Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On writing and babies

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One of the things I was most nervous about when deciding to start a family was distancing myself from my artistic work. I knew time would be an issue; that my writing practice would change in many ways; that I wouldn’t be able to be as present in the professional scene I had been so engrossed in. I wanted to have children and to be with my children but didn’t want to sacrifice the career I had worked so hard to build up to that point. Not surprisingly, this is a common anxiety for most women who have chosen a career they feel passionately about. Many have written about achieving ‘balance’, about ‘having it all’ about being ‘a Super Mum’. In my experience, there is no ‘balance’, trying to ‘have it all’ is impossible, and I rarely feel Super. But in the super imbalance of trying to do it all, I feel a sense of pride and exhaustion and inspiration and power and exhilaration.

One thing that surprised me about having children was just how gendered the activity is. My husband and I (previous to having kids) lived equal lives by all standards. We both worked and were fulfilled by that work. We both participated (differently, but equally) in maintaining our home. We took time with one another and friends and we slept, of course, there’s that. I had thought having children would be an extension of that equality - that there would be a fair distribution of tasks and we would be united on this journey every step of the way. It turns out baby making is an extremely gender specific activity: all is not equal in parenthood. Breastfeeding a child means that child is attached, quite literally, to the mother. And while dad can hold her and walk with her to get her to sleep and make meals for mum, baby care is 90% mum. So … when to write?! When to read?! When to bathe?!

Here are a few things I’ve discovered about being a writer and a mum:

• I can’t be precious about circumstances around writing – when the baby sleeps, I write … no procrastination, no ‘I’ll just read the paper first’ … I just write until the baby wakes up. Then I stop.
• Structure is important. I find if I can create a really solid structure for a play I’m writing, breaking it down into scenes with very clear circumstances and objectives for the characters, I can compartmentalize the writing. I can write a scene during a nap and know where I am in the play.
• I have learned to adjust my expectations of myself. There is no way I can be as prolific as I once was, or keep as many projects in the air as when I didn’t have kids. I need to allow a writing process to take longer. That can be good for the work.
• I like to challenge ideas of the way things ‘should’ work. Most work places aren’t set up to accommodate breastfeeding mothers. But it’s always good to ask for space for a caregiver to sit with the baby, a room to pump in, an earlier start/earlier finish. I brought my baby to a retreat in Tadoussac and they were extremely generous in providing me with appropriate accommodation and access to childcare so I could write.
• When I have opportunities to workshop plays or be in rehearsals I book as many babysitters as necessary to make sure both children are well looked after. I don’t worry about the cost (and end up spending most of my fee on childcare). It’s worth it to dive wholeheartedly into a process.
• My family is incredible. My mother, my sisters, my in-laws … wow. I’m lucky to have so much support.
• There is no ‘equality’ – both my husband and I do what we are able to do when we are able to do it. Whoever can wake up wakes up. Whoever can be home is home. Whoever can do the laundry does the laundry.
• My husband is awesome.
• Everything is possible.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Erin Shields

Erin Shields is a playwright and actor who most recently won the Governor General's Award for her play If We Were Birds (Playwrights Canada Press). She is a founding member of Groundwater Productions through which she creates, develops and produces much of her work.

Go to Erin Shields’s Author Page