I would like to encourage anybody who struggles with the competing demands of parenthood and creativity to read Kim Brooks’s article, “A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Mom: Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” in The Cut, and follow some of the links to more of what the author terms the “literature of domestic ambivalence,” an emerging genre which seems to be driven overwhelmingly by women—not surprisingly, as women have always been torn between the two (hence the historical scarcity of successful women artists). But I would also surmise that as traditional gender roles give way to a more egalitarian division of labor, and more and more fathers are taking an active role in the day-to-day work of childrearing (and the accompanying emotional roller coaster ride of hair-raising anxiety, mind-numbing boredom, wild joy, quiet desperation, quiet joy and wild desperation, et cetera), this particular dilemma is going to feel increasingly familiar to plenty of creative men as well.
My initial response to the question posed in the title of Brooks’s piece was “Well, duh.” Obviously it is! But the fact that there is evidently a large and growing body of creative work addressing this very theme would seem to imply that the answer is more likely, “Not necessarily.” Also, I realized with a bit of a shock that I myself have racked up vastly more creative output in the eight years since I became a mother than in the preceding eighteen years, or indeed at anytime in my life with the possible exception of my four years of art school. I discovered to my surprise that I can’t use parenthood as an excuse any more.
Granted, it is not easy. I used to assume that the problem was primarily one of scheduling. Raising kids is time-consuming. It turns out that babies demand quite a lot of attention, and the parents of young children tend to be drained of both emotional and physical energy by the end of the day—when, if you’re lucky, you might get a precious hour or two between the time your toddler finally falls asleep and you collapse insensate into bed yourself, unless of course the laundry, the dishes, the emails, and the countless other chores that have piled up during the day are more pressing than any kind of creative work.
And while I still constantly bemoan the shortage of time to tinker around in the studio, that actually hasn’t changed much since I became a mother. I never had enough free time before, either. All of my artist friends, after having kids, have issued some variation on the familiar refrain: Whatever did I used to do with all that free time? The fact is, whether you have kids or not, whether you make a living doing some form of creative work or not, setting aside time to devote to your art will probably require a determined struggle against the never-ending demands and expectations of a world that does not and will never respect your innate need to create. It took a kid to drive that lesson home for me, and I actually have learned to use my time better. I don’t squander it like I used to. (Okay; maybe I squander it a little, but some occasional downtime is important, too, right?)
But more significantly, I hadn’t taken into account Brooks’s insightful—even revelatory—point that the motives and aims of making art are inherently in opposition to those of making families. Switching back and forth on demand between the subversive, destabilizing, individualistic role of artist and that of nurturing, comforting and security-providing parent is much more complex and difficult to manage than simply scheduling the hours of one’s day more efficiently. Popping into the studio for fifteen or twenty minutes here and there to work on a new piece or draft a paragraph is so hard to do because the total shift of mindset required to get into what most artists will recognize as some version of “the groove,” takes sustained focus. It’s like asking someone to change their entire personality at will.
The irony for me is that it wasn’t until after I became a mother that I began to get serious about being an artist. For the better part of two decades after graduating from art school I dithered and dabbled, but the need to have a job and earn a living, plus a lengthy bout of severe clinical depression in my twenties seemed to sap all the creative life out of me. The desire and impulse to make art remained, but I struggled terribly with a self-defeating creative block that kept me questioning whether my efforts were not a complete and utter waste of time, and doubting that I would ever manage to produce anything that was any good. More often than not I would set out to make art or write and end up talking myself out of it even before I’d begun.
Unexpectedly, it was motherhood that seemed to resolve this creative block. After the birth of my son I experienced a flood of inspiration. I was suddenly full to the brim with ideas for projects and things I wanted to do and make and write. My yoga-type friends will perhaps understand when I say that I believe giving birth released an accumulation of deeply held psychic tensions that had caused an energetic blockage in my second chakra, the seat of creative/generative energy. (When I explained this to my most rationalist, skeptical friend she said, in typical fashion, “Or maybe you finally gained the confidence to know that you had something worthwhile to say and found a voice in which to say it.” To which I replied, “Isn’t that what I just said?”)
But in any case, I was free! At last I was ready to get to work! The only hitch was, I had exactly no time to myself and no prospect of more than two hours in a row to sleep, much less any time to make art, for the foreseeable future. Finding the time to take a shower was nearly impossible; how was I ever going to get into the studio? The best I could manage was to make a note of any fleeting ideas I had before they disappeared, in the desperate and forlorn hope that some day I would have an opportunity to revisit them. On the rare occasions that I did have a half hour or so to myself, I was so physically exhausted that the best I could do was a bit of knitting, or else sit on the couch with my laptop and tap out a few pages of what would—eventually—become a manuscript.
And eight years later, I realize that since becoming a mom, I have accomplished more than I ever did before. A little bit at a time, I’ve made a surprising amount of art and even started to show—and sell—it. I have written one novel and the first draft of another. (I haven’t published anything, and might not ever, but in any case that takes a very different sort of energy.) I think now that it was actually the sleep deprivation that allowed me to pour out that first draft; with my rational brain so befogged, that awful internal censor that used to plague me so relentlessly was temporarily out to lunch. And the countless hours spent rocking and nursing my son to sleep—for better or worse, that is a whole lot of captive time in which to free-associate. And now, even though I still never feel that I have enough free time, when I do have some, I actually use it. And yes: I do struggle with guilt. Any time that I spend making art or writing is time I am not spending caring for the physical and emotional needs of my family, or squeezing every possible moment of joy out of being with my child. Perhaps the much-remarked-upon inherent selfishness of the artist means that I am never going to be the best possible mother I could be. On the other hand, there is literally no limit to the amount of judgment, both internal and external, that parents in general but mothers in particular are faced with these days. However much we do, it is never going to be enough, so why not give ourselves a break? Anyway, parenting is not exclusively about making sacrifices; we also have to teach our kids about life by example.
I have come to believe that artists don’t make art because we want to so much as because we have to. It isn’t a vocation or a hobby or a lifestyle choice, it is simply who you are. It’s like being straight or gay, left-handed or right-handed, a cat person or a dog person; one is an artist, or one is not. It is your orientation, your way of being in the world. You don’t choose it, and sometimes you may wish it was otherwise—because it is often difficult and frustrating, frequently inconvenient, and occasionally quite painful. You sometimes wish you could just be content watching TV or playing Candyland with your kids, or hanging out at the bar with your friends if you don’t happen to have kids, but something keeps compelling you back to your studio or desk for long isolated hours spent alone doing whatever it is that drives and possesses you. Denying that need can only lead to suffering.
That said, I have tried to “quit” a number of times, and after a lot of suffering finally just accepted the fact that whether or not it is a truly meaningful activity, whether or not my art is any good, whether or not anybody else ever cares for it, whether or not I’m making insufficient sacrifices for the sake of my family, I simply can’t be happy and grounded unless I’m doing it. The world may or may not need my art, but I do believe with all my heart that the world does need people in it who are engaged and creative and inspired and doing whatever it is that lights them up, so that they can become beacons for others and pull us all up out of the darkness, even if only just a little. And that’s not an entirely bad example to set for your kids.