Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dad 2.0

I'm not the best dad.

Not because I compare myself with other dads. I mean, I do that, but that's not why I'm not the best dad. It's because I know myself; I know I can be better.

I do some things right. I'm good at controlling my temper. I'm good at brushing my daughter's teeth. I'm good at listening to her questions, and giving thoughtful answers. I'm good at telling stories and waking up in the night to comfort a sick little girl.

But there's tons of stuff I can do better. I want my daughter to have less "screen time," and I want to fill the difference with something special that we do together. I want to spend more time reading to her. I want to teach her the best practices of safety, both for emergencies and for dealing with adults and her peers. I want to minimize the electronic distractions that poach my attention during family time. The list could go on. If you're a parent, you're probably preoccupied by similar things.

I also have creative aspirations that sometimes run parallel to, but sometimes at cross purposes to my parenting goals. There are times when peeling an orange with my daughter sets us off on a collaborative, educational artistic effort. Or when Lewis Carrol's The Jabberwocky comes to life through her acting and my editing skills.

But then there are the times when I brush her off:
"Please go play quietly. Dad needs twenty more minutes to finish writing this post."  
or . . . 
"No, we can't research unicorns on Wikipedia right now; I need to get this comic done by the end of the day." 

I'm an artist at heart. I like to make things. I never really stop thinking about my next creative project. But if there's anything I've learned from studying the arts in college (double major in English and Film Studies), it's that artists are notorious for not managing their personal lives well. In an age where society has fortunately recognized the importance of involved parenting, and specifically involved fathers, someone like me is presented with a dilemma of priorities.


Percy Shelley and Lord Byron

For an illustrative but not exceptional example, take a few of the literary giants from the Romantic period. The English poet Percy Shelley (1792-1822) abandoned his pregnant wife to escape to Europe and seek out his muse with the sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley (1797-1851). Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron (1788-1824) would later use retreats to chalets in the European countryside to craft their most famous and beloved works. Lord Byron himself had fled Britain to escape an acrimonious relationship with his wife, leaving behind an infant daughter, whom he would never see again. While abroad, they pored over works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who sought (among many other influential philosophical efforts) to modernize best practices regarding child-rearing.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth

Both lauded and decried from different circles, Rousseau advocated the then-progressive thought that mothers should nurse their own children, but also declaimed that "unless women were domesticated and constrained by modesty and shame" that "men would be tyrannized by women." Add to that paranoid philosophy Rousseau's unfortunate personal biography, in which he had multiple children with a seamstress whom he brought into his home to be his personal servant, and it's not hard to see how Percy's familial delinquency reflected a norm. Another of Percy's idols, Britain's Poet Laureate William Wordsworth (1770-1850), fathered a child whom he did not even meet until her ninth birthday. And it was on that occasion that he announced to the girl's mother that he'd found someone new to marry, thus leaving her once again.

All of this is to say that many of the thinkers and artists whom we study and whose words we memorize have frequently found their creative muse in the context of neglecting their families, and privileging the time and energy and even superficial recreations that result in works of art. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Shakespeare's most famous and talented peer, once lived separately from his wife Ann for five years, with Ann filling the role of housewife in their humble home and Jonson staying at the residence of his wealthy patrons.

 Ben Jonson and Cormac McCarthy

More recently, our most critically acclaimed of novelists, Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933), who won the National Book award for All the Pretty Horses and the Pulitzer for The Road, demonstrates a life that is not so far removed from those of his famous literary forbears. He once asked his first wife, Lee, who was caring for a baby and tending to the house, to get a job so that he could focus on his writing. When Lee eventually left him, he explained that he couldn't offer her any child support because he wasn't making any money himself. Meanwhile, he rejected paid offers to lecture at local universities, not wanting to be distracted from his work. McCarthy's most recent and celebrated novel, the heartbreaking The Road, was inspired by McCarthy's relationship with his young son of a now dissolved third marriage. Perhaps McCarthy would look back on his past relationships with regret . . . but the privileging of profession over family remains a paradigm that the modern creative parent must deliberately and carefully counter.


I don't have perfect answers for how to be both a great artist and a great family man. It's hard enough to figure out just one of those things, right? Especially during the early lean years that most any artist has to go through, and the early sleepless years of parenting. As a stay-at-home dad, as the non-breadwinner, it's an especially important but difficult question to answer. If I have to choose between the two, I choose family over art -- but I continue to hope that the two can form a reasonable symbiosis, and I continue to be on the look-out for other artists who successfully make healthy marriages of family responsibility and artistic creation.

It's in this context that Doug French, a founder of the Dad 2.0 Summit, contacted me in January and asked me to speak on a panel at the 2015 Summit last weekend. The title of the panel was "The Creative Parent: The Right Strategies For Your Right Brain."

Of course my reaction was very professional. And if you're new to the internet lingo kids are using these days, tl;dr is shorthand for "too long; didn't read." After which I provided a brief summation of the main point of my reaction, in case I'd rambled. In any event, I was both honored by Doug's invitation and daunted by the idea that I had to somehow come up with the answers I am still searching for.

A description of our panel from the conference guide
Once I got together with my fellow panelists (the very funny Jessi Sanfilippo at Shuggilippo, and the recently published authors Chris Routly of The Daddy Doctrines and David Vienna of The Daddy Complex), we chatted about the difficulty of managing creative projects before kids reach school age, the great advantage of having supportive spouses, the importance of taking notes, and our creative goals and dreams. And yes, when push comes to shove, we agreed that family comes first (you can take a look at a brief transcript of our session here). There's more about "creative parenting" that I'll explore here in the future; for now, you and I can each muse about it in the comments.

One of the things that most impressed me about the Dad 2.0 Summit was how neatly it meshed elements of marketing and brand interaction with substantial conversation about being better parents and better people. Yes, there was that sweet LEGO-sponsored trip to Lucasfilm, and moments chilling with R2D2:

But there were also panels on dealing with depression, on how to mentor kids who desperately need father figures, on paid parental leave. In the midst of sponsors pitching their products, you had spotlight bloggers nervously but courageously giving voice to the trials and quiet successes of parenting.

And of course there was that emotional moment when Doug announced the naming of a new scholarship after blogger Oren Miller, a good man and beloved husband, and dad to two beautiful kids. He's got cancer, and in the autumn of his life, the last leaves are falling.

Perhaps, conceptually, I identified most strongly with something Jon Kraft (founder of Thrively) spoke about: the importance of encouraging passion (in kids) at the same time as teaching them balance in life. Balance and passion were two things I saw in the programming of the conference. A marriage of those two ideals makes sense for me, as an artist and dad, as much as it makes sense for kids. And it's a tough but worthy effort to get just the right amount of each.

Today, in the car on the way to preschool, my five-year-old asked, "Dad, can we go hiking today?" I thought about all the things I want to create and the time I'd planned on spending in front of my computer. And then I looked back at her, hope shining in her eyes, and knew what decision I needed to make.