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Work / Life Balance

Fatherhood Forces a Selfish Creative to Grow Up

As an expectant parent, Mike Sager was convinced that his career as a creativist was about to nose dive into a lumpy sea of malodorous baby poop. Then he welcomed a son into his life and everything changed.


A friend called the other day. His partner is expecting their first child within the week. Two years ago they were living in a yurt. Now they’ve got wish lists of baby shower gifts on all the major e-commerce sites.

“I’m cranking on projects as fast as possible and remodeling the basement and replanting the yard,” he said, a little breathless, like a guy on too much Adderall.  “But, really, I can’t wait! I’m super excited.”

I’ve never had an expectant parent tell me they were scared to death and kind of resentful, or worried that their entire way of being was about to change, or that their career as an artist/writer/musician/creativist was about to nose dive into a lumpy sea of incredibly malodorous baby poop…at least not within the first two paragraphs of a conversation.

This time it took about three minutes. My friend is 35. Because parenthood is a place that you can’t quite begin to imagine before you’ve found yourself marooned there (no matter how many books you’ve read), the only thing he really understood at this point about the coming years of self-sacrifice was the specter of sleep deprivation.

“I need a clear head to work,” he bemoaned. “There’s a certain flow to my day. How am I supposed to get anything done? What have I gotten myself into?

***

Like many an aspiring artist before me, I entered the writing game, in part, because I fancied myself capable of making some kind of mark on the world. I started working at my craft with serious intent beginning around 11thgrade.

Later I followed my muse through the seamy underground milieu that became my journalistic beat—sometimes I pictured her as one of my idols, the anthropologist Margaret Meade, updated for the task with black jeans and Dr. Martens, a stainless steel throwing knife strapped to her ankle. I lived with a crack gang in LA, hung out with pitbull fighting middle schoolers in the ghetto of North Philadelphia—the most disappointing of the dogs were hung with electrical wiring from rafters of abandoned houses. I embedded with the Animal Liberation Front on a raid of a federal research facility—29 cats and seven miniature African piglets were saved that night. I lived inside a refugee camp in Gaza during the early days of the Palestinian Intifada. I even risked a days-old marriage engagement to my future ex-wife with an assignment at a swinger’s convention on the Gulf coast of Florida. I shall never forget one husband from Alabama, his greenish teeth: You gonna get with my wife, ain’t cha?

By the time I was 35, I felt like I was beginning to make some progress—the work I’d produced was the evidence, little darlings that had come alive and could speak for themselves.

When the idea of actual children came up, however, I was pretty militant: I believed I had a higher calling on this mortal sphere than mere parenthood– which, after all, is something anyone who is physically able can do. I wanted a quest, not an heir. To devote so much time and effort to the vain purpose of reproducing myself seemed a waste of my talent. I was, after all, the great river of Mike. I had a turbine to spin. Work to produce. A legacy to leave. To waste one drop of energy on such a mundane pursuit as child rearing seemed unthinkable.

That scene in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Where Paul (George Peppard) goes with Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) into the New York Public Library and takes out his own book? And she makes him sign it?

I could have died happy right there.

***

After no small amount of drama, I learned that nature takes its course, despite one’s grander plans. I might have considered myself an artist, but I was still human. My wife wanted a kid. I wanted my wife. I suppose that’s nature’s plan.

Going into fatherhood at 37, I remember being super excited—furiously baby-proofing the outlets and toilet seats, adding gates on the antique hand-tooled staircase, upgrading the master bathroom, equipping the whole house, upstairs and down, with air conditioners against the impending summer of high pregnancy.

I also remember being deeply fearful that I’d inalterably screw up this human life I’d so selfishly created. Or this human life I’d so selfishly created would inalterably screw up the artistic life I’d so selfishly created for myself.

At the time, I had some understanding of the sacrifices that were about to be made as I entered parenthood. I knew there would be no more staying up to all hours partying or reading, sleeping until the early afternoon. No more bragging about how, as a self-employed creative, I owned every hour of every day and nobody owned me. No more spontaneous smoky salons, full of deviant artistic types, taking place in my dining room. No more unplugging the clock, no more ignoring the needs of others, no more onanistic pursuit of the creative brass ring.

No more pandering to the spoiled and ill-behaved bon vivant who represented my inner creative.

For fifteen years, my talent had been my child. And there was nothing I wouldn’t give to him, do for him, sacrifice for him.

And believe me, he could be a crazy little fucker.

***

The first night we brought home my son from the hospital, we put him to sleep between us in the bed. Exhausted, my now-ex fell asleep immediately. I lay there wide awake, afraid I would roll over and crush him. As the hours wore on, I noticed my kid had a stuffy nose—kind of like both sides of the family, we’re all allergic. I stayed up all night, watching his chest move up and down, terrified he would stop breathing.

Over the next months and years of my fatherhood, the selfish creative inside of me was forced to grow up, though not without a fight. We don’t need to go into all the sordid details—let’s just say I was left with enough material to write a novel called Deviant Behavior, which I like to think of as a memoir of male post-partem depression.

But as time passed, and I realized exactly how much this kid needed me—and how rewarding, in the most elemental way, time with him could be—my creative self managed to mature and become a mensch, which is a Yiddish word that means, in a nutshell, “a person who does the right thing.” There was a new baby in the house. Everyone else had to grow up.

And so it was that I began to keep regular hours. I would stop work every so often to take a baby break, often interrupt my work entirely because some super-important errand had to be run (one of my crucial designated duties). Over the next two decades, hours of perfectly good creative time were spent sitting in doctor’s offices, on the floor playing with toys, on the couch watching Pokemon, in tiny chairs and then bigger chairs in school classrooms, on buses going to fieldtrips, in godawful bleachers, in a car driving back and forth from college.

Along the way, I learned that the mighty river of Mike could be diverted and that more tributaries could be formed, additional turbines supported. The old maxim about getting more done when you have more  to do? I had a kid to help raise. Soccer and basketball teams to coach. Carpet wrestling to engage in. Homework to supervise. Ice cream to dip. Story time. Jump shot. Junior Prom. The Talk. Driving lessons.

Oh, and my career.

I have a photo on the wall of my office bathroom, one of my favorite hero shots—a selfie I took in a motel room in central California at six or seven in the morning. I was with my son at a basketball tournament. He’d played two games the evening before and was still asleep. I had a column due Monday morning. I wheeled the desk chair into the bathroom. The counter made a decent desk. The photo records the moment, the hero in a true life setting, daddy getting it done.

My son is 23 now. My services as a father are still needed, most often via text; we do on occasion collaborate on projects as colleagues, though that’s a piece for a different day. Sometimes, looking back on the years of his childhood—the early mornings, the school projects, the usual family sturm und drang—I wonder how I ever got anything done, much less managed to create some lasting pieces, and, yes, to make a small mark. Sometimes I also think about the way my son’s life changed the course of my career entirely. Because my son needed me, and because I wanted to be there for him, I made different choices, I stayed close to home and kept my travels to a minimum.

But I also know, without a doubt, that of all the stories I’ve done, of all the places I’ve gone and the people I’ve met, nothing has taught me as much as fatherhood. 

Because raising a child is the ultimate creative act.

*This article was published on October 4, 2017.

Mike Sager

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. A longtime writer-at-large for Esquire, he has been called “the Beat poet of American journalism, that rare reporter who can make literature out of shabby reality.” Since 2012 he has also been the publisher of The Sager Group, a consortium of multi-media artists and writers, with the intent of empowering those who make art.


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