Portrait of the Artist as a New Parent The Productive Artist-Mother
How becoming a parent helped me set more reasonable creative goals.
Before I had my child, I thought about how becoming a parent would affect my career. While I was pregnant, like many parents-to-be, I feared that I might not have any time to write after my baby was born. I know people who have finished a novel or another major deadline right before giving birth like they were living the last days of their productive lives, as if impending parenthood were a death sentence to their creative practices.
As my pregnancy progressed, I also talked with plenty of artist-parents who had a different point of view: Having a child doesn’t limit your life. Rather, becoming a parent focuses your priorities. With the new demands that a child puts on your days and nights, they said, you simply don’t bother taking on projects that you don’t care deeply about, and you just do your work instead of getting in your own way with excuses. There’s no time for self-doubt.
How would I feel as a mother? I wondered. Would I feel more panicked, or would I feel more free?
Since I was a child, I have felt an abnormally high level of pressure to produce something worthwhile with my time on this planet. I can best describe this pressure as a need to justify my existence, which has led to my fair share of depression and teeth-grinding. If I hadn’t discovered the usefulness of a nighttime mouthguard as an adult, my incisors would be ground to vampire points by now.
The creative life is a tricky one because we writers often have to create our own deadlines. No one is banging down (most of) our doors asking for our next book. We are accountable only to ourselves, and lots of writers deal with this reality by giving ourselves goals of, say, publishing a first book by age thirty or age forty or . . . fill in the blank. Self-imposed deadlines often come and go, and then we need to readjust our expectations.
In my case, the pressure to produce something major was not on a marginally reasonable time frame, like five years (or even one year). Back in 2007, panicking in the last days of my twenties, I decided rather arbitrarily to use the month-long time constraint of NaNoWriMo as a deadline for which I would produce a music album. My plan was to write nine new songs, record them at home, burn them to a disc—that’s how we did things back in the day, kids—and even create some original cover art for my project. On the second day of the month, I collapsed into a puddle of depressed tears on the floor of my studio apartment in deep Brooklyn. Who was I kidding? How could I possibly hope to accomplish such a goal? I was setting myself up for probable failure, and the last thing I wanted was to fail at anything.
My son was born sixteen days after his due date. Ask most women who are overdue in their pregnancies, and they will share with you how ridiculously difficult those waiting days can be, in particular with a first child. It makes sense. Your life is about to change drastically and irreversibly, and you have no idea when this change is coming. It could be in two hours. It could be in two weeks. How is a control freak supposed to plan anything around such circumstances? I simply kept taking on freelance writing work until the moment I went into labor, warning my editors of my situation should I encounter (what I anticipated might be) a slight delay in meeting my deadline. I thought if I had a deadline, and I went into labor the day before that deadline, then I could probably still get my assignment submitted a few days—or at most a week—late.
Here’s a story to show how much I had to learn about letting go of the exact mapping of my days. I run a monthly reading series , and I had scheduled one of the series’ events for two and a half weeks after my son’s due date. Since my sister’s first child was born two weeks early, I was convinced that my baby would be born at least a few days early, and I’d be totally fine to host an event and moderate a panel discussion three weeks after giving birth.
As my due date came and went, I fretted that the chances of my being able to host my event were slipping away. Still, I held out hope even a week before the scheduled event date, convinced that I would only need a day or two of home recovery after my hospital birth, and I’d be able to manage everything. After all, the venue was only a few blocks from my home.
If you are also a mother, you are probably laughing at me right now.
I started light labor at home when I was twelve days overdue, but it wasn’t progressing very quickly. My doctor insisted that I go to the hospital two days later, as it’s not common practice in the United States to let a woman go more than two weeks past her due date without attempting an induction.
I curled up on my bed at home as we waited for the car service to the hospital to arrive, thinking about the fact that it was Saturday night, and my reading series was scheduled to take place on the upcoming Tuesday night. If I managed to give birth early enough on Sunday, then I could get discharged from the hospital by Tuesday morning and still make it to my event! I didn’t give birth until Tuesday morning, and I wasn’t discharged until Thursday. A wonderful writer friend and fellow parent filled in as host for the reading series that month.
Granted, there was probably a fair bit of denial about the massive change coming to my life in that ridiculous thought process I was having on my bed, awaiting the car service and my new future. But an embarrassingly large part of me really thought it was possible I could do everything: birth a child and host an event all in one day.
I gave myself a break during the initial days of my son’s life. I lived in the glow of new parenthood with my husband, let my only job be to feed my child, feed myself, make sure we both got some sleep, and not lose my mind.
After two weeks, though, I was feeling the itch to jump back into my creative projects. I texted my friend, a performance artist and mother of a young boy. I wrote to her, “It’s been two weeks! I gave myself two weeks to do nothing but be a mom. I think now I can start accomplishing something every day in addition to keeping my baby alive and happy.”
She replied, “Two weeks? Give yourself two years, Catherine.”
Fellow artist-mothers have been crucial advisors in these early months of being a parent. They have gently shown me how to be a little less ridiculous and maybe a little easier on myself, too. Near the end of my pregnancy, a fellow writer and friend, and mother to two children, gave me this advice: “ I think the main thing is to not be precious about your writing routine. I was just revising my new book on the train, for example, standing up, on the way to work. I write a page here, a page there. You just do what you can.”
This writer friend also told me not to be worried about an end product for the first couple of years of motherhood, to just get a little done each day—a sentence here, a sentence there, maybe just get the laundry done one day—enough to not go crazy. She was right. I learned early on that the way to get through days was not to think about all of the things I wanted to do or even needed to do, but to wake up with one goal in mind for the day outside of the enormous job that is parenting, and to be satisfied to get that one thing done.
I need to acknowledge here that parenting is a full-time job, and no one should feel that they are not contributing to society if that is all they do. If I could accept that lesson, I could learn to be easier on myself on those days when I don’t accomplish my non-parenting goal for the day.
My son is eight months old now. I think, on the whole, that each passing month puts me more on the team of feeling that my creative life has expanded rather than contracted. Having a baby has been a boot camp in reconfiguring my life, and sometimes the changes happen faster than I can absorb them. That aside, I am able to point to at least the following four life changes and lessons that being a parent has brought to me. I view these as gifts from my son, in terms of tempering my relationship to time and the pressure I put on myself on any given day:
Write down my (non-childcare) accomplishments on a regular basis, maybe once every three weeks or so. There are times in the madness of child-rearing when I don’t know if something happened last night or last week. In these times, it is easy to forget if I’ve done anything at all. But sitting down and taking the time to remember and make a list, even for fifteen minutes, does wonders for my sanity, and also reminds me to be less hard on myself.
Revel in my ability to do things quickly. I have become incredibly efficient with daily tasks in my life, such as personal grooming. I sometimes have only five minutes when I know my son will be safe and occupied, and I am now a champ at making this plenty of time for me to take a shower, brush my teeth, and moisturize. I can then put on my makeup, do my hair, and get dressed in maybe an additional five to ten minutes, while watching my son and keeping him in arm’s reach. There is no reason to waste mental energy choosing a sock or applying mascara or even sudsing up the shampoo just so—there are so many other things to think about! For example, keeping my son from ramming his head into the corner of a table. At some point in the future, my son will be in school all day, and I will have trained myself to be such a goddam superwoman, getting all of my essential tasks done so quickly, that I will have HOURS to write or do anything else.
Getting up early is a thing that I do now. I was recently away on my own for the first time since giving birth. I left my husband and my son for four whole nights in a row for the annual AWP Conference . And I woke up at 6:30 a.m. every day, without fail and without an alarm clock. My body has adjusted to this schedule, and I wake up at the same time as my son even when we are not in the same state. If I can consistently wake up that early and create the occasional retreat when I have no child to care for . . . goodness, the possibilities!
Learn to live with very little sleep. Once I accepted that I was always going to be just a little bit tired from here on out, I stopped worrying about squeezing naps in during the day, or going to bed at a ridiculously early hour, and just let myself get things checked off my to-do lists in those precious hours while my child sleeps. I also re-upped my relationship with coffee. I probably get more done now than before I was a parent—I’m just too tired to realize it most of the time (hence lesson number one).
I think back to my breakdown in 2007, and now the idea of having a whole month to focus on an artistic goal, no matter the scope, without the worry of chasing a crawling boy, as I lovingly pull electrical cords and mysterious crumb-like objects from his hands and mouth all the livelong day, sounds like an eternity. It sounds like heaven. Before I became a harried parent, I had no idea exactly how much it was possible to accomplish in say, one to two uninterrupted hours; it is so rare for me to have that much consecutive time alone these days that I now really, truly appreciate that time and use it to its maximum potential when I am graced with it.
And no matter what happens with my day and my to-do list, I have a beautiful son to tuck into bed every night, which is a pretty darn special way to spend my hours on this planet. My perspective has shifted, and (most days) I have a new baseline for success: I might fail at any number of things, but as long as my kid is alive and happy, the most important part of my life is doing just fine.