Justin Heazlewood, on the art of balancing a relationship and a creative career. 

When it comes to a choice of partner, there are two schools of thought. Some will be stimulated by those involved in the arts, while others will welcome an outside perspective. In comedy, it’s common for neurotic stand-ups to marry their grounded publicists or managers, while many visual artists I know form romantic collaborations with fellow practitioners.

Image: Manjiri Kanvinde

For comedian Josh Earl, having a partner removed from his industry provides some breathing space. ‘You get wrapped up in your little bubble of, “Oh, they got nominated for this?” and “I want to win the Piece of Wood award” [the comedian’s choice award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival] and my partner says, “What is that?” and you realise that it doesn’t mean anything to anyone. She works in palliative care, so her bad day is someone dying in a session, or making a bond with someone she’ll never see again. My bad day is someone didn’t laugh at a joke I made. She’s really good at putting things in perspective for me.’

My current relationship is with a performer, and despite a rocky beginning, middle and yesterday, we’re both deeply committed to each other. At times, one of us has the thought, The kitchen isn’t big enough for two universes, and issues have arisen when we can’t be present for each other emotionally. For the most part, though, we are a conscientious team, spiritually and creatively. We act as sounding boards, offer each other management advice and collaborate on work. I take comfort from having an ally in my corner, someone who won’t easily tire of my industry ranting and who loves my work enough to come to all my shows. Her mind is a diamond that splinters light into ideas.

Author Christos Tsiolkas thanks his partner for continuing to believe in him. ‘It took a long time to gain the confidence to call myself a writer; I felt like I was faking it. Again, I have been fortunate to have a long-term partner who maintained a faith in what I was doing even when my self-confidence was shattered. Wayne van der Stelt has been there right from when I started writing. In my case it was a partner, but it can be a sister, a friend, a parent, a teacher. You need those people around you who remind you that your pursuit is serious.’

If your art is your baby, what happens when an all-screaming, all-leaking one comes along? In her book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, Rachel Power explores this issue: ‘As Susan Rubin Suleiman wrote, perhaps the greatest struggle for a woman artist who has or desires children is the struggle against herself. No amount of money, no amount of structural change, can entirely resolve the fundamental dilemma for the artist-mother: the seeming incompatibility of her two greatest passions. The effect is a divided heart, a split self, the fear that to succeed at one means to fail at the other.’

Visual artist and new mother Tai Snaith says she was concerned that having a baby would compromise her work. ‘I’m such a productive over-achiever that I really thought it would inhibit my way of working and thus make me depressed. But it didn’t! I know it sounds crazy, but even though you have less time to spend working when you have kids, you tend to use it more wisely. I am much more focused about what I want to achieve and much better with deadlines and time shuffling. I have also finally learned the subtle grace of saying no and keeping my dignity.’

When it comes to the challenges of raising children, we often focus on the physical elements such as the time and energy sap. Tai reflects on the positive effect it’s had on her emotionally.

‘Motherhood has helped me to become a little bit less narcissistic and a bit more selfless. It puts things in perspective and helps you to think about things in a fresh way, which is always good when you’re an artist. It also allows you to just do whatever you want – I’m much less concerned about what people will think of me these days.’

Musician Fred Showell admits that when he found out his partner was pregnant, everything changed. Disillusioned with his music career at the time, it wasn’t difficult to put it on the backburner. ‘It’s such a cliché dad line, but as soon as I knew that I had a kid coming along I had to prioritise. I had to make sure I had a steady job that I wouldn’t go insane in, that would bring enough money home to put food on the table. Everything else just paled.’

Josh Earl is a father and currently the sole money-earner. He admits that it means he sometimes has to perform gigs he’d normally decline. ‘I get a lot of, “This will be good – we can’t pay you but it’ll be a whole bunch of new people, and it’ll be good networking,” and I say, “I don’t need that. I need to pay the bills.” I really like being at home now, not that I didn’t before, but I’ve got a wife and a kid. If I’m going to leave the house now it’s got to be to get money or something that’s fun.’

Singer-songwriter Clare Bowditch successfully balances a professional music career with motherhood. She attributes much of this to her stay-at-home-dad partner. In The Divided Heart she recalls the physical challenges. ‘I remember being at the Empress Hotel milking myself into a tissue because I was leaking everywhere and I didn’t think that was such an attractive look.’

When I interviewed her, Clare said she had to make a difficult decision between relocating to Berlin and remaining with her family. ‘You could spend years of your life waiting for other people to tell you that you’ve done well because you had an international career, and suddenly it occurred to me that I would have to be the sort of mother who was away from her children, and I didn’t want to be. I’d have to be touring constantly and have to be focusing on things other than what was really important to me, which was living my life well.

I kept getting sick all the time; it was an exciting existence but it was also exhausting. So it was a relief to come home and ask myself, “What do I actually want?”’

One risk for an artist having children is being too consumed by their work to be present. In the 2012 film A Late Quartet, Alexandra confronts her mother, Juliette, a professional cello player. ‘Do you think it was fun growing up with two quartet players as parents who were gone for seven months of the year, and I was always taking back seat to a violin and a viola? Does that seem fun to you?’

Visual artist Lyndal Walker tells me about a friend who grew up with a successful photographer for a mother. ‘She said, “We’d rent a house with three bedrooms, but my sister and I would always end up sharing a bedroom because Mum would take the other bedroom for a studio. Every time it was supposed to be different. But there we were in our teens sharing bedrooms so Mum could have a studio.” The art practice was a third sibling. A very demanding, favoured, expensive, disabled sibling.’ She laughs.

In The Divided Heart, children’s author Sally Rippin says her art gives her a sense of self. ‘Art balances children, for me. They both give my life meaning, but with children it’s just give, give, give. With art it nourishes me, it’s taking something for myself.’

She goes on to quote writer and parent Chester Eagle, who says that children must not be used as an excuse not to write. ‘It sounds impossible but, after all, even the most hard-pressed parent usually manages to brush teeth, iron the odd garment, make a bed or remember to buy tomatoes, so why not write as well? I mean it. Why not? I’m fairly savage on this matter. If one wants to, one will.’

When I think about the amount of time I spend on my art practice, I can’t see how I could realistically share that with a child as well. My art really is my baby. It takes up most of my time, mental space, energy and money. When I’ve underslept, my writing suffers. I’m extremely cautious about selling off my mental real estate to the round-the-clock demands of another human. For now, I’m happy cultivating the rich, artistic environment my partner and I have built. We want to save, we want to travel, we want to become self-sufficient. For now we are a family and our art gives us what we need*.

For More Advice On Life as an Artist, Read Justin Heazlewood's Funemployed

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Justin Heazlewood is presently touring his Cat Show. Check it out here. 

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Justin Heazlewood

Justin Heazlewood a writer and musician who first found fame as The Bedroom Philosopher. He has also written two critically-acclaimed books: the memoir The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries (2012), followed by Funemployed (2014), which focused on the ecstasies, horrors and realities of being a working artist.