Today I Feel Tension (And other realities of the writing life)


I’m blessed to welcome a special guest. Erin Healy’s experience includes editing a dozen of Ted Dekker’s novels, co-authoring two bestsellers, and penning four supernatural suspense novels of her own. In the midst of all her work, she’s a mother who works from home. Balancing family and work is one of the toughest challenges of a writer. Today, Erin gives us a glimpse into her life along with some insight and encouragement on how to make it work.

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Photo Credit: Matthew Goulding

I’m writing this blog the day before it’s due, though I’d planned to do it sooner. This week my high schooler is ill and my preschooler has decided quiet time is for making noise. My trusted babysitter called in sick for our usual eight-hour Thursday, and school is out Friday. My water heater keeps overflowing and my dogs are going stir crazy due to rain. I had to schedule two appointments during my precious few work hours. Trips to the grocery store: four. To the gym: zero. The laundry still isn’t done and there is no clean underwear for tomorrow.

Just another week in the life of a work-from-home mom, right? At times like these I envy my husband each time he walks out the door to his eight-hours-a-day, child-free job. I’m lucky to get four disjointed hours of career time per day (not counting Thursdays, when they happen). And yet I am responsible for half our household income, plus health insurance for me and the kids. For me, this writing thing is no moonlighting gig.

I love my life. I mean that without irony. I hope I never again have to return to a little cubicle and inflexible work hours. This writer’s life, at home, with kids, is what some people dream of. It’s what I dreamed of.  But it’s not without its challenges—like how to find the time to do all our jobs well.

The actress Annette Bening once said that balance is overrated. Maybe so. Nevertheless, because I’m a mom who values deadlines as much as I value sending my family out the door in clean underwear each morning, I spend most days reaching for equilibrium.

On my better days, I accept that “balance” is really about making peace with the tension between competing priorities. I used to think that all tension is bad, that it benefits no one but massage therapists and marriage counselors, but this is not so. Without tension in their strings a kite can’t fly and a piano can’t make music. Without tension, drama is dull and emotion is flat. Without tension, there would be no salted caramel treats to entertain my tongue!

After more than ten years of working from home with children, here’s how I’ve come to think of time, teeter-totters, and  that ever-present tension …

Between the need for a schedule and the need to be flexible

I’ve lived on a pendulum that swings between control and abandon. I’m an uptight time manager who could schedule every minute of the day if the day would just stop coming undone by nine a.m. These days my prayer is based on Proverbs 16:9: “Lord, teach me to make plans that leave room for you to direct my steps.” My kids and I do best with routine, so at a minimum I guard the key hours: wake times, meal times, free times, bed times. Protect the routines that keep your family sane.

On Sundays I map out my work hours I need in the coming week, keeping in mind the dentist  appointments, the school potluck, the church gathering, and the laundry that must be done. I highlight these work slots on my  calendar, then say no to intrusions I can influence—the invitation to lunch (“maybe next week?”), the impromptu play date (“I can to a.m. but not p.m.”) and so on.

Beware friends and family who think that “flexible work hours” and “work from home” means you work fewer hours and have more time in your day than the average professional. Don’t hesitate to explain your reality to them.

Sometimes (like this week), each day has to be reinvented on the fly. Loved ones have crises. Snow falls. Cars break down. Productivity chokes. What can you do but go with the flow?

Between kids with you and kids with a babysitter

I budget for babysitting, but paying for too much additional help can feel counterproductive. My greatest source of help has come from my close community of other work-from-home-moms. We GET IT. We love kid swapping, and our kids do too. Find your peers at church, at your child’s school, at the coffee shop.

I think it’s okay at times to work while your kids play at your feet. It fosters their independence and lets them see an important side of who you are. Talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about what you do. Reading  to them isn’t your only chance to let them into your world of writing.

Between work life and family life

My desk is in my living room, within view of my kitchen. When work and family lives occupy the same physical space, honoring boundaries becomes a tough mental discipline. If you can, put your desk in a private space. When possible, take the kids away from the house or into another room where YOU won’t be distracted when playing with them. I make verbal promises that I know I can keep (“When I’m done with this chapter I’ll take you to the mall,” or “I’ll play Candyland with you for twenty minutes.”) When family interrupts work, let’s face it: family’s more important. I turn my back on the computer and look them in the eye. If I have to, I stay up late after everyone else has gone to sleep.

Between stuff you love and stuff you really love

Once I added up the number of hours I would need to do everything I wanted to do in a day, from working to exercising to playing to socializing to meditating to volunteering to writing to romancing to sleeping to reading to grinding my own buckwheat for homemade pancakes.  I needed something like thirty-four hours per diem to achieve this romantic life. I used to spend a lot of time stressing over how to get five-star meals and handmade Christmas presents done. This ended when I accepted my life as a series of seasons. Eventually I’ll get to do most of those things, maybe even all of them—just not simultaneously. Right now, my seasons are about mothering my kids (the time will fly) and building a career (slow and steady she grows). Once I accepted my limitations, I found them much more satisfying. This year I might not send Christmas cards. And that will be okay.

Between deadlines and downtimes

The writing life can be a crush of deadlines or a financial famine. We self-employed folks must constantly make adjustments. Have we taken on too much? Should we be expanding our skill sets and seeking new revenue streams? I don’t know any writers who’ve nailed the perfect balance. So maybe balance isn’t the point, after all. Maybe real wisdom—the kind that spills over into worthwhile writings—comes from the daily practice of living in the center of tension.

I’m finding that I kind of like it here.

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Erin Healy

Erin Healy is a bestselling novelist and long-time fiction editor. She is the author of The Baker’s Wife. She loves to interact with writers and readers, so stop by her Facebook page or her blog and say hi!

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  1. #1 by Denise D. Young on October 4, 2012 - 1:38 pm

    Excellent post, and exactly what I needed today. I often struggle to balance my day job with writing, a tough task once doctor’s appointments, veterinary visits for the pets, cooking/cleaning/balancing the checkbook, and spending time with my husband are all added in. Still, while balance can be elusive, I still think it’s worthy to look for it. Sometimes we’ll have it, and sometimes we won’t!

    • #2 by Becca Campbell on October 4, 2012 - 9:52 pm

      I agree. And even if we *can’t* actually achieve perfect balance, we should at least aim that direction, otherwise the scales can tip one way or the other.

      I can’t sacrifice my family for my writing and I’d be miserable if I let the creative side of my life fall off because of my family. So I guess I’ll keep plugging away for the ever-elusive balance.

      Thanks for stopping by, Denise!

  2. #3 by Stacy Bennett-Hoyt on October 4, 2012 - 6:59 pm

    Wow..sounds like my day-to-day life, sans the hubby working 8 hours in the office. Im a single work-at-home mom. Bless you for your zen approach to all of this. However, it is nice to realize that I’m not the only one whose day unravels by 9 a.m. ROUTINELY. Thanks for the reality check. Keep up the great work!!

    • #4 by Becca Campbell on October 4, 2012 - 9:57 pm

      Stacy – I can relate! The presence of a toddler in the home seems to necessitate the unraveling of pretty much every single day. I homeschool my kids, so there’s no break. I constantly feel like a pinball being shot from one to the other, trying to fulfill all their needs and take care of all the other household chores.

      But I also know this is a season of life that won’t last forever–not as long as it probably seems. So I’m always trying to remind myself to be grateful and try to enjoy it.

  3. #5 by Anna on October 9, 2012 - 11:58 am

    Awesome post! You just articulated the balance/tension thing I’ve been trying to figure out now that my son is a toddler. Thanks for your words of wisdom :-)

  4. #6 by Erin Healy on October 11, 2012 - 10:01 am

    We aren’t alone in this, are we? It only feels that way, working from home where we don’t “see” all the other moms in the same situation. I’ve spent the last week battling a virus. My son has it too. It’s really hard to work in this situation! But somehow … it will get done. It always gets done. Thanks for the encouraging words back, fellow travelers! EH

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