Of all the things I imagined would prepare me to deal with early parenthood, the last thing I thought would come in handy is my experience as an artist. However, I have found uncanny similarities between the life of an artist and the early months of being a parent.
Art-making and raising a baby are both humbling in the way that swimming in strong ocean currents puts you in your place. You believe you are the force deciding which direction and how fast to swim, only to discover you have almost no power over where you are going.
As a visual artist, I am the person putting pen to paper and constructing sculptural towers of dirt. But in the push/pull between me and my materials, the materials usually win out. To say that this is frustrating is an understatement. However, despite feeling humbled by always being on the “losing” end, I have grown to realize that these unknown factors are one of the things I find most appealing about making art. It’s a process full of surprise and discovery because the things that actually happen in my studio result in work that is more interesting than I ever could have imagined.
This, too, is the case for early parenting. The word “parenting” itself sounds like an active verb, but the reality is that you are simply responding to the forceful will of your baby. When I realized that, as an artist, I only had a limited amount of control, I started to embrace the process in a new way. This same sentiment rings true for those early months of parenthood when surrendering to the newly tumultuous way of life makes it seem full of wonder instead of like abject failure.
Isolation and Support
Most visual artists log many hours alone creating work. I am one of those artists. Some days I revel in that isolation, but other times I feel very lonely for companionship or the kinship found in other artists. In early parenthood, the isolation comes from the babies themselves. Young babies can act like tethers around you. For me, the crying was (is) my tether. Being unable to calm a crying baby in public elicits looks of pity at best and angry glances at worst. Not only that, but the effort it takes to leave the house makes it not worth it most of the time. Coordinating a full stomach, clean diaper, and napped baby is nearly impossible.
Because of this isolation, the need for support and kinship in both experiences is essential. As a Program Manager at Artist Trust, I understand this intuitively, as this is what I have devoted my non-studio time to: supporting other artists. Luckily, Seattle has a similar organization for new parents (PEPS), where I have met other moms and dads who have helped normalize the experience. Both early parenthood and being an artist sometimes makes you feel like you are operating in a parallel world to the rest of society. You are awake at odd times, you drop money on things that no one else in their right mind would spend money on, and you opt out of exciting events in lieu of getting just a few more hours in the studio or with your baby. Knowing other people who feel the same way and are doing the same thing as you is one of the things that not only makes it doable, but makes it enjoyable.
“Fun” Isn’t the Word
Every artist has heard this from well-meaning new acquaintances: “You’re an artist, how fuuuuuun!” Being an artist does sound fun. A lot of things sound fun until you make it a career. Let me be clear: I love being an artist, but “fun” isn’t the word. If you want to know why being an artist isn’t fun, see: the rest of this blog post. The reason I love being an artist is that it is deeply rewarding. So, too, is raising a baby.
During my pregnancy, many people told me how much fun I would have. At the time, I was suspicious of this sentiment. Now that I have four-month-old, I realize that my suspicions were correct: “Fun” isn’t the word. You don’t have a baby because it’s fun. Unexplained crying in public isn’t fun. Waking up multiple times in the middle of the night isn’t fun. The vacillation between thinking I’m doing something that might permanently scar my baby and thinking I’m a laid-back parent isn’t fun. But, realizing that I am actually able to provide her some comfort when she is overwhelmed by discovering this complex world is one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced. The only thing that I can compare it to is those fleeting moments I feel in the studio when a project I’ve labored over and failed at for weeks finally yields something wonderful.