I asked Mary Tensing, a wonderful actor and writer, to write a piece for Life’s Soundtrack on her experiences as a parent and artist. What you’ll read below is a rich account of parental love, how acting and parenting really can go hand in hand, and how Mary navigates her identity.
In praise of bringing your artist life to your life as a parent, and vice versa.
By Mary Tensing
Several years ago, I was talking with a woman I’d just met at a party, we were discussing raising kids when I casually mentioned how much being a theatre person was an overwhelming benefit to being a parent. To me the connection is so obvious it seems self-evident, but the woman didn’t follow. I explained that acting is all about being in the present moment, playing, pretending, being silly and willing to look like a fool, and that just about encapsulated what I was doing all day with my almost one year old daughter. Ah, the relief to go through life in a constant state of silliness, not just while at rehearsal. No pretending you don’t want to sing to I Will Survive with the music pumped over the speakers at the grocery store, break into a celebratory rain dance when they spray the leafy greens in the produce department, or score as many free cookies as you can at the deli. Have at! That’s what kids live for. And then there’s the repetition– each time the audience or the toddler hears, Hamlet or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, it has to be as thrilling as the very first time. In order to keep it fresh, actors look for greater nuance, growing their understanding, deepening their connection with the text, but in truth, my daughter, now almost four, usually prefers my initial line reading. She doesn’t want me to grow in the role. She likes it best the first time she heard it, and by god, I had better remember and deliver it just as convincingly. These days she loves stories invented on the spot. While we’re waiting anywhere, but particularly on the toilet, and especially if we have interrupted dinner to go, she is ready with,“Tell me funny story!” She is very sure of her preferences, beginning with “Once upon a time…” Needless to say, improvisation skills come in handy. And as in every improv game from drama class, you can’t deny anything already established, but you can always change it. So yes, as she demands, the main character will be called, Eva, but I can then make this Eva a tap dancing pickle if it strikes my fancy. She delights in it. But no matter how much finality I give to the conclusion, she tosses in another, “And then what happens?!” Nothing. They all went to bed and drown in their sleep, let’s go finish supper— I mean, they danced in the pickle jamboree… and lived happily ever after- let’s go finish supper!
It’s easy to blow these things off, seeing them as just part of everyday childcare, but I have come to realize how many people aren’t comfortable being silly, making things up, and pretending, and I have to remember to value it in myself. No, I’m not going to the opening of my new play tonight or even a read-through of a first draft, but damn it, I am playing the living room, and my interpretation of the lonely puppy is fucking amazing.
There is also the immense value the artist brings in slowing down and appreciating the moment, regardless of what artistic background you have. There is so much rushing around in our culture, the faster you are running the more important you must be, but a young child doesn’t even know how to rush. They run around all the time, but they aren’t rushing, they are bursting with energy to celebrate the moment. Again! And again! And again! (Again with the repetition. That of course is a repetitiously redundant, recurring theme.) Yet often, we adults spend copious amounts of time trying to get them to hurry up. Remembering and honoring the artist within, can help appreciate and even savor slowing down to spend these, in fact, fleeting moments with your child.
Finding time to work on my theatre or writing pieces outside of life with my daughter has been more elusive, but in the main, that has been okay with me, as I have always been a firm believer in the seasons of life. At several crucial times of my life, I haven’t had much balance, knowing sometimes experiences come and take focus for a while. In my early twenties, my work and my friends were ascending, in my late thirties, all I wanted to do was bond with my new love, and now I’ve been in a nesting nurturing phase. That has been alright with me as long as I don’t judge myself with someone else’s idea of what I should be doing or feeling, but continue to use my own gut feeling as my compass. If I’m not giving my whole self to living my life, I won’t have as much to bring to my work, when that work does take place. Many years ago I heard the author, Nancy Willard, talk about balancing work with the demands of her family. She said that she diligently uses the time she has, but when she doesn’t have that time she knows that she is replenishing the well, giving herself more material, more grist for future mills. As an artist, there isn’t anything more important than growing your humanity, bringing more life experience to your work, whatever form that takes.
When on the brink of motherhood, I knew I would want to take a break from outside work while my child was young. This was partly because of my personality, and partly because I had been looking down the fierce barrel of infertility and what felt like impossible hurdles to becoming a parent at all. I knew that if I got lucky enough to be a mother, I wanted to devote myself to being with my child while she was young. Shortly after we adopted our daughter, I did have an unfinished project to wrap up, and working on that script was tremendously frustrating. I hated switching gears, stealing moments when she was sleeping, splitting my attention and energy with something outside of our lives together. I was filled with relief when I finished it, and could fully enjoy being in the moment with her. There have been several small projects that have presented themselves since, and they were fun and enriching because they required small amounts of time that didn’t impose greatly. Conversely, I have friends who have had a vastly different history, whose parenting has been dramatically improved by having intense work outside the demands of their babies and young children, but that has not been my experience. Inertia runs strong in me. Too much switching of gears whittles away my strength.
What I have done, remaining active as an artist, is something that happened without my consciously trying because it grew out of my natural interests and what fed the artist’s soul of my girl at the same time as my own. First, we’ve taken a number of classes together, dance, yoga and music– and I have loved them every bit as much as she has. It has benefited us as individuals, as well as in our bond together. We sing the songs we have learned in class and then make up more as we go along. It’s encouraged her expression and given us new language to process so many things, from the celebratory to the challenging.
Second, the consistent writing I have done the past four years, is a blog of my daughter’s life. Initially the blog was begun to share details, anecdotes, and milestones with our daughter’s birthparents as well as our family and friends spread across the country, but it has become more than just that. It has grown into a way to capture and document her essence, the evolution of her character in all its contradiction and complexity, a very long-term character study. It helps us appreciate her more fully in the moment, as well as provide an invaluable tool to look back and remember. A couple of times a week, I choose the most crucial happenings or developments, and attempt to capture them with a bit of text and few images. I’ve worked to hit a tone of wonder and respect for her, not bragging or self-aggrandizing, but celebrating life as it is unfolding. I also take care to remain sensitive to the public nature of a blog, not posting anything she might not want to be common knowledge someday in the future. Although that sounds fairly simple, and potentially the goal of any scrapbook, I work to craft the simple text to hopefully elevate it to something more. The simple act of consistently working with even a few sentences has been a great practice, reaching through the words and phrases, to find more than just the sum of their parts. Sometimes the text is brief, not wanting to gild the lily. Occasionally it grows into something with a slightly larger scope, as it did a few weeks ago.
Although I have always had a fascination with photography, our daughter’s entry into our lives has deepened my passion. Most often I take the images for the blog, but not always. We have some incredibly gifted photographers among our family and friends that have not only contributed pictures, but have taught me a lot by just becoming familiar with their work. Falling more and more in love with images, finding the moment that captures life as it is unfolding, has grown my artistic self in new directions.
Each year after her birthday, with the ease of book-making software, I have turned the posts into a yearbook, adding more pictures and detail. Shortly, I’ll begin putting together the fourth book in the series, which we will also give to her birthparents and grandparents. The blog books have then inspired me to make other books. Eva Faces is a collection of pictures of her in the throes of many moods during her first year. She always loved the books we had of anonymous emoting baby faces, so I though she would enjoy seeing herself as the main character. And having hundreds of pictures at the ready, I had quite a range of her emotion from which to draw. Then came Funny Faces, a collection of pictures of her, as well as a number of other important people in her life, making silly expressions with text to match. Recently she and I have been talking about writing a book together, creating a story with images to publish and give out over the holidays. She is interested and I’m delighted, growing both our creative selves to find something more than was there before.
We’re now on the brink of another change, as our daughter is beginning a half-day pre-school, five days a week. With those found hours I look forward, for the first time in four years, to getting back to my own writing projects in earnest.
There is a doubt that creeps in when you take an extended sabbatical from anything, and I can now more fully see the down sides of my choices. There is a part of one that begins to wonder if that old self is still you, with so much changed since. And in my most insecure times, that doubt can get me wondering, now that my identity and experience have changed, am I still an artist, or have I morphed into some boring retro chick who neglected to lean in and is subsequently letting down the sisterhood and in turn, her own daughter, teaching her, mommy does laundry while daddy gets paid. (insert Edvard Munch’s, The Scream) Noooooo!
But when I breathe and listen to myself, not anyone else, or any article on the internet reminding me that I am, in fact, doing it all wrong, I know that during these past four years, what has helped nurture my mother-self has also nurtured my artist-self. And in fact, I have grown to feel they are intricately connected, different aspects or faces of the same creative god/dess, Brahma-like looking out different directions from the same source.
But damn, I hope I can work as joyously without my young muse. Luckily, I get to pick her up at eleven thirty everyday.
Mary Tensing 8/29/13
Mary Tensing is an actor, writer, and teacher living in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and daughter.