The Art of Parenting With Art

Trying to Make Art Once You Start a Family Is No Easy Road

<i>Family Portrait</i>, by Ari Polgar (age 5), daughter of director Robi Polgar and director-dramaturg Michelle Polgar. From left to right, little sister Katie, the artist, Mom, Dad.
Family Portrait, by Ari Polgar (age 5), daughter of director Robi Polgar and director-dramaturg Michelle Polgar. From left to right, little sister Katie, the artist, Mom, Dad.

Midcommute and the younger daughter, Katie, has finally settled down from an extended fit of screeching. Now she sings along with the CD player as we speed up to a crawl amid thousands of highway worshippers (why else would they all be here?) on a midweek morning on our way along MoPac to the girls' day care. Elder daughter Ari contents herself with sage observations about some of the trip's landmarks: the 290/MoPac exchange overpass ("Are there cars stopped on it?" she asks, knowing that a "yes" means a longer journey), the electrical pylon at the Loop 360 interchange ("There are only two vultures roosting this morning"), the construction on MoPac between 360 and downtown ("Look, Katie, 'crane airplanes,'" says Ari, using Katie's nomenclature for the row of cranes at work on some new office building). Deep down, I seem to recall swearing that I would never do what I'm doing now: spending an hour a day in rush-hour traffic, trying to keep two sleepy and varyingly cranky girls amused while we drive. It's a byproduct of living in the suburbs.

We only recently made the suburban switch. Until a few months ago, Katie, Ari, their mom Michelle, and I were all still happily ensconced in a Hyde Park bungalow. We didn't move solely for the girls' sakes, but when offering reasons, we find ourselves highlighting the various facets of life as a young family. Such as more space means the opportunity to escape to one's own room when the madness of parenthood ratchets up. Such as a fenced-in yard with a large play area for the girls. Such as a street that isn't a shortcut for a major thoroughfare, so there's no speeding traffic. The schools out here are good, and nearby. More neighbors have kids of similar age, and there is an ethnic diversity here that Hyde Park never matched. The air is alive with a perpetual breeze, outside the inner city on the hilltop where we live. Even the commute itself has its irreplaceable moments: Nothing beats hearing the girls singing along to Elvis Costello's "Crimes of Paris" -- the song most requested, followed by "Baby's Got a Brand New Hairdo."

Michelle and I always knew we'd have children, but like many new parents, we weren't fully apprised of all that having children entails. Before the girls came along, we'd both been working artists, eking out a coexistence supplemented by jobs outside or indirectly related to the arts. But when Ari was born five years ago, Michelle pretty much suspended her active theatre life. While I continued to run The Public Domain Theatre Company, she took a job as executive director of Austin Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts. In time, I began writing for The Austin Chronicle. Then, when Michelle was pregnant with Katie, I picked up a third job, at a downtown advertising agency. Now Katie is two, and Michelle works for the State Theater Company -- at last, one of us is earning a decent (if not living) wage in our field of expertise. We seem to be gradually settling into a life that champions the arts, but it necessitates careful planning of both a fiscal and temporal nature.

Especially now that we're parents. Parenting, no matter one's vocation, is one of life's greatest challenges, but it's complicated mightily by an artistic calling. Arts jobs that pay decently are rare, and in Austin most artists are content to earn their livings any way they can to support artistic endeavors that often take up the rest of their waking lives. Add children to the mix, and the choice becomes stark: Take care of your art or your children. Trying to find ways to make art while sustaining a family is no easy road.

After dropping the girls off -- along with a car seat, two lunches, stuffed animals du jour, and a change of clothes or extra diapers -- I head back home. Swapping Elvis Costello for National Public Radio's Morning Edition, I hear a story on the "reverse migration" from California. A woman is explaining why she and her partner are leaving their Oakland home of 10 years. She cites the bad traffic of her downtown neighborhood, the desire for their child to breathe air that is not stagnating, for a better school system, for more space to move about in. I find her reasons to be pretty much the same we opted to leave Central Austin (although we're still dealing with that traffic, at least until elementary school starts).

Finally, the woman being interviewed opines, "When you have children, your field of choice narrows." On some of the rougher mornings, I wonder what she means by "choice."

Karen Carver Sneed

Most of the time, however, I agree with Karen Carver Sneed's observation about parenthood: "Your field of choice changes," she says, emphasizing that life isn't suddenly a desert of limitations; it just requires a little rearranging. She should know. The once-busy actor-director and husband Don Sneed, a longtime local actor, had to reconsider their theatrical careers when they became the parents of Sunny. ("It's Sunny with a 'u,'" she points out. "We did that on purpose: I'm trying to program her into being a happy person. And it's working! She's fantastic.")

Carver Sneed's approach to being an artist-parent was to go cold turkey on art and hit parenting full time. That was three years ago, and she is only just this summer returning to theatre, directing J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corner for Different Stages. With Sunny a little older and a routine established, Carver Sneed felt the time was right to put some art back into her life. "The timing of this ... well, [Different Stages Artistic Director] Norman [Blumensaadt] will tell you that he knew this moment was coming. He was just biding his time until I would get interested again. And I am, and I'm really enjoying myself."

<i>My Family</i>, by Sunny Sneed (age 3), daughter of actor-director Karen Carver-Sneed and actor Don Sneed
My Family, by Sunny Sneed (age 3), daughter of actor-director Karen Carver-Sneed and actor Don Sneed

Long before she became a mom, Carver Sneed was a career-minded actress who moved to New York to pursue her dream. Reflecting on her younger -- and admittedly wilder -- days, she notes that five years in the Big City taught her a lot about herself. "I found that I was not as ambitious as I thought I was. I actually learned that I am a homebody, I like to be comfortable; I like to be surrounded by family and friends in a friendly environment. So when I came back, I had no intention of going back into theatre. I was going to get another degree, in journalism, and become a sportswriter. But then," she laughs, "I auditioned for a play and I got cast, and that was the end of that."

The intractability of art in her life and her sense that she was ready to settle down weren't really at odds with Carver Sneed's growing sense of self: She is clearly comfortable with her roles as wife, mother, and sometime artist. She waxes humorous at the apparent contradiction of having things both ways: "Yeah, a woman can have it all, but somebody's paying the price," she laughs. Then, she considers a little more seriously that "any career is skewed toward childlessness, because children really need so much attention and time. And it's hard to do career and children and give either of them the attention that they should probably have to grow. I think it's easier for childless people because they simply have fewer demands on their time and energy and hearts. That's good. People who want careers probably shouldn't have children, because the children are the ones that suffer, because they don't get what they need."

Carver Sneed feels that parenthood has only added to what she can offer as an artist. "It certainly can't detract," she says. "It takes away time, perhaps, and sometimes energy. But it certainly gives me more to consider -- my world is bigger now, being a mom. Instead of back when I was a single party girl and only took care of myself. I'm a better person, I'm a smarter person; I'm more patient. I know that I'm not freaking out about things that I would have been freaking out about at this time years ago. But that may just be maturity, too.

"And love. One thing I notice now: I keep telling the actors, 'Play the love.' The characters in this play are very close. They've known one another for years, but for various reasons there are problems and antagonisms. And I said, 'All right, the playwright has put that in there, and everybody's going to get that, but if you don't care about each other to begin with, then we're just a bunch of people bitching at each other -- who cares?' So I keep saying, 'Play the love,' and it makes me think, 'Ah, this is the mom in me.'

"The hardest thing is financial. The lifestyle reduction, as it were, is not any big deal. When you do need a break, your choices are limited because of money. We used to be able to go where we wanted to. Now [we're] struggling with things like: Both our cars [have] well over 100,000 miles -- just stuff like that. Once you become a parent, you begin again to see what's really important: love. We're all going to die someday, what difference does it make what kind of house you have or car you drive? As long as you've got a car that works, be thankful. As long as you've got enough to eat and a roof over your head, be thankful. It simplifies things. Yeah, you still think about it: I still want to go back to Ireland. I still want my husband to take me to Italy. And we dream and talk about those things. Only when I'm feeling run down do I feel that I'm missing something."

Rehearsing Dangerous Corner helps alleviate those run-down, "missing something" moments in Carver Sneed's life. "Still, it's not that while I'm at rehearsal I'd rather be with my daughter. But just: The rewards, the emotional impact on my heart, on my mind, isn't touched as much by theatre." Carver Sneed mentions two shows she has been a part of that have touched her deeply: Holy Ghosts and American Buffalo. "That's pretty heady stuff," she says, "but it's not as lasting and doesn't go through me as much as parenthood.

"There's something to parenthood that you cannot explain to non-parents. All you can do is smile and say, 'Well, someday you'll know what I'm saying.' Everybody says that, and they said it to me, and they're absolutely right, and now I'm on that end. It changes your life."

Annie Suite

For actress Annie Suite, a more traumatic life change came when she was pregnant with twins. She too had been an actress building a career in theatre, with stints in New York and L.A. She came to Austin to help found Frontera Productions and served as its business manager. At the time, Suite also held down a job for a legal advocacy group and waited tables, but, she says, "my energy was in the arts." When she discovered she was pregnant, she began to squirrel money into her savings account so she could spend time with her children before the need to return to work pushed her out of the house. "I waited tables all the way up until I was like ..." She smiles at the image of her round, pregnant self, navigating the Z'Tejas restaurant patio. "I was getting those sympathy tips because my belly was sticking out."

Complications with the pregnancy led to only one of the twins, Sam, surviving. He is now a healthy 8-year-old, and Suite says that her experience has colored the way she appreciates life and motherhood. But Suite always has possessed a deep appreciation of life and her role in it; becoming a mother was just the next step. "I feel like I am the victor. Like I got the big door prize in this one. I'm just trying to pay back to Sam all that he's given me. He's taught me a lot about humanity, about myself. I think [motherhood] has given me more tools, a more clear understanding, it's added layers, I think. There are some things you just don't know unless ..." -- she laughs -- "you've been up for seven days without sleep: You gain knowledge from that. In addition to complete exhaustion and insanity, there's something you gain from that."

<i>The Girls</i>, by Tiger Darrow (age 8), daughter of actor Peyton Hayslip. Left to right, the artist (also an aspiring veterinarian, hence the syringe and squirrel on head), Mom, and older sister Kitty.
The Girls, by Tiger Darrow (age 8), daughter of actor Peyton Hayslip. Left to right, the artist (also an aspiring veterinarian, hence the syringe and squirrel on head), Mom, and older sister Kitty.

Suite didn't withdraw from theatre into motherhood; she just has Sam join her on her journey -- at least at the start. "I did Unmerciful Good Fortune when Sammy was a baby, which was fun, because Daniel Alexander Jones directed it and I played a man. I remember that one of the stipulations was that Sam came to rehearsals, because he was only 9 months old. And the response was, 'Well, of course he's coming to rehearsals,' which I thought was really great. And so throughout the entire rehearsal [process], Sam was on my hip. And I'm playing this man and breastfeeding at the same time. It was very interesting. You just adjust and adapt. You find the people who are friendly to it and you avoid the people who aren't."

It soon became apparent to Suite, however, that she needed to earn a living. She respects what she calls her "anti-artistic" side that compels her to take care of business. With a son to raise, her financial choice was becoming clear. "I worked a couple of days of week. I co-opted child care. And that worked out. Then there came a time when I knew I had to go back to work, when I had to have money coming in.

"I knew that I always wanted to be part of Frontera. But financially I knew it couldn't be the first thing on my list. In my heart, it didn't shift in priority, but where the money came in ..." Suite breaks off, musing that only recently has Frontera started paying staff a living wage. She smiles and wonders "what if" Frontera had been able to do that when she was on staff. Still, Suite is pleased with her current situation: "I'm the business manager [for Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University] and an adjunct prof. Four years now. The end of the fourth season right now. I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time. It's great."

She has had to take a businesswoman's approach to her desire to perform, limiting herself while Sam is young. "I do one [show] a year. And that will probably increase when Sam has more independence and doesn't want his mother around so much. But I'm not willing to sacrifice the time that I have to spend with him. It's not worth it to me. And sometimes I feel kind of like a snob because I can only pick certain things."

When she does immerse herself in a project, Suite has a sympathetic support system to help. "I'm really fortunate in that way. My mother understands my passion, and of course, Steve [Moore, Sam's father] has the same passion, so he understands. So we have a sign-up sheet and they sign up for time, and I basically don't put my son to bed for six weeks or whatever. It works out pretty well."

Suite talks about having a child the way Carver Sneed does: It presents different choices to the individual. "In a way it limits your possibilities, but it's still a choice. So it's not necessarily a bad thing -- what's available to you is different, it's simply different." She continues in the jargon of a business manager: "When I had Sam, people were sort of shocked. 'You're going to have this child?' 'Are you sure?' 'But you have so many options available to you.' And I said, 'Well, this is one of them, and I'm exercising that.'"

For Suite motherhood is an option that continues to pay out the richest of dividends.

Other Stories

Every parent's story is unique. But each artist is confronted with the same key decision: art or family (and what juggling is required to attend to both)? A colleague (at my day job) mused on the exceptional difficulty parenting creates for an artist whose career unfolds in evening performances. How does one sustain a career in the performing arts when most daily routines assume that kids and parents work or go to school by day and all return home to be together at night?

Some artists put the brakes on their careers forever, some until the children are grown. One local actor, when younger, received his Equity card and looked forward to a career in acting. But his first child was born with cerebral palsy, which made a career as "a struggling actor" inadvisable. "We struggled with this issue for a couple of years," he says, "but I was compelled upon the birth of [our] second child to seek more gainful employment in the publishing industry," which, because of the extensive travel and responsibility involved, allowed him no time for theatre and only limited time for film work. Although being a parent "is one of the more wonderful experiences of my life, and the resulting career choices were very lucrative and resulted in a nicer lifestyle," he admits that "there was something missing in my soul." Fortunately, after the children "left the nest," he returned to theatre and has been active ever since. And the irreplaceable experiences as a parent, good and bad, are something "I would not have wanted to miss."

<i>Self-Portrait</i>, by Sam Suite (age 5), son of actor Annie Suite.
Self-Portrait, by Sam Suite (age 5), son of actor Annie Suite.

Actor David R. Jarrott, who currently appears in Master Class at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, has eased himself back into the theatre more and more as his three children from his second marriage have grown. (He has an adult son from a first marriage.) Juggling parental duties with wife Elise and trying to fulfill his passion for theatre sometimes has the air of a Keystone Kops routine: "During a production, lots of planning goes into the logistics of homework, dinner, soccer practice, choir rehearsals, science projects, book reports, and so on," says Jarrott. "Many nights I've come home from rehearsal at 11pm and sat down to check my daughter's math homework. It also means having an understanding wife who will pick up a son I've dropped off at church choir rehearsal but can't bring home because of my own rehearsal. It means having an understanding family who realize that Dad can't go to every soccer game because of a Saturday matinee. And occasionally it means having an understanding director who knows that a piano recital needs to take precedence over a rehearsal.

"Do I envy local actors who go from one show to the next without missing a beat? Sure. Would I trade places with them? No, because my family is my most important production and there are no revivals; they are only 10 or 13 once. When they are grown, maybe then I can go from show to show to show without missing a beat. That is, if there are any parts for a mature actor, well over 25, using a walker."

Peyton Hayslip, another single mother and actress, chose "to single-mindedly follow the path of a performer. There have been a number of diversions," she admits. "'Real jobs.' Marriages and children create diversions. Ultimately, the marriages were more difficult to schedule around a six-week rehearsal schedule and voilô! My daughters became the children of an artist.

"I try very hard to make sure that the projects I begin are kid-friendly. This was extremely difficult when the girls were babies. Now, as a single mom with 12- and 8-year-old daughters, things are a little different. The girls are accustomed to the strange schedule I keep and are seasoned performers themselves. They know how to occupy themselves during a rehearsal (even during tech week). They know that sometimes it is necessary for us to depend on the generous help of friends, when kiddos at rehearsal (even extremely well-behaved kiddos) simply isn't possible. Both of the girls have attended my classes -- probably many more times than they'd like -- and are becoming thoughtful actresses in their own right. It makes me so proud when my girls say, 'When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Mom.'

"What they don't see," continues Hayslip, "is the long hours I spend doing little things to make ends meet. What they don't understand is the time I spend in Dallas working for my mother's antique business, because it is the best way to flexibly supplement my income -- even though to the girls it isn't 'glamorous' work. What they don't know is that there are nights when I know I sleep with my teeth grinding because I'm not sure what my next job will be. But isn't that the case for most parents? Not just parents who happen to be artists? We all work, and fret, and struggle to be certain that we can have the most fulfilling lives possible for ourselves and our children."

True. Nothing in this story is meant to imply that couples with children in other walks of life fare any better. Michelle and I know plenty of parents who are lawyers or administrators struggling with similar dilemmas; when you add kids to the mix, your life changes. Those things that you are most passionate about suddenly vie for attention: Life becomes a perpetual rush hour, with an emphasis, it seems, on the "rush."

And plenty of artists who are not parents fight just as hard against the economic realities of forging a life in art. But come dawn, these folks aren't expected to get their kids fed and dressed and ready for the school day, don't have to deal with daycare or babysitting or sick children or birthday party invitations or driving to all manner of kids' activities. It may not seem so at the time, but before children enter the picture the level of responsibility demanded of anyone allows for quite a bit of flexibility.

Art always amazes me. Sometimes it does so in a piece of music, sometimes in a frame. Sometimes a play sends me practically running out of the theatre; I feel I have to make art. That hasn't changed since I've become a father. But the transcendent moments are fewer and further between. The ongoing wonder of the arts just can't compete with the wonder of my kids. The way they play, the way their minds work, the way they observe the world and report their observations, their drawings and games, the way they learn, their deep fascination with everything. Things that were mundane or overlooked have found new life in the hands of two small girls. My girls invigorate my imagination and fulfill a certain need that only the arts used to fulfill. That's some pretty stiff competition.

Now, I am still full of (what I think are) creative ideas, and I'm still willing to fight artistic battles, even considering the ephemeral nature of the arts generally and its poor pay scale. Maybe being a father offers a different kind of flexibility, one that allows me to see just where the arts fit into my life as a parent and where my family illuminates my life as an artist. end story

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Michelle Polgar, The Public Domain Theatre Company, Austin Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, Ari Polgar, Katie Polgar, State Theater Company, Karen Carver Sneed, Don Sneed, Sunny Sneed, Dangerous Corner, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Annie Suite, Frontera

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