I used to think I was pretty smart, so when my husband and I decided to start a family, I wasn’t too worried about whether I knew what I was doing. Likewise, when I decided to write a novel, it didn’t look that hard, either.
Well let me tell you, writing and parenting are two of the most complex, and humbling, challenges I’ve ever undertaken. Here are five of the top lessons I learned along the way.
1. Be flexible, learn from your mistakes, and be willing to revise as you go.
I recall the first writing group I ever attended, a group of 10 people with varying experiences in the literary world. At my first meeting, I was invited to read aloud the three opening pages of the first novel I’d ever written (which remains, thus far, buried somewhere in my laptop’s midsection). Those pages had no violence, no sex, no cuss words, but nevertheless it was met with widened eyes and mouths gaping open. Immediately after I read my piece it was determined we all needed to take a coffee break, during which the group chattered nonstop about what I’d submitted, their opinions scattered along a wide spectrum ranging from disapproval to applause. I learned that day that I needed to make revisions to come up with a novel that would satisfy a larger percentage of my readership.
Parenting is similar: whether it’s a household rule you’ve imposed, a consequence you’ve designed, or a road trip you’ve planned, the most important lesson is staying fluid and realizing that others (your children, especially) will think you’re making the wrong move. Sometimes they’ll be wrong. Sometimes they’ll be dead on right.
2. Do the right thing and stay true to your values, even if it means you’ll be challenged or underappreciated, or worse.
When one of my sons was in fifth grade, there was a boy in his classroom who picked on him incessantly. When it appeared the teacher and principal were not about to intervene, I decided to take the matter into my own hands. I figured it was a learning opportunity for both boys. So I went into the school one morning with my son and we had a nice little chat with the other boy. Unfortunately, the principal was furious that I’d done so, and things got ugly between the school faculty and me thereafter. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say my son learned a lot more about human nature that day than what we’d originally intended. And you know what? I’m glad he did, and I’d do the same thing all over again.
3. You matter.
I recently read a blog by Chuck Wendig for writers, and one of the things he said struck me as being true about parents, too.
“Who you are matters. Your experiences and feelings and opinions count. Put yourself on every page: a smear of heartsblood.”
How this relates to writers of stories may be fairly clear; a story will be far more interesting if the writer delves deep enough into each conflict to discover and reveal the underlying human issue. But how does it relate to parents?
Here’s an example: One of my sons once told me it was annoying whenever I cried. Not that I was a crybaby, or a drama queen, but there were times over the years when sorrow or stress (or premenopause) overcame my abilities to stay strong. Tears would fall. And now that I look back, I’m glad they did. We’ve had several family losses recently, and this same son has been there for me, has been able to give me a look that shows that he understands, and has accepted my tears while occasionally shedding a few of his own, too. I’d like to think I smeared my heartblood on his pages. That little-old-annoying me mattered.
4. Be open to new information (while remembering that no one knows your work, and your intentions, as well as you do).
There are presently 101,619 books on parenting on Amazon and 25,948 selections on how to write books. A few years ago, I took inventory of the number of how-to-parent and how-to-write books collecting dust on my own shelves. There were about 35 of each! Some had been given to me as gifts, some I’d acquired as hand-me-downs, and some I’d purchased outright.
Funny thing was, the more I read, the more complicated both writing and parenting seemed to be, especially when supplemented with a gazillion articles on each topic and all the advice you get from other people (whether it’s how to get your child to brush his teeth or how to market your book on social media). The more I read, the more I found myself becoming confused, losing focus, and deferring to others (my husband, a teacher, an editor) to make decisions I should have been making myself. Finally, I figured out the best thing to do was chuck them all (or most of them anyway). The best parent, and writer, is the one who remains true to her authentic self.
5. Enjoy the process, because change is inevitable. Need I say more?
In closing, I just want to mention that I’ve had countless people tell me how impressed they are that I wrote a book. I’m grateful for those accolades, but I find it interesting that far fewer people have said they’re impressed that I raised three sons. Both parenting and writing are really hard jobs. But there’s no question in my mind which is more difficult, more rewarding, and more life-changing.