Punk Parenthood for the Sleep Deprived: Because the Night Belongs to Mothers

I was so physically and emotionally exhausted I couldn’t do anything except basically take care of my children. My desire to create was still strong, my creative impulse was still strong, but I just couldn’t do anything. But then, we had a Polaroid camera and I just picked it up and I took a shot with it. And I liked what I took. And I realized that with the Polaroid, with very little physical effort I could do a nice piece of work. It enabled me in those long months of recuperation and rebuilding my strength to be able to express myself very simply, without a lot of physical exertion, and to validate my creative impulse and validate just that I existed as an artist.

–Patti Smith, CBC Radio Interview March 2013

I found out I was pregnant with my second child approximately six months ago in the bathroom of a Target store in a suburban shopping mall.

I was working in the suburbs that day. I’d planned to grab a quick cup of tea and then leave for a doctor’s appointment I had in another part of town. This doctor’s appointment was to mark the beginning of my fertility treatments. Nothing scary, just the same minor, non-invasive course of medication and monitoring that led to the science-enhanced conception of my first son, Milo. It occurred to me, stirring my tea, that the doctor was bound to ask me if there was any chance I could be pregnant before she sent me off with my hormone pills. I did a bit of backwards counting in my head and decided it couldn’t hurt to take a test. I was so confident that I’d need another one later that I bought a two pack. I paid at the Target self-checkout (because even a married mother pushing forty can’t buy a pregnancy test from a human without imagining them snickering) and wandered off to the red and white washrooms to nonchalantly pee on a stick.

When the plus sign appeared in the tiny box, I started to feel a little faint. I released my legs from my hovering, pee-on-the-stick posture and sat down. I laughed.  Luckily there wasn’t anyone else in the bathroom. I took a photo of the plus sign with my phone and sent my husband, David, an email message with the subject heading “Holy Crap.”

All this to say, in November of 2014, we’ll have a new, tiny, helpless person added to our family and our home. Which is going to be bananas. But to be completely truthful, I’m not sure it can be worse than the first time around.

Some people love infants. I have never been one of these people. And thank goodness for that, really. Because I do love kids, and my offspring are going to be kids for way longer than they were ever going to be babies. But still, I am occasionally envious of people who talk about the “dreamy” or “lazy” first days and weeks of parenthood with reverence and nostalgia. I was bored. I was anxious. I was stressed, and cranky, and unpleasant to be around. My body did not feel like my own. My life felt surreal and overwhelming. Small occurrences made me disproportionately miserable. “You’re going to Sears, now?” I asked David one night when he was on his way out to buy crib sheets and a lamp. I couldn’t explain that the idea of him leaving me alone in the house after dark with the baby made me feel like I couldn’t breathe.

If you guessed “post partum depression” as the answer to the unasked “what was wrong with me” question, then give yourself a pat on the back. I didn’t get diagnosed until three months later because I didn’t recognize my own feelings as being as rotten as they were. It doesn’t help that doctors and nurses and prenatal educators usually describe P.P.D. as the territory of women going off the emotional deep end to the tune of being unable to provide their kid with the basic necessities of life. I loved my kid, worked hard to make sure he was happy, took him for walks, and fed and diapered him accordingly. I sang to him when he cried. By all accounts I was doing just fine. Largely because I felt like my own feelings shouldn’t matter. I had more important things to worry about. I just focused on the tasks at hand and ignored the sadness burrowing into my chest whenever I saw the unread books on my nightstand or the posters for shows I couldn’t even imagine attending.

Eventually it got to be too much. David noticed that I was crying a lot and feeling like everyone thought I was an idiot; which, he kindly pointed out, was not true. He suggested I make a doctor’s appointment to get some low-dose anti-depressants. I don’t want to downplay the importance of that particular step. The meds were what got me out of my cycle of negative panic and allowed me to wake up thinking that maybe the day didn’t have to be a stressful mess. I just don’t want to write any more about the meds, because they were the least interesting part of me getting out of the chasm of awful feelings.

Around the time I started taking the medication, I stopped at my favorite local library branch on my way home from the grocery store. Despite my inner monologue insisting that I didn’t have any time to read and I shouldn’t even bother, I cruised by the “Have You Read?” shelf full of the librarians’ picks. In the middle of a shelf of uninteresting rock biographies sat Just Kids by Patti Smith. I’d wanted to read it for a while and I figured I might as well try to get through it in the few spare minutes I had each day.

It turns out I could fit reading in to my daily life, as long as the book drew me in like that one did. It was so much the opposite of what I was experiencing, but somehow I was able to identify with Smith’s candid, personal story telling. I don’t think it would have been as affecting if she hadn’t been so brutally honest about that time in her life as a young artist. It reminded me of how amazing it was to write and make art. But it also reminded me of being in my early twenties and drowning in uncertainty. Not to mention the decidedly unromantic situation of having an income that was sporadic at best. The book reminded me why I wanted the life I’d made for myself. I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I wanted to be a person with art in her life, who also had a warm bed to sleep in and groceries in the pantry. I didn’t want the terrifying freedom that came along with devotion only to art. I wanted to be an artist who was also someone’s partner and someone’s mother.

Shortly after I finished the book, I heard the interview with Smith that I quoted at the beginning of this column. I had to pull my car over to cry tears of relief. Patti Smith lost her creative energy to motherhood, I realized. And she eventually got it back. It wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t a permanent problem. I always had lots of encouraging people helping me through that overwhelming time, but somehow it took Patti Smith to make me truly feel like I wasn’t alone.

I am slowly gaining my creative momentum back, but I know it may disappear again when the new baby arrives. I’ve read sixteen books so far this year, written a handful of columns and articles, and started seeing shows again. In August, I rode my bike to the Ottawa Folk Festival to see Patti Smith live. I cried and cheered. It felt amazing.

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The Punk Parenthood Questionnaire

In the interest of solidarity, for each column I ask the same questions to someone from the punk community who also happens to be a parent. This time I interviewed Isaac Thotz, from everyone’s favorite Chicago band, The Arrivals. He was in the process of moving across the country which, even without two kids in tow, is likely an excruciating enterprise. He kindly answered the questions anyway.

Jennifer: How does your background in the punk/underground scene affect your parenting?

Isaac: In pretty much every way. I like to spend my time around people doing interesting and creative things, and I want the same for my children. As far as I’m concerned, the most important decisions Sue and I make as parents have to do with who we’re hanging out with and the community that we’re part of right outside our front door. So, for example, at our kids’ school, there are parents who run a Capoeira studio, there are parents who have a vertical farm in an old industrial warehouse, there are parents who are professional independent brewmasters and artists and touring mariachi musicians. And this is just at a regular neighborhood Chicago public school—it’s not Waldorf or Montessori; it’s not in some elite suburb. The goal isn’t to spend whatever it takes to craft our kids into some ideal child. It’s just to love them and expose them to the beauty of the actual world. Try to keep yourself alive and see the creative and inventive ways that other people are keeping themselves alive—and the ways that they are entertaining themselves—those are the skills and perspectives that I want my children to be exposed to.

Jennifer: What quality of yours do you most hope to pass on to your kids?

Isaac: How about perseverance—the virtue that spontaneously occurs when obstinacy turns fruitful.

Jennifer: Have you found solidarity within the punk community when it comes to parenting? Do you have different experiences in different groups of friends?

Isaac: I was twenty-five when my daughter was born and no one I knew who was into punk had kids—even within five years of her birth. It’s been my experience that people who don’t have kids don’t care much about life with kids. I think that’s fine. That’s just been my experience. Now I have several punk friends who have had babies, and I feel sort of on the other side of things. My kids are practically out the door.

Jennifer: What music are you most excited that your kids are into?

Isaac: I’m most excited for them to get into music from the future that hasn’t been written yet! I’m excited to see what they write! My kids are ten and eight, so anything I was hoping they would get into they’ve basically already heard. They love the Beatles novelty songs and early Who, which I’m fine with since I never get sick of listening to that stuff. They love Michael Jackson. I just asked my son what he likes and he said he likes WAR, which I absolutely did not expect him to say, but that’s totally fine with me. My daughter said the Who, which warms my heart. And they both said they liked Lorde, though they had to sing “Royals” to me and I didn’t know who did it. They get a lot of current popular music at school that they get into. They like some of my favorite bands that my friends are in like Underground Railroad To Candyland and Audacity. I’ve taken them to shows when it seems appropriate. They like rock music, and high-energy pop music, which I ’m thankful for because I like that too. But ultimately, honestly, I don’t really care what they get into, I just enjoy seeing them developing taste.

Jennifer: Describe the last time your kids made you laugh really hard.

Isaac: That’s a tough one. Again, my kids are old enough that it’s just basically like hanging out with friends rather than, say, describing a time when a baby makes you laugh, which seems a more distinctive and memorable experience. Okay, here’s one that happened just now. My son likes to just absent-mindedly talk or sing while he’s sitting there playing on his iPod. If you know it, hum in your mind the beginning melody to the song “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. My son has replaced the lyrics with “the seaweed is always greener, in somebody else’s wiener.” Funny and true!

Jennifer: Who should I interview next? Why?

Isaac: If he hasn’t done it yet, Todd Congelliere. I was just hanging out with his baby, Olive, and she’s so darn cute. And he’s so darn cute when he’s talking about being a daddy.