Do you cheat?
Be honest: when you’re here, are you thinking about there? When you tell your beloved you’re all-in, do you longingly glance back over your shoulder? Shouldn’t one be enough to satisfy? Emphatically, I say no. And before we get too deep, for those hoping for a five point plan on how to embrace a polygamous lifestyle, kindly move along.
Being a writer or artist and a new parent can have you feel you’re leading a double life. Where is your dedication when both scream—some literally—for your attention? How can you be devoted to one without somehow forsaking the other, right? Eventually, you might feel one will draw the proverbial line in the sand and say “Choose”. Here’s a little side note: ultimatums rarely make the chooser feel satisfied. Or even work, for that matter.
But you can have it all. Well, maybe not in a “Scarface: The-World-Is-Yours” decimation kind of way, (who needs that type of collateral damage on his or her conscience?) But ‘all’ nonetheless. The first thing you need to do is accept that being a parent and being an artist are not mutually exclusive. Both can get along on their own, thank you very much.
And if this is your fate, both are constant, permanent realities for you.
Outside of the occasional dawdler who views his/her art or writing as a cute hobby with the sole purpose of driving Instagram numbers, (you know who you are), creativity is not a choice for you, akin, say, to picking an entree at your cousin’s wedding. Even if your mom still asks when are you going to stop carrying on with all that silly business and get a real job, you should feel that writing and creating is simply part of your D.N.A. As in, you’re afflicted forever. Remember Keifer Sutherland in “Lost Boys”? That’s you. Conversely, being a parent also dwells in the mighty house of permanence; there ain’t no return policy on that swaddled clutch catching some Z’s in the car seat—I don’t care how diversified Amazon is getting.
But here’s the rub: you love being both a parent and a creative. They both give you energy, and joy. Yet both make their demands and both have expectations that usually overlap. Both believe they are the one and true love; the only love. This leads to guilt. Endless, oil-rig deep, insatiable guilt. You know exactly what I’m talking about: you’re rewriting your umpteenth draft on that essay about Donald Hall (r.i.p.) as the family dinner hour creeps precariously into view and your partner calls up the stairs and asks if you can set the table. Or as you toss the ‘ol pigskin with your daughter on a crisp fall day, inspiration for a new poem flashes like that covey of quail you just startled into view with an errant throw. One can strike regardless of whether or not you are fully engaged in the other. It’s seeming madness, I know. But it’s a part of life and you can’t starve one to placate the other.
So what do you do?
You devise rules and stick to them, that’s what. You make a schedule—yes, with an actual pen and paper. There’s something to be said about carving out time for both parenthood/artisthood in a manual way. Feels more blood-and-guts real than tapping checkmarks into an Excel spreadsheet. Write during your lunchbreak at work. Play and explore new worlds with your kids during their afterschool snack time. Paint in the morning after you put your child down for a 25 minute nap. You commit to this routine and you surround yourself with those who understand that and support you; your children, if young enough, will probably not be a part of that group who want to support this approach. Neither will your art. But that’s okay. Tough love is tough for a reason.
The other thing is you need to give yourself the permission to be embrace this dual existence. Until this happens, you’ll just spin in a kind of agonized, self-induced purgatory. It’s okay that you’re helping your son scavenge for Legos under his bed instead of banging out a new piece of flash fiction. It’s perfectly acceptable that you are ensconced in your room and reviewing poems you’ve submitted via the Submittable website. Because let’s face it: if you’re not present as you engage your work (and both things here truly are your ‘jobs’) then you will never be able to do your best work. As a parent, or an artist.
And granted, I know kids sometimes tumble and get hurt, need to be held and consoled, and magazine deadlines can suddenly shift and breathe down your neck like dictatorial mandates, but outside of these ‘all-or-nothing’ exceptions (and let’s be honest, these are more exception than the rule), you can create a schedule which honors both of your needs and your responsibilities.
It definitely helps to have a partner who gets this. And gets you. Who supports you and your need to coexist in this world as both an artist and a parent. It is much more difficult going it alone. I totally get this, and do not envy such scenarios. But again, if creating is what you know you’re meant to do, then you will find a way. You’ll have to. Because, as a part of the essence of who you are, creating will feel as necessary as breathing. It’ll just be trickier finding that community who can help you realize your required outcome. This is when you ask for help. Unless you’re John Cena, don’t be a tough guy and try to ‘go it alone’. Ask. For. Help.
As a father and a writer, I’ve felt at times like I was getting the proverbial ‘Stretch Armstrong’ treatment: yanked in opposite directions to near breaking. But I know I need to respect both callings if either is to thrive. Think of it that way: your children as art and your art as your children. Honor both, help them flourish.