Monday, August 11, 2014

Leaving the Kids at Home

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists who've undertaken creative residencies with their families. As important as it is to have options that include young children, sometimes it just makes more sense to go without them. On her website, writer Debbie Urbanski describes her process for pursuing a residency while leaving her young children home with family.  She graciously allowed us to share this excerpt:

Heading off to my first writing residency at Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts in Ithaca, NY a few months ago, I was terrified. I was leaving my kids for the first time ever, having never spent even a night away from them. I felt guilty and wondered what had I gotten my family and myself into. It helped to read some firsthand accounts of other writing residencies online, but I couldn’t really find anything written by a parent of relatively young children (mine are 4 and 7 years old).  In brief, despite the nervousness, anxiety, and guilt, my first writer’s residency was one of the best milestones in my writing life so far. My family survived and so did I.

There are a few rare residencies that allow your family to stay with you. Part of me thinks 'awesome!' But part of me thinks 'no!' That would slip the writer back into the role of caregiver and make it difficult, yet again, to focus on one’s work.

Why leave the family behind to pursue a residency program?
* To have uninterrupted time to focus on one’s writing / creative work.
* To meet other artists and have sustained adult conversations about art.
* To remember what it’s like to be a writer first (versus being a parent first).
* To take the next step in one’s career.

In my case at least, being a mother is a constant buzzing distraction, one that bangs its fists against my writing room door begging for attention. I always think that being a mom makes me a better writer, but being a writer makes me a worse mom. A lot of times in the day, I’ll be honest, I want to be writing (or reading). My weekday schedule means I wake up ridiculously early to walk and then make breakfast for the family, and get the kids up, and get my husband up, and coordinate making lunches, and make sure the kids are stable enough for the day. I’m lucky enough to have time to write in the morning, but that time ends when the alarm on my phone goes off, which means I have exactly 11 minutes to get to school to pick them up. It’s a jarring transition. Fragments of my stories are always hovering around me, fighting for my attention. I haven’t been able to write on the weekends for about 7 years.

Choosing the right program
There are some great resources out there to find the right residency for you. In my case I figured I could escape for 2 weeks maximum. My ideal criteria was that residents would be fed, since cooking occupies way too much time in my ordinary life, and ideally I wouldn’t have to pay to go. If this is your first residency, I’d also recommend trying to find one close to home. It was a great comfort to me that I might be only an hour away in case my kids needed me. Or I wimped out.

I wish more residencies offered two weeks. I wish more residencies offered stipends to help with childcare costs. A mentorship program would be nice, where they pair you up with another artist mother so you can ask questions (like, am I insane?) before you go. Saltonstall allowed visitors on Sundays which was great, so the kids got to see where I worked (though these visits were not uncomplicated). Not all places allow that.

Preparing the kids
My kids were 4-½ and 7 years old when I went. I don’t think I could have left them any
 Dad Camp
sooner. Even at 4 ½ years, Stella’s conception of time is fuzzy, and she would ask heartbreaking questions like, “Will you be home for my birthday?” (which was 3 months away), but it’s probably different for every family. I just felt like I couldn’t wait any longer. That said, it’s true, when Saltonstall called to offer me the residency part of me wanted to say,”actually I’m not ready for this.”

We called my residency “Mom’s writing camp” -- and my husband added that Mom had won an award to go there. So my kids were excited. We were also talking about summer camps for them, and they found the idea that I had my own camp to be kind of wacky. Our school generously allowed Stella (age 4) to move to full day pre-school with after care for 2 weeks, so the kids were taken care of weekdays until 5:30. Friends generously offered to help out with rides if we needed it or invited Harold and the kids over to dinner. And we have a great babysitter who was able to help Harold out a few nights too when he needed to work late or take a break. Grandparents who lived locally would have come in helpful, but no such luck for us.

We called the kids hanging out with Dad during those two weeks “Dad Camp” — and the talk of ice cream trips, mac & cheese, and lots of PB&J got the kids pretty excited.

Re-entry was challenging on a lot of levels. The kids missed Dad Camp in a lot of ways (no chores! no making lunches! ice cream!) My husband had enjoyed being a single parent in a
catching up post-residency
lot of ways too (no negotiation! less clean up in the kitchen! more eating out!). I missed having adult conversation every night for dinner (it’s true, I cried the first family dinner I had, where the conversation was mainly about why Stella was kicking me under the table about every minute). I missed having entire days for writing and I felt dragged down by the amount of housework that my life requires.

Because the residency ended on Mother’s Day weekend, we decided to stay for a few more days down in Ithaca and hike. Perhaps we were too ambitious -- there were some spectacularly unhappy scenes. But there were some nice moments too, like getting to read with my kids again. I think it would have been equally as shocking for me to suddenly appear and be thrust back into the everyday schedule of chores and tending to the kids. It took maybe three weeks for us to work out the kinks, maybe longer.

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 Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. Her work focuses on aliens, marriage, cults, belief, and family, or some combination of those themes. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, and the UK science fiction magazines Interzone and Arc. You can find more of her work at

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