Writer Moms: Can We Do Deep Work While the Kids are Home?
Ihad just finished wiping my four year old daughter’s bum when I noticed a slip of paper on the floor next to the toilet. A library receipt for Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which I’d returned several months before. On the back of the receipt were my notes:
“deep work creates flow, which is when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. The more flow in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction.”
I stood in the bathroom with the receipt in my hand, the weight of these handwritten notes settling in my chest. Although difficult and worthwhile, the effort I voluntarily devoted my life to for the past six years — raising children — wasn’t something I could ever accomplish. And while parenting often stretched my patience to its limits, it did not have that effect on my body or my mind. At least not in that flow-inducing way Newport described in Deep Work.
This existential, unsolvable predicament solidified into a definable crisis when I heard my daughter’s tiny voice from somewhere far, far away. “Mommy, I forgot to do the pee part on the potty!”
I crumpled the receipt on my way to find the mess, irritated by the realization that my satisfaction with life could hinge on something so simple. What I wanted was some flow every so often. What I was getting was a new mess to clean up every five or so seconds.
In that moment, my apparent lack of deep work seemed to be what was getting in my way. How would I ever finish the novel I’ve been working on for the past few years without this ever-elusive flow? More importantly, how would I ever be satisfied with my day-to-day life in its absence?
This was quite the conundrum for a stay-at-home mother who couldn’t even find a decent way to organize her notes. The bathroom floor, really? Anyway, let’s talk about deep work.
What is Deep Work and Who Needs It?
In Deep Work, Cal Newport, author and Georgetown computer science professor, addresses our society’s fragmented attention spans. He presents deep work, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” as an answer to our otherwise frenetic, multitasking-oriented work habits.
“[Deep Work is] a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep Work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.” — Deep Work, Cal Newport
Newport suggests knowledge workers, or those people whose industries require them to think for a living, are the people who benefit from deep work practices. According to Wikipedia, examples of knowledge workers are “programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and any other white-collar workers, whose…main capital is knowledge.”
Newport writes, “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration…. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”
A Different Type of Distraction
As someone who’s battled with a cell phone addiction over the past few years, everything about the concept of deep work made sense to me. I know my concentration is fragmented by texting, Instagram and email. I know I have difficulty accessing flow. I know I could get a lot further and deeper into my novel, maybe even finish it before I die, if I could, as Newport suggests, turn off the phone and spend three to four hours a day….five days a week…carefully and without interrupt….MOM!
“[INSERT UNREASONABLE DEMAND EXPECTED TO BE MET IMMEDIATELY HERE]!”
Newport claims the primary challenges to accessing deep work are social media, email, Internet news, meetings, inter-office instant messaging, texting, and conference calls. These constant interruptions hijack a knowledge worker’s ability to fall into the focus required to accomplish deep work. Newport’s solutions include turning off the cell phone and the web-browser. Time blocking. Scheduling your day so the shallow tasks are at the fringes, and the deep work is at the center.
Here’s the root of my very fraught relationship with Newport’s work: I believe with half of my soul that cultivating a writing life centered around deep work is a must for a writer, particularly a novelist. And with the other half of my soul, I don’t believe Newport’s ideas can be neatly applied to a fledgling writer who has little kids at home.
For such writers, finding the time to work deeply isn’t about turning off our phones and web-browsers or time-blocking. It’s about negotiating boundaries with our partners and children, it’s about fighting through sleep deprivation and succeeding in the seemingly never ending search for reliable childcare. It’s about moving past the guilt we feel when we try to make time for writing, a particularly challenging task when writing isn’t something we do to pay the bills.
Before we do any of the practical things we need to do in order to create space for deep work, we need to cultivate the belief that our creativity is worth all that trouble. If we can’t get there, we’ll never get to looking for the babysitter, and we’ll certainly never get to time-blocking.
That Flow, Though
Despite my understanding that, as a stay-at-home mother with small children, I’d have great difficulty finding time for deep work, I still couldn’t shake the notes I’d written on the back of that library receipt. I wanted to figure out how to get flow. I wanted to have more life satisfaction. I continued to read Newport’s newsletter each week, looking for insights and hacks that would get me closer to my writing goals.
I started adding routines and rituals to my writing life so I didn’t need to draw on my willpower in order to do good work. I started writing in the morning for two hours before my kids woke up. When they were at school for part of the day, I’d complete my shallow tasks like webinars, chatting online with writer friends, researching, reading, letting my mind wander. It seemed to be working. It wasn’t exactly what Newport prescribed, but I was making progress on my novel and I was starting to get into a little flow.
Then the (fairly) unexpected happened. COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. and life as most of us knew it was put on hold. My kids were home all the time and now I was their teacher. I sort of freaked out. I think everyone, including my friend, Cal, sort of freaked out. The frequency of his online newsletter doubled, mostly filled with stories of people digging into his deep work concepts in the time of quarantine.
While I was unconsciously experiencing the impact of my deep work practices disappearing without a trace, I also was reading about all of these people who were doubling down on deep work. I read Newport’s newsletter with the hope that I’d feel inspired and motivated. Instead, I felt disappointed and jealous. I found myself wanting a life of deep work even more than I had before. I knew I’d lost it when, after reading a story about a professional trumpet player who built a Deep Work Cabin in the living room of his apartment so he could practice in solitude, I started questioning why I hadn’t stuck with the flute past fifth grade. As if that would have solved all my problems.
I knew I needed to find something other than deep work to feed my writer’s soul. Something that would help me to get some writing done during the pandemic. So I did what I tend to do in times of writerly crisis. I sent a rambling email full of CAPITAL LETTERS to a few women writers who I knew would get it.
And, like they always do, these women came to my rescue.
This time my cry for help was to Jennie Nash, founder of Author Accelerator, the book coaching company I used to find my book coach, KC Karr, and one of the writers/coaches I’d connected with through the program, Georgina Green.
In her reply, Jennie suggested I might find comfort in the pages of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing memoir, A Circle of Quiet. “It’s about how she wrote a Wrinkle in Time at the kitchen table — and choosing to do that instead of make pie,” Jennie wrote. “It’s a very powerful story….. WHEN you have time, I would recommend it!”
George, in turn, suggested I might find comfort in the online writer’s group she was about to launch called Calliope’s Writers, a “community of mothers making space, time and energy for writing while raising children.”
I took both of their suggestions to heart. Ultimately, it was the collision of the comfort and support of these two women that helped me to see that my energies were being focused on something that was out of my reach, deep work, and that continuing to strive for deep work at this stage in my life might actually be harmful.
On the Calliope’s Writers home page, George writes, “[i]t’s damaging to imply there isn’t a basic level of reality that might hinder or limit us as we pursue our writing goals. Take care not to do harm to others or yourself by denying those realities.” This is exactly what I’d been doing by obsessing over the tenets of Deep Work. I was essentially gaslighting myself by continuing to believe I could achieve this type of workstyle while my kids were at home, doubly so when the pandemic stripped me of any semblance of solitude.
Instead of reading stories about single, childless people digging into deep work habits and building wooden cabins in their one-bedroom apartments, I needed to be consuming the stories and experiences of women writing amidst motherhood. I needed to be reading A Circle of Quiet.
“The various pressures of twentieth-century living have made it almost impossible for the young mother with pre-school children to have any solitude. During the long drag of years before our youngest child went to school, my love for my family and my need to write were in acute conflict. The problem was really that I put two things first. My husband and my children came first. So did my writing. Bump.” — Madeleine L’Engle
L’Engle’s words gave me life. If she found it difficult to find solitude, that very necessary prerequisite to deep work, how could I find it? In the midst of these little kid years, with my attention fragmented, not by social media, email, and texting, alone, but by honest to goodness in the flesh tiny humans whom I love from the depth of my soul, deep work isn’t just difficult to achieve, it’s impossible. And what a heavy burden we have as writers who mother, to simultaneously long for both the stillness and the family that we know will come together for a deeply fulfilling life.
Realizing this paradox took me deeper than I’d ever been before. Not into my work, but into my self, which brings with it a very different sense of satisfaction. It’s the peace that comes with accepting the unique beauty that my particular life is offering to me in this particular moment.
I now understand that, despite my belief that following Newport’s suggestions would surely lead to my satisfaction as a writer, Deep Work wasn’t meant for me. At least not right now. Deep Work was written for professionals who have the benefit of an office with four walls, mostly likely away from their homes and children, if any. Maybe I’ll read it again, when my kids are both in school.
This acknowledgment that my time for Deep Work will soon come brings with it another difficult set of realities I know will need to be addressed. The children will grow older, and their interruptions will dwindle. My role as their mother will change, as will the amount of time I have to nurture my writing practice.
As someone, somewhere once said, yes, we can have it all. But not at the same time. And, of course, as Madeleine L’Engle so brilliantly said of our ongoing fight to make space for everything we want anyway: