The Parenting Paradigm Shift

I wanted to give this page the very wordy title “Levee: A Bulwark Against Creative Complacency and the Tide of Cynicism”, you’ll see why in a bit. First, some background:

That having kids changes your life is a dried out old chestnut. It’s also glaringly obvious. Yet all new parents are unprepared no matter how many times they were told their world is about to be rocked. Despite a decade of teaching, a lifetime of taking care of siblings and cousins, and saying I’ve been ready for kids since I was twelve, I wasn’t ready either, because my life changed on two fronts simultaneously. Two days after we found out my partner, Hannah, was pregnant she was offered a tenure-track job that we were both finalists for. An aside: Maintaining a relationship with a partner in the exact same field is not for the faint of heart! It is rough getting passed over for a gig, it’s a lot harder when you live with the person who beat you out for it, even when you know it will ultimately be a good thing for you both. Suddenly I was leaving a job I loved a lot to enter a new situation with possible part-time teaching so that I could be a stay at home dad. This is a dilemma for couples every day, especially for women, so I chose to back up my feminist bona fides with action. It was the right thing to do without a doubt and my admiration for past generations of partners who put their careers on hold has only grown. That I didn’t have to also carry, birth, and breastfeed the kid accentuates my small sacrifice!

We’d been living apart that semester as I continued an instructor position in northern Ohio and she began teaching at a community college in coastal Mississippi so the first step was moving, twice, to reconnect in Missouri. Hannah was nearly six months pregnant when her fall semester began, and it took its toll. I was held at arms-length in the art department in the beginning so there was only so much I could do to help. The baby’s growth rate plummeted in the last seven or eight weeks of the pregnancy so we were visiting the OB-GYN twice a week for stress tests and ultrasounds. The harrowing tale of how our son, Levee, was born is at once epic and all too common. Suffice to say for now, 40+ hours of labor and the most humbling experience of my life. Seeing your 4′ 11″ wife fight like hell for almost two days without food is a good way to shift the gendered power dynamic. Think how much faster society could have changed if men had been allowed in the maternity rooms in the “good old days”!

For the next three and a half years I averaged two to three productive hours a day when Levee was down for his afternoon nap. Much of that time was dominated by housework and the logistical end of maintaining an art career. Again, that’s the reality for folks all over, I’m happy to cast my lot with all sorts of families in all sorts of situations. Parenthood made me a more efficient artist and a more effective partner. I gobbled up studio time when I could get it, and made better use of the time I was afforded at home.

I have been able to teach part-time at SEMO since Levee was born. The department has been very good about juggling our class schedule so that one of us could always be home with the boy. I’m grateful for their flexibility and hope all employers can learn that accommodating family leads to increased morale and productivity. That’s not to say that it has been smooth sailing all the time, but we’ve been lucky and I hope I’ve helped right the ship for Hannah more than I’ve steered us into the storm. Parenting changed my career standing, but Levee had an even bigger impact on my creative life.

Family “Green Eggs and Ham” costumes, Halloween 2018

There is no better metaphor for the unintended destructive and selfish nature of humanity than watching a little boy who needs a nap. The sudden shift from rambunctious joy to uncontrollable rage–and how that shift is as much a surprise to the kid as to the parent–is the duality of life captured in a moment. Bouncing from one thing to the next, his desire to keep moving lest he fall asleep, mimics how our minds and priorities are scattered by the siren song of social media and an indefatigable news cycle. Creating messes and then being blinded to their spread is precisely how we abuse and exploit nature. Though, at the same time, his profound focus while at play illuminates the creative potential in us all.

My concern about the ecological consequences of beginning a family was all consuming as we awaited Levee to be born. But I was not prepared for just how much the logistics of his young life and his daily behavior would reinforce that anxiety. Heightened awareness has motivated a shift in the content of my work to emphasize our culpability in consumption, illustrating the lasting impact of waste and using Levee as a stand-in for our impulsive nature. My creative practice has also evolved to include greener, thriftier practices, to reduce impact, and to model behaviors for a more sustainable future. His name implies strength, but also a relieving of stresses, inspired by his folks meeting in New Orleans around Hurricane Katrina. Strength and relief are what I hope he brings to the world, that he can help stem the tide of wanton squandering and destruction of dwindling resources. The works below feature Levee–my persistent source of enormous pride, inspiration, and consternation–may he remain adorable so Daddy’s work is more palatable!