What to Write when on Paternity Leave
Our first child was born one month ago today. At least that is what the calendar tells me. The demarcation between days seems to have blurred into an endless stream of bleary eyed triage and trying to remember what it was like to sleep. But it’s brilliant. My wife is brilliant and my little son is brilliant and I’ve never been happier. Which is weird given how desperately I want to sleep.
Now I’d had plenty of time to plan for the arrival of this particular hurricane. I cleared my October short-story deadlines nice and early, and then the plan was to do the November Nanowrimo. I’d done sleep deprivation with the Navy and I was feeling confident; after all, the baby would have been with us for almost two weeks by the time it got going.
Yes, I can hear you laughing at past-Keith now. I’m laughing at him as well.
I was having second thoughts about this plan even before the baby arrived. Nanowrimo is crazy hard work at the best of times, but that wasn’t really the issue. Because I was thinking that maybe I should take paternity leave.
Parental leave is important for all sorts of reasons that this blog isn’t really about. I wanted to be around to support my wife. I wanted to be there to experience my sons first days. These were all things that fed into my decision to step away from a legal career to pursue my writing in the first place. But taking time off is weird and difficult for the self-employed. There’s no holiday pay for writers. If you don’t work there’s no-one else in the office to pick up the slack. There is always a sense that you should be working, and it is difficult to get away from.
Additionally, I’m not sure I’m capable of not writing for a whole two weeks. Taking projects through to their conclusion, sure, I can fail to do that; promptly updating the website is easy to miss as well. But I’m always scribbling, noting things down, pushing on stories in the middle of the night when the breakthrough comes in a dream or when I’m sketching or listening to a piece of music. Would taking paternity leave mean not writing at all?
I don’t think I could do that. So, I figured, drop any deadlines for November, and scribble away at Nanowrimo whenever the baby is sleeping. What could possibly go wrong?
Stop sniggering at the back.
I actually wrote quite a bit during the first week that the baby was with us. It’s a pretty inspiring experience and I have some notes for some pretty cool body horror short stories that may see the light of day eventually. It was a good way to process what was going on. But it wasn’t much to do with Nanowrimo.
My Nanowrimo novel became a struggle real fast. It turns out that newborn babies don’t sleep very much. The books tell you that new babies sleep 16 hours a day. Either our little one is a freak or this is a lie. For the first few days you think its ok; sure, you’re not getting any complete nights, but there’s time to do things around the baby (like trying to figure out how to put their clothes on). Then the baby recovers from the birth and things get much, much worse.
On top of this, there’s a huge difference between normal baby cries and the cries of your own baby. Normal baby cries are pretty annoying. Your own baby’s cries are like someone sticking a drill in your temple while attaching electrodes to your testicles and making you watch endless repeats of The Only Way is Essex. I defy anybody to write anything more than “AAAAAAAAAARGH!” while their newborn baby is crying. Ok, you can do it, but it is much, much harder than usual.
Fatherhood is wonderful, by the way. You’re going to have to take my word for it. But when you’ve eventually got him to stop crying the only thing you’re capable of doing is crawling off to sleep; and you better do it, because you’ve got maybe ninety minutes before he starts again. Apparently this is the first rule of parenthood: when the baby sleeps, you sleep. The second rule of parenthood? Don’t ask me, I’m going to bed.
Except I am still me and I’m not off to bed; I’m going to pick up a pen or a paintbrush and write something, which explains why the bags under my eyes are now larger than my eyes and making a push towards my chin. But it’s really hard to focus on writing what you should be writing, instead of writing for pleasure, or writing whatever it is that is waking you up at night. To top it all off, about a week and a half after the birth I got an important non-fiction commission that I just couldn’t say no to. So that was the end of Nanowrimo. I think I’ve written 3000 words of my novel in 30 days.
So what are the lessons for writing? I guess the first one is that you should just forget about the first month after the baby arrives. Maybe the second month as well, I’ll let you know. This is in part because you will be too exhausted to function properly. It’s also because, when you do write, maybe it is best to take advantage of where you are in your life and write about what you are experiencing. The clichés are true. There’s no experience as powerful as holding your first child in your arms. And, alongside the moment I first saw her in her wedding dress, I have never loved anyone or anything as much as I loved my wife when I saw her with our baby. It really is worth the sleep deprivation and mountains of baby shit to have a feeling like that. And if you write, you’re going to want to write about that.
There are other life events where this counts. Funerals, divorces, graduation, moving house: all the big, stressful stuff. If you’re a writer you’re going to write anyway. There’s probably nothing you can do to stop that. But block out your calendar, cancel all deadlines you can, and when you write just write from your heart. You’ll need it to survive.