Punk Parenthood for the Sleep Deprived, You Can’t Fucking Have It All by Jennifer Whiteford

In the early months of 2017 I read Phoebe Robinson’s collection of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I love Phoebe Robinson. I loved the book. There was one particular section that actually ended up diverting the course of my life in a minor, but significant way. In one essay, Robinson discusses a time in her life when she made the choice to focus on stand-up comedy. At that time, she was working a respectable job behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, doing exactly what she felt was expected of her. When it became evident that she wasn’t actually happy with her job, she thought about what did make her happy, and realized she truly loved writing and performing comedy. She left her respectable job, and now we’re all better off because we get to listen to her and the superb Jessica Williams on the 2 Dope Queens podcast every Tuesday, which is a reason to keep on living if I ever heard one.

On the day I read this passage in the book, I was fresh from a fairly frustrating and demoralizing day at work. We all have those. My job is not awful most of the time, but every job has its moments. When I read Robinson’s take on discovering her love for comedy, I felt an instant familiarity.

I like comedy. Like, a lot. I always have. And I like making people laugh. A few years ago, I blabbed to my husband that I had always wanted to try stand-up comedy. He is usually content to just let me do (or not do) my own thing, but for some reason he would not let go of this admission. He was constantly looking up comedy writing workshops and asking me if I wanted to go. I always declined. I wasn’t ready, I said, or I didn’t think I had enough time. Leave it to a lady comedian with a podcast to do what my husband couldn’t. After reading Robinson’s paragraph about finding happiness in comedy, I recklessly googled “stand-up comedy class Ottawa” and came up with a few options.

The first workshop was expensive and ran over many weeks. It was taught by a local male comic at a theatre school in an Ottawa neighborhood not particularly near to my own. All the photos on the website were of groups of men, hamming it up for the camera. I felt kind of ill. Nope.

The second workshop that I found was at an improv theatre space near my neighborhood that I’d never heard of before. Their website was full of photos of women performers. The workshop was reasonably priced, scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, was going to be taught by a woman comedian, and was only open to female students. Check. I sent an email to my husband and then signed up. Then I proceeded to get so nervous I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone else about it.

The workshop leader was a charismatic and pleasantly blunt comedy performer from Toronto named Brie Watson. After introductions she asked us all to write for five minutes about something that annoyed us. I wrote about having to watch my older son’s endless puppet shows. During the subsequent read-out-loud period it got good laughs. “That’s a joke,” said Brie, “You wrote a joke, you realize that? It’s funny. Because it isn’t what people are expecting, you know, you’re supposed to, like, love your children…” We all laughed. That calmed my nerves and I began to feel more excited than I had in a long time.

The month after the workshop, I got myself on a bill at the same improv space to try my first stand-up set. Again, I was too nervous to tell most people, but I did bring along three loyal friends who I knew would laugh at my jokes. I practiced my five minute routine endlessly, usually in the shower or while driving to work. I edited my sentences ruthlessly, keeping in mind everything that I’d learned at the workshop. When the night came I was almost literally blind with nerves. My vision was cloudy when I took the stage. But by then I’d done the routine so many times I knew I could do it on autopilot if needed.

And I got laughs. A lot of laughs. Loud laughs. Occasionally the laughs even started small, faded and then came back louder when the joke sunk in. My heart was racing as the five minutes came to a speedy end. I collapsed into my seat. The owner of the theater came up to me immediately and asked if I’d want to come back and do it again.

It was as if I suddenly had a superpower that I’d been unaware of. A total high. I posted the video of my five minute bit on Facebook and friends were so encouraging and complimentary about it. Bigger high. I wanted to write more jokes. I wanted to perform again.

The next month I tried it a second time. New jokes, still laughs. Not the same high as the first time, but instead a slowly building feeling of excitement and possibility. Was this something I could do regularly? Something I could get better at?

I was curled up on the couch at the back of the theatre after my performance, happily watching the improv set that followed the stand-up, when I glanced at the time. Shit. 9:30. I’d told my husband that I’d try to be home just after nine. I apologized and raced out, hoofing it quickly home through the dark streets of my neighborhood. As soon as I walked through the door I knew things weren’t going well. I could hear both kids’ voices upstairs. Still awake.

Our kids are at an age where it is almost impossible to get them to fall asleep in the same room at the same time. And yet neither of them will go to sleep without an adult present. Which means that if my husband or I want to go out at night, we either have to wait until one of them is asleep or we have to just cross our fingers and hope they are exhausted enough to quell their own bananas behavior long enough to fall asleep at a reasonable hour.

When I arrived upstairs my older son was complaining that my younger son, now completely manic with exhaustion and the excitement of causing trouble, had been keeping him from falling asleep. I carried him to the kids’ room in my arms and left my shrieking two year old in our bedroom with my husband. My older son fell asleep almost immediately. I retrieved the younger one and repeated the process. Order restored. Only then was my husband able to ask, “So how did your set go?”

Since that night I’ve realized that doing anything significant with whatever comedy skills I may possess is not going to be easy right now. Part of building on that means being out of the house at the exact time that I usually need to be in the house. My husband is wholeheartedly supportive of my adventures, but it doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea to leave him to manage the bedtime chaos repeatedly while I go out to comedy shows. And I don’t actually want to be away from my kids that often.

I heard an interview with the singer Adele on the radio last year where she spoke some stark truths about being a working parent. She said it was often hard not to quit. She has enough money to stop making music. And she said that sometimes she would leave her child for seven, eight, or nine hours at a time while she went into the studio to work on songs. Sometimes her days in the studio were unproductive and shitty and she had to face the fact that she had just left her beloved kid for an entire day to go accomplish nothing.

The grander idea is easier to swallow. Go make art! Go make mistakes! No time is wasted! You are creating a legacy that is important because you will become an inspiration to your children. They will understand and admire you for making art/doing work/creating change even if it took you away from them for a time.

But on the small scale, in our daily lives, it can feel like guilt-inducing wasted time. What if I go out one night to follow this stand-up comedy dream and I have an inevitable set where I bomb? And my kids don’t fall asleep until 11 PM. Then my son is tired and cranky at school the next day and the other one is a beast for his lovely daycare provider. Now my stupid dream has ruined a bunch of people’s days and I have nothing really to show for it but a tiny inch of progress toward a goal that might not even be attainable?

The only answer I have is to lower expectations of progress. I can take whatever opportunities I’m able to, and slowly try to get a handle on where I want to go from here. It will never be perfect, because there is no actual way to fully pursue a passion while also being the parent I want to be. I wasn’t ready to try this stuff at age twenty, but I wish I had been. I would have had so much freedom. Being out multiple nights a week performing and supporting others in the scene would have been possible. I could have put in the time to build up the momentum I needed. I could have traveled to other cities for shows or classes. It’s an alternative reality that I daydream about sometimes. Instead, I’m starting this weird journey now, age forty-one, mother of two. No use crying for the twenty-year-old comedian I never was, though. My best jokes are about my kids, anyway.

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The Punk Parenthood Questionnaire

Pierre-Julien and his partner Monika are the stuff of legend in Ottawa where we live. They’ve dealt with rare and extreme parenting challenges that most parents I know had never even considered. Their story brings perspective to many of the daily trials that we all face as parents. Also—by all accounts—they are both funny, smart, and engaging. Pierre-Julien answered the questions because, as he said, Monika doesn’t consider herself a punk parent, even though she “secretly listens to Fugazi.”

Jennifer: Hi! Who are you?

Pierre-Julien: My name is Pierre-Julien Beaulieu-Blais. I am an Aboriginal dad of two kids, Étienne and Xavier. And I’m married to Monika, who I am co-parenting with. I live in Ottawa, but my family is from Northern Ontario. I am currently on parental leave, but will return to work as mobilizer for CUPE Local 4600 in the fall. Before that I was an outreach worker at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, but they fired me while I was on leave to take care of Étienne while he was very sick. I grew up in the punk scene, getting involved when I was very young. I organized shows, lived in some terrible punk houses, hopped freight trains, and collected some pretty bad stick-and-pokes through my teens and twenties. Now I feel pretty far from punk, as I’ve become a suburban dad who commutes to his full-time job. I recently won a free pair of shoes by filling in an online survey.

Jennifer: Who are your kids?

Pierre-Julien: I have two kids, Étienne who is turning three in June and Xavier who is a brand spankin’ newborn. Étienne was born with a pretty rare condition called Severe Combined Immune Deficiency. Basically no working immune system. It used to be called Bubble Boy Disease—like that movie. That pretty much took over our lives for a few years, and is still the thing I spend most of my time thinking and worrying about. For the first two years of his life Étienne was kept at home in isolation. The adjustment into, and then out of, isolation was very hard. While in isolation we had to keep everything sanitized and prevent virus infections, which was a big adjustment for someone who had been dumpster diving just a few years before.

Now getting out of isolation is turning out to be extremely stressful in its own way. After spending two years doing everything we could to keep things sanitized, it’s both thrilling and unnerving to see Étienne on a playground, interacting with other kids and touching stuff in public. He’s much better now. He had a modified type of bone marrow transplant two years ago, which has given his body the ability to build a working immune system. This last year we’ve been getting to explore the outside world with him for the first time and it’s really awesome. We still have to be careful about viruses, but overall things are going great. Still, we carry hand sanitizer everywhere we go, like dorks.

Xavier is a super easygoing baby so far. We are still getting to know him, but so far he is very awesome. Étienne seems stoked to be a big brother, but then again he is stoked about pretty much everything. Going from one kid to two is definitely hectic. I’d like to think we are doing ok, but holy fuck am I ever exhausted all the time.

Jennifer: What led to your decision to become a parent?

Pierre-Julien: I had a really great childhood, which I think was a big part of wanting to have kids of my own. I’ve always imagined I would have kids one day and I’m so happy to be a parent now.

I’m generally a very nostalgic person, and looking forward to Étienne and Xavier’s childhoods is definitely making me look back on my own childhood. These last few years I’ve been going through old obsessions of mine from when I was a kid and teenager like, the Spiderman clone saga in the ‘90s, or shitty pop punk. Most of the time I’m happy to be the grown up, but often I wish I was still a kid, too. I feel like childhood is just so fucking sweet, or at least it can be.

Jennifer: What is a recent parenting triumph you’ve experienced? A recent parenting setback?

Pierre-Julien: After dumping entire cups of smoothies on himself twice today, I was finally able to get Étienne to drink his smoothie with a straw and not with his pants. It seems pretty trivial, I know, but he’s been on a weird food strike for a few days and refuses to eat anything but Clif Bars. I was getting pretty stressed about it, so it felt good to finally get some veggies into him.

In terms of setbacks I guess I struggle a lot with trusting myself as a parent. It seems like we need to make major decisions weekly and fairly important on-the-fly calls on a daily basis. I also feel like it’s hard to have others trust me as a parent, too. While Étienne was accessing doctors and hospitals several times per week, I had a really hard time getting doctors and nurses to talk to me about Étienne’s care, or even just acknowledge me. I still can’t get any of them to answer my emails. Daycare providers often won’t respond to my calls, and I get ignored by the moms at the playgroups I attend with Étienne. I think probably lots of that stems from people believing that care work should only be done by women. Either that or I just look sketchy, I guess? Sometimes I let it get to me but I’m working on it.

Jennifer: Describe a time when your kids made you laugh really hard.

Pierre-Julien: I feel like they crack me up all day every day. Last week my brother and I tried to take a picture with Étienne and Xavier. Étienne insisted that he needed a bike helmet for the picture.