Life raising toddlers is like a never-ending tech week.
You know that adrenaline you feel during tech week, and you’re not sure whether it’s fueled by pure exhaustion, excitement, or a highly effective, carefully calculated balance of coffee and wine? Raising toddlers is kind of like that…except, unlike the too-quickly-approaching end of a tech week, the sleep deprivation never seems to end. But like with a production, with the seemingly never-ending work comes an unimaginable reward that we sign ourselves up for again and again (and in my case…again).
The parallels are undeniable and the personal growth, while painful, is equally impactful. So, I take comfort in the fact that the reign of chaos will end, and I will be better and stronger for having survived it.
But any theater mom that’s experienced both a tech week and raising toddlers can probably recall a moment (or many) that resembles one of these similar truths about tech week and raising toddlers.
The exhaustion is real, and it clouds the practical sense part of the brain.
You get into a grove of operating on little to no sleep, and at the expense of some practical functionality. One year, as I stumbled sleepily to bed at 2:00 a.m. after I finished blocking the Les Mis wedding, I filled each contact case pod with white toothpaste, plucked out my lenses, and plopped them into the sticky goop, only to drop my head back and shake my shoulders, with tears even too tired to drop. After reengaging as a working mom after my second maternity leave, I arrived at the theater slightly behind schedule to find my infant quietly blinking in her car seat. (I had forgotten to drop her off at daycare five minutes from our house after I’d driven 25 minutes to school.) Or the other time that I showed up at our in-home-provider’s house on a day she was off, arms extended, ready to hand her my child when she embarrassingly reminded me, “I’m closed today.” It’s also not unusual to find gallons of milk in the cupboard, shoes in the toy bin, and coffee mugs in the bathroom as my brain struggles to connect the dots on even the most seemingly logical of routines.
Things fall through the cracks.
This one goes out to my poor mother who was constantly the target of my forgetfulness. Her birthday fell right near a tech week every year, and every year, I would forget to wish her a happy birthday. On one occasion I talked to her for an hour on the phone that day while hunting for last minute costume embellishments and set dressings. I hung up the phone, drove to the theater, expelled an expletive, and shamefully called her back. I used to be on top of the birthdays before following a working mom schedule, but the number of electronic Amazon gift cards sent to people at 8:00 p.m. at this point is comical. And, unfortunately, birthdays aren’t the only balls to drop. Lunches are forgotten, bathing days get stretched longer and longer apart, and delivery pizza takes the place of many evening dinners. But, we keep the train moving.
Sparks of beauty emerge, unexpectedly, and at unexpected times.
Just this week, I experienced the lightning strike of beauty while up for a 3:00 a.m. feeding. In just ten minutes, I was able to mentally morph what was a plain wooden card box for my brother’s Halloween-themed wedding (you can imagine the excitement of a benched theater director) into a black-lit, highlighter-adorned candy skull decorated receptacle. And this isn’t the first stroke of midnight genius that has struck. It’s not uncommon that I wake in the middle of the night with ideas about how to bring a show–or a regular day of toddler entertainment–to the next level. Whether it’s how to create Cinderella’s shoes with spray adhesive and glitter, how to help my kids learn a second language by picking up books written in Spanish from the library tomorrow, or how to prepare tomorrow’s spaghetti in a way that maybe, just maybe, the kids will try it this time, it seems my best ideas often come when I least expect them.
The highs are high and the lows are low.
As with any tight-knit group, we have good days and bad. Some days we are giggling with arms around one another, smiles abound. Other days we’re screaming, angry, and irritated, snapping at every missed step. These days usually involve crying. I’m either crying in amazement that we created a human that makes such a creative cardboard box pirate ship or weeping in the bathroom with my fourth cup of coffee while little fingers knock on the door and wiggle their way underneath. But let’s be honest, as passionate artists, we feel intensely. So, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the beautiful artists we created–either biologically, through coaching in a production, or otherwise–have the passionate fire we do. It all helps us stay viscerally connected to our common mission as ultimate teammates.
Life is held together by duct tape, take out, and television.
I find new ways to put more lipsticks on more pigs. Whether it’s fixing things with duct tape, re-wiping with a previously-used wipe, or cutting a scene that just isn’t working…there are a lot of snap decisions that need to be made in the moment to keep moving forward. You just simply don’t have time to dig to the bottom of every issue and fix it the right way. So, you order take out for the fourth night this week. You pin the costume on the actor every time they need to climb into it rather than restitching. And sometimes, you just turn on another television show for the kids today to keep everyone from trashing the house while you fold the sixth load of laundry you ran this week. No guilt, no shame, no regret. You do what it takes to get through and pat yourself on the back at the end of the day for keeping all the balls in the air.
You struggle to find the words to explain to someone that isn’t involved just how insane it is.
Whenever I would explain to our non-theater or non-parent family and friends why I was exhausted (and why my eyes were bloodshot as I catatonically smiled my way through the day), the lack of understanding for this level of commitment (to a show or to raising kids) could be challenging at times. I struggle to find the words to truly capture how motherhood changes your life and how theater consumes your life to people that aren’t experiencing it or aren’t familiar with it. Unless you’re along for the ride, I’m not sure the accuracy of the experience really can be captured. Yet, when people witness the product, either by witnessing dinner time for three picky eaters for the first time or by feeling the energy of an opening night, I’m often given appreciation in the form of, “How do you do that?” My answer: “I have no idea.”
The ridiculous situations I confronted as an actor and director had nothing on what I’d face raising three toddlers. But, the love and creative juice squished out of my sleepless shell (that no matter what I do is still ten pounds heavier) still seems worth it all the while. Because while others may see us as masochistic putting ourselves in these spots, artists know that creative beauty is often born from discord or distress. It’s a release of the burden we carry and a rescue line back to ourselves.
I’ve learned to embrace the chaos, welcome beauty that emerges, and lean on the truth that creative impulses will never lead you wrong. Also, I swear. Loudly. It really, really helps. (Just make sure there’s no audience for that.)
I’ve also learned to lean into my community, ending the day with a glass of wine and a laugh with my hubby to find the energy to try again tomorrow. And just as with a show, I know I’m really going to miss this stage when it’s gone. So, I try to live in the moment as much as possible.
Laura Bengs (she/her/hers) is a theater educator and freelance writer in the midwest. After directing for 14 years, she shifted her balance to include less teaching and more writing, freeing up time with her three joys: a son (5) and two daughters (3 and 8 months). Favorite current activities include puppet creation (and play), costumed dance parties, and crafting (yes, these theater genes are very strong). Her work has appeared in Milwaukee Magazine and OnStageBlog.com. She is the author of genAnew .