Friday, October 2, 2009

When All Else Fails, Plan B

by Helen E. H. Madden

You are reading this post on a Friday (unless you're coming in late, in which case I have no idea what day you're reading it). I am writing this post, however, on Tuesday. On this particular Tuesday, according to my very detailed schedule, I was supposed to get up at 5AM, shower, grab a cup of tea and a piece of toast, and head up to my office to write a story for the Heat Flash Erotica Podcast. Well, I did that, sort of. Unfortunately, on this particular Tuesday, I woke up feeling like DEATH WARMED OVER. I skipped the shower, realizing that I wasn't going to be able to stay on my feet that long, went straight for the tea and toast, and then trudged up to the office to write. I lasted about 500 words before I finally decided to go back to bed. At 7AM, I sent the Hubster to get the kids up. I got up long enough to make sure everybody (except me) got dressed, ate breakfast, and made it out the door. And then I went back to bed, and that's where I've stayed all day.

I'm feeling better now, and by the time you read this I hope to be fully recovered, but for whatever reason, on this particular Tuesday morning, I was a corpse and I ended up throwing all my carefully made plans for the day out the window.

I'm anal about my work schedule. I work at home and up until this fall, I've had at least one child underfoot while I worked for the last six years. This has taught me to plan my days accordingly, to set up a schedule that will allow me to accomplish my work, and to keep endless lists of things to do so that I won't forget some important part of my career as a multi-national best selling author (to be). I keep my schedules, both daily and weekly, on a spread sheet, along with lists of monthly, quarterly, and annual goals. All this planning and scheduling is something I learned in college and in the Army Reserves, and it has served me well through the years, allowing me to get work done under otherwise writing-adverse circumstances.

Perhaps the most adverse working circumstances I ever faced as a writer came during my first two years of motherhood. Princess, my first born, was a colicky baby who had a habit of screaming any time I set her down. It made doing even the most mundane of tasks, like going to the toilet, a challenge. I had to find ways to work around her fits and tantrums. I discovered early on that it helped to have a plan of action for those difficult days. I called it the Princess Meltdown Action Plan, and it went something like this:

The Princess Meltdown Plan of Action

  1. Stage 1 - You've put Princess down for her nap, but she starts fussing in her crib.

    Let her fuss for 20 minutes, in case she falls back to sleep.

    After 20 minutes, or when she really starts screaming, take her out of the crib and calm her down.

    Once she's calm, give her a bottle of juice or milk and let her play on the floor where you're working.

    If working upstairs...

    You can do any project you need to do, but Princess is very likely to get into things you don't want her to have, like office supplies and the stapler.

    If working downstairs...

    You can't work on certain graphics projects or e-mail, since your laptop isn't set up for those tasks. You can, however...

    Write, outline, or research a story.

    Work on some Bryce artwork, since Bryce is on the laptop.

    Do updates to websites.

    NOTE: The laptop will need to be fully charged, or else you will need to bring down the plug to plug it in. However, Princess is unlikely to get into any trouble downstairs since that whole area is child-proof.

    Estimated time you can work uninterrupted - 30 minutes.

  2. Stage 2 - Princess starts fussing again. She wants you on the floor with her.

    Get on the floor and play with her for 10-15 minutes before going back to work. If she's not actively interested in you playing with her, but just wants you there on the floor, stay there and use the opportunity to do some yoga.

    If you haven't done so already, change the scenery. Either move upstairs or downstairs.

    Try nursing her. She may want to cuddle.

    Try giving her a snack - banana, cookie, crackers, etc.

    Estimated time before she starts fussing again - 15 minutes.

  3. Stage 3 - Princess continues to fuss. You have to stay on the floor, and you know she will try to take anything you have in your hands.

    If you are working downstairs, turn on Sesame Street or Wiggles to keep her distracted. Try again to work at the laptop.

    If you are working upstairs, move downstairs. See above step regarding Sesame Street.

    You may have to get on the floor and stay there. You will need a backup project that you can work on, something she can't destroy or something that you can share with her.

    Project idea 1 - thumbnail sketches for art projects. You'll have to keep the pens out of Princess's reach, but it's easy to keep all these supplies in the coffee table downstairs. Give her some crayons and sheets of paper if she wants to draw too.

    Project idea 2 - writing ideas. Use your palm pilot or a notebook to outline ideas, take notes, develop novels for e-books, etc. Make this thinking time!

    Estimated time before she starts fussing again - 10 minutes

  4. Stage 4 - Princess is now screaming and clinging to your leg. She may also be biting, hitting, and kicking.

    Plan on not working for at least the next hour. If you are facing a deadline, either you or the Hubster may have to skip karate class this evening so you can finish your work.

    If the weather is decent, take Princess outside for a walk or run. Or simply let her play on the grass while you do yoga or karate.

    If the weather is bad, get a glass of wine and turn on Sesame Street or Wiggles. Accept that you're just not going to get things done for the time being.

    Estimated time before you get your life back - six or seven years...

Ah yes, the meltdown plan. It was so detailed, so easy to follow when my brain shorted out from too much screaming baby! The meltdown plan saved many a work day for me, and it also let me know when I should give up trying to work and just hang out with my screaming baby. There were some days though when it was obvious that we'd reached Stage 4 before we'd even gotten out of bed. On those days, there was nothing I could do but quit before I'd even started and spend the day on the couch holding my screeching offspring. Maybe Princess was sick. Maybe I was sick. Maybe, gods forbid, the Hubster was sick (he's the biggest baby of all when sick!), and I was going to spend all day taking care of someone instead of getting any work done. Those were the days when I resorted to Plan B, and we all know what B stands for, don't we? B stands for BLOW OFF DAY!!

Blow Off Day was my way of letting myself off the hook as a mom. On Blow Off, it's okay to eat cereal all day and watch cartoons for six hours straight (hell, why stop at six? Watch 10 hours, I don't care!). It is perfectly acceptable to sit on the couch and do nothing but read, either to one's self or to a child who's nose is so filled with snot you fear her tiny little head may explode. On Blow Off Day, we wear sweat pants and no bra or makeup and we are not ashamed. On Blow Off Day, we order pizza for lunch and dinner. On Blow Off Day, it's five o'clock somewhere in the world which makes it perfectly okay to have that glass of wine right now (so long as I'm not driving!).

I don't do Blow Off Day often. Or should I say, "often enough"? One of the best Blow Off Days I can remember involved me watching a Dirty Harry marathon while breast feeding a six-month-old Princess for nine hours straight. I had the IQ of a cucumber that day, and boobs that stretched to my knees, but it didn't matter. It was Blow Off Day.

One morning, when my youngest daughter, Pixie, was sick, I came up with the Blow Off Day Anthem. Here it is:

(Sung to the tune of 'Camptown Races' (better known as the Foghorn Leghorn song))

The house is dirty, I don't care!

Do-dah, do-dah!

Gonna lie around in my underwear,

Oh-de-do-dah day!

I cleaned the house last night

And the kids destroyed it today

But it's Blow Off Day and I don't care

Oh-de-do-dah daaaaaaaay!

Trust me, for all your writerly habits, for all those hours you spend in the chair battling the blank page, you simply must give yourself a Blow Off Day every now and then. It's okay, really. Go ahead and become one with your couch. In the meantime, I'm going back to bed, because hey, it's still that particular Tuesday where I'm at right now, and I hearby declare this particular Tuesday to be Blow Off Day. Enjoy ;)


  1. Oh, Helen, your plans and stages simply amaze me. I think it's very obvious you made every attempt to work, but if all else failed, you did what you had to do. I love this blog post.

    I also love the Blow Off Day song, but now I picture Foghorn Leghorn walking around singing it. *sigh*

    You're a hoot. Thanks for sharing and I hope you're feeling better!

    ~ Jenna

  2. LOL Helen...during my last pregnancy, I wrote as much as I could, because I knew having a child ten years after the last one was going to be rough. And boy was it! Child #3 turned out to be temperamental, who did NOT want Mommy to leave his sight for more than two minutes. And stayed glued to me until about age 2, when his attention span finally allowed him to watch 30 minutes of Sesame Street, esp Elmo's World. I had to go back to writing during his naps, unless of course I fell asleep with him:) But now he's in kindergarten and Mommy now has 6 more books written, and 2 of those published:)

  3. Delightfully funny post, Helen ... but also truly impressive, insofar as it reveals your exceptional resourcefulness, flexibility, and command of coping strategies. Kudos!

    I also love the Blow Off Day song, but now I picture Foghorn Leghorn walking around singing it.

    What's wrong—I say, what's wrong—with that? [jk]

  4. Jenna,

    I'm doing much better today! Out of bed after a couple of days of feeling yucky and back at work. I do plan a lot, and have contingency plans ready just in case. That's probably the reason why I love Blow Off Day so much, because I need a break from my plans every now and then!

    I can't shake the Foghorn Leghorn thing either. Especially the image of him sitting around on the couch in his underwear, plotting to do in the dog!

  5. Molly,

    Amazingly, I got a lot of writing done while nursing my second child. The oldest went off to preschool, so I just pulled up the laptop and wrote whenever I sat down to nurse. When we went from 12 feedings a day to 8 and then just 4, that's when things got tough. I had to switch to writing during naptime then, and when Pixie gave up naps, I wrote during "quiet time." Now both kids are in school, so I'm using my time as wisely as I can.

    Kudos on getting your work published! Doing that and taking care of two little ones is a HUGE accomplishment!

  6. Jeremy,

    Oh, I can be very resourceful! One of my favorite things in the world right now is Google docs, because I can write on any computer in the house and still get access to stuff there. In addition to the scheduling and planning, I also rely heavily on technology to make my life easier. My schedules are on Google docs, my writers group is online, most of my promo is done online, I use Google calendar to keep track of appointments, etc. My favorite tool is my netbook, which can go anywhere with me so I can write at the drop of a hat.

    If you like the Blow Off Day song, some day I'll have to show you the lyrics to the Diaper Changing Song and the Potty Training Song ;)

  7. Helen,

    Very late to the Grip today but wanted to cheer you on and say how much I enjoyed your entry. I do hope you're feeling better. You're way more organized than I could ever hope to be, but different strokes and all that.


  8. Jude,

    I try to stay organized. Life gets very painful when I'm disorganized. Very, very painful! And I am feeling better today. A day or two in bed did just the trick for me ;)

  9. Wow! Makes you wonder if Anais Nin had kids she wouldn;t have written a thing. It amazing what women have to go through. By the way - I am an obsessive list maker also. I find its the only thing that works.


  10. Hi Helen,

    I'm sorry I'm so late here. I wish I could be clever and blame it on a blow-off day but that wouldn't be the truth.

    Great post, awe-inspiring schedule, and brilliant as always.

    I hope you're feeling better.



  11. Garce,

    If it weren't for my lists, I'd never get anything done! I don't know what Anais Nin would have written had she had kids. Maybe she would have turned out more like Erma Bombeck (one of my favorite writers, BTW). Who knows?

  12. Ashley,

    I was on the mend but then got hit by another bout of the bug this Saturday morning, so I'm again resorting to Plan B ;) I can still get work done this way, just not the house cleaning and exercise that I normally do, and tonight's dinner will be prepared by the Hubster, who's been warned. I feel self-indulgent, but I also know from experience I'm better off taking care of myself know than running myself into the ground later!

    You get plenty done, so you should take a day off every now and then yourself ;0


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