The circus act of writing and mothering – Ellen Wiles

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By Ellen Wiles

I often imagine what a maternity leave would have been like. A real maternity leave, I mean. I suspect a lot of other writer-mothers feel like this too. But in my case, the timing of my books and my babies seemed a bit like a taunt.♥

Just a week after my first baby was born in 2014 I was offered my first book deal. And just a week after my second baby was born in 2016 I was offered my first novel deal. All those things, individually, are wonderful, and I know I’m incredibly lucky – but having them happen together was a bit like being told, upon giving birth, that I had unexpectedly just had twins. Twice.

All this time I was supposed to be writing a PhD too – which, incidentally, I am still supposed to be writing. I had no idea how I was going to manage to produce the books I wanted to write and be the kind of mother I wanted to be.

Of course, many people, not just mothers, have to fit in their writing on the side of other things before they get published, and often afterwards too. I did, when I worked as a barrister, and it was full-on.

But having a baby while trying to write puts this juggling act on stilts. Not only does the baby swallow up most of your time, particularly in the early months, it swallows your energy, sucking away greedily at your nights and sending your hormones doolally. It is just so tempting to spend few precious hours of quiet time you have to yourself napping, or reading a magazine, or simply walking around in the fresh air pushing a silent buggy and thinking about nothing. And then, if you’re at home, there are always things that need doing urgently, starting with epic amounts of laundry.

When I had my first book-deal-with-baby, I decided that the only way was to be militaristic. I would take my laptop out with the buggy, and when the baby dropped off I would sit in a cafe or on a park bench and attempt to write.

When he was three months old, I joined a gym just so I could start leaving him in the creche there for up to two hours a day while I did a bit of writing in the cafe. It paid off: I produced the book on time. But it was exhausting, and I couldn’t help being jealous of the other mothers who seemed to have such flexible schedules and so much more time to chat and nap and play with their babies, at a time of their lives that I realise in retrospect was far too short.

When I got pregnant with my second child, I decided this was going to be a real maternity leave. I would take a year out from the PhD, and devote much more of my attention to bonding with the baby. But then, of course, I got my novel deal, just as it was dawning on me quite how much more difficult it is to look after two children under three than one tiny, sleepy-screechy baby.

I decided I would try the creche tactic again, but this time it didn’t work. My baby girl was having none of it. I still attempted to write during her naps, but wasn’t very productive. It wasn’t until she was old enough to join her brother at nursery for three days a week that I began to get back on track. Still, while I didn’t get as much writing done as I thought I needed to during those first six months, I did somehow manage to get the novel done on time in the end.

And now The Invisible Crowd is about to come out! A moment as terrifying as it is exciting. It is about an asylum seeker’s experience in the UK, and all the people he meets along the way, as imagined by his barrister (who’s a bit like I used to be). I hope people who read it are kind to it – just as I hope that people are kind to my human babies in this big wide world – but have to accept that this is mostly out of my hands.

Now I am supposed to be starting novel number two, and completing it in a year, which feels like a fantastical timeline right now. But if I keep to my brand-new schedule, this time founded on tag-team parenting, perhaps I’ll find a way to make it happen and keep my family happy. Cross your fingers for me! And good luck to all fellow jugglers-on-stilts.

Ellen Wiles’s debut novel, The Invisible Crowd, is published by HarperCollins. Her first book was Saffron Shadows (Columbia University Press, 2017). She is doing a PhD on live literature, is the director of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and lives in London with her husband and two small children.

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