Art and Family Life: Can a Creative Career Survive Marriage and Children?

My father and me

I recently stumbled across this article in the Guardian, “The parent trap: art after children” by author Frank Cottrell Boyce, father of seven. I was intrigued and inspired seeing as I am very (as in, post due date) pregnant and have been wondering to myself, “What is going to happen to my life after this baby is born?” More specifically, “Will I have to give up singing?”

Of course this sense of despair is unfounded, but it feels legitimate. I would venture to guess anyone who has a child on the way mourns their loss of independence. But for the artist, the unknown could be a bit more frightening. We know how unstable the life of an artist is, believing it requires a singular devotion. We worry that the introduction of a commitment like marriage or parenthood could easily topple what we’ve been building. We may believe that in order to maintain a certain way of life for our art, we must sacrifice family, or if we want family, we must sacrifice art.

Boyce shares he once had similar feelings,

We were still students when we got married and had our first baby. It must have been hard work…Friends were mostly delighted, but also slightly appalled. From the first they’d take me aside and commiserate. “That’s it now, Frank, the pram is in the hallway.”

The full quote – from Cyril Connolly – is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” In fact, we didn’t have a pram or a hallway, but in the dark watches of the night I would sometimes look at the Maclaren Dreamer buggy in the corner of the tiny kitchen and think, is that it then? Will I have to go and get a proper job and never write again?

Fathers and artists: my father, dancer; my grandfather, painter

Fathers and artists: my father, dancer; my grandfather, painter

After graduating college, I had arranged a voice lesson with a famous soprano. At the end of our lesson she had some encouraging things to say about my voice and grilled me on why I was not yet in graduate school and “just what was I doing with my life.” I feebly explained I needed to make some money first, was just testing the waters with different teachers, and was not ready for grad school yet.

Exasperated, she asked, “Do you want to get married? Have children?” As if these would be the only reasons someone like me would not follow the same career path every other “serious” music school undergrad was following. She said, “You know the divorce rate among opera singers is over 50%? I have seen a lot of cheating in my day. You will have to make tremendous sacrifices and a solid marriage is possible, but not easy. I’m married, but may not see my husband for months while on tour. We decided we could never have children, given the traveling schedules we have as performers. We don’t have 401Ks, so you’ll also have to figure out how to save for retirement.”

37 weeks pregnant

37 weeks pregnant

Today, 8 years later, 9 months pregnant, just two weeks shy of my 30th birthday, having sacrificed a possible career dedicated solely to music (maybe, who knows, really) I believe my life and my career and far are more rich and wonderful than I could have ever planned for myself after that voice lesson, had I taken the soprano’s warnings seriously. In fact, I am grateful for the series of events that kept me in Michigan. I am grateful that I doubted there was one way to becoming the artist I was, and am, meant to become.

Boyce touches on the reasons why I believe committing to family life can be so much more frightening, challenging, and rewarding than (exclusively) committing to one’s work as an artist,

It’s very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctuations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

I love this insight. I have noticed that sometimes family members may not be interested in or may not understand my artistic endeavors. This is not to say they are unsupportive, but they cannot inhabit my world. It is not only selfish of me to expect them to, but unnecessary.

Boyce continues,

Jonathan Franzen has said that “it is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection in his workplace is writing good fiction”. Family is, of course, the most potent distraction, and probably the only distraction that makes you feel virtuous when you surrender to it.

My heart aches reading that last statement because I have experienced  it. Why is surrendering to one’s family so difficult and so rewarding? Is it because the rewards are often so private? Is it because they cannot be measured in an artist’s preferred currency: money or fame? You don’t build any artistic street cred by advertising on your blog, “I loved someone with all my heart today.” It won’t get you a job, make a sale, or win an audition. And while the distraction of family can be tiresome, draining, and in some cases, something you legitimately need to distance yourself from, what Boyce says next struck a chord with me,

There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.

In fact, if you go back to Connolly’s terrific book, you’ll see that the pram is only one of the many Enemies of Promise. Others include a public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can’t move on) and success, surely the greatest enemy of all. But no one warns you about these. It’s just the pram.

Why does it retain its power to chill? I don’t think it’s about fear of distraction or domesticity. I think it’s a fear of babies. Being a parent – or really loving someone other than yourself, whether that’s your children, parents or your lover – forces you to confront a horrible truth: the fact that we get older. The amazing boy who was born when I was still a student is a man now. There is no way that I can still think of myself as “quite young, really” or “a child at heart”. Parenthood confronts us with our own mortality, every day.

To me, the pram is a metaphor for “all family life” and I might extend Boyce’s analysis to include “all family life confronts us with our own mortality, every day.”

It was not until I met my now-husband, was planning my wedding, and my father was dying of cancer, that I realized just how little I cared for a Great Big Career in music. How grateful I was that I never followed the soprano’s advice about my career path. How little I cared that my “creativity” was put on hold because I was growing my family and losing it at the same time.

I think what I am getting at, is that artists need to be open to life. They need to be open to the possibility that family life need not be sacrificed for art’s sake. That in fact, it can make you the artist you are meant to be.

Last dance with my father, at my wedding

Last dance with my father before his death

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