Matt Haig considers the relationship between parenthood and writing.
Children are nice. I like children. They’re like a first draft of an adult, before all the fun but slightly nonsensical and impractical bits get taken away. I like children so much I even agreed to have a couple of them. They are lovely things to have around the house and I highly recommend them.
The only possible downsides to having children are the continual fatigue, the new-found ability to catch a different virus every week, the new-found inability to see anything at the cinema that isn’t about talking animated animals on speed, the draining of money, the horrible music, the seventeen times a day you have to confront human faeces, the continuous noise, children’s parties, the relentless never-ending puppet shows, other parents and the frequent contact with their children, the sudden quickening up of time and the increasing awareness of your own mortality, the continual fatigue, the short-term memory loss, the continual fatigue and the inability to get any work done ever again.
Other than that, it’s all good.
Actually, I was slightly lying about the work thing. I am a writer. I work from home. The only real thing I worried about before having kids was that I wouldn’t be able to work. I am a writer. Writers work from home and kids live at home and make a lot of noise and writers generally need peace. This is why Jonathan Franzen, for instance, has put cement in his ears and built a nuclear bunker in the middle of the Arizona desert, 7000 miles from the nearest human. (Apparently.)
Weirdly though my writing has been more productive and, dare I say it, better, since the arrival of my son Lucas five years ago, and his sister Pearl seventeen months later. Okay, the first year of being a parent is a bit of a weird time. You don’t sleep for 365 days and you spend your time crying over a cot and saying ‘isn’t he beautiful’ and singing American Pie and Karma Chameleon because they are the only nursery rhymes you know and hallucinating and shivering in the corner.
Yes, I hardly wrote a thing in 2008. But after that I became a kind of writing machine. The thing you never realise about having kids is how much it focuses you. For one thing, you have less time. In between school runs and drawing treasure maps and debating the merits of Ted Glen’s moustache and the seven-hour emotional rollercoaster that happens every time you want them to sleep, you have – possibly – about three hours a day in which you can work.
But three hours is enough. In my twenties I used to wander metaphorically through Wordsworthian fields of daffodils waiting for inspiration. Now I just write. And I write faster, and my brain whirrs away like never before.
Also, work becomes serious with kids. Yes, you are still typing words into a word document but it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It feels like you are heading out beyond the cave and clubbing a dinosaur over the head and dragging it home to eat. (And yes, I realise that view of prehistory was slightly creationist/Flintstones/wrong.) The book I’ve written for adults most recently, The Humans, is far better than anything I wrote in my twenties, yet the bulk of the writing of it was done in a month. The story was there and it came not in a stream but a full-blown waterfall.
But the main way having children has changed my writing life is that it has changed my view of writing itself. It made me realise that you don’t create stuff in a void. Acts of creation have an actual effect on the world. Which might explain why my allergy to happy endings has pretty much disappeared, give or take the odd blotchy flare-up while watching Kate Hudson movies. It isn’t because having kids makes life easier or happier. It very often doesn’t. But in my case, being a father has given me a sense of responsibility I never had. It makes me realise that we belong to a wonderful species that has the ability to look after each other. That is the kind of species I try and tell my kids we belong to.
If that makes me a sentimentalist, so be it.
Sure, humans often fail. But having kids made me realise it isn’t very useful to just point out life’s flaws. We should be able, occasionally, to not just identify an illness but try and look for the medicine too. Speaking of which, I have a new virus on its way so I’m off to down half a bottle of Calpol.
Matt Haig, for Waterstones.com/blog