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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41 Responses to “Art and Family Life: Can a Creative Career Survive Marriage and Children?”

  1. Jen Gresham says:

    Lovely. I have come to the same conclusion–all the success in the world is not worth the family sacrifice the success would entail. And as Boyce points you, sometimes meandering can be exactly the thing you need (I love the quote, “Surely the real trick is to produce the work you never imagined.” Be prepared that motherhood may put your professional singing on hold for while, but your child will never be more appreciative of his lullabies. All the best!

  2. Ian David Moss says:

    I know I often give you a hard time, Milena, but this was beautiful. My condolences on the passing of your father, and congratulations (almost!) on the addition to the family.

  3. Ah yes, this hits home. I contemplate what today feels like my “impending doom” of having a child. At the moment, I have so many reservations. It is really hard to gain any sort of resolve on the matter. I feel like I was meant to do a certain something in life that would prevent me from being an awesome father/daddy/papa/papi. The thing is, I haven’t figured out what that certain something is yet.

    I imagine this life test (i.e. “you can get with this or you can get with that”) fields different results depending on gender. It bothers me that a deep schism may exist in my marriage if a consensus is not had on whether we are going to have kids. Worst yet, it will probably be me looking like the a$$hole, because everybody loves babies!

    Thanks for sharing this, Milena. This definitely helped me get some perspective on this.

  4. Have you read Shirley Verrett’s autobiography? I think it’s called “I never Walked Alone” (a title that basically sums up what you just wrote about.) She used to talk about family vs. career all the time when I studied with her. She made it work! She made it work with flying colors. She’s an amazing woman that one.

  5. Marie Jagodnik says:

    Milena, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Boyce’s reflections. This is the stuff of our life’s focus. A friend of mine who never had children was asked why he never did have a family. His answer, as a wholistic practioner and teacher, was that he could do more good for people without “being a householder”. That got me thinking about my own commitments that I made so long ago. They have not changed. I have no regrets about becoming a “householder” and tending to my family over all these years. There is enrichment and room for artistic expression, I believe, in any lifestyle. And, whichever lifestyle we are in and whoever inhabits “our space” will be that very instrument serving our potential for further growth and maturity. And, without forgetting our Reason for Being, we can still make good use of the gift of our short lives. Sincerely yours,

  6. Vicki Graff says:

    This is a beautiful article – I’m 6 months pregnant and looking at how my own artistic life will change with the arrival of the baby. I haven’t been interested in the Big Theatre Career for a while, but I do want to be able to continue to work creatively and collaboratively.
    Good luck to you! When you get back to normal sleeping habits, I hope you’ll write about parenting and being an artist.

  7. Sandra says:

    Your blog is amazing and a true inspiration. I an attending an accredited online nursing degree program while raising two beautiful children and getting 4 hours of sleep is a great night for me.

  8. [...] recently read two interesting essays about art and family. Though I do many things professionally, I do consider myself an [...]

  9. voice lessons that also teaches proper breathing is the best, breathing and singing always go hand in hand “”

  10. Dwight says:

    Hi,

    I am a producer for a reality show and we are looking for people who are gifted singers and had aspirations for singing, but had their curtailed for various reasons such as the one you have mentioned in your article. From the dating of the article is sounds like you currently have a 3 month old so you’re probably not getting to the computer a whole lot. However, if you can please send me an email at dyao@bunim-murray.com, I’d love to talk to you more or anyone else who has a story about a singing career that had to be put on hold.

    Thank you.

  11. my voice lessons were given to me by my aunt who also teaches some amateur pop singers to improve their voices *”

  12. I’m so happy to have come across this blog post. Everything you say and all that is echoed in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s words ring so true to me. Indeed an artist of any discipline has many temptations of distraction and procrastination, yet surely a family is the most beautiful distraction to have.

    Children do bring with them the ticking clock of mortality. I look at it in a different light however,I see it counting out the moments of happiness we share together.

    Thanks and good luck with your family and artistic life.

    Tony.

  13. Alecia W. says:

    Milena, my old friend, you’ve been keeping busy!!! It will be good to reconnect with u…I’m on facebook not twitter. Pls email me Mrs.

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