Parenting & Playwriting

Packing for the Guilt Trip

This post is the fifth 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 dctrieschmann@gmail.com.

How do you deal with working Mother's (or Daddy's) guilt?

Once upon a time, there were two sisters. One was a successful neurologist who had a three-month waiting list to be seen and who worked, on a slow week, sixty hours. The other was a playwright and stay-at-home-Mom who wrote, on a good week, fifteen hours. The neurologist (the older sister, of course) spent her energies trying to work less, declining professional opportunities and promotion in the hopes of one day being able to have dinner with her three kids by six o'clock. The playwright spent her energies trying to drum up work, in the hope that one day, she would make enough money so she could pay someone else to watch her kids so she wouldn't have to be home every night at six o'clock to cook dinner.

They were equally wracked with guilt.

The neurologist felt guilty for working so much, for missing after school programs and soccer games, for not being available to her kids on a Saturday afternoon when they came in from the backyard sticky with sand and sweat and tears. She assuaged her guilt in a myriad of ways, including elaborate, hand-crafted birthday parties and making sure she had the morning of the first Monday of the month free so she might volunteer in her kids' classrooms, a heroic effort in creative scheduling, greeted by a request that she sharpen pencils in the janitor's closet—a great use of all her medical training, not to mention her degree in honors English (she was a little bit of an over-achiever). In the three hours she had every evening in between seeing patients and filling out paperwork, she spent "quality" time with her kids, reading to them, helping them practice the violin, and listening to their stories. She was a good doctor and good Mom, but life passed in a flurry of activity and a daze of sleeplessness, and she felt guilty about this too.

How do you deal with working Mother's (or Daddy's) guilt?

The playwright felt guilty because her kids drove her crazy, because they fussed at one another all day long and said things like, I can't pick up my raisins, Mommy, I'm pretending I have a broken leg. She felt guilty because during these precious, fleeting years of childhood, all she wanted to do was lock herself away in a room alone so she could write in peace.

She felt guilty for longing for kindergarten, out of town try-outs, and working out the problems of previews over a dirty martini or two. She felt guilty that she didn't fully appreciate the chubby, robust health of her babies, because she was so focused on what she wasn't writing, when there were parents, every minute of every day, stewing in the hell of the waiting room in the pediatric ward. She felt guilty for throwing out wilted lettuce, when pictures of hungry children in Haiti popped up every day in her in-box. She felt guilty for looking at pictures of hungry children in Haiti on the internet instead of tending to her own children.

It's possible the playwright in question was a little neurotic.

When she took her children to a park or playground and sat with the other Mothers on the bench in the shade and listened to them carry on about little Sasha's fertile imagination or Jack's deep well of creativity, she had to bite her tongue to keep from saying, move over Jackie boy—you've got nothing on me. For more than anything, she felt guilty about finding her own imagination infinitely more interesting than that of children.

Guilt is an eight-headed monster that moves in when you have children and never leaves. I'm sure there are wiser people than I who know how to exorcise it. But as for me, I say, what the hell, you might as well feed it fried okra.

Here's my Mother's recipe. It leaves the okra green with a smattering of cornmeal crust, not entombed in batter like you get at the K&W.

What? You don't know about K&W? Get thee to a Southern state as soon as possible!

But back to the task at hand: Take a pound of fresh okra and cut it into one-half inch pieces. Fill a zip-lock bag with one cup of flour and one cup of cornmeal. Put the okra in the bag and shake. Meanwhile, heat two cups of vegetable oil to medium-high in a cast iron skillet. When hot, fill with okra—but don't pile it up. Let each batch fry in a single layer to a crispy brown, then remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel. Salt generously.

How do you deal with guilt? Or cook okra? I'd love a good recipe that doesn't involve frying the slimy bastards. Share with us in the comments!

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Hmmm...that’s a good question. I just think everyone’s process is different and your’s will shift as you discover what works for you as a parent. 15 minute spurts and even an hour a day just don’t work for me. I’d rather write for longer periods of time, fewer days a week, if I have to choose. I actually think I was more willing to write in short bursts before kids. Weird.

Don, Tamara, you guys have kids? Never thought I'd say this, but clearly I need to spend more time on Facebook.

What I'm worried about are those times when, after days or weeks of trying to solve a problem in your play, it comes to you and you know you need to sit down and write--except now there's a child who dictates the where and when. Sometimes, there's just no getting that moment back. While 15 minutes might be enough to get it down, do you find, with kids, you are able to determine you need *these* 15 minutes?

Great advice all. My children are now 4 and 5, and I've wrestled with this question as well. Here are some things I've done over the course of the past few years:

1. 1 hour blocks. In the evening, before bedtime, my wife agreed to give me 1-hour to lock myself in a room and work. I got one hour a day - and you'd be surprised at how productive you can be in a simple hour if you know that someone is sacrificing for you to have it.

2. Babysitters. At first, paying someone to come over to your house while you're in it and take care of your child seems insane, but you have to value playwriting as a career and a job just as worthy as any other. We have no problem with working outside the home and paying for daycare, so why not hire a competent person to come in for a 2-4 hour stretch while you write in another room?

I think it all comes down to valuing writing as a career. If you don't value your own writing time just as much as any othner job, then you'll feel this guilt - as if writing were some kind of supercilious pleasure for yourself and not truly a valuable and important part of your life.

Also - the raging pressure to pay for diapers, food, college education funds, did in fact push me to write more and accomplish more than before I had kids. Since my kids have been born, I've written more plays, published more plays, and had more productions than ever before. On much less sleep.

Thank you, Catherine, for these posts. The other day as I bashed around the house in a snit about something, my husband asked, "What do you need, honey?" I answered, "I just need 2 or 3 full days of uninterrupted creative-work time!" Since that is unlikely to happen, except on 'special-treat-occasions', I've taken Stefanie's approach, grabbing onto 15 minutes at a time. I've learned it is possible to block out the noise of Sesame Street while writing. Now I just need to learn to block out the guilt! Thanks again.

Oh Jeremy! Congratulations! Don’t let my blog posts lead you to despair...I like to emphasize the bad bits for comic effect, but there’s more good than bad in this playwriting/parenting gig. Year one may be a little dry on the writing end for you, but once that child starts walking, you’ll be writing like a demon!

We had our son 12 days ago. These first couple of weeks have been guilt-free, but as the paltry fortnight of dedicated fatherhood is at a seeming end, I find myself without a concept for what's next.

I'm panicked by the idea that, in your neurologist & playwright example, I might be both. Pre-child, I wrote in the mornings and worked an income-providing job in the afternoon into the early evening. Even without a family, it's a full schedule. Since I've no intention of being an absentee father, I know something has to get cannibalized, but I can't come up with a single palatable alternative. I have no plan, but your series of columns give me both hope and despair. I'm planning on a lot of guilt that I'll turn into Mr. Holland's Opus, thereby honoring my son and making up for a lifetime of mixed parenting in a single, dramatic moment.

Okra is my favorite vegetable. I'm passionate about it. Dump your breaded okra onto some tinfoil (Throw some Old Bay in the bad while you are at it), brush with olive oil, stick it in the over, and bake at 450 degrees. A convection oven works best.

When I feel guilty I combat it for 15 minutes, since doing anything for a whole day went the way of the pedicure and organized closets the day my children were born.

If I've not been working all day, I work for 15 minutes. If I've been ignoring my children, I'll stop and really focus on each of them for 15 minutes. If I've been running around doing all the crap that comes with running a crap-filled household, I stop and read something... for 15 minutes.

That way at the end of the day, I can avoid guilt and say I did one small thing.

As for recipes, I'm in the North East and we do a lot of lemon-parmesan Kale.

Thanks Catherine!

sz