What Artist Parents Make

When I was in high school, the poet Taylor Mali came to perform some of his work for a special school assembly. I had never heard of a slam poet before and I was blown away by the powerful, playful, and conversational way he wrote and delivered his poems. I never forgot it.

In college, I sought Taylor’s permission to perform “How Falling In Love Is Like Owning A Dog” for a class. I still smile when I recall the warm, personal message I received in response giving me the thumbs up and how much fun I had performing the poem. Sometimes simple similes can provide profound clarity. (And opportunities for me to use far too much alliteration.)

I’ve continued to follow Taylor’s work over the years and my longstanding favorite is “What Teachers Make.” This poem has some bite and a bit of language, but golly have I always loved the stand that Taylor makes for teachers everywhere and how vital they are in creating the upstanding and intelligent adults of tomorrow. Yes, teachers are invaluable in the creative process of educating and developing decent grown up human beings.

Parents are in a similar boat. We play a huge role in the creative process of raising these tiny people to become well-rounded, useful, loving not-so-tiny people. That’s huge. Massive really. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough.

Sometimes I feel trapped in an ever whirling cycle of confidence and self-doubt as both an artist and a parent. Lately, the nasty voices in my head have been asking me the same question that ignorant lawyer once asked Taylor Mali, “What do you make? You call yourself an artist, but what do you have to show for it?”

It’s as if choosing to become a parent and do less in the professional art world means that I am selling myself short. It’s as if I’ve already given up being an artist and now all I can hope to do is to live vicariously through the creative lives of my children. Those nasty voices snicker, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, have kids and hope that someday the kids can” or “Those other people have kids and still make a lot more art than you do, so what’s your problem? You can’t call yourself an artist.”

That’s when I have to stick my fingers in my ears and hum my favorite song loudly to drown out that destructive nonsense. I make room for the useful voices. The true voices. The ones that sometimes sound an awful lot like my husband:

“No one gets to tell you whether or not you are an artist or whether or not the art you make is ‘real’ art. You are an artist because you say you are. Because you feel and know that you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission or validation for that to be true. You don’t need to create a specific product in order to be an artist. You’re an artist because that’s who you are.”

Right. I take a deep breath. I shake free of the riffraff and remember that I am an artist. I remember that in so many ways, all parents are artists.

So what do artists make?

I recently Googled that question and was disturbed to find that most of the top ten search results were about how artists make money or how much money artists make. Really? That’s what comes up first? No wonder the nasty voices are so pervasive.

I might not be a slam poet, but I’ve got a whole lot of passion about defending the creative goldmine that is being an artist parent.

What do we make? 

We make children.

We make living, breathing works of art that are the future of civilization. We make homes. We make safe places for our children to play and grow in. We put up baby gates and cupboard latches even though they are a pain the butt.

We make imaginations grow and read the same books over and over and over again and yes, we do all the voices.

We make time to play with our kids and let them know that they are important.

We make spoons into airplanes and choo choo trains.

We make strong-willed, self-centered miniature humans share and say “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

We make mistakes and let the tiny eyes that are always watching us know that they can make mistakes too and still be superheroes.

We make beds and school lunches and play dates and soccer practices.

We make love with our partners and make more children and make time to paint, sing, dance, bake, write–whatever we need to make, to make us feel like we are the artists we know we are. Because it’s not selfish to want to make the more conventional works of art too.

But we make ourselves remember that these children are our most precious creations. And even on days and weeks and years when we feel out of balance in our artist parent identities, we always, always make a difference.

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