Our 3-year-old often assumes some other form — gargoyle, white-backed vulture, blue whale — and perches on the arm of one of our living room chairs. I bought these chairs from an antique dealer who found them in two separate estates and reunited them, like long-lost siblings. They’re decades old and have survived who knows what until meeting their match in my household.
My little gargoyle’s antics have loosened the arms of these chairs. Not so big a deal; stuff is only stuff. But it’s easy, when you have kids in your family, to pin all sorts of blame (scuffed walls, stained tables, sleepless nights) on them. Having a child changes your life; this is as it should be. Let the kids break your mid-century furniture, but don’t let them break you.
It’s fine, and fair, and also funny to blame the unused gym membership and the unread New Yorkers on your kids. I do it all the time on Twitter! I know I’ve had a charmed experience of being a parent, with healthy kids, a helpful partner, access to good day care and great public schools. And perhaps because of this, I have the luxury of saying that my kids have in fact, maybe, sort of helped me get my work as a writer done. I mean, they’ve done the opposite, too, at times, but hear me out.
Parenting advice is mostly useless because every family is uniquely its own; artistic advice is mostly useless because every artist works in their own way. Thus, figuring out how to balance the two has an intense specificity. Kids are the ultimate trump card: a way to get out of co-op board meetings, or lunch with a friend you don’t want to see, or your brother-in-law’s set at a comedy club. It’s fair to use your kids as an excuse to sidestep what you don’t want to do; it’s less fair to blame them for not being able to achieve what you do want to do.
To ask whether parenthood precludes creative work — as people continue to — is to ask a flawed question. It’s akin to when people ask celebrities on the red carpet “Are you a feminist?”; the only reasonable answer to that query is “Are you a bigot?” Parenthood is not the enemy of anything; it’s the condition without which none of us would exist.
Before the arrival of my first son, I gave up on the moribund business of magazine publishing, where I had long dreamed of a career, and went to work in advertising. That I could be paid great money to write was incredibly hard to believe. And it was writing, of a fashion. In my spare time, I wrote short stories and tried and failed to write a novel; in my work time, I wrote five-word taglines and television commercials.
I’d say that it requires a certain level of delusion to attempt any artistic pursuit. Why not embrace that delusion and choose to see everything in your working life as contributing to your artistic work? Learning how to come up with five artful words that might entice someone into buying something felt enough like art to me.
Then we had another son. All the usual stuff pertained — it was exhausting, it was exhilarating — and writing even the shortest of short stories became much more challenging. Still, because it was a priority, I forced myself to try. I gave up on a social life, I gave up the gym membership, but I didn’t give up on my own delusions.
At readings over the past couple of months, I’ve heard three different writers mention constraint, and how it’s essential to their work. All were talking about books they’d just published; only one of these writers was a parent. They meant the constraint of time, under which we all live, as well as constraint of form, which pertains to anyone working creatively. We are all constrained by our bodies, income taxes, the weather. Even Nabokov couldn’t ask Vera to make the sun shine.
Constraint is such an elegant word, but it has eluded me until just now (other writers always say things better than I can). This helped me see that parenthood — again, my circumstances are charmed, I know — is also a constraint. So be it.
A baby is, grimly enough, a tiny reminder of your own mortality. For me, seeing the passage of time reflected in my ever-changing children was a good kick in the ass to get to what I most wanted to do: writing. Once the kids were out of infancy, I threw myself into my creative work while still working to pay the bills. It was not fun, but it was important to me to try it. The book I spent this time writing will be published in a couple of weeks; it has not escaped me that I never managed to write a novel in the years of my adulthood in which I was not a parent.
My writing requires a lot of passive work that looks suspiciously like leisure: reading, thinking, looking at art, having conversations. It can feel, when you have a baby who never sleeps for more than four consecutive hours, as if you’ll never again read a book or look at a painting or talk to anyone about anything other than the fact that your baby will not sleep more than four consecutive hours. When I figured out that my first kid was a good napper, I read novels while he dozed on the sofa. This felt like a victory; it felt like work.
I was so hungry for the chance to get to my work that I was vigilant about finding the time to cram it in. Babies change, constantly; it’s not that parenting gets easier, it’s that the nature of children’s demands is ever in flux. I learned how not to squander 45 minutes at my desk; I learned how to read during the 20 minutes in which the kids’ naps overlapped; I learned how to make dinner while the kids ate breakfast, thereby freeing up the last hour of my day; I learned that it was not the worst thing in the world if they watched The Magic School Bus so I could fold the laundry and know that, come bedtime, my own work (instead of the laundry) was waiting for me. The constraints on my time made me adept at finding and exploiting the few loopholes that existed.
If parenthood took my leisure, it gave me other things beneficial to my work. I’ve been able to watch, firsthand, as two separate human beings acquire language; if I were a painter, surely watching a 6-year-old experiment with watercolors would feel similarly instructive. I love my kids in this way that’s weird and powerful and still surprising and that has surely helped my writing in some way I can’t articulate; big feelings — grief, romantic love, passionate friendship — are often good for art. I wrote a novel in the middle of the night; it was my kids who taught me that sleep can be rearranged this way.
Jenny Offill took this question of parenthood’s role in creative work as part of the subject of Dept. of Speculation, one of the best novels I’ve read in the past few years. It’s a book that I’ve seen resonate particularly strongly among my peers who are also writers and parents. Offill beautifully articulates the struggle we probably each thought uniquely our own: parenthood and marriage and the morass of real life pulling us away from the work we care about. She seems to be writing her story as well as our story. And it’s vindicating.
But here’s the thing: She has a kid, and she wrote the book. I don’t mean to suggest that we can all dash off wonderful novels during nap time. Some people can, but I hardly think it’s reasonable to expect yourself to paint a masterpiece while breastfeeding, to come up with perfect sonnets while potty training. I do think it’s worthwhile to remember that kids grow, that life changes quickly, and that the person who decides whether or not you engage in your passion, however possible given the circumstances of your life, is you.
When I was staying up all night writing what turned out to be my book, I was often interrupted by the cries of my younger son, then well out of infancy. I’d stop working, trudge up the creaky stairs, and comfort him back to sleep, sometimes three times a night. It was not easy, going from the reality of a crying toddler to the imagined world and invented problems of my work. But I can’t quite say that it was hard, either. It was simply what I was doing.
Now, most nights in this household are blissfully uninterrupted. My older son has almost mastered the art of making his own cinnamon toast, and has just started taking a shower by himself. He still needs me to close the shower curtain for him, to help him dry his hair, to get the toothpaste out of the medicine cabinet, but he won’t need me for this stuff much longer.
Those future minutes I am not spending picking out my older son’s perfect Afro or helping my younger one figure out which shoe goes on which foot are minutes I will be free to devote to my work. They’re minutes I will be free to squander on missing the days the children needed me in the urgent way that children need adults. For now, I still spend a lot of time on Twitter complaining about my kids. Every second I do that is a second I could be investing in my next book. I could blame myself for thus wasting my time, but I won’t.
Rumaan Alam's first novel, Rich and Pretty, will be published in June.