The value of non-paid work

A frequent lament of my Motherhood & Words students is the challenge of carving out time to write. There’s the tower of laundry on the sofa in the living room, the dinner that needs to be made, the sick child home from school, the co-worker calling to find out why you haven’t emailed the report that was due two minutes ago. 

With all of the work/home/family responsibilities spread before you, how could you take an hour (or even 20 minutes) to sit down in front of the computer and write?

In Judith Ortiz Cofer’s wonderful essay 5 A.M.: Writing as Ritual, Ortiz Cofer describes how she began her habit of writing for two hours every morning. She had the urge to write, but couldn’t find the time until she began getting up before her family was awake. 

 “If I waited until I had the time, I would still be waiting to write my novel,” she wrote.

Ortiz Cofer goes on to say that the “initial sense of urgency to create can easily be dissipated because it entails making the one choice that many people, especially women, in our society (with its emphasis on the ‘acceptable’ priorities) feel selfish about making — taking the time to create, stealing it from yourself if that’s the only way.” 

Sadly, the jobs for which people earn the most respect are usually those that earn the most money. The work that has been historically women’s work — keeping a home, raising children, feeding a family — is still often not valued as “real” work. Similarly, writing is often unpaid, which sometimes makes it seem less valuable, less important. 

But if you don’t value your writing or writing time, it’s easy to allow that precious time to be the first thing to go when your life becomes too busy. (And when aren’t you too busy?) 

If you want to make writing a priority in your life, you may need to change how you think about it. 

Writing as work

If you’re committed to writing and want to make sure it doesn’t become “the thing you want to do but never do,” you need to ensure that you (and your family members) value both your writing and the time you spend writing. 

One way to do this is to start thinking about your writing as work. 

If you were starting a career in business administration, it wouldn’t be unusual to have one or two (or more) internships before you landed your first “real” job. 

These months, though often unpaid, are invaluable, helping you learn the ropes of the business world. The same goes for your writing. You need time and space — and many months — to make headway with your writing, to learn the craft of your trade. If you’re not making money from your writing yet, think of it as a long-term unpaid internship. 

Once you reframe your writing as work — whether you’re working on a paid freelance article or a short story that’s unlikely to ever make you a cent — you’ll be more likely to treat it as work. Set a schedule that’s realistic, and on those days, show up for work and log in your hours. 

This may be only once a week or even once every two weeks. (Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning to write every day if that’s not feasible.)

Stick to your schedule

With the best intentions, sometimes things (a sick child, a dying dog) land in our laps and make writing for a week or two impossible. Have faith that you will eventually get back to your work. 

Make sure you’re really valuing your writing time and not letting other tasks and responsibilities infringe upon it. You wouldn’t skip a meeting or church or your grandmother’s 100th birthday party because your sofa was covered with laundry and the kitchen floor was filthy, would you? 

Probably not. So don’t skip your writing time because of those things either.   

Because I work at home, I’ve developed a high tolerance for household mess. As soon as I get my daughters onto the bus, I head home and go straight to my office and open my laptop. I don’t stop on the way to unload the dishwasher or clean the clutter from the dining room table. 

If you have time at home when there are no children underfoot, don’t spend it with housework. Go directly to your computer. Folding laundry and making dinner are activities that can be done with the help of little hands. But crafting a sentence is much more difficult with someone tugging on your pant leg.

Communicate your mission

Unless you have the support of your family, the obstacles between you and finishing that essay might become insurmountable. 

If you have a partner, talk to him or her about what writing means in your life and work out a schedule. If you’re home with kids during the day, maybe Saturday mornings become your writing time. Or maybe your partner takes the kids to the park and gets them ready for bed one evening a week, so you can head to the library to write.  

Writing is hard work, but when you’ve decided it’s part of who you are, you have to find a way to fit it into your life. Doing this begins when you give it the value and time in your life that it deserves. 


Kate Hopper is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Her latest book is Silent Running: Our Family’s Journey to the Finish Line with Autism (co-authored with Robyn Schneider). Learn more at katehopper.com and motherhoodandwords.com. A version of this piece originally appeared in Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing.