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Writing with Kids, Part III: Submit to the chaos

Preserve your writing career and your sanity with this advice.

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This is the third installment of an ongoing freelancing-while-parenting series. Start with the first edition here. Then read the second part here. 


Our daughter is 3 years old. Finally, I feel like I can write something potent about parenthood and its place in the freelance writer’s life…

Hold on. She just vomited everywhere in the bathroom – except the toilet.

OK, back to it. Yeah. No. I’ve had three straight nights staying up until 2 a.m. because I have to fact-check my manuscript. I want to have a clear mind. Three hours of hearing my voice on tape has gutted me.

Look, here’s the thing. It’s so important in this tumultuous era of…Sorry, it’s pizza night, and the kid wants to eat at the restaurant. Great, she vomited again as we were about to pull out of the driveway. She’s inconsolable because she can’t have pizza. Explanations are doing little good. I’m exhausted. Tomorrow is Sunday and my wife has to work all day, so I am on dad duty for eight hours.


I can tell you all this now, at 12:16 a.m. on Monday morning. Everyone is asleep, and my deadline is later today; necessity is a hell of a restorative. Three-plus years of parenthood has provided me the ability to offer advice to freelance writers that can fit on a gift shop hand towel and the clarity to explain it.

Submit to the chaos.

I operate every day under the assumption that at any point my workday will explode. I also operate under the certainty that I can rebound from that deficit. I mean, I wrote a 100,000-word manuscript in five months, and this after I lost two weeks of work time to my wife and daughter being sick. I’m not saying this to brag but to add credence to my philosophy.


A giant benefit of working as a freelance writer is you can create your own hours. It just may not be the hours you want. I had to abandon the entitlement that my worktime was sacrosanct, and not to curse the gods when things didn’t go my way. I get frustrated when I lose time, but it no longer colors my day and prohibits me from finding a path amidst the rubble. There was nothing I could do but relent to the sudden trip to the emergency room or the week my wife was felled by pneumonia or the time that babysitter decided not to show up for a week-long gig and didn’t offer an explanation. Another truth emerged: I was not the only one affected. No two-year-old wants to go to the hospital; nobody’s spouse wants to work over the weekend. You find a way. That’s why I’m writing this column now. That’s why the notion of a work-life balance is such a farce.

Frequently, articles about kids talk about how much ends for the parents. Free time! Nights out! Those points obscure the fact that great stuff arises, such as my ego’s slow death. Having a child has made freelancing more enjoyable. It provides a bubble where I can work on something that’s within my control. I can focus on one thing instead of placating a toddler who wants everything now. Because that focus is so narrow, I accomplish more. Assignments serve two purposes: They let me play in a sandbox and provide a beat-the-clock element that resembles a newsroom’s healthy chaos. The work has a fantasy element because caring for a tiny, helpless person is a relentless job. Even when things go bad – a pitch gets ignored; a source flakes out – it’s not as bad as trying to comprehend how your child is in surgery.

The days are tiring, but there’s a weird paradox. I enjoy the chaos, especially now that the kid is old enough that she’s excited to see me, that she can talk and express herself, and, oh my god, she’s a genuine person. It’s a rollicking, forever-twisty process. I spent my single years involved in amorous-free Saturday nights and lifeless Monday mornings and days that felt as flat and desolate as the Kansas plains. Now I can say without a hiccup of hesitation that no day is boring. It’s a lot like the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with more Elmo.


Of course, that description will change. The kid will get older and, presumably, less temperamental and more sophisticated in expressing her needs and wants. My wife and I will get older and, presumably, smarter. (Well, she will. Me? Who the hell knows?) It’s why a freelance writer is equipped for parenthood: Our careers are all about adjustments. Who hasn’t allotted time for a last-minute assignment or convinced a difficult editor to extend a deadline? The same tools I use as a writer, I use as a parent. The only difference is that I have less experience in the latter. I am a master in my downstairs office but a trainee as soon as I hit the main floor and spot a blur with a halo of curls.

I am not upset by this discrepancy. I am learning. It took me years to gain confidence as a freelance writer without feeling like I was one step behind my checkbook and two steps behind common sense. You fail before you succeed, which is the definition of parenthood. What matters is you learn your lessons, get up, and fail a little less often. You do this over and over and over again. A story ends; the life you’re responsible for doesn’t. Both can break your heart. Can you allow one passion not to infect the other while knowing which one always comes first? If so, welcome to the club. Bring lots of paper towels.

—Ithaca-based Pete Croatto is a veteran freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is also working on his first book. Twitter: @PeteCroatto