Priceless Moments

How having children focuses a writer’s mind

A black-and-white photograph of the silhouettes of two children run towards an open, sunlit door

In 2012, a journalist asked Zadie Smith whether having a child had changed her as a writer. Smith’s response, which I remember often, was that

in practical terms, it comes down to time constraints. I don’t suggest that young women writers have children for this purpose, but it’s really worked for me. I just found it very focusing to be told that I have three hours, and I’m paying for those three hours. If you sit around reading Jezebel for those three hours, then shame on you. You have to work because you’re paying someone who probably has their own family, relying on you. It’s a horrible network of doom. I found it very focusing. The practicality was almost a revelation.

Of course, that is the best-case scenario, when the childcare machine is humming along as it should. But there are other situations that arise more frequently than you might imagine—situations in which a parent-writer faces less predictability and more constraint. For example, I will have to conclude this column, however abruptly, as soon as my 13-month-old son, Saul, wakes up from his nap.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that whenever I take care of my children all by myself (I have Saul for the week), I almost inevitably end up spending considerably more than the normal cost of childcare. After breakfast, we leave our oppressive apartment, and I find myself rebuying all of the supplies that I forgot to pack. We break up the day with lunch in a restaurant before finding a department store with good air conditioning, where I often make unplanned purchases to justify our presence.

Perhaps this is useful motivation, too. While I know that spending time like this together is priceless, I also have the growing sense that whenever I do get those three hours back, I need to make them pay!


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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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