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Just this week, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon wrote an article for GQ called “Are Kids the Enemy of Writing?” – it is a longread. The title is tongue in cheek. It begins with an anecdote where a colleague tells him under no circumstances should he have a child if he wants a writing career. Michael goes on to have four children, fourteen novels (and counting), and a Pulitzer Prize. His article laughingly asks “should there have been 18?” — but the editors at GQ apparently missed the irony. Their clickbait blurb is “Chabon considers what was lost when he defiantly followed that advice.”
And that’s why Pen Parentis is still relevant. A novelist can write fourteen gorgeous books and win a Pulitzer Prize and critics will still say “he would have been so much better had he not had those pesky children.”
Does every writer with kids wonder what would have happened to their careers had they not had kids? Yes. But we also wonder what would have happened if we had married Steve-the-producer, or moved to Prague when we had the chance, or taken that unpaid internship in college. We are writers – we are always wondering what would happen if we changed things around a little.
Pen Parentis started as a reading series in 2009. Two women with Columbia MFAs sat in a Manhattan coffeeshop trying to figure out how to balance family and a creative career. We weren’t even sure it was possible. The world was telling us that it was not. (The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting had been influencing childrearing since 2004 with its claim that “there is no more important job in any society than raising children”) Yet, by 2009, society was finally admitting that parenting would often be HARD.
Anonymous websites like truumomconfessions.com popped up. Here, mothers admitted to things like feigning stomach cramps to be able to hide out in the bathroom. Bylined blogs were wildly popular, like dooce.com where Heather B. Armstrong chronicled her postpartum depression and other struggles as a mother. The mommy-blog was in full swing. Memoirs like Ayelet Waldman’s “Bad Mother” were being published left and right – these changed the attitude from “you have to give up writing to become a parent” to “of COURSE you can be a writer but that means you will be a bad parent, but no worries – you can still be funny!”
Writers who had no kids wrote articles interviewing writers who did have kids. You ended up with blog posts like this one:
It was a world where the writing parent could not win, could barely even be seen. It was impossible to consider writing a novel. So my friend and I did what people do who need inspiration: we decided to consult the experts. We started a reading series in which we would bring together small groups of writers who we felt were talented and–and this was vital–and who had kids. We would share their work so that the audience could see that indeed the writing was top-quality. And then, once that was established, we would ask them how the hell they did it.
Their answers were remarkably similar to that SWFA blog post. None of them had enough money, time, or energy. All of them made do with what they had. They got more efficient with time, they got creative around money, and as a rule, they drank a lot of coffee. The point was that it was a decision. They had to dedicate themselves wholly to their art. It was inspiring to hear how passionately they felt about their writing. That they would carve out time. That they would sacrifice so they could feed their kids and still take a writing class. These were not people who gave up on their art to have a baby. These were people who would do anything to stay creative.
We were inspired; but more importantly, the featured authors were inspired. We would get thank you notes, hugs, some would even return their honoraria (I was funding the gift-bags out-of-pocket back then, because even when we first began, I wanted writers to know that Pen Parentis took their careers seriously.)
Why should an intern at a travel agency get treated more professionally than a published writer?
What they had to fend off was the guilt. It wasn’t the same guilt that the typical writer feels when they binge-watch a season of Stranger Things instead of working on their novel. These writers had to fend off the uniquely parental guilt of hiring a babysitter. They are giving their children alternate care so that they can tend to their novel. And yet they are treated as if they are hiring a babysitter so they can binge-watch a season of Stranger Things.
“Writing is so great,” some of my corporate acquaintances say, “You have such a cushy life. I would love to stay home all day and just write.”
So do it, say I. Quit your regular paycheck. Delve into your darkest imagination. Sit at a desk without someone to take your calls, without someone to empty your trash, without someone to wash your coffee mug. Focus on imaginative writing while mortgage rates rise and overdue notices paw at the edges of your laptop. Do thirty hours of work on spec. Then thirty more. Then thirty more. After about fifty of those weeks (presuming they were productive weeks) try to sell it. Try to make the world see that what you have on your laptop is worth buying. Do it without investors, without a marketing team, without a boss telling you it’s good, do it every day, even when it’s beautiful outside and your friends cut work early to drive up to the Hamptons. Oh yes, add a spouse or significant other and whatever issues that might bring. Add a pet. Don’t forget whatever your usual human psychoses were, those don’t go away. Stay on your creative path despite all these obstacles. Write something fascinating and wonderful. Do it. Be a writer.
Now? Add two kids who need lunches and laundry and who want you to come to their poetry publication party and need you to make some kind of nut free snack before ten a.m. Add thirty to sixty new acquaintances every year whose names you should recall and whose offspring you should be able to match….
I am preaching to the choir. If you have read this far it is because you already know what we are doing is incredible. In both the literal and figurative meaning of the word.
We are incredible and it is unthinkable to succeed at this balance. But we do.
We started a reading series and authors noticed. They felt empowered to talk about the challenges, to admit that yes, they had things to overcome — and then, then, THEN!!!
They started to talk about what they had gained.
Connection to their own parents. Understanding. Empathy. Connection to the next generation. In fact, one author called it “feeling part of history.” The imagination expands. Creativity has a purpose. Out of necessity, time becomes valuable and efficiency increases. Vanity slips away. Writing is now done from a primal place that can’t be denied. Author after author explained that once they had children, their writing became better. Perhaps not more prolific, but actually qualitatively better.
That’s hopeful, we thought. I suggested we run a Fellowship competition to inspire writers with kids under 10 to write something new. Start again! Find those primal places. Put that efficiency to good use. Exercise the creativity that hid from the light due to sleep-deprivation. Wake that creative side. Write something new!
We got a hundred entries and most of them had scrawled messages on the front thanking us for acknowledging them, for inspiring them, for “kicking butts back into gear” — men and women with children, from all over the country, even though we couldn’t afford to pay for travel. We knew then that we had founded something unique.
I was ready to go large: I invited my partner to sign on to an LLC. She declined – when you have children, things change, finances matter more – it was life following art. Here I was ready to jump headfirst into a business right at a time when she had to circle the wagons because she was expecting a second child. Not only could she not sign on, but in order to be able to devote time to her writing, she would have to stop curating the series as well. She wished me well and I wished her well and we split: me to the business, she to her novel and growing family. I wiped off my tears, marched over to City Hall and signed a DBA. Pen Parentis was real.
Within the year, a lawyer who was a regular at the salons had approached me. “I work for a white-shoe law firm across the street,” she told me. “I think what you do is amazing. I would like to offer my firm’s services pro bono to get you a 501c3.”
We already had a mission. We would do what we had always done: Pen Parentis would provide resources to keep writers on creative track after they started a family.
We even had a tagline: parenting done, write.
We incorporated in 2014 and dove in. We got friends to write articles, we built our board. Our literary salons became known in the industry thanks to some incredible coverage by the New Yorker and New York Times. Our salons were even mentioned in a Four Seasons international travel magazine cover story. We used Social Media to spread the word about our Fellowship. Membership was instituted, then eliminated, then begun again in a beautiful, voluntary, support-driven way. Salons spread to Los Angeles for a while, then the volunteers running them had new novels and new babies and had to refocus. And in all this time, we kept getting beautiful thank you notes, messages, awed gratitude that we existed.
I started to notice that as we grew more known, parenthood was becoming more palatable in all the arts–or at least something to discuss. Around 2012, Creative Capital funded a paid webinar (run by a choreographer) called Artists Raising Kids. There were scattered exhibits starting around 2013 like this one “Embracing the Taboo of being an artist mother” as the subject of Motherhood became a focus for women artists.
Writing publications soon jumped on the bandwagon. One of the early writers we featured at Pen Parentis, the wonderful Cari Luna, interviewed 22 writers starting in 2012: her resultant blog, Writer with Kids, still is an incredible resource to see how other people have managed to succeed. And mainstream publications followed. The same week we featured writers Victor LaValle and Emily Raboteau at our salon (March 2013) they were also on the cover of Poets & Writers having been interviewed among other expectant or very new parents for an article called “Books and Babies.” There was, of course, backlash – not only from nonparents but from other parent writers who thought the conversations didn’t go deep enough. The crowning insult was the article in The Atlantic that assertively claimed sure you can write and parent but not if you parent TOO MUCH; you have to limit your parenting to one child. (Yes, that really happened.)
The theater was last to conform. In Autumn 2017, Equity News, the publication for stage actors belonging to that union, finally featured Making it Work: Balancing Family and Career on its cover.
And now it is 2018 and parenting in the arts is no longer seen as a terrible taboo, but simply as another challenge for creative people to overcome.
And thanks to social media, writers with kids now have a treasure trove of options in many social media driven communities, particularly writer-mom groups and podcasts online. These include:
The Mom Writes podcast
Writer Mom Life for indie authors
@MomWritersRoom on Twitter
WriterMomsInc.com community that grew from #writermoms
and the newest:
PenandParent.com (not affiliated with us, but we wish them well–the more the merrier)
This is staggering to look at – new groups form every day. Despite the fact that some editors at some magazines still can’t honestly believe that a writer could win a Pulitzer and be a good dad (I wonder if they believe their doctor is good if he has kids, or their banker–? Do they only hire professionals who are childless? what would that world look like?) – the world is changing. Parenthood is looking like less of a stigma and more like an ordinary part of being a human being. You can have a child. Or not. It isn’t there to define you. It is a part of life that many people experience.
How it affects your career choices is rather up to you, if society leaves everyone alone to just be.
We are going to start collecting these parent-writer online groups and listing them in a new “resources” tab that we are working on this summer. Let us know if you would like to help in any way. Or donate towards this project–just fill in the number of your choice in the form and write a note to let us know it is for the new parent-writing-community resource list!
(If you are a writer interested in a parent-writer community that’s on Facebook, you are welcome to join our private Facebook Group. Just answer the questions and we would love to have you!)