Becoming a Parent Artist
Years ago, I had a roommate who built sets for local theater productions. I would come home from a closing shift and he would be painting a sign for some make-believe business. I would get back from the movies and he’d be hammering nails into some crude, unfinished structure. I wondered what it was like to move through the day the way he did, from project to project, seemingly paying little to no attention to what time of day it was, whether it was time to eat lunch or go to bed.
The unrestrained way he worked, along with the chaotic messiness he called a room, embodied a way of being that felt more artistic, more creative, more free than mine. I romanticized his messiness. I was a fairly neat writer who wanted a studio instead of a schedule. I wanted supplies everywhere. I wanted to feel unrestrained and free flowing. I wanted some chaos that made me feel alive.
I found myself thinking about all this on a recent evening at home. I had spent about an hour cosplaying as a chaise lounge while my four-month-old daughter slept on top of me. Fairly certain that she was now in a deep enough sleep that I could finally regain my human form, I deposited this tiny, new human onto the bed next to my sleeping, sleep-deprived wife, and then hobbled back into the living area of our one-bedroom apartment to survey the landscape.
Articles of clothing. Ripped product packaging that hadn’t yet made its way to the recycling bin. An assortment of ointments for diaper rash and eczema. A wrap carrier I wouldn’t be able to figure out without an engineering degree. In the kitchen, dirty dishes on the counter waiting for the dishwasher to be emptied, pots and pans in the sink, breast pump apparatuses boiled for sanitation on the stove. Close by, a poop-stained onesie soaking in vinegar and laundry detergent.
It was 11pm. I had been awake since 5am on four hours of interrupted sleep. I looked around and realized that this was my artist studio. The chaos had found me.
Something my therapist said
“Becoming a parent completely obliterates your sense of self.” My therapist said that to me during one of my early days as a new parent. I think he was trying to be helpful.
Before my daughter was born, I only really thought of myself as a writer. Of course, I am much more than that, just as every artist is many things and assumes many roles. But that was the facet of my identity I wanted to be defined by. It was at once confirming and aspirational, and I bought into its emphasis on individuality.
But denying the other parts of myself in order to accentuate my identity as a writer was limiting in itself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to write whenever I could, because that’s what writers do, and if I don’t do it, then I’m not a writer. And if I’m not a writer, what am I?
Becoming a parent artist
The tornado that is my apartment may resemble an artist studio, but the fact of the matter is that I am not making art; I am taking care of an infant. And yet, one thing I have learned recently is that parenting and artmaking have strikingly similar challenges.
- Striving for perfection, and being self-critical in the process
Sometimes, when my daughter cries, it feels like she’s telling me I’m a horrible father. Sounds pretty absurd, right? Yet, it’s hard not to take those cries (which, during her earlier months, were really her only way to communicate and express herself) personally.
As an artist, if things aren’t going my way, it can be all too easy to declare myself a failure. Anything from a rejection to even a short bout with writer’s block can make me question why I choose to write. My striving for perfection and the inevitable disappointment inherent in that quest can eclipse my love and passion for what I do.
Parenting and artmaking are lifelong processes. As much as we may want to define our journeys solely by their highs and to have our lows never be spoken of, the reality is often filled with ups and downs, ebbs and flows, crumpled paper and smeared banana.
- Competition and comparison
The good intentions of hanging out with other parents sometimes gets subverted by my inner critic, fastidiously noting the ages, temperaments, and behaviors of other people’s babies in comparison with mine, along with the outward poise, grace, patience, and good humor of their parents, who seem unbothered by this thing called “parenting,” while my wife and I feel like we’re losing years of our lives each time we witness our daughter put a whole lot of food in her mouth when she’s still learning to chew and only has two teeth.
As a parent and an artist, connecting with community matters. Sure, that can mean groups, meetups, and events, but those are just the start. It’s about strengthening and deepening the relationships with the people you feel understand you best, the ones you can trust and be vulnerable with. Maybe they’re family, maybe you’ve known them for years, or maybe you meet them at one of these events. Real connection withstands competition and comparison.
Am I neglecting my child or being a bad parent if I choose to spend time making art? Throughout my life as an artist, I felt like I was always negotiating time: how best to spend it, how to be productive, how to find time for it. And after those decisions have been made, it’s hard to ignore the deeper follow-up questions: is this even the right choice? Should I be spending my time in another way?
As a parent, my relationship with time got simultaneously more simple and more complex. I am no longer negotiating time as much as I am surrendering to it, the previous clutches of routine falling loose to the floor as I adjust to my child’s time zone: the immediate present. Playtime with my daughter isn’t marked by the minute hand but by moments that will turn into memories. Lunchtime isn’t defined by the hour and instead seems to exist on some sort of horizontal plane, albeit one covered with spilled food. I can endlessly watch my daughter enjoying the taste of a peach without wondering whether doing so is the best way to spend my time. The answer, for once in my life, is clear to me.
And yet, afterwards as I wash my child’s plate, and chair, and the table, and the floor… a question lingers: how do I integrate art making into my life as the parent of a baby? Do I wait until they are older? That doesn’t sound right, because there will always be another reason to not make art, parenting-related or not.
I only recently became a parent, so I only have the questions. Not that the years will uncover answers. Just like parenting, my approach to integrate artmaking is a mix of following my intuition, staying present, and being willing to engage in some trial and error. I may not be making art all the time, and I might not feel like an artist all the time because of it, but at least I know that I am in process with it. And no matter how the process looks, no matter my sense of it, it still is the process.
My therapist was right about my sense of self. My identity as an artist, and my idea of what that should look like, are no longer so fixed but more fluid and evolving. Or, as my therapist said, completely obliterated. It turns out he actually was being helpful.
About Geo Ong
Geo Ong is a Los Angeles native who now lives in Kingston, NY, with his family. He is a lifelong urbanite who is learning how to seek solace in the natural world. Prior to joining Fractured Atlas, he spent twelve years working for independent bookstores. He reads whenever he gets the opportunity, gives his dog Carl loving belly rubs, and attempts to veganize his mother's Filipino recipes to varying degrees of success.