The last two years have been a time of huge change in my life. Those of you who listen to the podcast or follow me on Twitter will know that most of it has been absorbed and illuminated by Seth and Jasper, my twin boys, now 18 months old.
I hope that from the snippets of family life that I post online, you’ll have seen how much love and laughter they’ve brought us. They’re funny, adventurous and completely in love with the world. Being a first-time parent to twins has been and continues to be, despite its logistical challenges, a wonderful experience.
However, in being a first-time parent, you can easily forget that you are anything else, like someone with interests, hobbies and friends. In a world of nappies, bottles and intense purée production, it’s a challenge just being a normal person.
And while I think I’ve made a good fist of being a normal person, it’s important to remember that being a normal person to me means something different to being a normal person for a lot of other people.
What is normal?
It’s a crude generalisation, but I think for many people, normal is to get up, go to work, come home, eat, watch TV, maybe enjoy a hobby, then go to bed.
I don’t mean that to be as derogatory as it perhaps sounds. To put it another way, I don’t think it’s normal at all for someone to get up, go to work, come home, eat, then spend their evenings – pretty much every evening – writing fiction, writing blog posts, recording podcast episodes and generally pursuing various creative avenues.
Yet that’s what I’ve done for the last 10 years and I dare say that if you’re reading this, you might be in a similar position. Certainly, I know I’m not unique and as I’ve said many times before, if you want to create anything of worth and significance, you need to make sacrifices.
That’s what creative people do. We say no to friends and family so that we can take ourselves away and make things. However, as a parent to twins, I’ve come to realise that a) some sacrifices are easier than others, and b) some sacrifices are simply not acceptable at all, no matter what.
For a long time, it was normal for me to spend my evenings and weekends writing and working on my creative projects. I now find that impossible. My normal has changed.
Writers write (when they can)
Writers write. Bum in chair. 1000 words a day. If you’ve ever sought any kind of writing advice, especially from the internet, you’ll have heard these mantras a million times. I’m sick and tired of them.
First of all, how stupid are we supposed to be? Anyone who has any real interest in writing is keenly aware that the words don’t magically appear on the page. We also know that to write every day would likely lead to better work and a healthy routine.
As advice, these mantras are not only obvious, they are patronising and unhelpful. Writers are human beings with jobs to hold down, children to raise and a whole host of other life commitments.
I’d like anyone planning to write yet another blog post in which they lecture to the rest of us from the perceived sanctuary of some unpaid-for high-horse, insisting that to write a bestselling anything we must get our good-for-nothing arses in our chairs, buckle the hell down and stop complaining, to think about whether they could be doing something more useful instead.
Is their idealistic badgering really going to help a teenager working two or three jobs to fund their college course? A single parent with mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay? Unless it comes with practical steps that will help people fit their writing into their lives, this ‘advice’ is little more than thoughtless guilt-mongering.
Certainly, as a first-time parent to twins and with a full-time job, anyone who tells me to just write can, frankly, shove it up their arse. I write when I can. I’m doing my best.
The biggest change to my normal is that, like all parents to toddlers, I now function on far less sleep than I did before. That’s an appropriate word because it’s how sleep deprivation makes you feel, actually. That you are merely functioning.
Strangely, when you are expecting a baby (or two), people make jokes about this problem. They offer helpful advice and anecdotes on all manner of parenting problems, but the sleep issue seems to be the one thing that, apparently, new parents must experience without any preparation.
“You’ll not be getting much sleep,” they snigger. “You’ll not know what day it is,” they chortle. “And you’ll have two of them!” they used to add, delighted, especially for us.
I’ve since found that being a parent involves a number of learnable tasks that you improve at with practise and the more you know your baby. The challenge is doing so while operating – physically and emotionally – several notches below what you have previously been able to.
No one prepares you for that. There is no class to attend or back of a box to read. All you can do – you and your partner, if you’re fortunate to have one – is stick together and try not to drown.
That’s why whenever me and my wife have had any free time since the boys came along, we’ve largely spent it together. Before, I might’ve used it to work on my first novel or some other creative project. Now there’s no contest. That time has more value. It’s so precious.
Not being there
So yes, my normal has changed. Being a dad is the best thing in the world, but not having the time to do the things that come natural to me has been difficult.
I’ve never believed in the idea of a muse, and now more than ever I think having ideas and inspiration is all about being in the right frame of mind. It’s hard to be in the right frame of mind though when you’re consumed by parenthood and deprived of sleep.
That’s been the hardest part. Being there at my desk, but not being there. Being unable to switch from twin dad to published author. Being willing to work but unable to muster the strength to make something happen.
However, things are changing. I’m beginning to forge a new normal.
In the last few months, instead of panicking because I’m not able to lead the creative life I once did, I’ve started finding ways to live the life I have now. It’s an infinitely better life, just one that needs a little more planning and organisation.
My new normal
First, I’ve been a parent 18 months and while having twins has its challenges, I more or less know what I’m doing now. We have our routines. We’ve reclaimed our evenings. I get far more sleep.
Second, I no longer wait until I’m at home and on computer before I get things done. Instead, I fill any natural gaps that might arise throughout the day. For example, most of my second novel so far has been written on my iPad mini in a coffee shop on my lunch break. And many link posts on this blog are found, read, arranged and published via my iPhone. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Third, I take far less interest in how other people approach their writing. While knowing how others work can be interesting and useful, it was getting me down. It only emphasised my own struggle to find the time and energy to write. I still read and keep track of a few favourite sites, but I don’t check my RSS reader with the same kind of verve.
Fourth and finally, you may or may not have noticed that I don’t post to social media as much as I used to. There was a time when I used Twitter an awful lot. For conversations. For finding news and links. For flogging my wares. Now I post more infrequently and there’s been no negative impact. I don’t have a lot of extra time, but I do seem to have more space to think and focus.
Not the same, but better
For some people, writing is a hobby that they can dip in and out of. If they don’t do it for a while, it’s no big deal. But for many others, writing is a fundamental part of who they are. Take it away or make it difficult and in time, it will affect their general wellbeing.
There have been times in the last couple of years when, despite having my first novel out in the world and doing well, I’ve not felt like a writer at all. Now I see an altogether different future, where the sheer joy of being Seth and Jasper’s dad sits perfectly with me being me, that author chap with the blog and podcast.
Sometimes when you’re finding things difficult or you’re going through a life-changing event, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. You only understand what’s happening to you once it’s been and gone.
But remember that what was normal for you before may not be normal for you again. We are pliable beings that can be moulded and changed. Eventually, through patience and persistence, a new normal will emerge. And more often than not, you’ll be all the better for it.