How Blogging About My Children Helped Me Become a Professional Writer

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Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash

hen my girls were little, my writing time was pared down to a few stolen minutes in the evening. I’d scribble away in a journal, writing stream-of-consciousness vignettes that I (infrequently) turned into poems. Sometimes I’d jot ideas down in these same journals, hoping to revisit them at some point for the novel I never seemed to have time to write.

I wanted to be a writer, but my identity back then was immersed in motherhood. Writing took a back seat to more important things, including my professional work which didn’t involve much writing at all.

But what I didn’t anticipate (or fully accept) was that motherhood and writing would naturally intertwine. Indeed, I hated the term “mommy blogger” and actively rebelled against starting my own blog.

Even so, I caved and began blogging about my younger daughter in 2004. My blog wasn’t the standard mommy blog (I still shudder at this term). I didn’t agonize about standard new-mom topics like whether or not to breastfeed or how I’d introduce the new baby to my then 2-year-old.

My first blog post was about the treatment we’d chosen to use for my unborn baby’s cleft lip and palate, a birth defect we learned about at my 20-week ultrasound.

I was inspired to write the blog I’d called Cleft Stories, because my frantic research about raising a baby with a cleft lip and palate had turned up almost no information from a parent’s perspective. I’d mostly encountered clinical websites that talked about cleft lip and palate using medical terminology that featured jarring photographs of various types of clefts. At least, they were jarring to me. I was very pregnant and very scared and I just needed to know that my baby would be okay.

My first post included an ultrasound of my baby, her cleft circled in red. My goal was to write about my daughter’s medical journey to keep friends and family updated and to chronicle the procedure we’d chosen to treat and repair her cleft (a process called nasoalveolar molding).

But I was also determined to write about my daughter just like any other mommy blogger, chronicling milestones, sharing photos, and demonstrating that while babies with clefts face unique challenges, they are manageable. I wanted to illustrate that my daughter was normal and that things would be okay.

My blog was one of the first cleft-focused blogs written by a parent (at least, that I know of). NYU Medical Center, the hospital where my daughter was treated, routinely directed new parents to the blog, so it built up a devoted following of fellow parents.

The blog also inspired other families to start blogs of their own. In just a few short years, it was much easier to find personal stories about children growing up with cleft lip and palate among all those clinical pages about the condition. These days, there are also Facebook groups and other resources for families who need support.

I stopped updating my daughter’s blog as she got older. Her lip, nose, gums, and palate were repaired by the age of one and she had another surgery at age 7, but otherwise there wasn’t much to say about her cleft. Even so, I posted once or twice a year, showcasing school performances and sharing photos on her birthday so people could how her face changed as she got older, and (more importantly) demonstrate that life was relatively normal.

Then, in 2012, my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11. I updated Cleft Stories one last time, directing readers to my new blog, Healing Ana. I had once again become a mommy blogger, though cancer was not a topic I ever imagined myself writing about. Healing Ana blog is still live — for now. I haven’t updated it in nearly three years and I can’t bear to link to it.

I blogged about Ana’s cancer, her treatment, and how our family was coping, from 2012 until a few months after she died in 2017. The blog kept me going. It helped me stay connected to a large extended community of people who propped my family up during the tumultuous years of Ana’s illness, and kept me from sinking into complete despair after she died.

Something else emerged from the experience of maintaining that blog — my confidence in my writing began to grow. People who read my posts told me that my writing was helping them with their own struggles, even if they had nothing to do with cancer. In 2015, a few years after I started the blog about Ana, I began contributing essays to Huffpost.

Back then, the platform was similar to Medium (minus the paywall). If you could get added as a Huffpost writer (I did this fairly easily by writing to Arianna Huffington directly), you gained access to the platform and could post articles instantly.

Several of my early articles were featured in Huffpost’s Parenting section. The process was similar to curation in that an editor could select articles contributed by their pool of writers and feature it on a topic page. One of my earliest Huffpost articles was even featured on their homepage. As a result, thousands of people read the piece and dozens commented on it.

This gave me the confidence to begin submitting my essays to more high profile (and paying) publications. I continued writing about parenting a child with cancer and, subsequently, about parental grief.

The essays were an expansion of what I’d already been doing on my blogs — writing about the heartbreaking trauma we were experiencing in a way that not only helped me process it, but enabled me to connect to other parents who were dealing with the stress of caring for a terminally ill child.

The Washington Post was the first publication to pay me for an essay. When the money went into my account, something in my brain shifted. For the first time in my life, I realized that I could get paid for writing . I began submitting more essays to different publications. I got rejected (a lot), but my work also got accepted and I continued to earn some extra money from writing.

I made the decision to stop blogging sometime in 2018. That’s when I also realized that I didn’t want to continue working as a freelance digital marketing consultant. At the age of 47, I finally had the confidence (and clips) to pivot to freelance writing as my primary source of income.

I decided to experiment with writing on Medium at the start of 2019, first by republishing many of my Huffpost pieces, then by writing original essays on the platform. I began actively seeking freelance writing clients a few months before that, and was able to walk away from all my marketing work by January of 2019.

Freelance writing isn’t easy. For one thing, it doesn’t pay as well as digital marketing. Most months, if I’m lucky, I average roughly one paid piece per business day. That means I write about 20,000 to 25,000 words a month. This can be creatively draining to the extent that I need at least one to two non-writing days per week to recharge.

But, even with these challenges, writing for a living has transformed the way I work and live in ways I hadn’t anticipated. As an early riser, I’m often done with the day’s assignment by 1 or 2 pm, leaving the rest of the day free. I used to feel guilty about not sitting at my desk until 5 pm each day (or later), particularly because my digital marketing clients needed me to be available during business hours.

But it’s rare that a client needs me to drop everything to fix a writing emergency, particularly when I meet my deadlines (and I always meet my deadlines). Now, I can shape my days and weeks in ways that I never could before, and that’s a pretty significant when you consider that I’ve been my own boss for 18 years.

It’s still hard for me to call myself a writer, still nearly impossible for me to believe that writing is what pays my bills. A big reason for this disbelief is that I had an entirely different idea of what a “real” writer looked like. For many years, I could accept nothing less than the “Stephen King” model of writing. How I envied him — tapping away at his Underwood Typewriter for a few hours a day, while royalty checks rolled into his overflowing bank account.

But being a successful writer doesn’t have to look like that. Sure, there are a few unicorns like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, but for the rest of us mere mortals, writing isn’t necessarily about fame and fortune. Sometimes successful writers can barely keeping their heads above water (ahem).

Being a successful writer just means that you’re writing, successfully — putting words down on the screen (or on paper), building a body of work that you’re proud of and reaching readers, one article at a time. For me, it also means getting paid for doing it, not because I’m attached to being fabulously wealthy, but because getting paid to write means that I can keep writing.

If you’d told me, seventeen years ago, that the anxiety-riddled musings of an expectant mother would one day help me realize my dream of being a writer, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

What I didn’t understand back then was that sometimes we must reframe how we define our dreams before we can recognize that they’re attainable. It wasn’t until I abandoned my (very narrow) definition of what it meant to be a successful writer, that I was finally able to become one.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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