A few thoughts on following your dreams while putting your family first
Dear Friend Who Sent Me this Text Yesterday:
Hi. Great to hear from you. And sorry about my short reply. I intended for that to be a wry lead-in to a longer response, but it ended up being the kind of afternoon where things devolved in such a rapid and startling way that I really did end up wishing for cages and juice boxes.
Anyway, it’s funny that you should ask this, since I’ve been talking about it with a lot of other friends lately as well. Not all of them are writers, but they’re all asking questions about how to pursue their passions fits into a family-focused life.
I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have all the answers. There are days when I spend too much time online and not enough time with my kids; there are also days when I tell myself that I’m not getting any writing done because I’m making my family my top priority, when by “making my family my top priority” I mean “watching Netflix.” So if you asked me that question because you perceive that all my days are a marvel of balance and peace where I manage to surpass my writing goals while lavishing my children with hours of focused attention, delete my number from your phone so that you never make such a grievous error again.
I also can’t tell you exactly when you might find some extra hours in your day, since what works for me right now (writing during naptime and staying up too late) won’t necessarily work for you — it might not even be what works for me a couple of months from now. However, if you texted me because you’re morbidly curious about the life principles that allowed a homeschooling mother of six children under age 10 to get a book written, or you’d like to know which bits of wisdom I’ve collected from people far holier and wiser than I am that have helped me over the years, I’m happy to share.
Here is a brain dump of everything I know on the subject:
1. Make sure this activity gives you energy
This sounds like an obvious question, but it’s worth taking a second to stop and ask yourself, Is this something I really love?
If your life is anything like mine, you have precious little free time, and even less extra energy. You don’t need to add more work to your schedule. However, if you pursue a passion that gives you energy when you undertake it, it can be a blessing to both you and your family.
A friend of mine refers to finding this kind of work as discovering your “blue flame.” Find your blue flame, and you’ll find something you can do that will bring you joy, and will also fill you with energy that you can give back to others.
2. Prioritize ruthlessly
I really want to start a garden and can vegetables and figure out how to program iPhone apps and decorate my bedroom and improve my Spanish and learn to sew. But I’ve made a conscious choice to set those activities aside, at least for now, so that I can devote my limited free time to writing.
Someone else’s priority list might look totally different. A friend of mine recently discovered that her blue flame is growing and preparing quality food, and I think she kind of feels sorry for me when she imagines me hunched over my computer in my darkened office while she’s out in the sunshine, digging onions out of the dirt in her garden, with a pot of freshly-picked corn boiling in the kitchen. She doesn’t have time for writing because she uses all her extra time gardening, just as I don’t have time for gardening because I’m writing.
If you’re in a crazy season of life and you’ve found a passion that you’d like to pursue, I believe you can do it — but it’s going to involve making tough choices about how you use your time.
3. Pitch the vision
Let me guess: finding time to develop your hobby feels frivolous. Self-indulgent, even. You realize that it would require sacrifices from the whole family to help you make this happen, and you don’t see how it could be worth it, especially that you probably wouldn’t be making any money from it.
This is why point #1 is so important: because if you really have found your blue flame, you’ll find that pursuing this activity fills you with a passion and energy that will spread through everyone in your house. At the very least, it will help you mentally declutter after difficult days. Yes, it might require sacrifices, but there will be payoffs too. If you explain that to your family, it makes it a lot easier for them to offer you the support you need when their own bandwidth is limited.
4. Think “we,” not “me”
When Joe and I started talking about how I could find more time to write, it led to a shift in our family culture. Asking how I could get their support pursuing my passion led to asking how I could help Joe and the kids pursue their own interests as well. Now we see all of our individual activities as things that we undertake together as a family, even if only one person is doing the work. When Joe was training for a triathlon this summer, it was our thing, as was me writing the book, my son playing football, my girls taking dance lessons, and so on.
It sounds so obvious as to not be worth stating, but for me it was a small revelation when I realized that having a truly family-oriented life involves me and my husband and children all thinking in a family-oriented way. Once I began to see my writing work as something that takes place within the larger context of the goals of the other people in my house and the overarching goals of our family, I was able to stop stressing about whether I had my priorities in the right order — everything naturally fell into place.
5. Accept the natural ebb and flow of time for your hobby
Another obvious statement: one thing about putting family first is that, well, sometimes the needs of your spouse and children come first. You’ll have periods where you get all the time you need to work on your craft, but there will also be periods where even a couple of hours per week is hard to come by. It’s always painful to have to pull yourself away from a fulfilling project just when you were on a roll, but it’s important to accept that it’s part of the process.
Also, if you use these periods strategically, they can actually help you improve your craft. They can be great periods of study and research that you might not otherwise get if you were knee-deep in work.
For example, in the months before Joe took the CPA exam, he needed tons of time to study. This meant that I had very little writing time, since I was in single parent mode on evenings and weekends. I had to set my memoir aside completely, and was barely able to keep my blog updated. So while I didn’t have hours per week to write, I was able to find time to read. I would read books about writing at the park while the kids played, in 15-minute snatches of free time that came up throughout the day, and before I went to sleep at night.
I was happy to be able to give that extra time to my family, but all the reading and research I did ended up making me a better writer as well.
6. Learn to distinguish healthy limits from Resistance
I am forever indebted to Steven Pressfield for introducing me to the concept of Resistance in his book The War of Art. He does an excellent job of elucidating the kind of spiritual warfare we face when we try to improve our lives in any way, especially when we create art. Resistance is the voice that whispers that you might as well give up since you’re no good at this anyway; it’s the force that compels you to hit the snooze button, even when you got enough sleep; it’s the headwind that slams you in the face, just as you’re starting to move forward.
And those of us who aim to put our families first are particularly susceptible to it.
Per #5, there are plenty of times when it’s the right thing to do to set aside our hobbies for the sake of our families — but understand that Resistance is going to be all over this opportunity, and will hand you excuse after excuse not to do your work. Err on the side of putting family first, and don’t hesitate to give your loved-ones more of your time if it seems like they need it. But if all is well with your family, and you find that taking a break from your craft looks more like messing around on Twitter and less like reading books with your kids, it’s time to tell Resistance to shut up and go do your work.
7. Know the real source of happiness
It’s tempting to fall into the mentality that the goal is to practice our crafts all day every day. If I can just grit my teeth and get through this time of having all the screaming short people in the house, they’ll eventually be gone and I can work on my hobby all the hours of all the days! It’ll be bliss! the thinking goes.
As someone who probably missed a calling to be a desert hermit, I’m as susceptible to that line of thinking as anyone. But if I’ve learned one thing in the past eight years of trying to balance my hobby with family life, it’s this: the practice of your craft will never bring you lasting happiness in and of itself.
I have a few writer friends who have had their books end up on the New York Times Bestseller List, and they unanimously have this to say about the experience:
It’s a high. And being on a high is, by definition, a fleeting state. Eventually, you must come down.
Work hard at your craft. Aim for excellence. Enjoy your successes. But don’t spend your life chasing the highs of worldly achievement. God is the only source of true happiness, and there is no better way to experience God than through intimate connections with other people. There’s nothing thrilling about wiping noses and refilling sippy cups. Cutting PBJ sandwiches into tiny squares and chatting about ballet class over dinner are not glamorous activities. But while those moments might be small, they are real and solid, and they will fill you up in a way that all the success in the world never could.
So, friend, I am excited about this new adventure. I believe that God put this passion on your heart for a reason, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
I’ll be praying for you, and for every other person who is wobbling through this crazy balancing act of pursuing a dream while putting family first.