Friday, April 29, 2016

Parenting, Like Art, is a Revolt

I recently read Kim Brooks’ piece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom in New York Magazine. And I have some thoughts about it. I tried to be legit and I sent a "letter to the editor" to NYMag, but while I wait for them to discover the genius of my thoughts, I'll share them here. 

Several of my mom-artist friends had re-shared the piece on Facebook. The responses were positive; most friends agreed with Brooks. Brutally honest, someone commented. I clicked on the link, my heart fluttering faster at this chance for emotional camaraderie. But the truth is, while I did mutter a couple of internal "amens," I was largely nose-scrunching, and eye-squinting, and squirming at the core. My disagreement crept in like a slow burn; the reason for it was not obvious to me. I needed to read the piece at least five times, printed out on paper, with a highlighter, to get to the center of why I was feeling so crummy. The heart of her argument is that the qualities that make for good artists make for bad parents, and vice versa. I couldn’t disagree more. 

Brooks writes that having children changed her view on the value of suffering, “Pain is constructive. And misery can be useful. I believed that like I believe the sun rises in the east. Then I had children, and I slowly began to disbelieve and disavow it.” In her view, she must become a boring, conventional, cautious person so that her children will suffer and struggle less. I share Brooks' beliefs on suffering, but I unlike Brooks, having children did not change my position. Regardless of our efforts as parents to keep them safe, our children will suffer, they will struggle, and they will also overcome adversity. There is nothing we can do as parents to prevent it.  Hopefully as they grow, they will come to find that their pain and misery can be constructive and useful. What if, instead of resisting our children’s suffering, we artists held fast to it, and with deep curiosity sought to understand its roots? Psychology and art both lead me to believe that our lifelong fears and pain are rooted in the first moments of life, at a time when we don't yet have words to describe our feelings, while we are figuring out whether our needs in life will be met. As parents we are closer than ever to the source of suffering. Parenting a child gives us a way to understand suffering at large, which helps us make better art. 

What's the point?
When it comes to the point of art (and there are so many opinions out there), I agree with Brooks. Quoting her friend, she writes, “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe." But, she adds, "that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” Shouldn't it be? I have a problem with her take on the point of parenting, especially her assertion that people make families for the opposite reason they make art.

What if all artists approached parenthood the way they do their art? Brooks quotes one of her first writing teachers, "Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think." Are our inherited methods of parenting so stable and so reliable that we don't need to undermine them, or destabilize them, as an artist would? Brooks points out, Hippocrates says, “Art is a revolt.” I say, parenting is a revolt too, or it should be. For the first time in history, we get to choose whether we will, when we will, and how we will make families. And maybe our reasons for making a family should be changing too. My husband and I married outside our family and cultural backgrounds. In some ways, our relationship is a revolt. Why should starting our family be different? What if, like artists, we see our task as critically examining the way we were raised, saving what served us well, and aggressively tossing away the rest? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but maybe I do mean to be subversive. 

Brooks thinks that our parenting suffers when our artist brains are at work. I think all parents would benefit from thinking more like artists. We don't have to just rely on the status quo of parenting. In my opinion, there are major problems with the current parenting culture. So many of us engage in it with whole hearts and minds and guts, and yet, there is this sort of unspoken agreement we won't really talk in depth about what we think or feel or discover within parenting. Out of respect, we do things exactly the way they've always been done, because "we turned out fine," as the previous generation tells us. Or out of respect, we do things differently, but quietly. Outspoken parents who share their convictions are shamed, or blamed for starting a "mommy-war."

We don't have to settle for the way our families did it. Why should we? Do we think that humanity has reached its peak potential? Is the world as wonderful and thriving as it could be? If not, then we should be doing everything we can to raise children who will grow into adults who will make it better.  

I’m art-making and family-making for the same reasons right now. I do both in my corner to heal my piece of the world. I’m challenging what’s already here. I do think it is lovely and fine and great that my experiences as a parent feed my art, as Brooks shares of her friend’s experience at the end of her piece. But I think the more powerful realization is that the artist in me feeds my parenting. 

I’m not talking about how art makes for creative moms, who can throw Pinterest parties, craft up a storm, and improvise twenty verses of Twinkle, Twinkle (though I do love those things). I’m talking about how, as artists, we have the potential to be uniquely excellent parents. Parenting well is not about raising the most well-behaved, socially acceptable, highest-salaried, or even happiest child; but neither is it about creating a protected utopia for our children, free of pain, suffering, or struggle. As artists, we have a deep and obsessive desire to understand relationships, to hold our children’s tears, to dwell with them in the pure pain of childhood, and to feel life's suffering more fully. We challenge what's here, we struggle with the status quo. Maybe we do this, selfishly, to be better artists. But I think it's our selfishness and our deep empathy for the people we love, that will grow our children into people who will also question, undermine, and force this world towards a place we’d rather inhabit.

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