another, volunteering in your preschooler’s classroom, or dropping off cash to the middle schooler who forgot his lunch.
Before you say it: Yes, men can be the full-time parent. And if you’re a write-at-home mom with a working partner, that partner likely helps out when they’re home. But according to rafts of studies, if one parent works outside the home, the domestic duties are often shouldered by the parent who doesn’t, and this person is more likely to be a woman. In a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, fathers averaged almost half as many hours on child care and housework than mothers.
Like most write-at-home moms, I consider myself a master multi-tasker. On any given day you’ll find me revising one essay for a publication while starting something new for someone else, querying agents, editing my students’ essays, and following up on outstanding invoices – all in addition to paying bills, planning meals, and picking up toys. On days I pull it off, I feel like the star of a Swiffer commercial. More often, life looks like a massive fail: Like today, when I had to reschedule a Skype session with one of my private students – again – so that I can focus on this assignment. The clock is ticking, supper’s still a big question mark, and the living room’s a sea of plastic toys.
I spoke with other writers who mom about how do we do it all.
The short answer: We don’t.
“I’ve determined that being a mom of a toddler and self-employed writer means I’m always going to be half-assing the two things when I really should be whole-assing one,” says Beth Demmon, a 33-year-old freelance writer and mother of a 2-year-old. She says that constantly forcing herself to write whenever she can – for Demmon, that’s during nap time and/or after her baby goes to sleep at night – “takes a toll.”
“It’s basically just a teeter-totter of constant adjustment with no perfect balance ever achieved,” Demmon says.
Writer Jayme Kennedy, 34, commiserates. The mother of two girls, ages 8 and 5, describes her challenge like this: “Both my girls are in school, but my youngest only goes for three hours, four days a week. The morning drop-off routine takes an hour and a half (two schools in two different cities). Then I have to leave [the house] two hours later to get my youngest. Then home for two hours before we leave to pick up the big [sister]. Then home for anywhere between an hour to two hours before my oldest has to report to the dance studio for two to three hours of classes every single night. Then home, dinner, bed, packing lunches, trying to put the house back together. Occasionally I like to shower? It’s nice.”
One 26-year-old freelance writer and mother of a 4-year-old described trying to reconcile the demands of full-time parenting with a writing career as a “massive struggle.” She told me that while she loves her clients and her kids, the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions and having little agency over her own time sometimes gets to her.
“I feel like I’m always just doing ‘enough,’ rather than being fully present with whatever activity is happening now,” she said.
This mom, like others that I spoke to, asked that I quote her anonymously, fearing her clients would read what she’d said and take away her work. We keep our stories to ourselves for fear of exacerbating what some call the “motherhood penality,” discrimination in starting pay, hiring procedures, and perceived competence based on the notion that mothers are less devoted to their work. We pretend we have it together – because, after all, shouldn’t we? We’re professionals – at least, we were before we had kids. Sometimes I think that if I just tried harder, I could manage. And yet, the mothers I spoke to were obviously trying very, very hard. In a word, the life of a write-at-home mom was trying: Bargaining with your partner for time to work, apologizing to editors, struggling to catch up.
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Before having a child, I had a very different vision of life as a write-at-home mom: I’d neatly juggle housework and child rearing, keeping my child entertained with educational activities while I effortlessly tackled chores, all with plenty of free time for reading and homemade meals. And yes, somehow in this fantasy, I’d still maintain my career as a writer.
Somehow, this didn’t sound impossible. Hand on my growing belly, I listened intently to friends who described early motherhood as the most productive professional years of their lives. Moms I knew had finished degree programs, written and published books, made movies, won awards, all while bringing up young children. Never mind those women who found motherhood overwhelming – writers tapped dry by the time and energy spent caring for their families – I had imagined I’d be one of these women somehow beating the system stacked against us.
Make no mistake: The system is stacked. According to Caitlyn Collins, sociologist and author of the book Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, the United States has one of the highest wage gaps between men and women, the least-generous benefits, and the lowest public commitment to caregiving of any Western industrialized nation.
Collins’ research focused on the disparity of expectations American working mothers had compared to mothers from countries like Sweden and Germany, where families enjoyed benefits such as federally mandated paid maternity leave and universal child care. In the course of her interviews, Collins discovered that American working mothers generally blame themselves. “They take personal responsibility for problems that European mothers recognize as having external causes,” Collins said.
According to Collins, women who benefit from helpful work-family policies – typically highly educated, salaried employees – consider themselves lucky. Hourly wage and gig workers, including freelance writers, she said, were least likely to enjoy any work-family benefits.
Never mind that one Pew Research study found eight in 10 adults say women face “a lot of pressure” to be an involved parent, I thought I could handle child care on top of my career. Besides, what other choice did we have? When my husband and I got together, I made about a third of his salary – only a little more than what our then-hypothetical child care would cost. And that’s when I hustled. It didn’t make financial sense for us to put our child into day care or hire a nanny, especially if I wanted to breastfeed, which requires enormous maternal time investments that have other unrecognized costs.
I didn’t respect that creative work takes full concentration. Certainly, I fell for the pervasive myth that I could somehow squeeze a full-time job around a nap schedule. I also underestimated the physical, mental, and psychological toll of giving birth.
After Oscar was born, I was less interested in the world around me and writing about it as I was in figuring out what was leaking out of my vagina and when that would stop, and why – when I went to breastfeed – my tit shot milk in my newborn’s face like a firehouse. Was I pumping too much or not enough? Was his shit green and runny because of too much foremilk, like the internet said? Or was he lactose intolerant? Did I need to go on the elimination diet, like my pediatrician once suggested? Was I a bad mom for eating cheese? Did I need to join a mommy group? Did my newborn son need to be socialized? Did I need to read The Happiest Baby on the Block?
Meanwhile, the piles of laundry, stinking of sour milk, grew around me while I watched my newborn sleep, preoccupied by the fear that he’d die and it’d be my fault (we were – whispers – co-sleeping).
By the time the mom fog lifted and I was eager to get back to work, Oscar had dropped his third nap. To compensate for the loss of time, I began taking advantage of the child care at my local gym, sometimes setting up shop in the lounge area or composing stories on my phone while walking on the treadmill. In one month, I scored a sweet little content-writing gig and a couple impressive assignments. Then, we moved to a new community, and I lost this low-cost child care I had come to rely on that was unavailable in our new town.
Since then, I’ve been struggling to find and retain affordable, quality care – a struggle that is in no way unique: a 2017 article by the Center for American Progress reported that in 2016 alone, the National Survey of Children’s Health found “nearly 2 million parents of children age 5 and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or greatly change their job because of problems with child care.” For the average freelance writer – who is constantly beginning and completing contract work and juggling multiple employers – unreliable child care can wreak havoc on deadlines and relationships with existing clients.
By the end of my first full year as a mother, I felt like a failure – and it wasn’t just a feeling: My income had nearly been slashed in half. I’d lost at least one major gig, unable to follow through with what my pitch had promised. Private students trickled away. I couldn’t blame them; who wants to pay hundreds of dollars to Skype with a woman while her toddler stuffs Paw Patrol figurines down her blouse? The worst part: I began to feel like I was shortchanging my son, too. As a prime example, take the day I’d shoved a screen in his face so that I could interview a parenting expert, who spent a good part of the interview lecturing on the dangers of screens.
On top of it all, I felt utterly alone. Every time I saw another woman on Twitter bragging that they pulled six figures while potty-training their toddler and breastfeeding a newborn ‘round the clock, I wanted to throw my computer in the diaper pail. Instead of blaming a lack of affordable, dependable child care conspiring with traditional gender expectations stacked on top of pervasive misconceptions about what it means to be a working writer, I blamed myself.
The United States has one of the highest wage gaps between men and women, the least-generous benefits, and the lowest public commitment to caregiving of any Western industrialized nation.
Every day is its own unique struggle. But some months after my first ah-ha moment, precipitated by at least a half dozen mental breakdowns, it’s gotten better.
How? Well, for starters, I’ve become more realistic about what I can accomplish. Instead of a homecooked dinner every night, it’s regularly fish sticks and French fries. Laundry sits unfolded until my husband gets the gist. I also recently bit the bullet and have begun paying premium for more reliable care. Three hours a day is all I can afford, and it’s still not enough, but it’s better than pretending I can somehow squeeze four demanding jobs – writing, teaching, housekeeping, and caregiving – into a 24-hour day. Lastly, I’ve gravitated toward and come to rely on commiserating with other write-at-home moms who are willing to be honest about their realities. Eight days out of 10 I still feel utterly incompetent. This feeling usually coincides with days my nanny calls off or my son refuses to nap. Days like these, I remind myself that though it might not be everyone’s experience, my struggle is not uncommon – and it’s not my fault.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @melissapetro.