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“The best part about being a parent writer is children keep it real. I don’t have time to be precious or pretentious about my writing. I go for the stories that seem the most powerful, the most essential. I don’t waste time. I don’t have enough time to waste!” ~Marina Budhos, author.
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
MB: I am a full-time professor at a state university, William Paterson, where I teach in the English Department, both undergraduate and graduate students, as we have an MFA program. I teach creative writing and literature courses. So during the academic year, I’ve got a pretty busy load—classes, committee work, advising—which I do in addition to my writing. I adamantly don’t teach in the summer, nor do I seek out any opportunities to teach as I find this is my golden time to both write and think and be with my family in a more relaxed way.
I have two boys—one just finished his freshman year of college, and the other is 14 years old and about to begin high school. We live in a suburb (I like to think of it more as a town) right outside the city, in a medium-sized house literally crammed with books. We moved here so that we both could have more workspace, but we are running out of room …
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
MB: My husband is also a writer and a professor and since we’ve moved to Maplewood, NJ, he has also been based at home. So our house is a hub of living and working, and always has been. We’re both used to taking care of the morning responsibilities with the boys (though he does more in the morning as I am slow) and then rolling to our offices. Even though I can chafe at living outside the city, I think I knew this would be the best way for us to balance work and family life. I can be at my desk and the boys can be shooting basketball hoops just outside my window, or hanging out with the neighbors, or walking down into the village for pizza or ice cream or a movie. It just made everything very relaxed and most of the ferrying that they need is in under half an hour, and often just ten minutes across town.
I try to always have the morning for my writer/artistic self—it’s when my mind is like fresh-driven snow. But for a few rare instances, I have always taught in the afternoons or late mornings, and usually one evening a week. So I try to be in touch with my writing every morning. The weekends are a bit more catch as catch can. When the children were younger, it was impossible, and I accepted that I only wrote 5 days a week. The summers are glorious for writing—good weather and I can get up and write for as long as I need to, and also have time to go to the swimming pool, or go out, without stress.
We also always had an au pair living in the house when the children were younger—for the past few years we’ve had someone come two afternoons a week, where I know dinner is cooked and my younger son’s laundry done. This sounds very luxurious, but I knew early on that if I was going to keep going as a writer, I’d have to have certain structures in place—childcare was key and in the old days, flexibility, since both my husband and I travel for our books. It also meant my husband and I weren’t frayed squabbling about who did what in the house—he truly does as much as I do, and sometimes even more, since he likes to go grocery shopping and I hate it. I tend to be good at being a kind of executive, overseeing the structure, planning, organizing the house, and that way my sense of concentration isn’t so broken up. It also means that when I spend time with my kids it’s to hang out, or play a game, or read together, or watch a movie. There have been times when I’ve mused about not teaching, as I do handle a lot, but honestly, I like my job, and as well, working so hard ensures that we can afford to have this help.
In some ways my routine is the same as before children—working at home, in the mornings, especially. There are a lot more interruptions and To Do things banging into my brain all the time, but the underlying structure is similar. The difference is the end of the day/evenings. That is much more taken up with family.
The other thing that I think is often left out in these conversations is the responsibility of older parents. I had an elderly mother-in-law and later, an ailing mother, and that was as much on my mind as my children. So a lot of my family life was spent making sure we visited the two mothers, including them, and later, their medical care. So for me, the emotional toll of that was often far more difficult. Children, even when things are hard, bring you energy and the force of youth. You’re always learning and growing as a parent, even when it’s challenging.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
MB: Having a husband who does the same thing (and we also collaborate on books) makes it so much easier. I actually have no idea how I would have done it, if I had a partner who worked a high pressure corporate job, for instance. Even some of the loneliness of writing is cut out. Most of the time we are in our respective offices, but now and then we look up, chat, or even go for a lunch. It’s nice to have him there.
The other thing is I have built up just a few very close friends who are writers, some of whom live in the area, so we meet for long breakfasts or coffee. That has been huge for me. I’m a social person, and I need to feel a sense of tribal identity, especially with other writers, and especially women. In early motherhood I had local friends, but to be an artist is so specific—one leads great swaths of time alone, and some of the conversations and concerns did not resonate with me. I was so grateful to find my ‘tribe.’ One of my dearest friends lives part time in Texas, where she teaches, and part time in New York City, and we just call and check up on one another all the time. She does not have children but I feel she takes such pleasure and interest in mine that I feel like I have this profound sounding board in my life. We’ve helped each other enormously over the years with our development as writers, as professors, and simply as human beings.
Reading or going and seeing visual art or theater gets me in the state of mind for writing and being creative. Also, processing things in my journal helps enormously. And finally therapy. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve had the same therapist since my father passed away many years ago. It has not only helped me with profound issues, particularly around my family of origin and conflicts with my children, but it’s a zone where I think deeply about my work, its themes, and I can confront certain hesitations and fears.
The best part about being a parent writer is children keep it real. I don’t have time to be precious or pretentious about my writing. I go for the stories that seem the most powerful, the most essential. I don’t waste time. I don’t have enough time to waste!
PP: What’s challenging about it? What do you need?
MB: The part of having a professional writing life that I find challenging is not the writing itself. It’s the ‘business’ side, the networking side. I just don’t have either the time or energy to do much literary schmoozing. That’s what’s really different—when we had no children, my husband and I went out a lot, to readings, hanging out with other writers, making connections that are both artistic and might lead to other opportunities. We do a bit of that, but not as much, and honestly, I often just want to lie around and watch a TV series or read a book instead!
The hardest part for me right now has to do with having teenage boys with their own interests. Neither of them are novel readers; nor do they share the same internal literary passions that I do. That can be a bit lonely and their interests often collide with ours. I grew up hungry for any kind of art (as did my husband)—books, theater, visual arts—and they just don’t share the same cultural associations that my husband and I have. They oblige us, but it’s not quite the same.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
MB: I actually found that writing when the children were young was fun and energizing. We did have help, and they were so cute and lively. For me, the sheer physical fact of the children, touching, carrying, dressing them, was a pleasurable shot of energy. Family life flowed back and forth with creative life. We’d go on adventures and travels together or read books or have passionate dinner discussions and so it all felt of a piece. We traveled a lot when they were children—we did house exchanges and I feel those experiences, and our sense of adventure with them, fed me as a writer but also joined us in a curiosity about the world.
Teenage life, electronics, and the pressures of high school changed the dynamic and we can more be at odds. The children aren’t so obliging to our needs or interests, and so there’s a lot more negotiation and conflict, which can be exhausting. I think my older son went through a phase where he just wished his parents were normal corporate types who weren’t so passionate about their work; being with us felt like being at school, where we always demanded an intellectual conversation. Recently they told us that because we work at home, we’re always pushing to go to the city for a cultural adventure, whereas they just want to stay home, watch videos or play basketball.
The biggest tip I’d give parents is don’t fret about the small stuff. Just come up with a structure that allows you to have deep think space. Make use of your resources for help. I personally don’t think it matters for me to ferry a kid to a play date or game. It’s more important that I’m with them at night, having conversations, in touch with who they are at a given moment. It’s more important to save some of the high energy for them, rather than getting diluted with chores.
I think the other thing I’d do differently is find more ways to share books and creativity with them. We did it a lot when they were younger—we would build things, or make whacky videos or I’d collaborate with my older son who did his own made up songs about the family at the talent show. But I just presumed they were going to be readers and creators like us, and they aren’t, not in the same intense way. High school is so academic and they are often exhausted and need to zone out
Recently, because my fourteen-year-old is into music, and plays the piano, I’ve decided to take up piano lessons, so we can play together and share music. He is so happy with this decision and it made me realize that one should try to break down those necessary walls of creation and share more in a family.
So I guess that’s my big piece advice: compartmentalize and build structures to preserve your mental space, but remember to share what you’re doing with those you love.
Also beware of friendships and family dynamics that can pull you down into fruitless conflict. Be protective of yourself, your conditions for creativity. One needs a sense of expansiveness and permission and unhealthy relationships will restrict that state of mind. You’ll give more to your children if you are happy.
Marina Budhos is an author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the novel Watched, which received an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature YA Honor is an Honor Book for The Walter Award. Budhos is also the author of the novels Tell Us We’re Home, a 2017 Essex County YA Pick, Ask Me No Questions, which received a James Cook Teen Book Award, an ALA Best Book, among other awards, The Professor of Light and House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. Her newest novel, The Long Ride, about three mixed race girls during a 1970s integration struggle, is due out from Random House in 2019.
With her husband and co-author Marc Aronson, Budhos has published Eyes of the World: Robert Capa & Gerda Taro & The Invention of Modern Photojournalism, a YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, and Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom & Science, a Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist. Her short work has appeared in publications such as The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Awl, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Redbook, and in numerous anthologies. Budhos has been a Fulbright Scholar to India and is currently a professor of English at William Paterson University.