How I wrote a novel draft during maternity leave

That one time I went to my writing group with a 7-week old

Before having my son, I agonized over how much writing I could expect to get done during his first couple years of life. After years of working full-time in marketing, and then as a copywriter, I had finally decided to focus on my fiction writing. I was juuuuuuuuuust about to move to part-time work in order to do that…and then I got pregnant.

Panic ensued! Would I ever write a novel? Would I just give up writing? Did anyone write with an infant? That question was THE question I obsessed over. And I noticed that nobody wanted to give me a straight answer. What I heard over and over was, don’t put expectations on yourself.

I’m being a little facetious about the panic, but I was honestly terrified. My grandmother was a writer who gave up writing to raise kids, and my mom was a journalist who left journalism to raise kids, and I was convinced this was a familial curse that I was doomed to carry on. That fear, in combination with intense pregnancy hormones, sent me into one of the darkest depressions of my life (which I wrote about here).

**hold please, child is crying**

Okay, I’m back.

Alright, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

I am reluctant to write about this because I’m worried it will come off as bragging, but I’m reluctant to not write about it because of how much something like this would have meant to me when I was pregnant.

(Which isn’t to say that other writers haven’t written lovely thoughtful pieces about writing with a baby. Cheryl Strayed wrote about writing Wild while using her foot to rock her baby in the bassinet. I just feel like there haven’t been a lot of pragmatic pieces from emerging writers, and sometimes it’s hard to relate to successful writers because they’re just, so, erm, successful)

First, how much writing did I get done?

A lot.

Two hours after having Oliver, I picked up my phone and started writing. The next morning, I had Andrew go to the hospital gift shop and buy me a notebook and pen. No, I wasn’t exactly penning the next As I Lay Dying, but I felt so full of emotion and intensity and clarity that I had to get it out of me. I also wanted to remember EVERYTHING.

My writing streak continued.

Since Oliver was born, I’ve rewritten a short story, finished the first draft of my (short) novel, written another short story, written an essay, submitted three writing retreat applications, gotten three pieces accepted for publication, and submitted to 25 other places. I’m going to estimate that in the past 25 weeks, I’ve done about 8 hours of writing a week, so 200 hours total.

Some of this happened between August and October when I was on maternity leave, and some of it happened between November and now when I have been working my regular gig of freelance writing for places like The New York Times and The Cut and Marie Claire, etc.

I’m not saying this like, I can do it so you can do it too! The world doesn’t work like that and your baby, financial situation, health, support system, sleep schedule, writing goals, etc. are all different from mine. You might write a whole lot more or a whole lot less.

I just want to give some context of how much writing I’ve gotten done, so that it makes more sense when I explain how I got it done.

Oliver slept a lot (at first)

This is a HUGE deal and one that I didn’t fully understand until Oliver stopped sleeping (around 3 months old). For the first 16 weeks of his life, Oliver slept 6–8 hour stretches at night. Which means Andrew and I were rested AF. And I’m sure this majorly contributed to me getting so much writing done during my maternity leave.

Now Oliver does not sleep at all, and I’m thankful that I already started the writing projects I’m working on because at this point, momentum is pulling me through and if I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be writing as much.

Andrew watches Oliver while I write

(I originally wrote this headline as “Andrew watches Oliver for me” and then I realized how much that says about implicit expectations of whose obligation childcare is…)

We are so reluctant to talk specifics about childcare setups because it brings up two things, both of which make us uncomfortable: money and spousal support. From the time Oliver was born, I have insisted that Andrew and I watch Oliver equally. Andrew watches Oliver on Weds evening (which is when I go to my novel writing class), and on Saturday morning (which is when I go to writing group) and my parents watch him on Monday night (which is when I go to yoga and then write for about an hour). On Sunday mornings, I go to a cafe for an hour before my mom’s group and try to get a little writing done while Oliver takes his morning car seat nap.

When Oliver wouldn’t take a bottle, Andrew syringe fed him. When we were trying to work on his latch, I would put on noise-cancelling headphones and Andrew would just come grab me when I needed to feed. Even 30 minutes of quiet uninterrupted time to write made a world of difference. And it has set the stage for what I hope is a lifetime of equally shared parenting.

I’m going to avoid writing about how Andrew is such a great dad, and “willingly” watches his son, and is totally “trustworthy” with a baby and “gives up” his time so I can go write because that is the bare minimum of being a parent, and not a sign that Andrew is an amazing dad (he definitely is, but for other more amazing reasons).

I write while I walk

Most days, I put Oliver in the wrap or the stroller and walk him to the park. Along the way, if ‘m feeling creative, I’ll turn on my voice transcription app and start talking. This is actually something I did before having a baby, and I really recommend it. It’s much much harder than writing, but my theory is that it accesses a different part of my creative brain and the end result is sometimes amazing. I wrote most of my novel this way.

Writing served as an escape for me

The reason that the whole don’t put expectations on yourself advice didn’t help me is that writing doesn’t feel like putting expectations on myself. In fact, the opposite! I found that I often used my writing as an escape mechanism to totally zone out from the stress of baby-raising.

The expectations I felt were:

  • That I should be with Oliver every minute of every day

When it came to writing, I didn’t feel expectations. I felt guilt! It seemed so selfish of me to spend hours writing made up stories about fake people when I could be doing very real practical things like interviewing nannies, or going to music classes, etc.

I think it’s important to insist on self-care and time for yourself, whether you spend that time writing, doing yoga, with a friend, etc. My guess (and I could be wrong!) is that the struggle new moms have with finding writing time has less to do with expectations, and more to do with feeling guilty taking time away from their children and feeling guilty demanding their spouse step up, or feeling guilty paying for help. But obviously this is really dependent on if you see your writing as a career or more as a hobby or spiritual practice. Those of us trying to build careers out of our writing are just going to feel more pressure around producing work, period.

I also want to be clear that I wasn’t spending every minute that I wasn’t with Oliver writing. That would be awful. I went out and got drinks with my friends, went shopping, got my hair done, did yoga, etc. But many nights, I would bike to the bar, get a salad and a glass of wine and write for 45 minutes and still be back in time to nurse.

It didn’t matter as much as I thought

This dilemma consumed my brain when I was pregnant. I thought I was watching my future-bestselling-world-changing-novel go up in flames and I was crushed. So my rush to start writing again after having a baby had more to do with my personal relationship with writing and motivation and fear of giving up than it did with an actual need to get that much writing done. I see now how laughable that was — that I could forget about writing. I could have not written a word for six months and it would be fine. But a year ago, when I was fifteen weeks pregnant, it seemed like a very real, very scary possibility.

So hopefully one day some pregnant writer reads this, and it can soothe her fears. Writing with a baby is possible, and you deserve time for yourself without your kiddo to do whatever the hell you want.

Writer from Portland, Ore. Words in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, Glamour, Marie Claire, Elle, and others. emmapattee.com