How Artistic Parents Can Stay Creative
By Susan Flynn
Sometimes parenthood can feel a little like Groundhog Day, the movie where Bill Murray finds himself trapped repeating the same day over and over again.
We empty the dishwasher. We change diapers. We shop for groceries and make breakfast, lunch and dinner. We fold clothes. We drive to school and pick up from school. We read the same favorite bedtime story night after night.
No slight to Goodnight Moon – or all the deeply rewarding experiences of parenthood – but, on occasion, the gig can get monotonous. In the midst of these daily, predictable routines, parents whose careers or outside interests revolve around artistic endeavors soon discover how challenging it is to feed their creative side, while also trying to feed the kids.
“Being a parent can be very draining. There’s a lot of routine and you’re dealing with a lot of repeat activities,” says Istar Schwager, an educational psychologist and founder of the online resource Creative Parents. “For me, art had always been a wonderful outlet to express what was going on in my life, but as I got busy with work and kids and their activities, I abandoned that part of me for awhile.”
Creative types – from professional artists to those who dabble in jewelry making on the weekends – say that parenthood’s sapping of time and energy can have a stifling effect on inspiration. And while parents who work as artists are lucky to have a creative outlet, some find they must give up the pursuit for a more practical job with a steady income and health benefits.
“A lot of artists are living month to month,” says arts advocate Tony Grant “It’s one thing if you chose the starving artist route for yourself. But you can’t have a starving child.”
Grant and his wife, Caroline, recently launched the Sustainable Arts Foundation, a new effort to support artistic parents through the awarding of small grants. This past spring, they handed out five awards of $6,000 each and five smaller stipends of $1,000, and a second round of grants is planned for December. The couple knew they were onto something when they received more than 800 grant applications from parents in 48 states.
“These amounts are not life changing, but a big part of what we’re doing is offering these parents some validation,” says Grant, a graduate of Tufts University who now lives in San Francisco. “A lot of parent artists and parent writers are teetering on the edge. They are not sure they can make a go of this. This is one way to tell them, you are good enough to do this and someone else has said so.”
With no restrictions on how the grant money is spent, many applicants have earmarked it for childcare, an expense that other arts foundations don’t allow. “You don’t have to purchase canvas and brushes if what you really need is a new washing machine to save you a half hour every day,” says Grant. “We assume people know best how to spend the money.”
Rishava Green admits that he has some weak moments, when he considers walking away from the life of a professional musician. But, for now, he’s committed to both parenthood and playing in his indie rock band The Lights Out.
“Whenever I’m down, my wife is the one talking me off the ledge,” says Green, a Medford father of two kids, ages 10 and 8. “I have cobbled together a string of jobs to feed this habit. I think some people have kids and decide to give up their passions, and that’s an honorable choice. But I know this makes me a better father. If I didn’t do this, I’d be a lot less happy and they’d be a lot less happy.”
Green, a Berklee College of Music graduate, finds that some of his best songwriting happens in the basement at 2 a.m. after his family is long asleep. They understand that two nights a week he must practice with the band, and that concert tours will sometimes take him away from home.
His children seem to “dig” that he’s in a band and provide inspiration for lyrics on occasion. “This is an honest, real effort to push the band into the public eye,” says Green. “I am trying to be a good role model for my kids. I want them to see this is what makes me feel more alive – that you can follow your passions.”
A supportive spouse or life partner and non-negotiable time for creativity are crucial to an artistic parent’s success, says Shona Cole, author of the The Artistic Mother: A Practical Guide to Fitting Creativity into Your Life.
“I keep firm to the belief that my creativity is important to my health as a woman and a mother,” says Cole, a mother of five who enjoys painting, photography and scrapbooking, among other pursuits. “As soon as I start getting caught up in the day-to-day grind, I remember that I need to refocus and get a new creative project. My husband believes the same thing; so often, if I start complaining, he will gently remind me to get working on something.”
Cole suggests these strategies for creative parents:
• Make short- and long-term goals to stay motivated, organized and looking forward.
• Then, create a weekly action plan with specific steps. “Having a vision of a creative project is pretty much useless if you don’t actually do the work,” Cole says.
• Block time in your schedule for creativity. Cole heads to her craft room after the kids are down for the night. “No matter how tired I feel at night, I go in there and do at least one thing on my current project,” she says. At lunch, she may browse some artistic blogs for inspiration. “The most important thing is to own the belief that you are a worthy, creative person who needs expression,” she says. “When you are not creating, then you can become stifled and that is going to, in turn, affect your mothering. You owe it to your children to keep afloat and happy and productive.”
Not every creative parent parlays their artistic side into a paycheck. Some just need an outlet for expression in between trips to the orthodontist and supermarket. Creative Parents founder Istar Schwager enrolled in a two-hour weekly art class to rekindle this dormant part of her life and has never looked back. She believes that parents who sign up for a class – whether it’s dance, pottery or creative writing – are more likely to stick with that activity.
But Schwager also suggests building creativity into everyday family life. Experiment with a new recipe, hold a picnic on the living room floor, blare the music for a dance party, or write in a journal. She also suggests creating a community of people who share the same interests – whether it’s a book, movie or scrapbooking club.
“There’s so much that is routine and it can feel like drudgery if you don’t add something new every now and then,” says Schwager.
Kids as Creative Allies
The truth is, parenting can make people more creative without even realizing it. From crafting bedtime stories to devising a clever way to get kids to eat broccoli, parents are masters at inventing solutions on the fly.
Holly Stout, a Beverly mom of two young children whose current creative outlet is interior design, knows she doesn’t have the luxury to spend uninterrupted hours scheming and completing creative projects, but she can rearrange living room furniture during nap times, or take her 17-month-old along on a trip to the fabric store for material for new pillows. Her 3-year-old can pass the screws for the new planter she built.
“I try to break up projects into tasks that I can do with kids and tasks that I cannot,” says Stout. “As soon as I get an idea in my head, I find I am super motivated. I find the time somehow.”
Kids themselves can inspire creativity. Before parenthood, Ravi Jain of Milton set a goal to be satisfied in three areas of his life – his job, his teaching and his artwork. When his two daughters, now ages 3 and 6 months, came along, Jain had to tweak that goal. Parenting replaced his artwork.
Jain’s job as a digital and web producer at Boston College provided a creative outlet, but he wants to return to his goal of always having some large-scale art projects in the works. “There are only so many hours in the day,” he says, “and parenthood is a huge commitment.”
But he’s found his kids are another gateway to creative expression. For the first time in almost a decade, he is bringing out his guitar regularly to play for his daughters. They make up silly songs together and he’s grateful to them for helping him rediscover his instrument.
Months before his first daughter was born, Jain recalls, he had agreed to participate in a gallery show on Boston’s Newbury Street where local artists were invited to design buttons sporting campaign slogans. His daughter was just 2 weeks old and he was sleep-deprived when he suddenly remembered the assignment. As is often the case with art, his inspiration came from his surroundings.
He created one button that read: “I appeal to both the left and right breasts.” Another, a spoof on then President-Elect Barack Obama’s mantra, “It’s time to change – my diaper.”
“It was a real light-bulb moment for me,” Jain says. “I realized I can integrate parenthood into my art. That’s part of being an artist – you integrate whatever is going on with your life into your work.”
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.
Resources for Creativity
• The Artistic Mother: A Practical Guide to Fitting Creativity into Your Life, by Shona Cole, North Light Books, 2010.
• Creative Parents – www.creativeparents.com – An idea-packed site created by an educational psychologist especially for parents leading creative lives.
• Sustainable Arts Foundation – www.sustainableartsfoundation.org. – This nonprofit organization awards grants to support parents who are also artists and writers.