I Have a Kid Hangover (But Manage to Write Anyway)

Finally, I have a name for it—that exhausted but wired state of mind I am in most of the time, in which I am hyperaware of all that needs doing but struggle to get started on any of it, fuzzy headed and distracted and restless, craving time alone but once I have it, paralyzed by the prospect of choosing what to do with it.

I have a “kid hangover.”

I have borrowed and adapted this term from a blog post by writer Donald Miller, who wrote that, after waking up “groggy and sluggish” one Monday morning:

….it hit me. I’d gone from meeting to church to coffee to lunch to dinner all weekend long. I had a people hangover.

As an introvert, I really have to watch how much time I spend making small talk. I know it sounds strange to those of you who are extroverts, but time with people drains me and I hardly know it’s happening.

Miller explains that, in order to be productive and focused, he learned to “manage my people time the same way I’d manage exercise or eating or drinking. I knew everything had to be kept in moderation.” He then details his time-management system, which includes making sure he has completely free time to write until 5 p.m. every day, and chunks of solitude scheduled into his weekend.

The most common responses to this post among my writer friends? Envy. Accompanied by a guffaw or perhaps a snort.

We get it. We do. Many of us are extreme introverts as well. We completely understand how spending lots of time with other people—even people in whose company we delight—can be draining and discombobulating.

But we found Miller’s solution—a tightly managed schedule of alone time—to be problematic for several reasons.

Miller’s schedule would never work for someone with children. It is impossible to guarantee yourself solitary writing time until 5 p.m. (or any other time) every day when you are schlepping kids to and from lessons and practices; caring for sick children staying home from school; or cramming every non-child-friendly activity on your to-do list, from writing to cleaning the bathroom, into your toddler’s nap times. Not making plans with other people until after noon on weekends? It is only within the past year that my husband and I can count on our three kids to let us sleep until 7:30 on weekends—and even then, we are generally greeted upon waking with some dire emergency in need of immediate intervention (sibling discord, a treasured object destroyed by the dog, the sudden realization that someone requires duct tape and Velcro for a school project).

As an extreme introvert with three chatty children, I can assure you that as much as I adore my children, interacting with them is just as draining as interacting with anyone else. More so, actually. I have had a “kid hangover” for most of the past 13 years. I have produced a book and hundreds of blog posts, articles, and proposals by writing in between dropping off one child and picking up another. I write accompanied by the constant din of play and arguments and slamming doors. I write with regular interruptions from children in great need of a lost Barbie shoe or a pencil sharpener. I write while fielding emails related to my volunteer jobs as room parent and Scout leader. I wrote my most-read post ever on a morning when I had gotten about two hours of sleep the night before and one of my kids was home sick for the day. These conditions are far from ideal, and many of us parent-writers, myself included, resent or complain about them now and then. But they are normal. So we learn to write despite the interruptions and the kid hangovers.

Even for writers without children, Miller’s solitude schedule seems extreme. One fellow writer remarked, “I get it, completely, and at the same time, his advice is practical for almost no one. Even if you live alone or don’t have children, few people have the luxury of creating the kind of alone time he talks about.” Another reader nailed my discomfort with Miller’s post with these words:

The only way an innate introvert…could arrange a life that comes anywhere close to matching his or her top preferences is to remain unmarried, uncommitted/unlinked, childless, never have a roommate, and live in a region that is sparsely populated…I’m not sure how a person would manage all that, unless he or she were willing to give up the best joy and pleasure and investment in life.

Therein lies the core of my discomfort with Miller’s post. In a world dominated by extroverts, we introverts certainly need to claim and honor our need for solitude and quiet. But a life too carefully curated and managed to ensure hours of alone time can become a life devoid of, well, life. My three children have given me many gifts, but perhaps the most surprising one is a renewed understanding of Christian hospitality. In Biblical times, hospitality often meant welcoming strangers in need of a meal or shelter. For Jesus, it meant including outsiders in meals and fellowship. For us, it can mean those things as well, but it can also mean welcoming not merely strangers and outsiders, but anyone whose messy, noisy, needy presence threatens the ordered, predictable, comfortable life we crave.

The past thirteen-plus years for me have been one long exercise in welcoming the messy, noisy, needy people who are my children. They make it hard to get anything done, especially writing. But without them, I’m not sure I’d have anything worthwhile to write, or for others to read.

More and more, I am convinced that much of value in life simply cannot be managed; it must instead be welcomed with grace. Miller’s description of his well-managed life made me envious for a few minutes, until I realized what would have to go missing from my life to enable me to manage it as he manages his.

I don’t begrudge Miller his system. I’m all for whatever allows a writer to write. But Miller is just one of many experts making recommendations for success that simply don’t work for writers with primary family responsibilities. (For example, want to write a book? You’ll have to explain to prospective publishers how you plan to promote your book by attending conferences and securing speaking gigs. Last week, I left pages of notes for my husband and mom to jointly manage our kids for less than 48 hours while I attended a conference to give a 20-minute talk. Pages of detailed notes for kids who are old enough to feed and wash themselves and put themselves to bed.) While writing is in many ways an ideal job for parents who want to work from home (setting aside the lousy pay, that is), many writing gurus offer advice that utterly fails to accommodate the chaos, unpredictability, and obstacles inevitable in family life.

It is possible to be a successful writer while raising children, but not because any sort of system maximizes productivity or minimizes distraction. As one of my colleagues wrote in response to Miller’s post:

If we’re called to write, we need something to write with and a few moments with butts in chairs. And then we need to trust that the Old Giver of Gifts and Giver of Children will give us something extra—that heroic thing. And he does. Because he is gets what it is to mother while having other stuff to do.

(My informal support group of Christian women writers regularly questions cliches and assumptions that pervade the writing world. Recently, two of my colleagues questioned the oft-repeated notion that writers write because we “must” or because we “can’t not” write. Read Jen Grant’s post on why she writes here, and Caryn Rivadeneira’s thoughts on being a writer even when she is not doing—or doesn’t want to be doing—a whole lot of writing.)

Postscript: As you may know if you follow the Christian writer Twittersphere and/or read his blog, Donald Miller has responded to this post in some confusing and belligerent ways. I have tried my best to respond transparently and fairly. My friend Rachel Marie Stone summarized the whole crazy episode, and stood up for me quite beautifully, in this blog post. I will say again to Donald Miller and his readers: I am sorry if Miller felt unfairly criticized by this post, and welcome a private conversation via email to clear the air. 

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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