Parenting & Playwriting

While I was Gone

This post is the seventeenth column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, contact me at dctrieschmann@gmail.com

 

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The rhythm of my life as a writer has been fairly consistent the past five years. I usually incubate with a new project for a season, which means staying home and writing in between childrearing, housekeeping and wandering the grocery aisles with a make-up bag full of coupons in the middle of the night. This phase requires a decent knack for multi-tasking, but incubation is nevertheless a pretty serene time for our household. My favorite part of playwriting is writing in a room alone, as this is when I am most often surprise myself: summoning forgotten words, a repressed point of view, a turn of phrase I couldn't have wrought with my conscious mind. I try not to judge myself.

It's a great time of forgetting, both in writing and in family life. We watch the leaves fall off an old oak in our backyard that only appears aged, because we live on the high plains where the wind steals so many saplings. I write in the morning. In the afternoon, we gather leaves and press them into the pages of the Professor's dictionary collection. At night, I drink tea.

The hatching of a play, which occurs in a rehearsal room, has its own joys, but they aren't particularly serene ones. All of a sudden I'm surrounded by other voices, voices not so enamored by my clever turns of phrase and who challenge the sense of things at every corner. This is all necessary and good and part of making a play better than I could have ever imagined alone, but it's tough on my sense of equilibrium. Sometimes actors make text suggestions because they can see into a character better than I can, and sometimes they make them because they want more lines.

 

I have to believe that there's a time and a place for playmaking, for spiritual retreat, for building a museum on a distant shore, indeed, for Bosnian basket-weaving, because whether good, great or mediocre, the act of creation is important.

 

Sometimes I immediately have a terrific solution for a scene, and sometimes the director has to buy me coffee and insist I read a scene aloud in order to make clear that it is not her problem; it is mine. The theater tends to attract mercurial, volatile people who seem perfectly rational one day and in desperate need of meds the next. During the hatching period, I do not watch leaves fall from the trees. I do not drink tea. I battle insomnia. I thank God every night that my dramaturg believes the best place to crack a scene is at the bar, where we drink vodka.

What has become increasingly clear as the children have grown older is how the discombobulation I feel in the rehearsal room is reflected back home, when I am away. The Professor is heroic in his attempts to keep hearth and home, but when the gentle rhythms of our family life are disrupted, the children rattle their cages. During my recent trip to open a play in Denver, one child hid in a corner of the library and cut off her hair. The other became completely neurotic about her potty training and started stashing the dirty underpants behind her dresser. The smell lingers still. One child called me everyday; the other refused to talk to me on the phone at all. One cried every afternoon when the babysitter picked her up from school. The other refused to go bed at night but wandered the house until midnight, finally falling asleep on the stairs, the sofa, the kitchen floor. The Professor had to carry her into daycare every morning, asleep on his shoulder.

Part of me feels terribly guilty, of course. I hate that everyone struggles while I am away. There's nothing more heart wrenching than hearing a plaintive voice on the telephone asking me to come home. I'm scared that when they are older, my girls will spend hours complaining to their therapists about how their mother abandoned them for her art, which, let's be honest, is not world-changing, particularly lucrative, or great. I'm not re-inventing the form. It's just what I have chosen to do with my particular gifts at this point in history when a middle-class woman with a willing partner has the privilege of doing so.

Another part of me, however, doesn't feel guilty at all. This part hopes that when they're all grown up, my girls will do the same. I hope they create art, grow cities, make scientific discoveries or religious ones. I hope they leave their kids with their partners or with their parents in order to travel to Bosnia, because they want to apprentice with a Bosnian basket weaver for a spell, and I hope they have partners who understand and appreciate the importance of Bosnian basket weaving. And yes, I hope they aren't shitty parents who lose all perspective over Bosnian basket weaving and ignore their kids. I mean, God forbid they turn out to be little narcissists who follow every whim to the ends of the earth. But I have to believe that there's a time and a place for playmaking, for spiritual retreat, for building a museum on a distant shore, indeed, for Bosnian basket-weaving, because whether good, great or mediocre, the act of creation is important.

What about you? How do you balance working away from home with providing consistency for your kids? How do you feel about it?

 

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A series on balancing responsibilities as a working playwright and as a parent.

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Catherine, how would one contact you by email? I saw "The Most Deserving" in Denver and really enjoyed it! My question is how you broke into the crowded playwriting field living so far outside of New York or the East Coast?

Thanks Catherine for your contributions to Howl Round. I needed to read this right now. I am an actor with a three year old and a full-time day job. I'm in the midst of rehearsals and this week I have left the house at 6:30 every morning. (My husband has agreed to shift his work schedule take my daughter to daycare while I get treatment for a chronic back problem) After work I dash home to eat dinner with the family and am out the door to rehearsal a half hour later. My daughter hates this. I see her for maybe 15 min a day. She misses me. I miss her. When rehearsal's going slow or I am not being utilized, I resent having my time wasted.

I do theatre. I make plays. For so long this has defined me. Then it became, I make plays and I have a day job (because I need health insurance and I can't pay my bills). Now It's, I make plays, I have a day job that is great but demanding, I have a family that is great but demanding. It feels as if I can never do enough to make any one of those facets go well.

Brava Catherine! I now have a fourteen year old daughter who has weathered the life of a professional in the theater/professor and I am incredibly proud of the lessons she has learned in the humanities and the arts. While I am100% sure she will not go into theatre, I am 100% sure that she understands the power of the spoken word, of deep investigation, and of the work ethic it requires to be a voice that is heard in the world - no matter the size of the audience. The choices a parent in the arts makes are painful but important. The children will follow our example, so you sound like you are modeling important ones for yours. Thanks for your words.

Leigh

I know well this is a different kind of discussion for women than for men, but just want to toss in my thanks for this article as a dad, Catherine. I'm a little in two worlds: both urging my working wife to take some of the side trips and self-enriching times, personal or professional or whatever, that you describe; as well as finding a way to eke those out for myself. Not living in or on the fringe of a major urban area, it's a whole deal to get to something special (like the Royal Shakespeare stuff going up in NYC this winter), and my kids are not appreciative. While my stage work isn't paying, I have to work another job to keep up my end of the bargain, so stage work gets the short end of the stick (though I'm on the verge of trading in some of those new non-sleep night hours I'm not using, anyway, on some writing time).

Frankly, my biggest concern in parenting as a writer has not been the time and the hours—those seem like a fight I can win—but my approach to my content. At least as a guy, being a dad has just gashed me open emotionally, and I don't want to turn into some smarmy, bleeding-heart emo writer (my wife would be howling if she read this). I have definitely lost some of my snark, and I can only pray this is karmically for the better somehow. But it does scare me a little and has made me a little more self-judgmental and hesitant when sitting with the blank page.

I totally believe that parents have to find a way to invest in themselves—and to display that to their kids—or they lose something critical to pass down to them. If my kids have to wait till the reading of my will to get something from me, it'll be too late. Not to mention a bad surprise.

Oh Catherine...after seeing you in the Halls of the Denver Center...both of us weary with worry and joy...I can't tell you how much I relate. I loved the humbleness and humor and honesty of your post. It's such a tight-rope act...creating space in our head to nurture children, and spouses, and nascent plays. And when I am away, things happen. Bones get bent, Homework gets lost, new things marvelous things happen-unknown to me. And the same on my side; feelings get bent, words get lost and found, and new marevlous things (Mama dancing Salsa with Robert Schenkan!) happen too. Hang in there. The difference is now my kids are 7,9,11...and now they are sometimes able to see my plays...go to rehearsal...and understand what their Mama does. I tell them stories about the actors, and the theater...and they are learning how to tell me stories about their day. I miss them. And when I'm home, I miss the family that is the play. I don't know how actors or directors do it either. Night after night. I remind myself that ALL working parents struggle with this...it's just the "routine" of artists is so not "routinary" So we do what we can- and let work opportunities pass us by and others we hang onto with every fiber. I've seen first hand what happens to a family when creativity is forced to die; it's not pretty,and the kids suffer more than you think. How do we nurture our children? keep the stories alive? We shift our ambitions. Will any of our work be remembered after we are gone? Chances are no. Does happiness matter? Yes. In so many ways. The other day my 9 year old daughter asked me "So all the words the actors are saying...you wrote them? " And I said "Yes". And she beamed "That is so good Mama. They are doing what you say. How Mama-like." Yes. Exactly. How mama like. As my son says: "It's a play. So play."

I made the deliberate choice that my children would come first even if my writing career took a hit. I stopped traveling. I became more disciplined. I discovered I could write when it was noisy, I could write in small increments, I could write with a completely distracted mind. Sometimes I can't write at all for extended periods of time. But I will not rationalize or justify choices that deny my kids the stability of a two-parent family. Family trumps art. However painful that may be at times, I believe it's the right choice for me. As the kids get older, and become more self-sufficient, I find more time to focus on writing, but I think my perspective's changing. The world doesn't need another play from me, but my kids do need me. Paradoxically, this realization makes writing easier, less self-important. Anyhow I don't feel like I've lost anything, what's more creative than parenting (or harder)?

My 7 year old called my cell the other evening and left a message. She had to talk to me about the very complicated 3rd grade playground social scene; she needed advice. Could I please come home NOW? In fact, I was on my way to see a play. I called her back and after the initial howl of protest, she asked, "OK, what time does it start? Can we talk until then?" And we did, with her reminding me not to step off a curb in the dark talking on my phone. When she'd poured out her heart, and we'd hashed out some strategies, she then asked, "Whatcha seein?" "Marie Antoinette." "Oh! The French Revolution!" And it was worth it, being out, "just" going to the theater, parenting via cell phone, to know that she can engage with the world without a servant for a mother.

I also really appreciate everything you said, Catherine, and I applaud your efforts and struggles. In my case, there is no supportive Professor although he might have a different view of that based on the ridiculous promises we made to each other when we had no idea what parenting would be about. When my first child was born, I was paralyzed (literally) with nerve damage for three months and the crises moved up from there. I was completely unable to write for over a decade, and it took every bit of my strength and focus to attend to my family and their unbelievable needs, but finally I am able to start to push for my own time. Parenting and marriage have caused me to look really hard at myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my warped beliefs and all kinds of baggage I seem to lug around no matter where I need to go, and hopefully that makes me a better playwright now that I am able to write again. So I see this time as one of those gifts you get that you don't even know what to do with, how to manage or care for, that is so large and overwhelming, it is the tsunami, or Zorba's full catastrophe. I struggle with it every day although I have learned to surf a bit by now. This has been my first year (since January) writing again, and I've finished two full-lengths and three shorts. It is the second part of the process that seems elusive now, because even though I am submitting, I have fallen out of the theatre community, and it is harder to get back with family tugging constantly with all their need.

I think it's good for them to see you doing what you love to do. I think it's good for them to understand they're not your entire life. They may be the most important part but not the only part. This will give them the freedom toexploretheir own lives fully without checking over their shoulders tomake sure mom is OK.

I'm currently pursuing my MFA in Dramatic Writing and had to leave my 14 year-old with my mom. It's so tough and I have days where I feel like I'm the worse mother in the world, but they both seem to understand. I'm so grateful for that. Thanks for writing this. I needed it today.

I long ago stopped hoping for balance, instead I see it as a tug of war, sometimes the playwriting is pulling harder sometimes the need to be a parent is pulling harder. And like you I sometimes worried about the effect going away for workshops and residencies has on my girls. I recently found in my 11 year old's gym bag a list scrawled a torn page from a yellow legal pad:

1.2.3. Wrote plays to help stop war, help women, and raise awarness of suffering people.

4. Help other people express their stories.

5. Raises kids to be the best they can be.

When I asked her what this was, she smiled shyly and told me it was a speech she gave about me at Girl Scouts. I tucked it into my datebook to remind me when I needed reminding that you teach your kids by the way you live your life, more than anything else.

You nailed it. About to head into the rehearsal room-- a bracing reminder that all this will happen, and that it too will pass. Both are so important to embrace. SO GREAT! SO TRUE!

One of the very best descriptions of motherhood and playwriting and the decision to do both. This one gets bookmarked, Catherine.

Thanks, Catherine! Now I feel better about telling my hard-working daughter that my grandchildren can't spend the night: 3 p.m.- 10:30 p.m. is enough shared responsibility today. Spending last week assisting my mother with spiking blood pressure subtracted energy and time from my writing schedule. The family stretch never ends, so a strong and willing partner, self-awareness, humor, vodka, whatever the talisman, any and all of them, keep us afloat in the stream. Congrats on your latest success and cheers to your loving family. If you matter, you're missed. You return!

Yes, great post and great comments, all. And a big sigh.

I have 2 kids (8 & 10) and I'm in tech for a show I've written where two of the real life main characters (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mabel Dodge) have children to deal with at the same time they're trying to help thousands of Paterson silk workers make enough money to take care of their kids (and maybe get their own kids out of the mills.) I'm also a professor, with all the joys and mishegas that entails, and while I have a supportive wife, she's a priest, so the best laid plans for taking care of the kids during tech week can be thrown when she's suddenly called upon to do a funeral for a parishioner. I can take the kids to a rehearsal but I can't simultaneously get my daughter to her dance class and missing it for the third time in a row is completely unacceptable. (To me, at least.) I find myself saying things like, "I can't move the rehearsal, you move the funeral. The dead guy will still be dead!"

For all the stress at times like these, one thing my kids love feeling like big-shots, getting to know the actors, getting to go back stage or up on the grid and seeing the process, how much things change, how nothing starts out perfectly realized. More importantly, they get that both their parents love their work, that work matters.

And with that, I'm off to rehearsal with kids and home-made banana bread (courtesy, Rev. Wife) in tow.

Good luck, all!

Oh wonderful ladies-- as a mother who lived through every second of the guilt you all describe, I can only tell you that when I was at my wit's end and thought I'd never make theater and motherhood work, my best friend wisely said, " just remember, the days are long but the years are short." And suddenly they're gone, and in your new found solitude you can write till dawn, but your heart aches every second that they are no longer with you, and you long for the moment that your phone rings and it's them! So it goes...