A few thoughts on following your dreams while putting your family first

September 24, 2013 | 41 comments

Dear Friend Who Sent Me this Text Yesterday:


Hi. Great to hear from you. And sorry about my short reply. I intended for that to be a wry lead-in to a longer response, but it ended up being the kind of afternoon where things devolved in such a rapid and startling way that I really did end up wishing for cages and juice boxes.

Anyway, it’s funny that you should ask this, since I’ve been talking about it with a lot of other friends lately as well. Not all of them are writers, but they’re all asking questions about how to pursue their passions fits into a family-focused life.

I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have all the answers. There are days when I spend too much time online and not enough time with my kids; there are also days when I tell myself that I’m not getting any writing done because I’m making my family my top priority, when by “making my family my top priority” I mean “watching Netflix.” So if you asked me that question because you perceive that all my days are a marvel of balance and peace where I manage to surpass my writing goals while lavishing my children with hours of focused attention, delete my number from your phone so that you never make such a grievous error again.

I also can’t tell you exactly when you might find some extra hours in your day, since what works for me right now (writing during naptime and staying up too late) won’t necessarily work for you — it might not even be what works for me a couple of months from now. However, if you texted me because you’re morbidly curious about the life principles that allowed a homeschooling mother of six children under age 10 to get a book written, or you’d like to know which bits of wisdom I’ve collected from people far holier and wiser than I am that have helped me over the years, I’m happy to share.

Here is a brain dump of everything I know on the subject:

1. Make sure this activity gives you energy

This sounds like an obvious question, but it’s worth taking a second to stop and ask yourself, Is this something I really love?

If your life is anything like mine, you have precious little free time, and even less extra energy. You don’t need to add more work to your schedule. However, if you pursue a passion that gives you energy when you undertake it, it can be a blessing to both you and your family.

A friend of mine refers to finding this kind of work as discovering your “blue flame.” Find your blue flame, and you’ll find something you can do that will bring you joy, and will also fill you with energy that you can give back to others.

2. Prioritize ruthlessly

I really want to start a garden and can vegetables and figure out how to program iPhone apps and decorate my bedroom and improve my Spanish and learn to sew. But I’ve made a conscious choice to set those activities aside, at least for now, so that I can devote my limited free time to writing.

Someone else’s priority list might look totally different. A friend of mine recently discovered that her blue flame is growing and preparing quality food, and I think she kind of feels sorry for me when she imagines me hunched over my computer in my darkened office while she’s out in the sunshine, digging onions out of the dirt in her garden, with a pot of freshly-picked corn boiling in the kitchen. She doesn’t have time for writing because she uses all her extra time gardening, just as I don’t have time for gardening because I’m writing.

If you’re in a crazy season of life and you’ve found a passion that you’d like to pursue, I believe you can do it — but it’s going to involve making tough choices about how you use your time.

3. Pitch the vision

Let me guess: finding time to develop your hobby feels frivolous. Self-indulgent, even. You realize that it would require sacrifices from the whole family to help you make this happen, and you don’t see how it could be worth it, especially that you probably wouldn’t be making any money from it.

This is why point #1 is so important: because if you really have found your blue flame, you’ll find that pursuing this activity fills you with a passion and energy that will spread through everyone in your house. At the very least, it will help you mentally declutter after difficult days. Yes, it might require sacrifices, but there will be payoffs too. If you explain that to your family, it makes it a lot easier for them to offer you the support you need when their own bandwidth is limited.

4. Think “we, ” not “me”

When Joe and I started talking about how I could find more time to write, it led to a shift in our family culture. Asking how I could get their support pursuing my passion led to asking how I could help Joe and the kids pursue their own interests as well. Now we see all of our individual activities as things that we undertake together as a family, even if only one person is doing the work. When Joe was training for a triathlon this summer, it was our thing, as was me writing the book, my son playing football, my girls taking dance lessons, and so on.

It sounds so obvious as to not be worth stating, but for me it was a small revelation when I realized that having a truly family-oriented life involves me and my husband and children all thinking in a family-oriented way. Once I began to see my writing work as something that takes place within the larger context of the goals of the other people in my house and the overarching goals of our family, I was able to stop stressing about whether I had my priorities in the right order — everything naturally fell into place.

5. Accept the natural ebb and flow of time for your hobby

Another obvious statement: one thing about putting family first is that, well, sometimes the needs of your spouse and children come first. You’ll have periods where you get all the time you need to work on your craft, but there will also be periods where even a couple of hours per week is hard to come by. It’s always painful to have to pull yourself away from a fulfilling project just when you were on a roll, but it’s important to accept that it’s part of the process.

Also, if you use these periods strategically, they can actually help you improve your craft. They can be great periods of study and research that you might not otherwise get if you were knee-deep in work.

For example, in the months before Joe took the CPA exam, he needed tons of time to study. This meant that I had very little writing time, since I was in single parent mode on evenings and weekends. I had to set my memoir aside completely, and was barely able to keep my blog updated. So while I didn’t have hours per week to write, I was able to find time to read. I would read books about writing at the park while the kids played, in 15-minute snatches of free time that came up throughout the day, and before I went to sleep at night.

I was happy to be able to give that extra time to my family, but all the reading and research I did ended up making me a better writer as well.

6. Learn to distinguish healthy limits from Resistance

I am forever indebted to Steven Pressfieldย for introducing me to the concept of Resistance in his book The War of Art. He does an excellent job of elucidating the kind of spiritual warfare we face when we try to improve our lives in any way, especially when we create art. Resistance is the voice that whispers that you might as well give up since you’re no good at this anyway; it’s the force that compels you to hit the snooze button, even when you got enough sleep; it’s the headwind that slams you in the face, just as you’re starting to move forward.

And those of us who aim to put our families first are particularly susceptible to it.

Per #5, there are plenty of times when it’s the right thing to do to set aside our hobbies for the sake of our families — but understand that Resistance is going to be all over this opportunity, and will hand you excuse after excuse not to do your work. Err on the side of putting family first, and don’t hesitate to give your loved-ones more of your time if it seems like they need it. But if all is well with your family, and you find that taking a break from your craft looks more like messing around on Twitter and less like reading books with your kids, it’s time to tell Resistance to shut up and go do your work.

7. Know the real source of happiness

It’s tempting to fall into the mentality that the goal is to practice our crafts all day every day. If I can just grit my teeth and get through this time of having all the screaming short people in the house, they’ll eventually be gone and I can work on my hobby all the hours of all the days! It’ll be bliss! the thinking goes.

As someone who probably missed a calling to be a desert hermit, I’m as susceptible to that line of thinking as anyone. But if I’ve learned one thing in the past eight years of trying to balance my hobby with family life, it’s this: the practice of your craft will never bring you lasting happiness in and of itself.

I have a few writer friends who have had their books end up on the New York Times Bestseller List, and they unanimously have this to say about the experience:

It’s a high. And being on a high is, by definition, a fleeting state. Eventually, you must come down.

Work hard at your craft. Aim for excellence. Enjoy your successes. But don’t spend your life chasing the highs of worldly achievement. God is the only source of true happiness, and there is no better way to experience God than through intimate connections with other people. There’s nothing thrilling about wiping noses and refilling sippy cups. Cutting PBJ sandwiches into tiny squares and chatting about ballet class over dinner are not glamorous activities. But while those moments might be small, they are real and solid, and they will fill you up in a way that all the success in the world never could.

So, friend, I am excited about this new adventure. I believe that God put this passion on your heart for a reason, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it.

I’ll be praying for you, and for every other person who is wobbling through this crazy balancing act of pursuing a dream while putting family first.


  1. Valerie

    Thank you so much for this. It makes me feel normal. Writing is my passion and my kids are often told, “not now I’m writing.” Lately I’ve been telling myself that ignoring them while writing on the computer is just practice for when I’m nursing a new baby (while probably also writing on the computer.)

  2. Jerusha

    So well said and worth pursuing. Thank you!

  3. Erin

    You’ve got a really good list there. It’s hard to see all of those things when you spend a year (or two. or three.) in an ebb tide. Then you just have to keep from forgetting your dream and find one or two little little ways to keep the pilot lit in the meantime. Now that I’ve hit a flow tide, I’m trying to ride it, but it is scary after so many years of “someday I’ll…” I mentioned it before, but Jon Acuff’s book “Start” was really helpful for me.

  4. Jen

    I really needed to read this today. Thank you!

  5. Mrs. Amen

    Great tips! I have a question about how you make a family activity of your children’s activities. How do you? At this stage of the game for my family, my almost 5 year old plays flag football. We all go to practices when DH is in town (rare due to his job). When he isn’t here, it’s just me and the kids (DS who is playing and 13 month old who is eating anything she finds on the ground, and in utero baby who is kicking my already tired butt. I cheer him on as best I can, but find myself spacing out or just talking with other parents. How can I get more engaged, more “familyness” out of it?

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      I am definitely not great about being engaged at every sports game, for the same reasons you mentioned. I’ve been trying to work on that. For us, the way it feels like an “us” activity is that we discussed as a family whether it made sense for us all to make the time sacrifices, and we talk about how my son is improving, what he likes about it, etc. So it all feels very connected to what everyone else is doing, even if I don’t always know what quarter it is at the games. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Julie

    This is wonderful, Jen. I put off starting my blog for a long time because (in part) it felt like a selfish thing for me to be doing when I was barely pulling off the whole stay-at-home-mom/homemaker thing. A few months later, my house may be a little more messy than it was pre-blog, but everything else is holding together just fine. What’s more: I’m happier and my relationships with my husband and my boys have never been better. I also feel more possibility in my life, from the small things (more playdates! actual outings!) to the big. Personally, I think I needed a little kick in the pants. Adding an activity to my life that I find constructive and edifying was just the ticket. I may now have more to do in my daily hours, but I feel so much more free.

  7. Hillary Potter

    I had never heard or thought about Tesistance. But I have experienced it. Especially the idea of I am not good enough, so why try. I studied art in college and fell in love with fiber arts, ceramics and sculpture. Mainly I love mixing art into practical items.

    Last year for Christmas my husband bought me a pottery wheel. A true gift from the heart. I constantly say I don’t have time, I am too inexperienced, etc. not true. I find time to sew clothes for my babies, to play on the iPad, to talk on the phone. I will no longer heed the voice of resistance and begin listening to my voice.

    Throwing pottery is a meditation for me. Nothing but me and the clay, spinning. It is so easy to feel close to Him when in this posture. I need to go back, thanks for the wonderful inspiration.

  8. Christine

    Thanks for this. I feel the same way about exercise . My husband loves to dirt bike. It is basically is a trade off . It’s nice to know that everyone struggles and goes through both productive and non productive periods.

  9. Britt Fisk

    Thank you for writing this – it’s a breath of fresh air that I needed today ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Jennifer @ Little Silly Goose

    I took up blogging about 4 months ago, and I know it is hard for my husband to understand why I spend my very limited time on that. I try to explain why it’s important to me, but this post gives me an idea of how I can explain it better. Also, I think your idea about working together so that each family member can pursue their passions is really valuable. Thanks as always for sharing these simple but powerful insights. You truly are making a difference in the lives of so many people– keep it up!

  11. Brooke

    This post was something I needed really badly to hear today. I have four book ideas bouncing around in my head that I spontaneously work on. I feel selfish if I try to spend a lot of time on it, even though my husband is quick to encourage me to write. He thinks it would be awesome to be able to say his wife is the author of such-and-such book, and is very supportive. However, we have 8 & 1/2 month old twins and are expecting another baby in April, so it’s hard to find the time even with his support and willingness to help. Your post made me realize it is possible, though it’s not going to be easy or happen overnight. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this, it was very encouraging and gave me a lot of hope. I’ll blame the tears I had to blink away while reading it on the pregnancy hormones. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Carolyn @ 4Life4Life

    Thank you Jen for taking your free time to write about this! I’ve been waiting for this post for some time! It edifies my own thoughts about pursuing this “blue flame” (which I love the name for it! Hobby doesn’t seem quite passionate enough).
    I’m so interested in this book you reference.
    Do you seem to notice more resistance when you’re writing something particularly spiritual or insightful to Catholicism? Like, how about when you were writing your book?
    At first I didn’t notice it myself. But then I began to notice almost a freaky pattern and -call me a loony – I recognized this resistance as Screwtape-ian evil trying to dissuade me from evangelizing.
    Same thing or no?

  13. Andrea

    Thank you, Jen, for this post.
    I like my blog and blogging, but for me it’s more like your spa day. It’s nice, and I enjoy it, but it is not what gives me my greatest joy.
    I am a singer. I used to be really good. But it’s sort of like exercise, you don’t do it, and you get a little weak. I’m a little weak right now, but my heart aches…*aches* to sing again. I can’t seem to fit it into my family life, and a lot of the reason is that I feel guilty.
    Your post is helping me to reassess. I need to do something “formal,” voice lessons or a high quality choir. I don’t want to be an example of falling on the sword of mama martyrdom to my daughters. Their dreams and arts are important, and how do I show them other than showing them that mine is as well?
    This gives me so much to think about…I appreciate this wonderful gift YOU have!

  14. Nessa

    I just love your insight about identifying the things that give you energy so that you will have more to give back to the world. There’s a lot of food for thought there. Thank you!

  15. Joe Fulwiler

    I love the cages idea. We could pair those with the shock collars that are activated by noise. Very Pavlovian.

    • Elizabethe

      Omgosh!!!!! Joe!!!! I love it.

      I am such a huge fan.

      Just today I was imagining you coming home and booping your cat finder so you could greet your cat. I lol everytime I think of it.

      • Jennifer Fulwiler

        I think that was the first time Joe commented on my blog. It only took him eight years!

  16. Katherine

    “But while those moments might be small, they are real and solid, and they will fill you up in a way that all the success in the world never could.”

    >>real and solid<< that stuck with me. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Lisa-Jo @lisajobaker

    Standing Ovation. This list is THE list I am going to refer people to when they ask me these questions. Because usually my advice about how to get “everything” done is simply that you don’t do most things. You do one thing at a time. This is a fantastic expansion. Appreciate you transcribing my thoughts ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. Eva

    Yeah, that was probably too long to be a text message…

  19. Sharon

    Thanks Jen for the context and perspective I SO needed today. Your sense of humor is a definite boost, too!

  20. Heather

    Jen, I can’t even thank you enough for sharing your wisdom on this topic. Super timely for me and much needed. Thanks, friend:)

  21. Theresa

    Was juice boxes and cages a joke because I actually do use those things to control the kids.

    Juice boxes as special rewards and a playpen when I need to keep my 2 year old from wrecking everything when I work with one of the other kids.

  22. Tammy

    I know I put my kids first but I’m glad now that I maintained my blue flame passion component to life because the kids really DO grow up. I thought I would go into the sunset with my husband but he died- I’m glad I have something that is just mine.

  23. elizabethe

    Quick question! LOL!!!!!!!!!

    Your friend has a sense of humor.

    This is a great post.

  24. Emily

    Thank you for writing this! I feel like we all need to work on balance so I find this to be helpful to me as well.

  25. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    Love. And, regarding #7, I was hanging out with Dwija the other day, and she said something that really stuck with me. She said, “Throw your old normal out the window. It’s gone forever. What you are dealing with right now is your new normal. There is no getting back to the way things used to be.”

    Her words came to mind when you said, “Itโ€™s tempting to fall into the mentality that the goal is to practice our crafts all day every day. If I can just grit my teeth and get through this time of having all the screaming short people in the house, theyโ€™ll eventually be gone and I can work on my hobby all the hours of all the days! Itโ€™ll be bliss! the thinking goes.”

  26. Anne McD

    Now its my turn to think you for this encouragement and insight. And if I ever get my stupid laptop back, I can start writing and blogging again. My thumbs are too big to write anything read-worthy. :p

  27. Dawn Farias

    This post is spot on, Jennifer. My hobby used to be blogging and as much as I enjoy writing I ended up deciding it involved my ego too much. I now design things for sale and it refreshes me in ways that writing did, but without the… I don’t know the word… without a certain emotional fragility, I guess.

    I have five children and so have been practicing all of what you’ve listed here. I have to be ruthless with how I fill my spare time IF I want to focus on my designing. I am more intentional with the housework and everything else that goes with managing a family so that when I DO get a bit of free time is guilt-free and unfettered with concern about everything else that should be going on. The trade-off is I don’t spend much time outside of the house, or with friends, or being frivolous. But since I, too, have hermit-like tendencies these are comfortable trade-offs.

    When I begin to feel resentful of family time interfering with my design schedule I often think about quitting the designing. But then I calm down, focus on the needs of my family first (one thing at a time!) and rest in the knowledge that I’m doing the right thing. That is different from the many years of resentment and discouragement that I cultivated in my heart and mind. And I’ve been happier!

    Thanks for your posts. They always resonate with me.

  28. Cristina @ Filling my Prayer Closet

    I was just asked when I found time to sleep and if in fact I did. I assured them that I did – even if when I wake up in the morning, my naturally curly hair is totally straight on one side from raking my fingers through it with random thinking in the middle of the night. I look like a before and after frizz-ease commercial. I digress. I find that if I anchor my day (and night) around prayer, mommy-ing, wife-ing, reading and writing, everything else falls into place. Now some days reading is scripture with my boys or Little Monk’s favorite Spilt Milk book, some days it’s a book I’m reviewing for my blog. I can always find mommy-ing and wife-ing in my day. For example, I went to visit with my priest for some spiritual counseling. This after a long day at work and before that a whiz around filled morning getting the kids ready, school papers signed, etc. When I got home at 7PM, the last thing I wanted to do was go for a walk – which my dear husband really wanted to do. I took a deep breath and put my sneakers on. Wife-ing time with the husband and kiddos, exercise for me. How could I say no?

    It’s nice to see that we (the mom-network) are thinking collectively about the same things!

  29. Jennifer

    Thank you for this, I think it is excellent advice. I have completed a book this year about dealing with depression as a christian woman, while homeschooling four kids, ages 4,6,7 and 9. There is no way I could have done it without the support of my husband, who stayed home with the kids every Saturday morning for months so that I could go to the library and write. I can also really relate to the “resistance” you described- right now I am in the process of trying to find an agent and/ or publisher for my book, and I have really been procrastinating. Writing is a blue flame for me, too, but drafting proposals and trying to sell my work is most definitely NOT. I really hate it, but it needs to be done. So thank you for the gentle kick in the behind- I needed it!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Congratulations on your book, Jennifer! And definitely watch out for Resistance as you go through the process of finding an agent or publisher — it can hit you hard then. Best of luck!

  30. Julia

    It is such an unpredictable thing, writing, because you can not control how much time it will take or when inspiration can be summoned. I think for me that is the biggest clash I encounter. My love language is quality time, and I feel like a big, fat, phony when I’m blogging about beautiful things and my kids are hollering from the potty “Mommy there’s NO MORE TOILET paper,” or someone has just slipped on the kitchen floor next to me on the juice I forgot to mop up and is screaming like a banshee. I can’t ignore my kids, yes because it’s my love language but also because the police would seriously come because of the noise level.

    There will never be a shortage of things to do and people to serve (relatively speaking) and yet I fear that once the children are “gone,” that I’ll be like “great, now what do I write about?” Hah!

    Thank you so much for recommending the book about Resistance. It is an ongoing discernment about what needs to be shared, what needs to be guarded, and how time should be devoted to the craft, I feel.

    If I might share something I’m learning, for me, social media has had to be all but written off during the school year except for the briefest of bursts. I lived on FB during the summer but the school year is a machine and it’s all about stopping what you’re doing to make sure you’re ready to do the next RIGHT thing and never starting anything you can’t finish. And planning…as you said, naptime and bed time are writing and research time for Mama, and I’m thankful to have a husband who doesn’t mind scrubbing the crock pot so it’s not the first thing I have to look at in the kitchen sink in the morning! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Well I did it again, I tried to write my own post in someone else’s comment thread. It’s entirely possible I’m trying to avoid reading “Splat the Cat” for the 80th time by the way. But seriously, thank you for your wisdom and encouragements, Jen. And thank you for the sacrifice of time and energy you devote to your craft!

  31. Kelly @ Love Well

    This is all so good. SO GOOD. Thank you, Jen. I needed to read much of this today. I especially love the global view of looking at your family’s priorities. It isn’t about you and then you and then you. It’s about US, all together. How can we work together, how can we prioritize each other and meet each other’s needs?

  32. Loren T.

    The beauty in your writing confirmed my deepest belief in the existence of God, especially when frustrations of life seem uncontrollable. I will save this blog. My favorite sentence in the blog, “-everything naturally fell into place.” Thank you Jen.

  33. Lea Singh

    Great post. Out of curiosity, and morbid fascination, and wish-I-could-do-it-too syndrome, I have the following question: where does childcare fit into your equation?

    It seems a lot of mommy bloggers don’t mention this very often but I have come across references on other blogs about nannies and babysitters and such, even when the mothers stay home.

    Personally I don’t have any form of childcare other than myself, and with 3 children aged 4 and under, it is hard to get ANYTHING done during the day. I do want to write a book, but I don’t know WHEN. On most days, I have to wait until after 9 pm to do any writing…and of course, my poor husband wants attention too.

    So I am truly incredulous at the amount of time you must have to write – I mean, you not only wrote a book, but also have a newspaper column and a blog, along with your family. Something tells me, there has to be more to this than just the tips above!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Great question! I do often have babysitters, usually homeschooled teen girls who are available afternoons, though that varies month to month. E.g. I have a babysitter who comes a couple of afternoons per week right now, though she’s leaving in a couple of weeks. My two toddlers go to a Mother’s Day Out program during the school year, though I use the time they’re gone to homeschool. I used to be able to write during that time. I miss that. ๐Ÿ™‚

  34. Anna

    Wow. I think I read this post when it was published, but it did not fully make sense until now. I am working on 2 projects right now: 1. a video promoting awareness about adoption, 2. becoming an NFP instructor.

    Both projects have entered new and difficult phases within the past few weeks. I really think I have been experiencing spiritual attack during this time. I will suddenly be filled with feelings of dread and anxiety that these projects are a burden on my husband and that I am wholly unqualified to even do them.

    Luckily, I have the most wonderful husband ever. He continues to remind me that we are in this together, and that he believes in me and in this work.

    Thank you for this post. It really helped me refocus my thoughts. I think it maybe even gave me a bit of courage. ๐Ÿ™‚

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