Column by Vanessa Shields
I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.
There’s a very poignant scene in the film About A Boy where Toni Collette plays a mother suffering from depression. She’s doing the simple task of taking out a bowl and pouring cereal into it for her son’s breakfast. And she’s crying. Really crying. She goes to pour some milk over the cereal, and it spills onto the counter. She cries even harder. Cut to her son, he’s about 12, watching her, and he’s voicing over something like, ‘oh no, mom’s crying again’. This scene always makes me cry too. For so many reasons. All of which stem from my personal life experience that includes me being that mother, crying while doing a domestic duty – undone and vulnerable. And my kids can see me.
I did a lot of crying after my book tour earlier this year.
I became undone.
I was depressed, sad, lost, and really, quite frightened.
And, my kids saw me. My kids were beside me, rubbing my back and offering hugs and sweet words of support.
Do you cry in front of your kids? Do you share your writing disappointments as easily as your successes? What can we teach our children by being honest and vulnerable about the emotional rollercoaster that is living a creative life?
I didn’t always cry in front of my kids. They’re 9 and 11 now, and we have a very open, communicative, and honest relationship. Seeing me cry is a common occurrence in our home (from me watching kids sing on America’s Got Talent to me crying because I’m writing a blog about crying). I always explain how I’m feeling and why I need to cry, and do my best to teach the kids that it’s natural to express oneself this way. When they were little, and communication like this wasn’t possible, I’d hide in my bedroom and cry or let it out in the shower. But now, I want to show my kids that feelings are natural – whatever they are.
As I planned, promoted, worked my ass off for my book tour, I spent a lot of time working at our dining room table – our grand central station family hub – and the kids were with me as I geared up. They were with me when I first held my book in my hands. They helped me prepare for my book launch. They’re always a part of my creative process in some way, shape, or form. I love this. They love it too, and I know I’m teaching them by doing – by showing (aren’t we always supposed to show not tell?!) – how to create something from nothing, and how to be excited and confident.
The tour started. I traveled. A lot. I’m usually the parent who is home, but we all worked hard to make this tour possible. It was a bit of a culture shock for all of us, but we did it.
At first, I couldn’t wait to hop on the train and have hours and hours to myself – writing, reading, planning. I enjoyed sleeping alone in a big bed – stretching out like a lazy star – no kids or dog to clog the space. I felt confident stepping on a stage in front a roomful of people I didn’t know to read poetry that I was so proud of.
But then…things happened. Little by little or sometimes in big, swooping chunks, I began to lose that confidence. The voices in my head changed from ‘you got this, girl’ to ‘hold on, you’re not as good as he is’. I internalized the fact that with each trip, I was tripping and falling.
My family noticed that I was more and more tired, but I didn’t cry. Not then. I wanted to keep on a ‘happy, confident’ face for my kids. Our time together felt more important somehow because we knew that I’d be leaving again. I was never gone longer than two sleeps, but it was still enough for us to feel a deep missing of each other.
I began to complain about having to leave. I began to speak about my anxiety. I was nervous – too nervous. My sense of self was deteriorating too quickly and too much, and I wasn’t able to hide it.
Certain things happened as I was interacting with a community of people I thought were all just different versions of ‘home’. I lost the feeling of belonging I so wanted to believe was real. I think in some ways, I was naïve. In other ways, I had expectations that couldn’t possibly have been met. I was disappointed in myself, in this group of people I thought I was born to be a part of.
Exhaustion hit me hard. I was tired of my self. Of my poetry. Of promoting. Of dreaming and hoping. I was sad. And it culminated in a week of lots of sobbing and intense conversations with my hubby and best friends. And my kids saw much of it. But they also saw me writing in my journal. They also saw me giving myself a break. They knew I was going to see my social worker. They knew I was working out my shi*.
As my physical and emotional strength returned, I made sure to communicate with my kids about what I was going through. They are both creative humans. Both love to draw and write and dance and sing. I hope they choose to be artists. And I hope they learn from my vulnerability – from my own failings as confident, strong, believing-in-herself writer – that the great thing about losing oneself and feeling not good enough – is that the finding of and rebuilding the self is a truly extraordinary part of the process of being a creative person.
I’ve got new dreams now. I’ve got a re-shaped self. I hear the voices that want to compare and feel not good enough – but I got a line on those stations and I know I can change them. People can and do change. I’m showing my kids that it’s possible. And that crying is cool. That the art won’t stop. Can’t stop. We can always choose.
An unveiling is under way, and I’m excited about the new opportunities I’m creating for myself and my family. We’re in this together. That’s the kind of creative parent I am.
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website www.vanessashields.com.