April 19th, 2016

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In an online mom’s group I belong to, a fellow mom posted this article by Kim Brooks about the intersection (or lack there of) between creative work and parenting. I’ve thought a lot about this particular topic because it was one of my biggest fears in becoming a parent: that I would be subsumed by motherhood and lose my creative identity. It is hard, especially in that first and second year of parenting, when there’s no sleep and no end in sight and your child needs everything from you to find the mental capacity to cultivate any kind of creative space that doesn’t involve playdough or fingerpaint or Duplo blocks.

Brooks doesn’t offer solutions in her article, so much as shifts in perspective. She talks about the “literature of domestic ambivalence,” books about (and likely by) women who struggle in the cracks between the desire to be an artist and the desire to be the perfect mother. I imagine it as a sort of blanket of creative ennui and I’ve been there. But that way also lies self-pity. How do we break out of the cycle of doubt that says if we can’t be superior in all things it isn’t worth trying? That art-making and mothering are mutually exclusive?

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Yes: your parenting brain is different from your art-making brain, or more specifically what pre-parenting artists expect from their art-making brain. I think the moral of Brooks’s article isn’t that parenting kills creativity. I think it’s that parenting changes how we make art and why. Who says we can’t make art because it doesn’t look/sound/feel the way we always thought it was supposed to? Our inner critics, that’s who. The ones that come up with all the excuses why our art is never good enough.

When my husband first asked me to marry him, I balked because I had this vision of myself after college – a vision that involved living in bohemian squalor and working some thankless job while spinning tales at night. A vision that was based on my idea of what a writer should be rather than what a writer is.

I’m ashamed to admit that in my youth, like Brooks, I looked down on artists who chose other paths over their art – like parenting or teaching or a job that earned them actual money – because it seemed to me those options weren’t pure enough. That there was nobility in suffering and struggle. I had the hubris to think that living in a box or developing some kind of debilitating addiction or wallowing in self-pity would make me a better writer when that’s the kind of life so many truly struggle to escape everyday. Forget the fact that I had never properly suffered in my life. That I was (and still can be) a procrastinator of the highest order. That I desired desperately to be a writer but when given the time and space to do so chose to do l i t e r a l l y anything else because I feared that I wasn’t pure enough to produce the kind of work worthy of… well, worthy of what?

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Parenthood tore all that down for me. It stripped me to my barest place. It said: your job is to keep this small human alive. If you can keep this small human alive despite all the forces barreling against you, it will be a miracle. If you can keep yourself fed, keep from killing your husband, keep yourself sane, it will be a miracle. Whether you can tear yourself away from your precious baby to work outside the home or spend all day, every day with your child that demands everything from you, it will be a miracle. Being a parent that cares about their kid is impossible and miraculous. Finding yourself beneath the demands of parenting can be equally impossible and miraculous.

When asked about the conflict between creative pursuits and parenting Brooks’s writer-mother friend Gina Frangello says: “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” It may not be the goal of parenthood, but it’s an inherent part of parenthood. Your entire life gets disturbed, unsettled, upended. Who isn’t to say that can’t play a role in the art you choose to make?

Children go through phases: they grow bigger, more independent. They sleep more… or less. They start looking to us as an example of how to be. And when my daughter looks to me I want her to see someone who is fulfilled in multiple aspects of her identity, who makes space for her art and encourages the making of art, who cultivates curiosity, who finds joy even in the hardest work. Who shows compassion towards others and towards herself. If I can model any of these things even a fraction of the time, I’d consider myself successful as both a parent and an artist

I think the truth about art and suffering is closer to this: we all have our own sufferings or tragedies and they don’t have to be earth-shattering. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. They have to be just shattering enough to open our eyes a bit wider. To quote Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Sometimes that suffering is trying to reconcile and coalesce two different kinds of lives… which is what Brooks sees in this new subgenre of fiction about mother-artists.

There was no big revelation for me about how to approach my creative work post-baby. And as confident as I sound in this post, it took me a long time to put my writing boots back on the proper feet. But having a child, having that new choke-hold on my time, forced me to choose in a way I hadn’t had to before: every spare moment became a choice between writing and… sleep? folding laundry? watching TV? re-discovering my sanity? I didn’t (and don’t) always choose writing. But the choice now feels more out of necessity than guilt. I used to always feel guilty that I wasn’t writing. Now I try to own that choice more. The guilt doesn’t go away, but it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes other things can take precedence and that’s okay. My perspective shifted: my life no longer felt infinite, but measured in getting through the next day or month or year. And as the endlessness of the first years of parenting thinned, I could hear it, a phrase beating at the back of my mind: if not now, when?

Being a writer doesn’t mean that all you do is write. It doesn’t mean all you are is one who writes. It doesn’t mean that you write at the expense of everything else. It means that you write because it is the language you speak. It is the way you communicate with and process the world around you. And that’s not something you lose when you have kids. You may just go quiet for a little while until you find something you’re ready to talk about. And when you start to speak again, you may find your accent has changed.

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Resources for parenting-artists:

  •  Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for Parents was a big help to let me know that there is creativity everywhere, even in the way we parent. The creative tools we can give our children help us rebuild our own paths to making art.
  • The non-fiction writings of the incredible Anne Lamott. She’s written several memoir books about parenting/grandparenting, faith, and the writing process. She’s brutally honest and funny and golden. Here’s a little intro into her views on parenting and writing: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/anne-lamott-parenting-grandparenting_b_1366725.html
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast is designed to give artists and writers permission to be their fullest selves. The first couple of episodes focus on the struggle between being a mother and a writer.

 

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