This is a letter to my fellow playwright parents. The rest of you… I love you… and I am so glad to be seeing pictures of your cats and delicious baked goods and hilarious quarantine posts, and I can’t wait to read your Great American Plague Play.
Okay. Back to the parents.
It is March 23 as I write this, and by the time it is published in less than a week, it will likely be out-of-date. My childless writer friends are desperate for Netflix recommendations/podcast suggestions/sourdough starter recipes, I have approximately 20 invitations to virtual happy hours, we’re texting our parents hourly, and Austin has (finally) mandated shelter-in-place. We’re rationing toilet paper and eggs, and we just got news that we can expect to be home-schooling through the end of kindergarten. And tonight, after bedtime, I’ll jump onto Zoom for the first read of my new play. Welcome to Playwriting-while-Parenting in the Time of Corona.
What I want to say is: Breathe. What I want to say is: All Will Be Well.
But I try not to lie to my kids, and I won’t lie to you.
What I know is: we are facing a great unknown. Many of us have lost productions, workshops, and readings. Many of us have lost—or have partners who have lost—income. Many of us are terrified for ourselves and our loved ones, are grieving the dead, and doing the math on infection rates and ventilators and trying to figure out who will care for our children if we fall sick or worse.
And as this virus, and America’s handling of it, throws into stark relief our society’s inequities—between those with money and those without, those with health insurance and those without, those with job stability and those without, those with citizenship and those without. In talking to friends I find, too, that it is throwing into stark relief a divide within the world of theater, and, more broadly, in the world of writing: those of us with children—or caretaking obligations—and those without.
Those of us who are caretakers will not be writing a play a week over the next few months. We will not be joining our compatriots in their “Plague Play Bake-Offs.” We will not be doubling up on online classes or reimagining old scripts. We will be homeschooling and meal-planning and justifying whole new levels of screen time. We will be managing the guilt that comes with knowing we are giving 100% to none of our obligations, while quietly (or, in the case of this article, not-so-quietly) wishing we could TRADE OUR CHILDREN FOR A NICE, QUIET, PHOTOGENIC CAT! We will be passing up fabulous new online professional opportunities because, virus or no, the diapers must be changed and the bedtime stories must be read. We will be trying, desperately, to compose emails on our phones while cooped-up, stressed-out, over-it children fight and trash the house around us. And for our pains, if we’re lucky, we occasionally get a cute shot to share on Instagram.
If you have kids, you already know this. And yes, that you (probably) chose this. And that, of course, you wouldn’t trade your kids for the world (a cute cat, though…).
So. To ALL of us who are struggling with around the clock parenting, who in fact have LESS time now, rather than more, a reminder: the skills and mindsets that allowed us to continue writing (like, at all) once we became parents are the skills and mindsets that will allow us to survive these next few months with some semblance of sanity and grace.
Here’s what parenting has already taught us:
We don’t find time to write, we make it. We steal it by setting the alarm early, staying up too late, leaning on our partner, giving our kid a (vaguely educational) video, saying “next time” to the fun party. That still applies… we just find less time. And let’s hope those parties are on Zoom.
Play the long game. We know that at any given day we won’t balance being partner/employee/parent/writer. So now, at a time of maximum instability, seek balance over a week, month, or year. Promise yourself a “writing weekend” at the end of this. Sign up for a writing class offered next fall.
Ask for help. From our kids, from our partners if we’re fortunate enough to have ’em, from family and friends. If furloughed folks offer to read stories to your kids over FaceTime—say yes! The grandparents are missing their grandkids—set them up with a daily hour of storytime or math help. If your kids are little, Mo Willems Lunchtime Doodles is pure gold—and his way of offering help. If you need homeschooling resources, find the friend who’s dedicated themselves to “winning” homeschooling… and take their best ideas. Remember: Great Artists Steal.
Prioritize. As parents who write, we do this already. Now… cut your to-do list in half. Now cut it in half again. If ever there were a time to let your screen time rules slide, this is it. Don’t clean the whole house, just sanitize the basics. Don’t hit all those virtual Happy Hours—pick one.
Build a routine. But don’t be a prisoner to your schedule! A few benchmarks—meals, storytime, some time in our separate corners, a little time outside (six feet from others, of course). Make nap time/quiet time mandatory.
As artists, we need time with our work if we want to be our best selves. One of the greatest gifts you can give the people around you is showing them that, despite everything, “Mom still writes.” It’s a promise that the entire world isn’t upended, and it’s a reminder that we can still have aspirations. Writing, especially playwriting, is a hopeful act, especially now—it envisions a time, not too far away, when we will again gather together to share our stories. But remember to ask your kids: what are their projects? My kid spent six hours yesterday constructing a Lego project. It’s the activity he loves, and one that challenges him. And yeah, we skipped reading yesterday. But he was more focused than I’ve seen him in two weeks. Help your kids find the thing that will totally, and positively, engross them; it might not be what you’d choose, but if it gives you time to work, it’s a win.
Find humor where you can. In the gallows-humor COVID joke your partner just shared. In the fact that your toddler wrote on the wall and you’re debating leaving it up because, “Hey, anything to make the walls more interesting right now…” In the terrible “My Sharona/My Corona” parody your older kid is singing at the top of his lungs.
Let go. Of the resentment that you can’t, like some of our compatriots, deep dive into a project for the duration. Of the idea of perfect parenting, perfect writing, perfect work—a B+, or even a B-, will do for now. Let go of busting ass to apply for every residency, of following up with every work email within the usual time frame. Let go of the idea that you have to hit a particular number of words each day. Trust that your characters, your stories, are like the stew on the back of the stove—simmering, ready for a stir when you get a chance. Embrace that you will do your best for now.
Be gentle with yourself. If your writing practice brings you solace and sanity and a degree of normalcy in a time when it can be hard to find any of those things, carry on. If not, put your pen aside. Trust that you are a writer, and that it will be there later.
Stop reading this article. Go do the other things that need doing. (Or, if you’re inclined, leave your best truly practical tips on the Playwrights’ Center’s Facebook post about this article… I’ll be doing the same).
Special thanks to the parents who SOMEHOW found time to think through the ideas here, and (especially) to Hallie Palladino. I know it was a struggle to step away long enough to do so.