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.

I’d say about 85% of the time I’m at a reading, whether I’m part of the reading or part of the audience, someone asks me where my kids are.

I’m not shy to answer, but I’m…prepared to face a face of judgment (not a negative judgment, but a judgment all the same). You see; it seems there are two schools of thought when it comes to bringing children to a reading.

  • School One – Bring ‘Em Always, No Matter What (And Save on a Sitter too!)
  • School Two – Bring ‘Em If You Think It’s Appropriate

If you’re scoffing at the black & white-ness of these two schools, bear with me. I’m writing from personal experience here so I’ve lived through these different schools. I feel comfortable writing about them.

In the first school, I’ve seen kids as young as four witness (hear/see/smell) a poet swear profusely, spit in rage-filled performance, and smell like a newly opened vape lounge (I wonder if this smell will increase once pot is fully legal?). I’ve seen poets who know what’s coming, speak directly to the parents of young children in the audience and warn/ask permission to swear and/or read adult-themed poetry. I’ve seen these same parents give a hand-wave p’shaw go-ahead to said poets – and then I’ve watched the child’s face wince in fear/surprise/confusion throughout the poetry reading.

I have a poet friend who says they always took their little kids to poetry readings – it saved them money, and they believed it gave the kids a taste of a culture they wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. And the kids ‘turned out fine’.

Look, if you know a poet is going to read adult-themed poetry and you choose to bring your child along – that’s your choice. It could simply be that you want to support your poet friend and you couldn’t find a sitter…or maybe it’s that you couldn’t afford a sitter – and YOU are one of the slated readers. Maybe your sitter got sick at the last minute. If you don’t bring your kid(s) to the reading, then you have to bail on it altogether. Maybe you’re prepared to have a chat with the kids post-reading to go over any questions or concerns they may have based on what they saw/heard. The scenarios are vast and real.

Things can get complicated quickly. They do get complicated quickly.

On the other hand, if you plan things as best as you can, and either don’t attend these events unless you have a sitter or your kids are old enough to engage in a conversation post-poetry reading about what they saw/heard – this is in the realm of School Two.

Are you willing to miss out on your own poetry reading if it means your kids won’t be subject to subjects outside of their development/understanding? Are you willing to get looks from other parents – their eyebrows raised in concern at your parental choices – if you give the go-ahead and the poet says the F-word sixty times and some other curses too?

I’m going to trust that we know our children well enough to know if certain poetry is appropriate for them. And, if we’re as dedicated to our children’s growth and development and their cultural immersion as we are to our own poetry and to the poetry/poets which we support – then we are all poets who likely slide between both schools of thought.

Sometimes, there’s just no knowing – especially at an open mic. You never know what you’re going to get. For me, if the open mic is at a bar, the kids can’t go anyway. If it’s not, I’m still wary and likely wouldn’t bring them along.

I have missed poetry events I wanted to attend because I didn’t have a sitter. I also write poetry that’s very inappropriate for my kids to read. If I’m reading – even at something as important to me as my own book launch – I find a sitter or family member or friend to watch the kids. There’ll be a time when they can read my poetry, when we can talk about it openly. But for now, they’re 9 and 11, and I just don’t believe it’s appropriate for them to attend. On the other hand, in October I planned a reading with several other poets knowing that I wanted to bring my kids – and I tweaked my own poetry set list so it was suitable. I knew the poetry of the others, and I felt comfortable, and really super happy that my kids were part of the audience.

I think as poets, we owe it to our words to give them the best space to unleash them. I, for one, have felt very uncomfortable at readings where kids attended and I was a reader. I was at a reading series in Toronto as part of my book tour, and someone brought his young children. I saw them in the audience and my heart sank – then started fluttering wildly. I knew I had to change my set list. I even told the audience that much of what I was planning to read was, in my opinion, inappropriate for the young members of the audience. I did get the hand-wave p’shaw go-ahead, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t read my poems about doggy style and ejaculation with these young eyes staring at me. I changed my set list. And…really, I felt sad because I wasn’t able to read what I’d originally planned.

I take full responsibility for my actions. The parent gave you permission, you say. Yeah, but…I didn’t feel right. Perhaps I’m thinking about sex and swearing as two main topics/types of language that I shelter my kids from. Social justice. Politics. Fictional scenarios…Perhaps there is more leeway here. But I’m standing firmly in my parental belief that I don’t feel comfortable bringing my kids to a reading where I know the poetry will be about sex and/or have lots of swearing in it. If I really want to attend the reading or if I am the reading (!), then I make arrangements to keep the kids at home.

While the kids are young and I have some level of control over what they see and hear, I’d like to use it wisely. And wisely, for me, means they may just be staying home a bit longer for certain poetry events.

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