Children and Art

I stole the title of this blog post from Stephen Sondheim.

For the uninitiated, “Children and Art” is a song from his musical Sunday in the Park with George, which tells the story behind Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

The song argues that children and art are the two most important legacies we can leave behind. This message speaks to me.

Unfortunately, the musical does not offer any helpful hints about balancing the making of art with the raising of children. And I couldn’t help rolling my eyes when Georges turns his back on his girlfriend, Dot, and their newborn daughter, hardly looking up from his sketch pad as he dismisses them from his life forever. (Not surprisingly, it’s a female character who sings “Children and Art.”)

Feminist aggravation aside, the experience of seeing the show was like getting a B12 shot – it shook awake my sleep-deprived, fuzzy-brained self, the one that’s so deeply entrenched in Children, and reminded me of the rapture of Art. Not only of creating it, but experiencing it. It’s not something I do a lot right now; these days, going to the theater feels like a radical act.

This performance was on a weeknight, and I went by myself. I got a sitter who would stay with the kids for the hours between my departure and Steven’s arrival home from work. I told myself that upending the usual weeknight routine would be hard on the kids, but they couldn’t have cared less. They were excited to spend the evening with someone else. It was hard on me. Not just logistically but psychologically. I felt guilty and anxious; I kept deciding not to go. I asked myself why on earth I was doing this.

“This” was a daylong race to prepare for my departure: Go to the grocery store, answer emails and get a little work done, look after the 2-year-old, drop off and pick up the 4-year-old from preschool, make dinner (something with a low probability of choking and a high probability of being eaten – mac and cheese!) so that all the sitter would have to do is serve it to the kids… SHOWER, and oh shit – the train is in 10 minutes. I made it, although with a perilously low phone battery and with still-wet hair that was beginning to frizz. I put on my makeup while sitting on the train, with no mirror. In lieu of dinner I ate a cheese stick and a granola bar that I’d tossed into my purse on my way out the door.

And then I got to the theater. I settled into my seat, Playbill in hand, and the lights went down.

It took a little while, but eventually I stopped worrying about the children. I stopped thinking about what I would normally be doing at that time: Giving them a bath, zipping up footie pajamas, combing hair, picking up toys.  The production starred Jake Gyllenhaal, so that certainly helped. (Yes, he can sing!) It felt so decadent to sit in a dark theater for two hours. I got chills. I got a little choked up. Even the slow parts were wonderful. Thank god I came here, I thought. All of the stress of the day felt more than worth it.

I wanted to write about it.  I felt the need to write about this feeling, about remembering how transformative art is, and how important it is to keep making it, to keep writing.

Readers, that was almost a week ago. I’ve spent the intervening days trying, and failing, to write. I got more and more frustrated as the daily stuff kept getting in the way, and I beat myself up for not getting up earlier or getting the daily stuff done faster so I would have time. And when some time did present itself, often at the end of the day, I was just too tired. And instead of writing I lay on the couch and watched DVR’d episodes of The Daily Show.

So here’s the hard part: It’s not really about balancing children and art but accepting that there is no balance – that children (at this stage of life, at least) outweigh art and will come first. That I will keep up with art when I can, but that it will probably be way less often than I would like. That it will be hard.

Still – to borrow from Sondheim again – there are worse things than sitting in a theater on a Monday.

There are worse things
Than sitting in a theater
While your kids are with a sitter
Though you ate string cheese for dinner
And your hair is getting pouffy
And your house is a disaster
And you’ll have to clean it later
When you get back from the theater
On a Monday.


  1. Loved this and very timely. I just started reading Mary Oliver’s book of essays “Upstream. ” She lives a different life than one with children, but who’s life is not different, and there is still experience and wisdom to be learned from? She says, “The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard,” or maybe string cheese for dinner, “The poem gets written.”

    I was thinking this too, as parents or as partners, we go into the world, exploring, then return to or children, our lovers, the ordinary, then we share what the hunt gave us, feeding both body and soul.


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