The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Potty training for creative types

It all started with a Baby Bjorn potty and a grant application.

They entered my world at the same time, and intersected in unexpected ways.

I had just begun potty training my 27-month-old when I read this essay prompt: how does being a parent challenge or fuel your art?

Leslie Patricelli’s board book Potty was sprawled open on the couch nearby. I had been straining my eyes and attention over the past few days to figure out the unique rhythms of my son’s “pee-pee dance” (to use the official terminology of our potty-training manual).

I looked from potty to laptop screen and back again. The question baffled, then annoyed, me. They are totally incompatible!!! Don’t you know that?! Isn’t that why you created this award for parent-artists in the first place?!

Since I was asking them for money, though, a bit more tact was in order. So, I wrote this instead:

Parenting requires a present-ness, an embodied-ness, that is often at odds with the world of ideas, abstraction, and research. That space of deep thinking, of monastic silence, often gets crowded out by the concrete particulars of daily life – the lunchboxes to pack, the doctor’s appointments to make, the poop.

More meaningfully, writing cedes precedence to another human being’s moods, whims, and wants...

Still, I find myself caught in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight between two sibling rivals: my biological and creative offspring. I started researching this book project on Ada Lovelace in 2014, with an extended hiatus after the birth of my son in 2015. As he emerges into toddlerhood, this sidelined creative project, much like a toddler, is tugging at me with increasing urgency and insistence. It sometimes demands to be heard, at the top of its lungs, while clawing mercilessly at my face.

As my mind clears and my son settles more deeply into slumber, though, I realize this is not the whole story. I can glimpse how writing and parenting are also, on occasion, complementary rather than antagonistic pursuits:

There’s more hunger. Writing now is based not on fear or obligation but desire. Faced with scarcity – of time, of energy – I find myself eager to sit down to write. Not always, of course, but more than ever.

There’s less ego. Pre-child, I never would have started an essay with a meditation on bodily functions. But parenting a small, unpredictable person comes with its own hard-earned humility. Writing is less high-stakes. I can experiment, take risks.

There’s play. Although tone-deaf and tin-eared, I have composed a double album’s worth of silly kids’ lyrics with my child as inspiration. “The Thumb Song.” “The Don’t Drink the Water in the Bath Song.” Even one about the ubiquitous Sophie the Giraffe teething toy. These, too, are creative acts.

There’s purpose. ‘Ada’ – the name of the computing pioneer who is the subject of my book – was one of the first words my son uttered. We often read a children’s biography of her together. Through my research, I am sharing stories of courageous, ambitious women with my son, so that he sees himself in and learns from these powerful role models.

There’s joy. Becoming a parent has reinforced what I had known all along about any worthwhile endeavor: it is the process, not the product, that matters. The process rewards and sustains us, whether raising a child or nurturing an idea. Even in the dreaded, often unglamorous task of potty training, I found moments of sweetness, an excuse to slow down and spend extra time at home with my son.

What began as a rote exercise ultimately got me deeply curious. How do others see the relationship between parenting and creativity? Must it, inevitably, be a tortured push-pull? 

Here and there, I encounter interesting conversations online, but they are not often the main event.

So, this blog is an occasional but dedicated space for contemplating the parenting-while-creating “pee-pee dance.” How did famous creators – both scientists and artists – of the past navigate these challenges? What are the rituals and routines and supports that sustain parents today?

Our journey will likely be a quixotic one. I doubt that answers or tranquility are to be found. But I do hope that by digging into the richness and diversity of others’ experiences and sharing our own stories, we might at least find humor, self-awareness and, perhaps, solidarity.

“My Dear Mrs. Somerville”: Ada Lovelace on Motherhood + Math