I was watching an episode of the excellent Inside Number 9 called The Riddle of the Sphinx (British licence fee payers can check out the episode here) and I was struck when one of the characters was asked why he hadn’t had children. “There is no more sombre enemy of good art,” he replied, “than the pram in the hall.”
The Cyril Connolly quote wasn’t new to me, and I started to think about my new baby and her impact on my writing. I’m not the first to think about this – a quick search showed 2 Guardian articles and a TV show. Having a look at the blog, I can’t really argue against an impact. Since she was born, it’s gone very quiet (indeed my last post was five months ago)!
However, I’m still writing, although definitely with less output. And I still enjoy writing, although I’ve found that I’m writing in a different way. So I started to wonder why people assume that the pram in the hall spells the end of art as a hobby. Is looking after a child really the end of writing, or is it just a new set of challenges?
My own pram in the hall arrived in late March 2019. My suffering was minor, the major discomfort being five nights of sleeping on a reclining chair that had a tendency to spring itself upwards in the middle of the night. When catapulted forward, there were quite a few obscenities forced from my mouth.
My wife was an absolute legend, making me proud and lucky and insignificant all at once in the way she approached labour and birth. When the midwife handed me my daughter for the first time I was, of course, instantly in love.
I gazed down at my little girl as she grabbed for my wife’s finger, and in response this brand new human stuck her tongue out at me. She hadn’t even opened her eyes, and she was already a cheeky monkey. Talk about an instant father/daughter bond!
It’s now seven months later and, in what seems like the blink of an eye, she’s developing a proper personality and just about starting to crawl. My wife and I are now looking at nurseries and wondering how we can change our working patterns and jobs to spend more time with her.
The change of priorities
It goes without saying that priorities change when a little one enters your life. A century ago, I would have probably handed my daughter to my wife and trotted out to work as normal. I’d have missed them but would have to keep working in the same way as before because, if I didn’t, I’d probably lose my job. My priority would have been to keep bread on the table, but the real change in behaviour would have come from my wife.
Nowadays, things are different. I have the opportunity to change my working life and the balance of childcare doesn’t fall as singularly on my wife as it would have. It took me a while to get this, and it took a gentle reminder from my wife that I needed to think about my priorities, but I think I’m better now.
This change of priorities means that hobbies, including writing, drop to the background. Art is often the thing to go first when hardship hits, even though it can be one of the most important in helping with our wellbeing. My priority now is not only making sure my little girl is fed and safe, but also that the house is as tidy as possible. Whereas before I could get away with leaving a bit of a mess, now I have to make sure that the floor is cleared away, that the kitchen is in a decent state and that things are put away. I try and ask myself ‘is it easier for me to do this now, or easier for my wife with a baby in hand?’ Inevitably, it’s the former. So I get on and do it.
The lack of time
This leads to, inevitably, a lot less ‘me’ time. Before, I could have left the washing up for a day so I could watch a bit of TV, or type up a blog post. When I got home from work, I would have some time to relax while the evening meal cooked. Now, the jobs that I could once leave until the next day have to be done immediately, and they also have to be done before I can sit down and think about doing anything else.
There’s also the time playing with a little baby takes. Remember that cheeky tongue out when she was less than an hour old? She’s still sticking her tongue out, babbling and moving all around the place. She’s great fun. Every time I sit down to play with her it seems that she’s learnt something new, and she’s got a new way of interacting with me or the toys around her. Testing these new skills out is incredibly fun for me (and her, I hope) but it does mean that it takes up a lot of time.
Of course, it’s not always cheeky happy chappy – there are the times when she’s in a bad mood and I’m drafted in to cheer her up, distract her, or entertain her. Her mum has done this all day, so it’s only fair that I put my shift in. If I can take the pressure off my wife for twenty minutes by taking a crying little baby around the house, then I’m doing my job as a husband and father.
This has a knock on effect though – the half an hour that I would have spent writing or relaxing in front of the TV vanishes when I’m playing with her. Before I know it, that time has slipped away and it’s time for dinner or bedtime.
This lack of ‘down time’ inevitably eats into my energy reserves. Before I even think about the sleepless nights or the middle of the night nappy changes, there is an awful lot more stuff for me to do. I look back at posts I made before she arrived with a cringe, as my past self tried to explain that tiredness didn’t matter, as long as you wrote something.
Past me was a bit of know-it-all. He thought he knew what tiredness was, he thought he knew what exhaustion felt like. And then he’d track how many unbroken hours of sleep he had and complain when a car alarm woke him up ten minutes early. I look back at Past Phil and shake my head, just like I imagine a lot of parents did when they read my earlier post.
Now, though, I’m really tired. I’m happy, but tired. I have some questions though. How do people have more than one child? How do people manage with three? One is really hard work! The front of my face feels like it’s going to fall off, and my temples haven’t stopped throbbing for seven months. When I sit in front of the TV, I feel my body relax in a way that I don’t think I’d ever felt before. And that’s assuming that there’s nothing else to tidy up, there’s nothing else to clean up…
Understanding of time
Something that having a baby has made me do is reassess how I think about time. I’m now looking long term, rather than short. Maybe this is just me, but I now think about all the things that my daughter has to learn in the coming years. She’ll have to discover so much, she’ll achieve so much, and no one will be pushing her to achieve for such a long time.
I’m not explaining this well. My favourite example at the moment is the guitar. Before baby, if I had decided to learn the guitar, I would have joined a subReddit, followed a few blogs and watched a dozen social media groups that would have pressured me with their success. All my progress would seem slow at best, pathetic at worst. I think I’d be much more likely to give up.
If I think about it differently, if I start learning guitar at the same time my daughter does (if she wants to) then by the time she’s eighteen, I’ll probably be a solid guitar player. The grown-up desire to achieve, and achieve quickly, will be gone, but I’ll be a fifty-something who can play guitar. That’s pretty cool (although my then teenage daughter will undoubtably think otherwise).
There’s so much for her to learn, and as she does there’s no reason I can’t pick up a trick or two along the way. If I apply that to writing, thinking long term really helps. Even if it takes me five years to write my next book (which is probably about the speed I’m going at the moment) then by the time she’s twenty I’ll have four books. Four books would be pretty good going.
In the short term, time might be limited, but in the long term, it really stretches out. My challenge is to make sure that I’m enjoying how we’re spending it.
The biggest influence my daughter has had on me is to increase my motivation to do a good job. Not just in my day job, not just when I’m cleaning the house, or driving the car. I want to do a good job for her in everything that I do, so that when she’s older she can have a Dad she’s proud of.
I’m not sure that it means I’m making many changes to what I was doing anyway, I like to think that I’m a pretty dedicated bloke who was doing the best he can. But if anything, I’m working a little harder now, even with all the additional difficulties.
If she reads this post when she’s older, she might get embarrassed, she might get annoyed, but I hope that she makes it to this paragraph so that she knows that, no matter what, she’s made me think about what’s important in life, about what I enjoy and what I want her to think of me.
In the future, when we fall out, when she doesn’t like me because I won’t let her do something, or because I make her do something, I’ll remember this blog post, because writing it has allowed me to put down in words what she means to me, and why, even though on the surface it might seem like I’m struggling with looking after her (I am totally indebted to my wife for covering the gaps in my ability) I’m truly trying my best to not only be a good dad, but to be one that she can be proud of.
And if thinking like that doesn’t help me push on with my writing I don’t know what will.
Creativity is something that is difficult to teach but incredibly important. I think that it’s a life skill that puts one in good stead. Creative footballers are always lauded as the ones who make a difference on the pitch, who find a way to overcome the opposition. Creative scientists are the ones who are constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge through coming up with new ideas, and creative business people make products and services that people want to buy.
Creativity isn’t just something that has to apply to arts, and I want to role model this trait to my daughter. It might be that she doesn’t become creative, and that’s fine, but I want to have creativity in our house all the time. My main outlet for my creativity is writing and gardening. So if I want to create this atmosphere I have to keep writing, I have to keep creating, and I have to keep having fun with it.
By continuing with my writing, even with all the challenges and difficulties around it, I like to think that I’m creating a positive example for her to follow. She’ll look at me spending some time writing and creating, and she’ll hopefully want to emulate me. She’ll also see how much I enjoy writing and creating stories, and hopefully want to have a go at creating things herself.
And I bet she’ll be much better than me as well.
I feel like the pram in the hall is a bit of a falsehood. From the outside it might look like it’s stopping writers and artists get things done, but I don’t think that’s true. I think the pram forces me to rearrange how I get things done. It’s like walking down the hallway itself – I wouldn’t stop walking because the pram was there, would I? I’d step around it!
Adding effort and changing the way that I think about writing is never a bad thing. I love thinking about the craft, and I love working out what writing means to me. My little girl has made me appreciate not only the time I get to spend writing, but also highlighted why I write, and what kind of home I want her to grow up in.
The pram in the hall hasn’t stopped me from creating good art.
It’s inspired me to get better at it.