Nancy Fulda – When Kids Get Older

Hey! It’s back! The writing and parenting blog series strikes again, this time with an excellent post from Nancy Fulda about how to deal with kids of–gasp!–different ages.  Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award recipient, and a 2012 Hugo and Nebula nominee. During her graduate work at Brigham Young University she studied artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing. In the years since, she has grappled with the far more complex process of raising three small children. All these experiences sometimes infiltrate her writing.

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When Spencer invited me to do a post for his Writing and Parenting series, I froze up for a long time. What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? The guest bloggers here have talked about poison changeling daughters and tossing pee out of car windows, for crying out loud. I cannot top that. (And that’s probably a good thing.)

But as I skimmed through the posts, an idea started to form.

Each post shows a snapshot, a here-and-now in the author’s life, combined with really awesome survival information. We’ve got a lot of authors, and a lot of snapshots, and a LOT of really good survival tips. But here’s the piece no one’s mentioned:

Kids don’t hold still.

I’ve been writing-while-parenting for twelve years. Trust me on this one: As soon as you get it all worked out, as soon as everything is working perfectly, something will change. They start crawling. They start walking. They get tall enough to reach the flamethrower. They get smart enough to realize that “Uh-huh. That’s nice, honey.” means you’re not actually listening to them and you care more about your computer screen than about your own children.

Over the years, I’ve gone through more strategies than a chameleon in a paint store. When my kids were little, I had no hands. I’d carry the fussy baby around while trailing the toddler and the preschooler to make sure the latter did not inflict bodily harm on the former. Every second of keyboard time was precious. If the baby napped, I typed. If the kids were watching a movie, I typed. And I knew exactly what to type because I’d had hours and hours of time to plan out the next piece of manuscript.

When my kids hit grade school I got my hands back – and lost my brain. (Do you have any idea how many school memos, emails, fundraisers, Scholastic Book orders, homework reminders, and PTA volunteer requests are involved in the average grade school in my area? Boy, let me tell you, it’s not pretty.) I expected to have beautiful swathes of hassle-free writing time when the kids left the house.

Instead I ended up with piles of e-mail, to-do lists, scheduling and brain frazzle. I adapted, of course. I’ve gotten used to that by now. But over the years I’ve found a couple of principles that never change. These may just be specific to me of course – to my specific situation, to my family’s specific needs. But they’re the lesson’s I’ve learned and re-learned over the years, the ones that keep me sane throughout my topsy-turvy world of growing children. And so now I pass them on to you.

1. Be a parent first

This doesn’t mean “Let your kids steal all your writing time”. Believe me, if given half a chance, they will. But it does mean look to the needs of your children first. Are they getting enough snuggle time? Is there a space in the day when they can talk and know they’ll be listened to? Are they getting fed on a regular basis?

This is as much a survival skill as a noble family principle. Unhappy children are more emotionally needy. They interrupt work time more often, take longer to console when upset, fight more often with their siblings, and basically eat up more time and energy. I learned early on that it takes less time to give my children what they need up front than to deal with meltdowns later on.

2. Listen to your guilt

Extra note of caution on this one. I am not prone to depression, and by all accounts my brain chemistry is pretty stable. This means my guilt can be trusted. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUE FOR EVERYONE.

We’re clear on that? Okay, good. Moving on.

In a properly functioning brain, guilt functions as an early warning system. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “There’s this thing that ought to happen, but it’s not happening. Why isn’t it happening?” While it’s technically possible to ignore guilt and forge onward anyway, I’ve found that it’s usually not productive. The bad feelings tend to moosh on top of each other, and eventually you get to a point where nothing’s fun anymore and the stuff you’re writing feels kind of flat.

Better solution: Use your guilt as a tool. It’s like those cool little tricorders on Star Trek, beeping louder as you get close to something interesting. Follow the beeps and figure out what’s going on. Then fix it.

3. Don’t be surprised when things change

Have I mentioned that children don’t hold still? When things stop working, don’t assume it’s because you did something wrong. Your child may have hit a developmental spurt, or the addition of new activities may have shifted the balance of the day.

Get used to the idea that you’re going to have to recalibrate your writing strategies every few years, or perhaps even every few months. Stay flexible, and roll with the punches. That way it’s easier to get back on your feet.

4. Let your children be part of the process

This amazing thing happened when my kids hit grade school. They started talking to me. Really talking, not just asking for a cup of water or showing me the puppy down the street. We could like, have actual conversations about abstract concepts.

Which meant they could be used as minions. When my son turned twelve I started using him as a beta reader. He didn’t like everything I wrote, but he was good at finding plot holes and logical errors. And since I was paying him a modest reading fee, he never complained.

More importantly, he finally understood why I spent all day at the computer. My work became real to him. (Or at least, I flatter myself that it did.)

Since then, I’ve started asking my children for opinions on character development, plot twists, and potential story concepts. A few weeks ago, when my brain decided to write an unauthorized manuscript, I let the children be part of the process. It was incredibly rewarding.

So… that’s it. The sum total of the Advice That Doesn’t Change. Everything else is variable.

Here’s the thing. Writing is hard. Parenting is hard. Doing both together is hard. But it’s also exciting and relaxing and joyous and memorable. Don’t lose sight of that.

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