I just dropped off my two children, ages 15 and 12, for their very first day at school. This is something most parents start doing when their children reach the age of scissors and paste. Up until now, we homeschooled, so even though my son shaves and my daughter wears eyeliner, it's just like we're reenacting that kindergarden ritual. They were giddy this morning; my husband and I were happy for them, but also a little sad -- in that normal parents' way -- to turn the corner on a decade of family adventure, cooperative learning experiences with other homeschoolers, world travel, and a hundred strange little projects, like the year we all watched and reviewed as many famous American movies as we could, from the 1920s to the 1980s; or the Ancient Greek plays and mini-Olympics we staged with family friends; or the Novembers when my kids had the freedom to spend part of each morning working on their own novels for National Novel Writing Month.
But that's not really what I planned to write about this morning. I planned to write about what my children taught me when they were babies, and what I hope to remember now that they're out of the house most days: how to use my time better.
My son did his colicky best to train me. His naps were short, and he required lots of attention when he was awake, so for those 45 minute blocks of time when he slept, I learned to focus fast. If I was out driving and he fell asleep, I frequently turned around. Back home -- computer on -- get that essay started. If we were in a parking lot somewhere and he was nodding off, I'd stay put and write on the back of an envelope.
I wrote articles and nonfiction books -- guidebooks mostly -- with my kids awake and bouncing around me, on my lap, or "helping out" at the printer, or in a corner with a highlighter, or working on a project of their own next to me. Somehow, I worked through the noise and the interruptions.
With age, they stopped interrupting so much. (I should add also that I never did all the homeschooling -- my husband and I shared that responsibility, so once our youngest left babyhood, one parent could run the show with ease.) For the last few years, I distracted myself far, far more than anyone in my family ever distracted me. Home life started getting easy, and I started getting weak. I used to be able to plunge myself into that self-hypnotic spell required for fiction-making in mere minutes. Now, it can take an hour or more. Plus, I question everything now. Why spend time writing this new chapter opening for a novel I'm not yet committed to? Why turn that personal moment into an essay that I don't plan to publish? (Why not blog instead, as I'm doing now?) Tomorrow will be a less hectic day. Next month, even better. With that kind of thinking, a little freedom can lead to paralysis.
But today is a new day, and in some ways for our family, the start of a new life. It shouldn't take having a colicky baby around to re-master discipline. I do know how novels are written: an hour at a time. And I know why we write them: not because we know they'll be published, but because we have a story to tell.