It was about 11 o’clock.

I’d already had a full day of trying to get some work done during her nap, taking her to the neighborhood playground in the afternoon, preparing her dinner (and mine), feeding her, playing with her some more, and finally getting her through her bedtime routine. She had fallen asleep shortly after 9 o’clock. Tired and weary, I shuffled over to the computer to start the third shift. Going back to work after the baby’s asleep is the new normal, after all.

It took some time to switch my brain from “dad” mode to “freelance writer” mode. During that transition, I caught up on some messages and skimmed through my RSS feeds. Before I knew it, a couple of hours had passed.

And then I heard a whimper.

I went to her room and saw that my daughter was sitting up in her crib, rubbing her eyes. She’d have to be put back down.

I tried encouraging her to lie back down on her own, but she insisted on being picked up. I held her in my arms, telling her that everything was fine and that she had to go back to sleep. I shushed her. I rocked her. I went into that natural and slow-moving waltz that every parent seems to know. She just stared up at me with eyes wide open.

Okay. Time to deploy phase two.

Despite my obvious panache for singing off-tune, I started to sing a lullaby to her. And then another. All the while, I continued with that sleepy dance that every parent seems to know. After about 20 minutes, she had seemingly fallen asleep again. With all that swaying and singing, I was lulling myself to sleep too. I put her down in her crib and began to count in my head.

One. Two. Three…

In the world of professional boxing, you’re considered knocked out if you don’t get up after a 10-count. With babies (and toddlers), the same philosophy applies except the number needs to be a fair bit higher. That’s because the little one might look like she’s asleep, but she’s just lying there with her eyes closed. For whatever reason, I’ve gravitated toward counting to 100.

Fifty-six. Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight…

Just as swaying around and humming a lullaby has the side effect of also lulling the parent to sleep, counting to 100 is not all that dissimilar from counting sheep. There are just no sheep. In trying to make her tired and sleepy again, I was dozing off myself. Dead man walking.

Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One hundred.

Good. She’s actually asleep. I tip-toed ever so delicately out the door and made my way back to the home office. Slumping down into my chair in front of the keyboard, I once again had to re-orient myself. Where was I again? What was I writing?

By this time, it was almost 11:30 pm. Realistically, I probably should have gone to bed myself. But if I didn’t get work done then, I wasn’t so sure I’d have another good opportunity until the following night. And I’d face the same scenario again.

If the task were routine, something I could do on auto-pilot, it would have been a lot easier to persevere. Years ago, I worked as an accounts-payable clerk and one of the most common things I did was sort invoices and packing slips into numerical order. It was mind-numbing and it was brainless, but it was easy. I could have done that.

Writing is a creative exercise. You really can’t just sit down and start doing it. For my part, it’s about getting the flow. It’s about catching the beat and letting the words write themselves. I’ve said before that what I do has a lot in common with freestyle rap, perhaps without the sick beats and antagonistic mud-slinging. You don’t know about these rhymes that I spit.

When I’m feeling drained, it can be exasperatingly difficult to string together a meaningful series of words. When I feel like I’m barely running on fumes, there’s no beat for me to catch. My muse has already gone to bed herself. The struggle, as they say, is all too real.

Eventually, I managed to finish the article I was working on and I shut down the computer for the night. I’ll chalk that one up to a decade of experience, learning how to produce inspired work even when you’re not feeling all that inspired.

I know that I can’t possibly be alone. My situation is likely all too common in a world moving increasingly toward telecommuting, remote working and flexible schedules. And so I humbly ask my fellow work-at-home third shift parents: where do you find your strength? How do you get going in the wee hours of the night when you’ve got nothing left in the tank?

Image credit: Andres Nieto Porras (Flickr)