Parenting and Playwriting
A couple of years ago, I had a meeting with a Very Important Person at a Very Important Theatre in Manhattan. We discussed many things, and while this VIP was supportive, insightful, and generally wise and experienced, he also told me that women stop writing plays after they have babies. I swallowed down my ire at the time, left the meeting, and proceeded to complain to all my theatre friends about how sexist and chauvinistic the American theatre is, because, of course, complaining to one's friends is much easier than confronting one's colleagues. Since then, I've had two babies in three years, and if I could revisit my earlier self sitting in that meeting at that Very Important Theatre, I would whisper in her ear: stop your kvetching, he's right.
At least he's right when you're a playwright who makes $16,000/year. I also suspect it's not just women playwrights who stop writing, or more accurately, write less, once the babies arrive, but theater artists of either sex who have partners with more traditional jobs and benefits, because at the end of the day, the person providing most of the childcare is going to be the person who makes $16,000/year. As for the single artists out there raising children on $16,000/year, my hat goes off to you. You deserve a medal. I don't know how you do it. In fact, my problem is: I don't know how anyone does it. Yes, it's a problem of time; one can't afford much daycare on $16,000/year, but moreover, it's a problem of headspace.
For what is writing if not the chronicling of accumulated experience run through the imagination and senses?
When I was in graduate school, my friend Brad and I skipped out on a writing seminar to drink martinis one afternoon. I admit, I've always been a straight-laced kinda gal and couldn't shrug off the guilt long enough to really enjoy myself. When Brad asked me what my problem was, I told him, “I should be writing.” He responded: “This is writing.” Now I suppose if drinking martinis were really writing, we'd all be fabulous, accomplished authors, which clearly, we are not; however, I understood the essence of his statement. Drinking martinis is not writing. But drinking martinis, served by an inept bartender with a birthmark running the length of his face, who may or may not have been weeping behind the bar as we entered, with our feet propped up on chairs, sitting on a patio in Athens, Georgia, in mid-September, listening to the cackle of falling leaves is writing. For what is writing if not the chronicling of accumulated experience run through the imagination and senses? It might follow, therefore, that having children, which is one gigantic act of accumulated experience, if nothing else, should expand one's imagination and senses enough to make one a better writer, in the way that any life-altering experience might make one a better writer.
I, for one, am still waiting.
Parenting small children is many things. It is a reminder of the essence of things, for one. I had forgotten the wonder of the butterfly until my eldest, Sophie, was able to name a butterfly for the first time and chase it around the yard. In fact, I have no memory of ever marveling at the butterfly the way Sophie marveled and imagine the only time I ever did so was when I, too, was two years old and naming things. A particular joy of parenting is thus remembering marvels you witnessed when your brain was too unformed to capture them properly. You get to revisit this forgotten self and see the world anew. It's wonderful.
If you inventory all the plays ever written about parents parenting small children you will quickly come to the same conclusion I have, which is this: all of the truly interesting and great plays about babies are about dead babies.
Parenting small children is also fucking boring, and I'll spare you the list of why parenting small children is boring, because if you have children you already know why and if you don't, well, you'd stop reading this, because it suddenly got boring. So here's the quandary for the parent-playwright: neither wonder nor boredom are dramatically interesting in and of themselves (unless you're Samuel Beckett, and sadly, I am not). In fact, if you inventory all the plays ever written about parents parenting small children you will quickly come to the same conclusion I have, which is this: all of the truly interesting and great plays about babies are about dead babies.
I'm not saying, of course, that one of my children needs to die for me to write an effective play about being a parent. I'm not that literal, thank God, but there exists a great chasm between the drama of losing a child and the comedy of raising one, and I find myself stuck in the middle. I'm really not in the mood to adapt Medea at the moment, but Bringing up Baby holds even less appeal. How can I turn my mind from childish things in that narrow window I have when Sophie is in pre-school and the baby naps, when there's a dirty diaper in the sink, half-eaten breakfast on the table, and “wheels on the bus” playing over and over and over again somewhere in the background? The truth is, I can't, not really, not unless I've had time elsewhere in the day to prep my mind, to tune it towards other things; in short, to daydream.
I didn't know how essential daydreaming was to my process until I had children. I didn't know that all that time spent padding about the house in my underwear, taking long walks, soaking in the tub, staring at the ceiling, indeed, drinking martinis in the afternoon, was so important. Being the goal-oriented, five-pages-a-day gal that I am, I just thought I was procrastinating. Yet two babies later, I find I need those hours of procrastination like an alcoholic from Georgia needs Jimmy Beam. I long for them while wiping bottoms clean; I yearn for them while sucking the snot out of little noses; and I crave them most of all when the baby uncaps all of her sister's markers and bites off all of the tips, turning her mouth and face into a Jackson Pollack painting. For I've discovered it's in those hours of idle doing that the subconscious does the heavy lifting of generation.
I've had to become crafty about re-claiming idleness, because apparently, partners in child raising aren't too crazy about seeing their counterparts laze about, but I've found a couple of hidden corners. The first isn't too surprising: I joined a gym with a daycare. I'm not sure what it says about our society that it's cheaper to join a gym with daycare, than just to pay for daycare, but it is, at least in my neck of the woods. At my gym, a nice woman will my watch my two children in a clean and colorful play center for $1.50/hr. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, I don't live in New York. And while this nice woman (at least I hope she's nice, I'm choosing to believe she's nice) watches my children, I swim laps.
Let me be the first to tell you, I'm a crappy swimmer. I don't know how to breathe properly, and so I always feel like I'm drowning a little when swimming freestyle. When I do backstroke, I can't swim straight and swerve between the lane ropes like a fourteen-year-old driver. My breaststroke keeps me afloat but barely moving forward, and the elderly overtake me embarrassingly often. But swimming is a gestational goldmine. It's warm and womblike, soundless save the splashing of your own toes. And most importantly, all that leftover baby fat finally goes to good purpose: it keeps you afloat.
I've also taken over washing the dishes. The feminist in me is fairly mortified by this turn of events, because I am the cook in the house as well, and the fact that every night I do both the cooking and the cleaning up makes part of me want to scream and take to the street, burning bra in hand. But here's the thing: if I wash the dishes, he has to watch the kids. And if he's watching the kids, then I can let my mind rest and expand and ruminate. To draw it out, sometimes I don't even use the dishwasher. Let's keep that to ourselves, shall we?
That I should be using dishwashing as a creative outlet astounds me and yet I embrace it. I look forward to it. I love staring at the patch of mint outside my window and the cracked ceiling above my head. I love feeling the soft pine underfoot, sticky from the day's juice. There's a pair of crooked shelves to my left that someone mis-hung long ago. Maybe it was the Honorable Judge who lived in my house some time ago, the one who left town in disgrace, because his son slipped mercury into his teacher's coffee (true story). Maybe it was his widow. All I know is that sink holds stories along with the dishes and debris, and I want to stand there, every evening, listening. In fact, it's almost as good as drinking a martini in the afternoon.
But not quite.