Writing through the Fog

One of the biggest and unexpected challenges I faced after having my first child was the compartmentalization of time and the pure exhaustion of surviving on little to no sleep for nearly a year. Now I feel like I am a pro at living on no sleep, as I have a 17 month old who still wakes up half the night needing attention and I’m just used to it at this point.

Before my first child arrived I had enjoyed years of uninterrupted sleep coupled with weekly outdoor hikes and daily trips to the gym. My time was my own, and, because of this, I felt refreshed and energized every time I sat down to write for the day.

Then baby #1 arrived, and my time became a precious commodity that I had to carefully manage. I could no longer sit down and have an entire day on the weekends to write. My days were now broken into small bits of time in which writing could get done, usually an hour or two at best. This was a far cry from that which I had become accustomed, where I would have a full 8 hour day ahead of me to write and spend as I please.

Once I had time to write I often felt too exhausted to type a sentence let alone an entire paragraph’s worth of a book chapter or article. I would sit and stare aimlessly at the computer screen wondering where to start. All of these compounding factors weighed on me. A few months after having baby #1, I struggled to envision ever writing a good piece of scholarship. How could I possibly concentrate and enjoy my work when my brain was half awake from sleep deprivation?

Some people call it “baby brain.” Many friends have described it as a fog, where everything around you is blurry and unclear. Even if the tenure clock stops for a year, most tenure track faculty do not have a “year” to sit around waiting for the words to come or an article to magically write itself. The pressure was on me to get things out of the door, and I knew that well. I knew I had to find a way to write through the exhaustion.

So how do you do it? Here are a few things that have helped me along the way:

  • Use maternity leave as maternity leave. The fog fades away if you rest and take care of yourself (to heal, to enjoy baby, to get in a schedule (feeding/sleep/play/etc.) with baby). 

With my first, I spent most of my maternity leave worrying how I would get back in the swing of things and start writing again. I thought I would never be able to write again because I was so consumed with my exhaustion and its impact on my memory.  Much to my surprise, I managed to write an article (now in a peer reviewed journal) when I was about 4 months postpartum. With my second, I took an even longer leave from writing my book – about 6 to 7 weeks total. When I returned to the project, I felt energized and refreshed despite having an infant who did not sleep very well.

  • Try to work on something related to writing and/or write every day, even if it is only for 15 minutes.

For me, it is very important to keep the project fresh in my memory, which means that I need to spend time on it daily. We can all find 15 minutes a day to Facebook, to call a friend, and to text, so we should be able to make at least 15 minutes a day for our writing. This could mean trying to write a certain section of the article, catching up on reading/background research for the article, or brainstorming the article’s layout. I’ve found that when I work on something daily, I more motivated and excited to return to it because I feel like I am making progress (even if it isn’t substantial progress).

  • Keep a writing journal and/or keep track of your activities.

I don’t keep a formal writing journal per se, but I do keep track of my progress in the document on which I am working. I note what I did in terms of working on the article each day that I write – I note what articles/books I read, what I need to read the next day, and what I wrote for the day. I reflect on where the project might be going (e.g. “I need to work on editing the introduction,” “I need to write a transition sentence between paragraphs on page 2,” “I don’t think I’ve read all the literature pertaining to subject x on page 4″). I leave very, very specific notes in my documents so that I know where I left off and what needs work. I have a difficult time getting started with my writing each day, and notes from the night or day before reminding me what I need to do and what I was working on help me get back on task quickly if I have been away from the document or project for a day or two.

  • Multi-task by combining play with work.

People who know me know that I am a big fan of multi-tasking. After having my son, I made sure I took long walks with him in the baby carrier and my toddler daughter in the stroller. I would take these walks to relax myself, and I would also use them to think about my writing since both children were fairly quiet during the walks. I would reflect on my writing as I exercised and enjoyed the sun.

During my walks with the kids, I would also make sure to do all the errands I needed to finish by the day’s end. I would use my walks to return library books, since we live close to campus. I bought groceries, went to the post office, checked my office mail, and jogged in the same trip.

  • Above all – cut yourself some slack – things WILL get better.

As I mentioned, I was very hard on myself after my first arrived and writing became an obstacle rather than something I enjoyed. You will not be able to perform at the level you did prior to kids when a baby first arrives, but eventually you will get back in the swing of things and be able to produce good scholarship. I only wish that someone told me it does get easier, and that your brain will eventually learn to operate on autopilot without the same amount of sleep you enjoyed prior to children.

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