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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Meredith Efken
Author and Homeschooler

SAHomeshoolingM, Meredith Efken maybe new to the author scene, but her debut novel SAHM, I AM, speaks from years of experience. I'm so glad she's made time in her busy schedule to chat with all of us.

Meredith, thanks so much for doing this interview. As a homeschooling mom and aspiring fiction author, I’m anxious to glean from all your experience.

Oh, dear. If you homeschool, too, that means I really can’t fool you into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Homeschool families are awfully sharp.

Why was your first book about a SAHM, and what message were you wanting to get out?

My first book was about a SAHM because it was the first story I wrote that was good enough to get published, and it happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I don’t know if I had a particular message burning in me. I just noticed that there were lots of “chick-lit” comedy novels that included SAHM characters, but none of the authors were getting it right in regards to what it’s really like to be a stay-at-home parent. They constantly made us sound out of control and pathetic. I wrote my book out of a need to tell OUR story—stay-at-home moms are real people who are smart, funny, and have hopes and dreams for their lives. We have a tough job, but we aren’t saints. Don’t put us on pedestals. We also aren’t victims or people to be pitied or disparaged. I wanted to let moms know that it’s okay to want something more than being a child-care worker and housekeeper. If that’s your passion, great. If not, it’s okay to go in a different direction.

Writing SAHM I Am was also therapeutic to me because I got to work through a lot of the mixed feelings I have about being a stay-at-home mom. Truthfully, “Mom” was never high on my list of What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. I love my kids, but I have a certain amount of ambivalence about the actual job of motherhood. My book let me express that in a way that was healing for me, in that it let me acknowledge my feelings and work through the guilt of not always relishing my mommy duties.

Before you were published, did you ever feel like you’ve “missed” God in regards to writing or home schooling, that maybe you should be doing something else?

Absolutely not. I’ve had lots of self-doubt about my ability to write well enough to be published (still have those doubts…they don’t go away after the book contract, sorry to say.) I’ve had my own self-generated guilt for not doing all the mom-stuff it seems that I’m expected to do, especially since “all I do is stay home all day.”

But I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in a career and/or volunteer position that God didn’t design me for. The square-peg-in-round-hole feeling is terrible. It’s not like that with my writing career. I fit there. It’s what God designed me for. And even before I was published, I knew that with or without a contract, writing was something in my soul that had to be done if I was to continue being a healthy person. I can’t go long without it or I feel withered and incomplete. I’m just extremely thankful that God did allow me to make a career out of it. It’s something I can happily spend the rest of my life learning more about and sharpening my skills and craft.

I feel the same about writing and being around writers. I finally found the place where I belong and it feels good to fit in!

Homeschooling…that’s a different story. I know beyond a doubt that it’s what we’re supposed to be doing at this point. But every year I find myself asking God, “Can we be done yet?” I like it, and my children are usually fun to work with. But it takes a lot of time away from my writing and editing duties, and I often feel like I’m totally muddling the entire job. The only reason we homeschool is because my oldest daughter is “twice exceptional” meaning she is intellectually gifted as well as having learning disabilities. It’s a difficult combination to serve well in a regular classroom, and homeschooling provides her the environment and type of structure that allows her to learn best and succeed. My youngest daughter would probably do just fine in a regular school setting, but she wants to be home with big sister. Plus, she is creatively gifted, and this way I can make sure that wonderful creativity is nurtured and not quashed.

Your kids sound a lot like mine and I have similar feelings about the homeschool gig.

Each year, I review our situation and pray about it to see if it’s time for a change. I have a feeling that if God ever releases me from homeschooling, I’ll probably end up in tears anyway the first day they go off to school. I gripe a lot about how hard it is to homeschool and write, etc., but the truth is I’m probably more attached to having them around than I like to admit.

Your life must be incredibly busy as a homeschooler and writer. Tell me a little about your family and what a typical day at the Efken house looks like.

A typical day at our house is full of things to do that never quite get done. I have to remind myself every night that I did what I could do with the day, and not stress about what I didn’t do. But stressing would be really easy for me if I gave in to it.

Glad to know I'm not the only one.

I’m not really a get-up-early person, though I do enjoy the idea of being a morning person. But I’ve been getting up around 6:30 a.m. recently to work out for a half hour. I really, really hate exercising, but I also hate being unhappy about my body and the poor shape that it’s been in for most my life. I decided I wanted my daughters to have a mom that displayed a healthy lifestyle and self-image. Obesity runs in our family, and I don’t want my girls to ruin their bodies by making poor health choices. Plus, I want them to avoid the trap of defining their self-worth based on their physical appearance. So I’m trying to emphasize that as Christians, we have a responsibility to treat our bodies well and to keep them in good shape. Thus, the exercising and eating right. (I just didn’t want anyone to think I was some sort of saint for getting up early to exercise!)

During the day, I try to keep my girls on a good schedule, especially during school. This fall, I’ll be freelance editing as well as writing, so our school schedule will be adjusted depending on if it’s an Editing Week or Writing Week. During Editing Weeks, the girls will have self-directed school assignments to do because I plan to edit full-time those weeks. On a Writing Week, we’ll do more activities together during the morning, and then I usually write during the afternoon and into the evenings.

I’m constantly tweaking the schedule. I’m not a schedule-person by nature, so it has been stretching for me to maintain a consistent routine. But I know it’s the only way to make this work for us. I try to keep a flexible mindset, though, and not be too harsh on myself if the schedule gets trashed for a day. I’m learning to make adjustments as we go along, and that’s helped me keep my sanity.

In the evenings, we sometimes have church-related or ministry duties, or the girls have activities. My husband and I are also trying to fit in some weight training. We try to limit what we get involved with, so we don’t get overcommitted. It’s hard to find that balance, because we also want our girls to have the opportunity to try a variety of activities. We all have to learn to pick and choose. It’s a good life skill.

Do you think it’s possible to give yourself fully to raising children, home schooling, writing, keeping in shape, cooking balanced meals, cleaning house, etc.? In my life I don’t feel I can give all these areas 100%. Is it possible or should I stop striving to “do it all” and just do what I can and not feel guilty about it?

NO, IT’S NOT POSSIBLE!!!! You can not do it all. It’s a big fat lie!!! (Just like “healthy” snack cookies or “all natural” hot dogs!)

You have to prioritize. You have to look long and hard at the hours God grants you every day and choose how you will spend those hours. And you have to face the fact that for every thing you choose to make a priority, there will be something else that seems equally worthy or urgent that you will have to sacrifice. There are consequences to those decisions, too. You have to be willing to live with those consequences. But do it consciously. Don’t just let life happen. Choose what you do with it and take responsibility for your choices.

You have to be creative and unconventional, too. Why structure your family and your routine based on what everyone else is doing or what some guru says is the right way to do it? Get out of your self-imposed box and be innovative about how to accomplish your priorities.

And then, when other boxed-in people start criticizing you for your choices, you have to choose again—take on that guilt, or remind yourself that this is YOUR life, and your family, and you’ve deliberately worked out your routine for what you feel is best at this time for what you are supposed to be focusing on.

(Whew, I needed that little pep-talk, too!)

How do you keep everything in balance?

The hardest part for me has been learning to say no to other things that I enjoy doing or feel I should be doing. I used to be involved in community and college theater. I’ve given that up because it just isn’t compatible with my other priorities. But sometimes I really miss it. I don’t go see many stage plays anymore because it makes me ache inside at not being able to be a part of that.

I also don’t do a lot of the typical SAHM things like play groups or women’s Bible studies or fellowship groups. If I wasn’t homeschooling, I probably would, but I can’t fit it all in. So I have to pick and choose and prioritize. It’s hard, and not a lot of fun. But it’s worth it.

I also involve my family in my writing and editing careers. My husband and I communicate very honestly and openly about what we both need in order to accomplish our goals and dreams as individuals, and we work together to take our family in the direction we want it to go. We support and serve each other, and we are honest about the needs we have or the struggles we are experiencing. Then we work together to solve those problems.

When I go to conferences, my husband plays single parent for that week. He also does a lot of the daily household stuff on a normal basis—grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, dishes, etc. This frees me up during the day to work with the girls or write or edit. During the evenings, I do other writing-related activities like research, promotion, brainstorming, editing, answering emails, etc.

That used to make me feel guilty, like I wasn’t doing the “stuff” a SAHM is supposed to do. But my husband has been very helpful in making me see that it’s his choice to do these things, and he makes that choice because he loves me and believes in my dream of being a writer. It’s his way of helping me get there. And it has been effective.

The cool thing is that I’m planning on using the fulfillment of my dreams to help him reach his. He wants to return to graduate school for a PhD in physics, to be a physics professor. Physics is for him what writing is for me—can’t live without it. He’s taken quite a detour from that love in the past 12 years since he graduated with his B.S. in Physics. In fact, he had given up on that dream ever becoming reality. But he’s sacrificed so much for me and my dreams, I’m determined to return the favor as soon as we can manage it. My writing and editing will hopefully support the family while he’s in school. That’s another reason I’ve stopped feeling guilty about not being able to do it all. It’s easy to let go of expectations when you are working toward something bigger and greater.

The only thing we really do poorly on is actual house cleaning. You don’t want to know how long the interval is between cleaning the bathrooms, for example, or dusting the living room! And there’s other stuff that gets put off—like home improvements, or car maintenance. I’d love to have a beautiful home that I’d be proud to invite visitors over to, but I’ve had to accept that until we can afford a cleaning service, that’s just not going to happen.

The guilt goes away real fast, though, when I hold my book in my hands and ask myself, “Which would you rather have? A sparkling toilet or this book?”

Thanks Meredith! And don't forget to check the book stores very soon for her follow up novel @ Home for the Holidays: It's beginning to look a lot like chaos.


Pattie said...

Thanks for the great interview, Gina!

Trish Ryan said...

A clean toilet is temporary; a book lasts forever...

Dena Dyer said...

Wow--I needed this! Thanks, Gina and Meredith. You perked me up and reminded me of things I needed to hear again! :)