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“I’m grateful for the flexible schedule that allows me to spend time with [my kids], but I’m also grateful to be able to model for them an occupation that oftentimes feels in direct contrast to the technology-driven culture of instant gratification, busywork and superficial thought that surrounds us.”
-Anjali Mitter Duva, author of Faint Promise of Rain, She Writes Press.
PP: Describe your life in the context of writing, parenting and other employment (if applicable).
AD: I have two daughters, ages 5 and 11. I live just outside of Boston, in a suburb that is close to the city but also has many wonderful parks, conservation land, nearby farms, a bike path and a swimming hole.
I am working on a set of four historical novels, each taking place at a time of major socio-political upheaval in India that is reflected in the tradition of kathak, a classical dance of North India that I began studying in 2001. The first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, set in the 16th century just at the start of Muslim rule in what was a predominantly Hindu land, came out in 2014. I’m at work on the second book, set at the beginning of British rule in the 1850s.
PP: How do you integrate creative writing into your parenting/work responsibilities?
AD: Every day is different as I juggle various activities, and that’s something that gives me energy. That said, I do try to focus my book writing time in the mornings while the kids are in school. But first my family has a sit-down breakfast together, which takes some effort but is something about which we feel strongly. Then, once the kids are in school, I check in with my neighbor to plan out the logistics of the day. (More on that below.) Once we’ve divvied up the errands, kid pick-ups and dinner planning, I leave the house to research and write.
Most of the time, I head to a wonderful little local café. I find the hubbub easier to block out than the quiet of the house (and its attendant chores that sit and stare at me—breakfast dishes, laundry, etc.). I’ve also made many friendships with other creative folk who use the café as an office. Around lunchtime I head home and often run some errands on the way—groceries and such. I then squeeze in some time to tend to more task-oriented activities: a lot of emails, responding to interview requests, promotion tasks for my book, sending out queries for speaking gigs, that type of thing.
For many years I was also freelancing as an urban planner and project manager, as well as running an arts non-profit that I co-founded. But after my second child was born, and especially as I was preparing to launch my first book, I had to cut down on some of those activities. At 2:30, when school lets out, I turn back into Mommy (or “Maman,” as my kids call me, since I speak French with them). Two days a week they are in after-school, which gives me a bit more time. The other afternoons I spend with them, take them to French, swim, etc. Toward 5:30 pm there’s a general gathering with the neighbor’s kids (again, see below) and dinner prep, etc.
“My family has for the past 12 years been intertwined with another multi-cultural, two-kid family with whom we share child care, errand-running, meal preparation, and even vacations to places near (Cape Cod) and far (Vietnam).”
We’ve always had family dinner any night my husband can get home in time. Over the past 18 months since my book came out, there have been several evenings a month that I am out speaking/reading at events, but that’s one of the times when my support system has been invaluable.
PP: Tell us about your support system. What helps?
My support system is something for which I am tremendously grateful. On the one hand, I have a spouse who is steadily employed, and who is unwaveringly supportive of my writing career. This is very significant, and not something I take for granted.
The second aspect of the system is the unusual and life-changing arrangement my family has created with another family. A local publicist who became fascinated with this arrangement (as many people apparently do when they hear of it) interviewed me a few years ago on this subject. The interview is from four years ago, before my book was published and when my youngest was still a toddler, but it’s all still completely relevant. In short, my family has for the past 12 years been intertwined with another multi-cultural, two-kid family with whom we share child care, errand-running, meal preparation, and even vacations to places near (Cape Cod) and far (Vietnam).
The arrangement began by happenstance right around when each family, living in the same building, had their first child. None of us have family around to help out (my closest relative lives in NYC and my parents are in France) and so we created our own village. This system has been key to my being able to pursue a creative career, and it’s had myriad other advantages, too, not just for me but for my husband and children.
PP: What’s awesome about being a parent who writes?
AD: As mentioned above, my semi-communal arrangement with another family has been key to my sanity and my career as I juggle those with my role as a parent.
I’m fortunate that at the moment I’m not also juggling a job. I do still volunteer for the arts non-profit I co-founded, Chhandika, where I taught for many years, and I run the Arlington Author Salon, and for the past three years I’ve run a monthly children’s book club, so there are certainly other demands on my time, but the lack of pressure from another job is key. My work-life balance, therefore, benefits from the fact that I’ve been able to link all my activities to my writing, my family, and my interests. They’re all interconnected.
“My children are witnessing me spending years on a project. They are learning to respect the time and intellectual effort it takes to produce creative work.”
The dancing gave me the inspiration for my writing. The writing and parenthood inspired the book club. My interest in community and books combined with my background in urban planning to spur me to create the author salon as a means of contributing to the cultural fabric of my town. I’ve tried to weave all the pieces together so that they fit to make a cohesive and balanced whole. Of course, it’s not all balanced all the time…
Watching my daughters grow into little (and not so little) people, I’m grateful for the flexible schedule that allows me to spend time with them, but I’m also grateful to be able to model for them an occupation that oftentimes feels in direct contrast to the technology-driven culture of instant gratification, busywork and superficial thought that surrounds us.
My children are witnessing me spending years on a project. They are learning to respect the time and intellectual effort it takes to produce creative work. They can actually see me at work, attend my events, and eventually read my books. It’s a way to share my career with them that is very gratifying. And it doesn’t hurt that they both love books.
PP: What’s challenging about it?
AD: It’s hard. There’s no question about it. Keeping the creative thread alive, maintaining one’s train of thought when one has to drop it all to tend to a baby, a toddler, a tween, a teen, is a difficult mental exercise. One thing that helped, although I did not plan it this way, was to have my children six years apart. Even as a new mother, I felt I could hang on to my projects, work on them here and there even as my baby napped or spent a few hours with a sitter. I never felt so sucked into parenthood that I had to let go of myself, as it were. And by the time the second child came along, the first one was six, and in school, and generally able to be of some assistance, or at least to not make huge demands of me.
Nonetheless, I’ve had to learn to switch gears instantly, to close my computer mid-thought at 2:25 pm and listen fully to my children’s chatter about school at 2:30, then go back to that thought at 9 am the next day. I’ve also learned to be patient. I can’t do it all at once, so my first book took 10 years to write and publish, and I had to drop out of teaching dance because of the time requirements, and I can’t attend most of the cultural events I’d like (who can?!), and I just don’t have much down time, but I’ve had to accept these facts.
“I also find it challenging to be as involved in the literary community as I’d like, given that most events, understandably, take place right around dinner time on weekday evenings, right when it is nearly impossible for me to leave the house.”
I dream of some kind of subsidized, accessible program, preferably in a beautiful natural setting, to which writing parents could go with their children during school vacations. There would be little writing studios where the parents would work while the children enjoyed camp-like activities run by counselors. Meals would be taken all together, and evenings would include a variety of literary programs (workshops, readings) and family events. A retreat for everyone. Wouldn’t that be nice?
I definitely struggle with not having long chunks of uninterrupted time. Having to work in short bursts of 2-3 hours makes it hard to get to—and stay in—that place where creativity really gets going. I also find it challenging to be as involved in the literary community as I’d like, given that most events, understandably, take place right around dinner time on weekday evenings, right when it is nearly impossible for me to leave the house.
Finally, being the spouse with the “flexible” schedule means that I absorb all changes (planned and unplanned) to the schedules of the rest of my family: if a child is sick, I’m the one to stay home with her. If my husband is stuck late at work, I’m the one to cover all parenting duties, or to scramble together childcare coverage if I’ve got a commitment of my own. It becomes difficult to plan my writing time when so much is out of my control. Birthday parties, play dates, dentist/doctor/orthodontist appointments, swim classes, materials for school projects, grocery lists, new shoes/clothes, volunteering at school, summer camp research and sign up, all these things are constantly going swirling through my mind in the background, and shutting off that incessant chatter in order to plunge into my creative work is a serious challenge.
PP: What’s your advice for other parents who write?
AD: I don’t think one can ever really be prepared for parenthood—the demands on one’s time, body, emotions, but also the visceral joys of holding a little hand down the street, of feeling a warm, trusting body succumb to sleep on one’s lap. What I really wish I’d known ahead of time pertains to the writing world and just how all-consuming the double job of book writer/promoter is.
“My biggest piece of advice is to create a support network for yourself right in your neighborhood.”
I hadn’t anticipated that second part, the one in which the writer has to do so much work, especially as a debut author, to promote her writing and reach her audience. I thought it was difficult to juggle writing and parenthood as I wrote my first book, but little did I know it would become so much more of a challenge once my book was en route to publication!
My biggest piece of advice is to create a support network for yourself right in your neighborhood. Cultivate a very local community of like-minded folks. Be generous in helping others. Accept help yourself. Share tasks. Pool resources. Raise your children with the gift of community. Everyone will benefit.
PP: How has parenting and writing changed as your children have grown?
AD: In the beginning, it felt as though parenting and writing were two separate worlds. I had to close the door to one to walk through the door to the other. Now, the gap between the two is narrowing. For one thing, I’m able to explain my activities to my children in a way that makes sense to them. I can say “I’m just finishing the outline of this chapter and then we can read a book together.” They get it. Similarly, it’s been easier for me to go out in the evenings to read or speak (and dance!) at events because they understand why Maman is going out as part of her work, and that these events are important to me. And they both express a sense of pride that I’m an author, which is just lovely. I’m looking forward to the time, only 3-4 years away, when my books will be age-appropriate for my eldest daughter to read. Perhaps it will be a pick for her book club!
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Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer who grew up in France and has family roots in Calcutta, India. After completing graduate studies at MIT and launching a career in urban planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Her first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is due out with She Writes Press in October 2014. She is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. Anjali lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters, and is at work on her second novel, set in 19th century Lucknow.
The Pen Parentis Research Project is a series of interviews with parent authors in order to learn how they mange time, publish, earn a living, nurture creative community, and care for their kids. Managed by Mary Harpin, the project will culminate in a book with stories, data, and helpful information that other parent writers can apply to their own lives.