Balancing writing and motherhood

Friday, September 25, 2015
By: 
Monica Dux interviewed by Michelle McLaren

Photo of Monica Dux
Monica Dux

Balancing your writing with caring for children isn’t always easy, but writer, journalist, editor and mother, Monica Dux is a veteran. She’s visiting Writers Victoria to lead a Writing and Parenting workshop, designed especially for new parents and their little ones.

Ahead of Monica’s class, she talked about her work as a writer, motherhood – and fatherhood – with Writers Victoria intern, Michelle McLaren.

As the editor of ‘Mothermorphosis’, you collected personal essays on motherhood from many of Australia’s most talented writers. How did this anthology come about?

‘Mothermorphosis’ was born from the conviction that authentic, honest, stories about motherhood are important.

When I published my pregnancy memoir, ‘Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting)’, I was taken aback at how many times I was asked if we needed another book about motherhood. As if motherhood wasn’t a subject that warranted much serious contemplation.

The curious thing is that we live in a society that fetishises motherhood, and at the same time, is averse to listening to honest accounts of the experience. Becoming a mother is an epic, life changing experience, yet here we are in 2015, still attempting to shunt these stories into the corner.

Susan Carland, one of the contributors to Mothermorhpohsis, beautifully summed up the central paradox which informs most good writing about motherhood, when she wrote: “My unique tale is just the same as yours”. This tension lies at the heart of many of the pieces in the collection – how to tell a story about something that happens to so many of us, yet is still unique, not to mention profoundly transformative.

You also wrote about motherhood in ‘Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting)’. What are some of the more unexpected challenges facing mothers who write?

One of the biggest things that writers struggle with is self-doubt, so being a professional writer requires a tremendous amount of self-motivation and self-belief. When you become a mother, many of these challenges are amplified, because suddenly you have a baby to take care of, which can so easily sideline your writing. It’s the classic conflict for many new mothers – being able to justify putting time aside to pursue something that often feels so amorphous, when you have a very real baby lying there, quite literally screaming for attention.

Even for the most determined, dedicated writer, it can be very hard to actually carve out time to write when you become a parent. And of course there’s the exhaustion that comes from caring for small children, which can make it hard to produce anything useful, even if you can find time to sit at your desk.

I drafted a chapter of my second book during a very difficult time in which my second child was waking just about every hour at night. I felt like I’d become a zombie. When I revisited that chapter to redraft it a year later, it hardly even made sense. Perhaps if I was trying to write something surreal and impressionistic, it would have been a real asset, but for research based nonfiction, it was far from ideal.

Like a lot of writers, I work from home and even today, with my children at school, I often find that the permeability of my work and domestic boundaries causes stress. In some ways this was easier when they were babies, and they didn’t even know where mum was when she disappeared into another part of the house to write. These days, I spent a lot of time explaining to my kids that mum might be at home, but that doesn’t mean she’s not working. And that the pile of paper I have next to my desk is for my printer, not for them to draw on. 

Do fathers who write face the same challenges?

It depends on what sort of father you’re talking about. We live in a society that assumes that the mother is the primary carer, which means it’s much easier for dads to get on with their professional lives, unencumbered by the emotional responsibilities that comes with caring for small children.

However, I think that if a father is fully involved in the care of his children, then he’ll likely face similar issues in terms of making time and space for his writing.

My husband is a screenwriter, who usually works from home, and he’s been an equal partner in the business of raising our kids. Even though we have this arrangement, he’s often come up against the assumption that the kids must be my primary responsibility. He’s sometimes had to work hard to convince employees that his parenting responsibilities mean he cannot always travel interstate at short notice, or move a deadline, or stay back late for a meeting. So in some ways the gendered assumptions we all make about parenting can actually create extra difficulties for a man who really is doing his bit.

You started to write when you were pregnant with your first child. Was there something about being pregnant that prompted you to begin writing at this time?

I’d been dabbling in writing for some time before becoming pregnant, including writing a column for the Sunday Age. When I found out I was pregnant, I had a sense that if I was going to make a real attempt at making writing my full time job, then this could be my last chance.

I made the incredibly naive assumption that having a baby would mean I’d have all this spare time to write, while the baby slept peacefully in the crib next to me, occasionally lifted up to feed from my breast. Of course I very quickly discovered how utterly deluded I really was.

Yet despite all the difficulties, my writing helped me hold on to an independent life during that first intense year of parenting. I got a book contract when my first child was only a few months old, so I suddenly had a deadline that was non-negotiable. This enabled me to take the time I needed to write, without feeling as guilty as I might if I had been writing speculatively.

When thinking about balancing parenthood and writing, it’s always the challenges that come to mind first. Can you tell us a few of the more rewarding aspects of being a writer and a parent?

I’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of flexibility over the years as a result of being a writer. It can be hard, being stuck around the home so much, but it can also be fantastic, being stuck around the home so much. Because, as naff as it might sound, kids are inspirational. I feel like my emotional life is very different from what it was before I had kids, and this has informed my work.

On a more practical level, I am so much more efficient than I was before I had kids. I used to waste so much time, because I had so much more time to waste. These days, if I’ve got a few hours to work, I make sure I use those few hours as efficiently as possible.

My nine year old son recently told me that he wants to be a writer, not because he’s so impressed with what I do (apparently I always complain about how poorly paid it is), but because he has developed a passion for storytelling. I’m sure that he’ll change his mind many times before he reaches job age, yet still, I was so excited that I had been able to pass my passion on to him.

I really do believe that, while being a writer is a perilous undertaking, it’s also a joyous thing to do. For all the challenges, having a passion for books and writing, and being in a position to write, is uniquely wonderful.

About Monica Dux

Monica Dux decided to become a writer when she was pregnant with her first child, a decision she only regrets when she’s on deadline and both her kids have gastro. She is the author of ‘Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting)’, co-author of ‘The Great Feminist Denial’, and editor of the anthology ‘Mothermorphosis: Australian storytellers write about becoming a mother’. She is currently a columnist with The Age and can be heard regularly on ABC radio. Monica is also one of the founders of the Stella Prize. You can find her at monicadux.com.au or on Twitter @monicadux.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She works as a freelance copywriter and writes about all things literary at Book to the Future.