This is Portrait of the Artist as a New Parent, a monthly column by Catherine LaSota on the challenges of living in New York as an artist and first-time mother.
Growing up in suburban Maryland, I dreamed of living a creative life in New York City. Movies like Trading Places and Working Girl showed me an exciting, fast-paced environment where it was possible for your life to change completely, if you were just smart enough to figure out the system and work hard. All of the cool stuff was happening in New York, it seemed—even the kids on Sesame Street played in its magical streets. As I grew into my teens and became increasingly disenchanted with the strip malls and chain stores and repetitive days of my lower middle class neighborhood, Sassy magazine was my monthly beacon of New York hope, showing me young women dressed in unconventional clothes and writing about cool bands and zines. I still remember the issue that featured performers from the Nuyorican Poets Café (incidentally, one of the first places I visited as soon as I eventually moved to the Big Apple). An overnight visit to Manhattan, via a four-hour Greyhound bus ride with my college buddy, solidified my goal to plant roots in this promising land of artists, writers, and musicians of all kinds. I believed there was room for everyone, including me—all I had to do was find my voice and have the confidence (and the means) to follow it.
I moved to Hoboken in 1998, into the closest apartment I could secure near Manhattan, high-tailing it from Maryland immediately following my college graduation. My plan was to be an “artist,” loosely defined. I was twenty years old, and I felt very romantic about this life move. My personal space in Hoboken was the interior bedroom of a railroad style apartment with two roommates; a glorified large closet off the hallway served as my art studio. I had an hour and a half commute to my job as a salesperson at Pearl Paint art store in Manhattan, including walking, PATH train, and the NYC subway. One of the few possessions I’d brought with me from Maryland was a guitar, along with several books and empty journals. How could I lose? I had an employee discount on art supplies, a space to draw, and a grand ambition. I was ready to create, to make my mark in the world.
Plenty of people move to New York City—or other locations away from their childhood homes—with similar notions of defining themselves anew. In a place as populated as New York City, odds are that a good number of your fellow migrants are going to come across as more driven, more authentic—more of an artist—than yourself. The ambition in this town is big, and I was soon swallowed in a sea of possibility. I made acquaintance with painters who sold their canvases on the streets of SoHo, and with cartoonists who scraped by living at the local YMCA. And I lived above the now-defunct Maxwell’s music venue, home to Yo La Tengo and other notable acts. All of these people had ambition like me, but they also had something else, something crucial: They had focus. I had a guitar, a journal, an “art studio” . . . but no idea what I wanted to say.
My personal life was rocky, too. I had graduated college early, and all of my friends were still in Maryland or elsewhere. I was living not in New York City itself, but its unofficial New Jersey outer borough, looking across the Hudson River at the place I longed to be all of the time. On top of all this, I wasn’t yet twenty-one, which made it surprisingly difficult to grab a beer after work in a neighborhood like Hoboken, where carding (at the time, at least) was commonplace.
I had a checking account at an actual bank, but I never used it. With each paycheck I would go directly to the check-cashing place around the corner from Pearl Paint and trade it for much-needed cash, minus the processing fee. I worked overtime on a regular basis; I needed those time-and-a-half-pay hours to cover my rent. I’d often get home to my apartment in Hoboken at 10 p.m. or later, tired from a day of stocking shelves and standing behind a register, with no money to go out in the city at night and no friends. On one of those evenings, both hungry and tired, I stopped at the corner store near my place and bought one Styrofoam container of Cup O’ Noodles, a single meal for $1.49, something I could just afford.
I climbed up five flights with my purchase, and then boiled some water in the kitchen. I peeled back the lid on the white Styrofoam cup, and I saw white fuzz. It looked like polyester filling. Then I saw the insect shells and realized that, somehow, my dinner had become infested with maggots at some point during the factory’s lid-sealing process. I tied the disgusting cup tightly inside the plastic deli bag I’d brought it home in, and crawled into bed, knowing that the sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I wouldn’t feel my hungry belly.
I learned by necessity how to draw inspiration on the cheap. This mostly involved taking a lot of walks. My walks became a necessary time and space that were just for me, a way to observe without getting swallowed up in the enormity of New York City. I remember one Halloween evening when I strolled to Washington Square Park after work and just sat there for an hour watching the people in their costumes, on their way to bars I couldn’t afford and parties I wasn’t invited to, taking my pleasure simply in tallying the most popular dress-up choices that year.
I didn’t remain as a resident of Hoboken, or a bottom-rung employee of Pearl Paint, forever. Eventually I made my way, via some detours and stints on friends of friends’ couches, to Brooklyn and to administrative work that gave me a regular, if modest, salary, and the glory that is health insurance, sick days, and occasional time off.
I started to stabilize, and my friends began graduating college, some of them moving to New York City themselves. I turned twenty-one and was able to enjoy the all-important after-work drink in my neighborhood bar. It took a couple of years, but New York City was starting to feel like home. My belly was not empty as often, but it continued to feel the tug of artistic ambition.
With my regular income and schedule, I managed to afford a two-week evening bartending course, and in this way I entered the lucrative cash world of bar work, which gave me the money I needed to rent an art studio (separate from my residence, one that I actually traveled to a different neighborhood to work in) and pay for guitar and voice lessons. I made a body of artwork and applied to graduate school, earning an MFA in sculpture. I teamed up with other musicians to record on their projects and sing at venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And I started building my writing community through participation in writing workshops and attendance at readings and literary parties around the city. I was, as they say, doing it all. I was trying to do everything while not finding real success in any single endeavor. I was trying to be a sculptor and a singer and a writer all at once. And I was still surrounded by that New York City constant: the thick cloud of ambition, and the throngs of people everywhere who seem to be doing more and better than you are, all of the time.
I began to shed projects from my life. I was lucky to have had the chance in my twenties to explore so many creative outlets, but as I got older, I wanted to dive into single projects more deeply. Writing became my priority, and as I gave myself the space to focus deeply in one area, I started to figure out, slowly, what I wanted to say as an artist.
I felt that, in many ways, I was finally on my way as a creative person in New York City. As a writer in my thirties, I was full of confidence, making good money, and for once fueled in a non-crippling way by my ambitious fellow artists around me. And then I decided, with my husband, to start a family.
In July 2016, my son was born, and I found what everyone had said to be true: You have no idea what it will actually feel like to be a parent until the kid arrives. Here is a big part of what it felt like to me: All of my artistic ducks were finally in a row, and then my son came along and knocked those ducks down like so many children’s blocks.
In the first couple weeks of parenthood, it was all I could do to wear pajama pants, shower semi-regularly, and feed myself when I wasn’t taking care of my son or sneaking in a nap. The neglect of my artistic ambition was killing me. I was impatient to get settled into my new life, but babies change quickly and often. There is no such thing as “settled.” In my naiveté, it took me many months to realize that being a parent wasn’t just a matter of fitting one more task into my life and establishing a pattern, and it certainly wasn’t about having control. I didn’t have a choice to be an artist as I’d previously defined it, because my time wasn’t my own anymore.
The progress of my artistic life had slowed again out of necessity, back to a pace I hadn’t experienced since I was first making my way in the city. This, perhaps, has been the greatest gift my son has given to me so far: You will never have everything figured out, and you will be happiest if you let go of the idea of control and the idea that you are the center of the universe—something I wasn’t so fully aware I was guilty of until my son was born. These are great lessons for learning to be a creative person of any kind. But the lessons of parenthood are never-ending. I also had to learn to keep the activities in my life, as much as possible, that helped me remember those essential parts of myself that were established before I became a parent.
Formula and diapers are not cheap, and my choice with my husband to raise our son on our own, rather than pay for the high cost of nannies or daycare in New York City during our son’s first six months, meant that I wasn’t taking on regular paid work. Our bank account soon reached levels that were nearly reminiscent of my Cup O’ Noodles days. I was struggling with money in ways that I hadn’t in years, and I was thankful to have had the time before parenthood to be comfortable financially for a while, because being near broke felt different this time around. My more flush years had given me the mental space to sort out my creative goals, so that I could enter the intensity (and financial strain) of parenthood with these goals in mind.
Because of my decision to be a primary caregiver for my new baby, I was not venturing out into the city nearly as often as I had before. It was a drastic change in my lifestyle, my lack of walks in the city. I had moved here to be an artist, to thrive off of the inspiration that the city and all of its creative, ambitious residents could provide; I didn’t realize how much I’d come to rely on my proximity to this energy and ambition, as much as I’d also found fault in these things.
And so, one weekend, about to lose my shit, I left the baby at home with my visiting mother (so lucky was I to have her there). I took the subway into Manhattan, marveling at just how amazing it felt even to be taking the subway, to be hooking back into that part of NYC life, that part of my commute that always felt the most authentic to me, even way back when I was living in Hoboken and the NYC subway was one part of my three-part commute. I surfaced from the E train in the West Village and walked over to Washington Square Park, remembering some of my earliest memories in the city, taking solace in the fact that here, still, were the earnest kids playing in a jazz band; here, still, was the classical pianist performing on a baby grand under the giant arch; here, still, was a sand artist making beautiful and colorful sand art on the pavement that would last less than a day. And there were painters still selling their wares on the street, just like my acquaintances in my early days.
I sat and I breathed and I drank it in, and I realized that I would never again be in a position to wander New York with no timeline, taking myself wherever inspiration struck me. At least for many years, there would be an end time to any wandering, an hour when I’d need to be home to relieve a babysitter or make dinner or get that laundry done before tomorrow. My kid would have his own schedule, and I’d need to be mindful of that. My life wasn’t just about me and my creative work anymore.
But I had a new inspiration in the form of my son, a human created inside my own body for crying out loud, and how ambitious is that? The city would always be there for me to soak it in in bits and pieces, and for that I was so very grateful.
At the end of my stroll in Washington Square Park, I took my precious remaining solo time to walk north through a few streets, stopping into a café in Chelsea I’d discovered years ago, a place that was always full of people working on their laptops, or holding meetings, or otherwise getting their ambitious shit done. I couldn’t afford much, but I could just scrape together the change for a hot apple cider, a soothing drink to sit with for a minute and take the scene in, and remind myself that I was still a part of this New York creative energy, still a part of an artistic community that was, thankfully, bigger than me alone. I was just shifting my shape ever so slightly to fit in my role of mother alongside, and in partnership with, my role as artist.