Kids, Art, My Heart by Amy McNamara
A writer asks: Is it possible to give oneself over to creative endeavors when your most vital creation, your children, requires equal love and attention?
I always wanted kids. I remember learning around age 5 or 6 that it was the girls, not the boys, who got to have the babies, and thinking with glee, Suckers! Boys paraded their strengths and immeasurable freedoms around the playground like miniature peacocks. In light of this baby news, I found it confusing that we girls seemed to have fewer freedoms. Girls were superheroes! We were the ones with the secret strength. We made people. Why weren’t we the most revered, powerful creatures on the planet? Or at the very least, allowed to wear those lush navy corduroys to school instead of an itchy, plaid jumper and those cable-knit tights I pulled on before heading into the snowy blue dark to wait for the bus? In the face of this—and many more of life’s impenetrable mysteries—I grew up, met my love, and we had two children.
Many of my creative friends have chosen to remain child-free. I sometimes wondered if perhaps I weren’t a real writer because my desire for motherhood meant a less-than-complete dedication to my craft. Having children means I often cannot write when I want to. My honey is a hands-on parent, but he couldn’t nurse the babies all those hours, and let’s be honest, often especially in the early years, he was not the one they reached for first. Motherhood means, at its most fundamental level, wholly sharing yourself with another human being.
When I got pregnant with my second child, I called a writer friend to share the happy news. After she congratulated me, I told her I was excited for this second baby. I felt more like a pro with the strange and marvelous science experiment my body was about to undertake. Before I got any further with that line of conversation, she cut me off with a cheerful, “Oops! I’m not the person to share this with,” and shut me right down.
She is one of my many friends, all writers and artists or other kinds of creatives, who have chosen not to have children, people who have sidestepped the whole deal: Cheerio grout between cushions, brutal mommy wars, years of sleep forever lost, omnipresent spit-up or mystery crust on your shoulder, high-stakes testing, and let’s not forget the first time your child, still alight with existence, comes to realize all life comes to a solitary end. Being a parent is undoubtedly the toughest, most intense, difficult joy I’ve ever experienced.
I admire artists who resist considerable cultural and familial pressures to have kids if they don’t really want them. Because how can you possibly live a proper creative life, a life full of its own intense desires and demands, under those circumstances?
Because of my children’s seemingly constant days off from school, I’m writing this behind a locked door. I have music on and earplugs in to make sure my mommy-ears aren’t incessantly piqued by every squabble or squeak of indignation as one child breaches the other’s imagined and fiercely defended personal borders. Those are my headphones! Get your Legos off my bed! Leave my guitar alone! Ad infinitum.
When I had my daughter someone quoted me those words of wisdom about how when you have a baby you give your heart permission to wander around in the body of another, but children split you far less romantically than that. Once you have a child you are no longer your own. If you are to help your children grow into their own good lives, some part of you—an enormous part of you—must be ready to be given away with love, and most of the time.
This comes into conflict with writing. My desire for my children and my desire to write seem to come from a similar place. I feel an almost animal ferocity for both. Writing is as fickle as a newborn, wailing in the middle of the night, demanding attention at all hours. They are both jealous, children and art, waking and howling the minute they sense a shift in your attention, the very moment you thought you had to yourself.
Where was I? Oh right, uninterrupted work time. Sorry about that, I had to take a break to make bacon, admire a dragon-scale bracelet finally conquered on the Rainbow Loom, and help my daughter find her unlimited Metro card from the storm surge of clothing rising in her bedroom.
My days go like this: up early, taking quick notes on any ideas that found me in the night, before beginning the Don’t-make-me-get-up!-breakfast-backpack-out-the-door-to-school routine. After drop-off, a 4-mile run. I stop occasionally to text myself notes for my work. The run is silent time to fall into the dream of my story or poem, to regain the quiet concentration I’ll need back at my desk. Then I’m home to shower, eat, and work for two or three hours before I head out to school again for pickup. It’s a short workday. Sometimes, if I’m lucky and not too tired from homework, sports transport, dinner, bath, and bedtime routine, I’ll sneak into my office again; but more often, mindful of the next day’s early start, never easy for this night owl, I’ll fall into bed before the whole routine begins again.
My kids and my work are both necessary to me and adored. They tug and tear my heart open wider than I ever think it can go. I couldn’t live without my kids, but I don’t know how well I’d do without my writing, either. I know children pass through our lives quickly. I will soon have endless hours in which to work, and then I will miss them, the noisy, cheerful, and wild forests of their lives. For now I’ll keep negotiating, vacuuming between the couch cushions, trading an hour for me here for skateboards or tree-climbing in the park there, and wearing lots and lots of earplugs.
Amy McNamara’s novel Lovely, Dark and Deep (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) was an ABA New Voices pick and won the 2013 International Reading Association’s Young Adult Book Award. Her poems appear in a wide variety of journals. McNamara lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.