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.
I have heard stories of parents who go to nine-to-five jobs with steady paychecks and reliable health insurance, parents with routines who enjoy regular two-day weekends with their offspring. I am certain that these mythical people have their own unique parenting struggles, but I cannot pretend to understand them. Economic stability is not the reality in my home. Heck, it’s not the case for most of my fellow parents in New York City with their many passions and obligations.
The extra-special challenge for my husband Karl and I is that we are both freelancing artists. I sometimes joke that I don’t know how to be in a relationship with someone who has high-earning potential—my exes include an engineer, a lawyer, and a successful business owner. Karl and I share this: In an impractical life move, neither one of us married a person to financially support our creative habit, and now we have a thirteen-month-old baby.
Karl is an actor and a filmmaker. I am a writer. These are not lucrative or stable professions, and we both do other things on the side to pay the bills, but we fight hard to keep our art central in our lives. After nearly twenty years in New York, we have become effective hustlers, always figuring out a way to get by. Our lifestyle requires being comfortable with the unexpected. You’d think this might be the perfect mindset in which to raise a child; parenthood, after all, is full of surprises. And yes, it is wonderful to raise our son in a home filled with art, but the strain that parenthood puts on our marriage has forced us to reevaluate our relationship to our creativity.
Karl and I thought that our freelance lifestyle would allow us to raise our son without the assistance of others. We could save on costs by taking advantage of our flexibility to do all of the baby care ourselves. But it turns out that a baby has two superpowers: the ability to suck productive time out of a day and the ability to bleed a wallet dry.
In the so-called fourth trimester, those first three months following birth, I could place our son in a motorized rocking chair, and he would sleep for two hours while I wrote at the kitchen table (or, you know, got the laundry done). Granted, my brain was adjusting to creation on-demand—they say to sleep when the baby sleeps, and I was writing when the baby slept instead—but at least I had pockets of time when he didn’t need my full attention. In between his jobs outside of our home, Karl would spend some hours with our son so that I could recharge.
Eventually, the fourth trimester ended, and our baby became less a sleepy slug and more of an inquisitive, needy human. I couldn’t be in the same space with him and have enough brain capacity to do anything else, and I didn’t want my son always to be around a distracted adult; he deserved human interaction as he babbled at a stuffed giraffe or batted an elephant mobile. Karl and I needed to free up some time or pause our creative careers. Neither of us wanted to stop making our art, and we couldn’t afford to be less focused on our paid freelance work.
After hunting down various babysitting, nanny share, and drop-off options, we managed to find a family day care in our neighborhood where our son could enjoy loving attention and socialization with other kids three days a week, nine hours each day. Let’s call this place Happy Babies. For these twenty-seven hours of freedom each week, we pay Happy Babies an average of $1,350 a month. This, dear reader, was the most affordable option we could find.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with how day care operates: The fee is paid to hold your kid’s spot and is due whether or not your kid is present. When we leave the city with our son, for a vacation or to visit family, we continue to pay for every hour of would-be day care during that time. We accept this as our rent for our baby’s second home.
Karl and I made an arrangement with each other: Our son would be at Happy Babies Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Karl would take care of the baby on Tuesdays; I would take care of the baby on Thursdays. Weekends were a free-for-all. In this arrangement, Karl and I would each have four guaranteed weekdays to work. That was the theory, anyway.
Four weekdays to: clean the house, shop for groceries, clean ourselves, do enough paid work to cover our ballooning monthly costs, write, make movies, write grants, network, read, seek out freelance opportunities, follow up with editors, send invoices, do laundry, edit, book authors for events, manage publicity for events, write some more, trash most of the writing, sit paralyzed in self-doubt, etc.
There was not a lot of time for artistic experimentation, which is pretty crucial if you want to get anywhere new with your work. In fact, there wasn’t much time for anything except projects that had guaranteed financial return—and unfortunately, as any artist knows, there are many unpaid (or underpaid) gigs that come with building a creative career.
We got by on underpaid work as a twosome, but with a baby in the mix, well—we couldn’t afford to have a slim month when diapers and formula were constant, non-negotiable costs. (I tried breastfeeding as long as possible to save money on the baby sustenance budget line item, but my breasts did not cooperate, ceasing to produce milk once our son began sleeping through the night, after already producing a low supply since his birth.) And let’s not forget that no-joke $1,350-per-month daycare fee. Fortunately, our son loves Happy Babies—one morning, he actually scrambled out of my arms to hug the owner—but this also means we are loathe to take him out of day care for any reason to save that money.
One sunny morning last week, I took our son to his day care. I had been feeling ill for the past couple of days after a bad run-in with food poisoning and raw garlic, and I would have loved to stay in bed a little longer to rest. I was still feeling nauseous. Unfortunately, I was also falling behind on my freelance assignments and had to get my body moving. I figured I could rouse myself enough to walk the few blocks from our home to Happy Babies, grab a few things we needed from the grocery store, and still be back home in time to start working at 9 a.m.
I strapped our son to my body, grabbed his bag containing a swimsuit, hat, and extra bib and socks, which I had prepped the night before, and stepped outside. The morning was cool, and it was feeling good to breathe the fresh air.
As part of our income, we host two Airbnb rooms in our home, and they are booked fairly constantly, and occasionally at the last minute. When I arrived back home, relatively pumped and ready to dive into a feature story I was organizing for a trade publication, as well as the edits on this very essay you are reading, my husband informed me that he was rushing out the door for an all-day meeting, and I would need to finish preparing a room for our Airbnb guests arriving later that afternoon. Moreover, I would have to be home and available around 1 p.m. because that was when our guests were arriving, and my husband could not guarantee he’d arrive back home before then.
Here’s the thing with my husband’s work versus my work: His freelance gigs require meeting with people, whereas mine, for the most part, do not. We have to bend to the schedules of others to accommodate his employment, and all too often the schedule I make with myself suffers. When one parent is out of the home for a meeting, and there is a baby to care for, the other parent’s plans get pushed to the side—this is why the three days a week that our son is in daycare are so important to me. Even if Karl needs to take off unexpectedly, I still know that I have control of my schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. three days a week. The Airbnb rooms in our home add an annoying wild card to the mix—who wants to worry about hosting when you are deep in creative work?—but they are a financial necessity for us.
I wish we could set up a system in which Karl only makes himself available for meetings at particular times of the week, but as any freelancer knows, sometimes you are in a position where you just need to take every opportunity that arises to earn some income. Two artists raising a baby are in that position constantly.
Needless to say, my plans to get some work and personal writing done on that sunny morning last week were thwarted. I cleaned the bathroom and bedroom for our guests, changed the linens, did the laundry, and then sat inside for the rest of the day as I awaited their arrival. (They were hours late.) No more fresh air outside time for me, and certainly no time to do any work except what would pay the most money. It is always my own writing projects that suffer in these scenarios.
I don’t mean to imply that my husband has the time he’d like for his own projects, while I do not. He would rather be home working on his new television script than out at meetings consulting on technical projects for other filmmakers, currently his most lucrative side hustle. Unfortunately, this fact does not always prevent me from feeling resentful when he takes off for sudden paid work, leaving my own daytime plans in shambles.
We’ve never had a typical household. Karl and I got married nine months after meeting each other, and we didn’t even live together for the first month of our marriage. When I got pregnant, we decided that our son would take my last name, not Karl’s. Karl is a more proficient cook than I am, and he often has to get after me to clean up the messes I leave around the house. Though Karl manages most of our finances, I am the one to remember the small details that keep our house running smoothly, like when it’s time to order diapers or pick up milk at the store. Whatever solutions we continue to find and modify as our son ages, I am sure they will be unique to us, just as every parent and couple find their own way through struggles.
As I’ve kicked and clawed my way to practical adulthood and responsible parenthood, I’ve had to let go of the idea that I can have large, consistent blocks of time that I control, at least for now. Yes, my creative life suffers in that I often need to place it on the back burner. I have to keep reminding myself that this doesn’t mean my art is unimportant, or that I’m not collecting rich material in my subconscious for later use when, I don’t know, our son is in a city-funded pre-K program instead of expensive day care and we can afford to give our own projects more time again.
This week, I again dropped my son off at day care in the morning, with a full day of freelance work to get through. Instead of going straight home, though, where distractions can surface all too quickly, especially when my husband is home working as well, I stopped at a café with my laptop. This is a good time trick I’ve found: If I can walk in and get one small bite and a cup of tea or coffee, I can usually decide I am going to finish one big piece of a project in a two-hour time span. I just have to be disciplined about not checking Facebook, Twitter, or emails that are irrelevant to the task at hand.
I plowed through a sizeable chunk of a freelance assignment during those precious two hours in the café, then headed home, knowing that we had another Airbnb room to clean and guests to check in later that afternoon. But with my husband working from home and not involved in meetings, I asked him to take care of the room and guests. Yes, he is behind on everything as much as I am, but we need to take turns lest we fall into a cycle of resentment. For us, an equal partnership, where both partners’ artistic pursuits suffer in similar amounts, is the preferred operating mode. Or, at least, it’s the most sustainable. I think if we had a situation where one person took on most of the home and work tasks to support primarily the creative pursuits of their partner, we would argue. And that’s not the model of a creative home that I want for my son.
Karl cleaned the Airbnb room. I finished that freelance gig and started an essay. I even read thirty pages in a book. That may not sound like much, but for this time of our lives, it’s a big deal, and I’ll take it.