Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mother by Holly Arsenault

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mother

Lots of artists have kids. But our popular concepts of what makes a good parent and what makes a good artist are at odds. We talk about a supposed tension between two competing identities, as if being a parent and being an artist are antipodes. Artists are supposed to be selfish, mercurial, drunk and, ideally, at least a little bit crazy. Parents are supposed to be selfless, reliable, sober and sane. One might hope to balance these two opposing selves, but never combine them.

Even if these stereotypes don’t reflect anyone’s reality, they fuel a powerful, if unspoken, perception: You can’t be both a good artist and a good parent. Because if you’re truly devoted to your art, how can there be space for familial devotion? And vice versa?

One particularly dumb essay on this topic, written by Lauren Sandler and published in The Atlantic last year, buys fully into the construct of dueling identities. It concludes that a successful writer may have one—but only one—child, without ceding too much of her artist self to the invading horde of motherhood. In a bald display of selective data gathering, the author cites Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion—all parents of only children—as proof of her theory, conveniently omitting the legion of successful writers with multiple children, like Zadie Smith (who shot back a terrific rebuttal in the comments on the piece), Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens. (He had 10 kids, and, as Smith pointed out, nobody questioned whether his fatherliness diminished his writerliness…but that’s a topic for another essay.)

When people ask me about how I manage playwriting and parenting, they usually focus on the seeming logistical and financial impossibility of it, but that’s not really the mystery, is it? Lots of people work multiple, low-paying jobs in order to help support their families, as I do. That one of mine happens to be writing plays doesn’t distinguish it much from all the other kinds of work that parents do around the edges to make ends meet. Though it should be acknowledged that my ability to pursue something as time-intensive yet minimally compensated as playwriting and still have a kid depends on there being a second, wage-earning parent in our household.

I’m not saying it’s not hard. A room of one’s own is a rare commodity in the life of a parent, and for art to happen sometimes compromises are made. I’ll be playing trains with my son or sharing a meal with him, and a character will walk into my head and start talking. And I start listening. Whole scenes compose themselves in my brain while I’m ostensibly parenting. I never wrote seriously before he was born, so maybe this is just how my process works, or maybe it’s a neural adaptation to becoming a mother and a writer simultaneously. I find the time to write by stealing it from my son while I’m supposed to be playing with him. When I finally sit down at the computer after he’s gone to bed, it’s basically transcription.

I came into my identity as both an artist and a parent at the same time, and it wasn’t a coincidence. My artist identity is not subsumed by my mother identity. In fact, being a parent makes being an artist possible for me in a way it never was before my son was born.

This truth revealed itself at 3:45 in the morning, five weeks after I gave birth. I was sitting in the darkened dining room in our quiet house writing my first play. Bleary, sore and leaking, with one ear tuned to the baby monitor, I typed. My compulsion to write was a little sleep deprived and a little sadomasochistic (See! I am a real artist!), but mostly it was fueled by a motivation I’d never known before: the tiny person sleeping upstairs.

Before my son came along, I could always find a “good” reason to defer writing. Like a kid avoiding her homework, the effort I wasted on dodging my inner artist—because I was afraid of what might come out of her—could have produced an epic. Having a child forced me to get my artistic shit together. Because what was I going to say to him? “You should fearlessly pursue your dreams! I have no earthly idea how that’s done, but good luck!” No.

As parents, we’re compelled to try to teach our children what we’ve learned, futile though the effort may be. That happiness and fulfillment require walking toward fear is the hardest-won lesson of my life—a lesson I probably can’t pass on to my child, as much as I’d like to spare him the pain it took for me to get it. But, if I can teach him to embrace fear as a friendly, guiding force, it won’t be through anything I say to him. It will be through the extent to which I am willing to let him see me expose myself, over and over, to the near certainty of humiliation and failure.

My hope is that my son will grow up watching me struggle with my writing privately, fail publicly and, most importantly, continue on. I write for him, not in spite of him.

Holly Arsenault is a playwright and executive director of TeenTix.

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