Parenting & Playwriting

Having It All

This post is the third column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. Find the previous columns here. Here’s what my advice column will offer you: a place to ask questions and share grievances about juggling life as theater artists and as parents. Here’s what my advice column will not offer you: much actual advice you can use. For those of you masochists longing for some truly crappy advice, email me at

Dear Catherine, I'm thinking about having kids soon, but I will admit I'm a little scared about my career. Like many professions, there still seems to be a bias against Moms in the arts. I had a good friend make a joke to my face when I said that I'll probably have kids soon: "Well I guess I'll take you off my staffing list when my TV show gets picked up." Have you ever felt that? How do we deal with it?

California girl 

Dear California girl,

Quick—name the five greatest living American playwrights off the top of your head. I'll go with Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel and David Henry Hwang. Why not? As good a list as any. Of these five playwrights, how many have children? If my extensive research (aka Wikipedia) is correct, only one: David Henry Hwang, and he wrote M. Butterfly before he was thirty, so he's clearly a precocious freak-of-nature. Tennessee didn't have kids. Neither did William Inge. Lillian Hellman? Nope. Arthur Miller had children, but institutionalized the needy one (don't judge, that's what people did back then, so it makes it okay).

The deeper problem is not that there's a bias against Moms but that we, as women, suspect they may have a point. It is very difficult to be a divided self. If you want to be the kind of parent who sees your child more than an hour before bedtime, I'm afraid your writing is going to take a hit, at least for a while. You know it, I know it, and they know it.

Fortunately, however, this isn't the Middle Ages, and we Moms have plenty of role models to instruct us in the juggling act of career and children. Look at Tina Fey or Sarah Palin. They're doing it all: TV shows, book deals, and children. Furthermore, we have the internet now, so any funky rash on your baby's bum can be diagnosed in ten seconds. No more time consuming visits to the doctor's office. Finally and most importantly, we have a little movie called Baby Boom.


Fortunately, however, this isn't the Middle Ages, and we Moms have plenty of role models to instruct us in the juggling act of career and children.


In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton is a successful businesswoman, who inherits a baby (don't ask me how this happens legally), which wrinkles her power suit more than a little. She starts missing meetings, leaving work early and generally performing below par. Eventually, she's fired and moves to Vermont to begin life anew, which she does, after the usual obstacles, with aplomb. She starts a successful baby food company and falls in love with the local veterinarian, Sam Shepard. The success of her baby food company impresses her former employer so much that they offer her a bundle of money for it. In the end, she turns them down in order to run the business herself in Vermont with Sam Shepard.

Diane Keaton and baby, in "Baby Boom"
Diane Keaton and her inherited(?) baby in Baby Boom.

What wisdom can be gleaned from this 1987 gem, you may be wondering? First and foremost, you do not want to be Diane Keaton. You do not want to be the Mom who brings her kid to the boardroom. You do not want to be the Mom who retreats to Vermont, and no, you are not going to start your own theater company there—drop that delusion immediately!

Rather, you are Sam Shepard. Repeat after me: I am Sam Shepherd. Does Sam Shepherd have kids? I have no idea, but it doesn't matter, because no one cares. No one cares because he wrote True fucking West and looks like a matinee idol (or did). I don't even really like True West, but I still want to be Sam Shepard. He's laconic in interviews, sexy on screen, raw on the page, and always maintains an aura of mystery.

And this, my friend, is the role you must play if you want to circumvent the "Mom bias." If you want to land that staffing job, forget Diane Keaton, Tina Fey and Sarah Palin. Go in there channeling Sam Shepherd. Dress like a cowboy. Don't say much. Don't give too much away. Be remote. Play hard to get. Write like a demon. You won't only get that staff job; you'll be directing your own movie in no time. Look at Adam Rapp.

But whatever you do, whether you can pull off cowboy boots or not, do not talk about your kids. Don't talk about them in the writer's room, at conferences, at meetings, at audience talkbacks, or in the lobby, for the key to having it all is to have children but make everyone think you don't.

Don't, for example, write a column for a theater website about how difficult it is to write now that you have kids.

Does anyone have any advice for California girl that she can actually use? Share it with us in the comments!

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Thoughts from the curator

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

Parenting & Playwriting

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Thank you everyone for the play recommendations, stories from your own children, and generally good and sage advice. I look forward to continuing the conversation next month...

My career as a playwright has absolutely been impacted by my kids. In fact my kids and my husband will ask before they go into the theatre, "Is there anything you need to tell us about this before we sit down. In the dark. And see or hear ourselves on that stage?". Of course they hear themselves, and see themselves -- they are part of the plot and they are the characters most prominently in my life, But sometimes I make stuff up, too. Being a playwright and a mom was also part of the decision to start a theatre in my 40's -- a theatre that only produces ten minute plays, because let's face it, that was what MY attention span has become. I guess all that late in life nurturing just spilled into the nurturing of a theatre. And, like Nan, my kids too wound up underfoot in my theatre offices more often than my kitchen. But as David points out, the kids do grow up and move along, and time shifts, and opens up again to the possibilities where I now find myself sitting down and writing plays again. And there's so much to write about that I never would have lived through to make up if it wasn't for my family. Thanks for this column -- especially the part about remember to put on my Sam Fucking Shepard Big Boy Boots.

Ok maybe the fact that I posted new pics of our fabulous son this week (of him in a play, as an actor, no less) is the reason I'm currently "at liberty." Or maybe the theatre that I ran doesn't exist anymore becasue it went out of its way to make sure our staff and artists (several of whom are included here and many of whom are my dearest friends) knew their children were welcome and as much as part of their time with us as their laptops. Or maybe my situation is because, when asked how to make it in this business my standard reply is "Marry well" yet I married an actor who wanted a child and convinced me that I did too. Now I can't imagine my life without either of them. I may have done it all wrong but I'm delighted with the results. Thanks, Catherine, for making me laugh and reminding me to wear my Sam Fucking Shepard boots.

Sam Shepherd has something like 5 kids. How many exactly? Not sure, but more than 3 and less than 7. And he had his first when he was young and scrappy. So the advice to channel Sam Shepherd is entirely sound.

News flash: there is employment discrimination against mothers (and to a lesser extent, but still real, fathers too) in ALL FIELDS. There is a reason there is a law against firing an employee because she's pregnant: it used to be the norm. My mother was simply summoned to her boss's office and told when her last day would be once she started to show. It wasn't even considered a hostile thing to do. She needed the job so she hid the pregnancy as long as she could but that's a losing game. So this is a pervasive problem, not an arts-specific one.

I have become very, very good at clicking into work mode whenever I need to. Gone are the long stretches of time for procrastinating and hand-wringing before I would finally knuckle down to the rewrite at hand. I've discovered I can get to work without all that angst. I can just sit down and start. And since that's the ONLY part of the process I can control, I try to make the most of it. I'm barely at the edge of figuring out how to handle the more public part of my career in my new reality, but I'm working on it. It's good to know there are others out there doing this, too.

I love this, and I love that this column is here. And, I guess I'll try to talk less about my brilliant, beautiful son - but we can not pretend (nor should we be expected to pretend) that nothing has changed in our lives and how we work when we become parents. And we can not and should not be complacent about bias and discrimination. Often, we are expected to pretend this huge thing didn't happen to us when we return from ridiculously short leaves. Sometimes we can no longer do the job we'd been doing, and sometimes our employers make it brutally clear they are uninterested in helping us figure out how to do our jobs with our new lives, time, and responsibilities. Maybe my perspective is a bit different coming from the administrative/artistic staff side of the equation and not as a freelance artist or writer. Although, I, too, wish to be Sam Fucking Shepard.

From my experience, there very much is a mom-bias, as well a dad-bias, and also a more general parent-bias. As opposed to other theater people, we do have someone in our lives now who is more important than our art or our work supporting the art, and that is unacceptable to many employers and incomprehensible to many artists who don't have kids, or have kids they don't like.

My brilliant, beautiful son (Solomon - would you like to see a picture?) has changed time for me in profound and banal ways. I think anyone who wants to have kids should have them, but I think we also have to recognize that if you do have a kid, it will change and shift your relationship to your work, and if you're on staff it will change your relationship with your institution. Have the kids, tell me about them in your work and at work, California Girl, and sure, be Sam, and, please, be as ready as you can to face the bias, to fight the discrimination, and to create better work environments for all artists. And be aware you may have to look for a new job.

Oh California Girl and Catherine -

First of all, yes be very scared because yes discrimination against parents, well MOTHERS and some fathers, but MOTHERS REALLY, exists at every turn and too many people think becoming a parent, a "Mom", makes you soft, makes you want to write about soft things, like you push out that 7-pounder with a big head and instant primal needs and suddenly triple-ply toilet paper and little pink bunnies are the most fascinating thing to you -- instead of the fact that you just did something that causes more pain, physical and psychological pain, than most men -- or anyone but MEN REALLY -- could ever comprehend. You just offered the antidote to, you know, terrorism and murder and violence of every sort -- this birth in the face of so much -- so, really, you know what it's like to transcend pain, which is really what all of f-in theatre and film and television EATS UP. But the world pretends you don't know that and that suddenly your interests and abilities are more narrow than ever when IT'S THE OPPOSITE. Anyway, here's the deal. Despite all this....

You have Sarah Ruhl, Emily Mann, Kathleen Tolan, Susan Yankowitz, Kate Fodor, Lynn Nottage, Karen Hartmen, Heather Raffo, Jen Maisel, Tanya Barfield, Julia Jordan, Aditi, Heather, AND MANY MANY MANY MORE who defy this apparent not-so-norm. Who juggle and perform acrobatics of time, money, and imagination and remain some of the most relevant, exciting playwrights I know. And oh by the way, Emily Mann took over the McCarter in part because she was a mom, not despite of it. So here's an idea - TAKE OVER A THEATRE and program only parent-writers for two seasons. See how that impacts rehearsal structure, housing, union agreements, and beyond. In addition, see whether the stories reach a broader, more diverse public. Because there's a large swath of the American and World experience informed by parenting that is absent on our stages and on our screens of all sizes.

Ok, that's my response... oh and ps -- thank you for asking. THANK GOD someone is asking.....

In many ways, parenting is fabulous training for a life in the theatre. For me, I thought it was the very best practice for directing, especially. You learn to function in the midst of chaos, on very little sleep, people screaming, crying, saying YOU ARE VERY MEAN doesn't faze you, someone projectile hurling on your sweater is no biggie because, hey, that's what scarves are for, and most crises can be solved with goldfish, a juicebox, a nap or a big ass TIMEOUT.

And it stretches your heart in magical, mysterious, unknown ways and makes you bigger and that can only make you a better, deeper writer.

Catherine et al-- Heather has written three beautiful plays that feature complicated relationships between parents and children. Maybe she'll send them to you. RAIN AND DARKNESS is a ten-minute meditation on baseball fields in winter; AN ALMOST HOLY PICTURE is a solo piece about a father and daughter; and the highly under-rated/overlooked WHEN GRACE COMES IN is just waiting for the right theater to launch it. It's about a woman who leaves behind her family as a way to save herself. The children in it are so fully and beautifully drawn and the woman's experience of drowning in the wrong story is scary and scarily moving. If you are up one night late and need a balm, listen to her Friday Phone Call with me where she talks some about these plays and parenting.

Two more that are favorites of mine that deal with the complexity of parent/child relationships: Gary Leon Hill's THE REAL CHEESE (another of the ten-minute plays written for a baseball project I worked on) is amazing and subtle in its encounter between a divorced dad and his estranged teenage son- bonding in their outfield seats at Shea Stadium. And Kathleen Tolan's MEMORY HOUSE is another entirely under-produced play, this time focusing on a mother and her teenage daughter on the eve of college applications. One of the great, undisclosed secret crucibles of the parent/child relationship-- getting them safely off to college...

A few things you might be able to use:

1. They grow up and move into own lives, much sooner than you will want. So trust and patience with your playwright self. She'll be there when your time and attention open up again.

2. Encourage napping. Long naps for the young ones. make it seem cool and essential, these naps, and keep that up til they start school. I was so productive in those nap times- nothing like the quiet of a house with a napping child. I felt so awake to myself in those hours.

3. Make your home the place their friends come to play. Fill the place with playing kids. And get out your notebook and follow your own thoughts as they play. Sure, there's more cleaning and more refereeing and more nurse-y work to do, but there's no guilt and no pressure to WRITE NOW BECAUSE SHE IS ON A PLAY DATE. And then, just down the road, those parents will also reciprocate for the big moments when your Writer self needs them.

4. Write plays about parenting. There are not enough of enough of them.

5. Remember you will miss them when they are gone to their own lives. And write things now that they'll cherish when they get there.

And you are right. Don't talk about them in the theater. Until they are in their own lives, at any rate... 

But do keep writing about them here. We are delighted by your journey!

Oh this made me laugh so hard!
This may or may not be useful- I'm a better artist since kids. When I find/make/carve from nothing the time, I'm better, I'm deeper, I've got a whole lot more to say and a bottom-less well to pull it from. That's when I can find the writing time, the rest of the time I'm as flaky and frazzled as every other parent out there. So maybe that's the pay-off?
Also, Nabokov had kids. (He also had Vera, is the amazingly ridiculously supportive spouse the answer?)

I highly recommend finding the love of your life who already has grown children. You get to have all the benefits of lovely daughters you didn't have to raise, but who will hang out with you and don't impinge on your career one iota.

If that's not in the cards, however, and you want children in your life, have them. There are always things that get in the way of your career. Many writers also work full time. They'd love not to have to work, but bills must be paid. Few people get to write full time with no other interruptions, the gift is that you get to choose this one. If you're questioning children, I'd first make sure you really do want them, and the career question isn't actually a cover for the very natural fear of "will I be a good parent?"

Another way to look at it might be to ask yourself, what will having children bring to my life? How will those experiences make me a better writer? A more thoughtful, compassionate person?

I had a lovely discussion today with a man with 4 grown children. He says they are the greatest gift in his life. And he's putting all 4 through college. I will never be able to say that. I'm fine with my choice, but how will you feel in 20 years with yours?

Maybe not helpful - but my 2 cents. (as a writer with 2 cats, 1 dog & 2 lovely soon-to-be stepdaughters)