It’s hard to write a novel with a fractious toddler on your lap. Or design a new brand logo while your baby emits a series of blood-curdling screams. In short, small children have a tendency to disrupt the creative process. As the literary critic Cyril Connolly famously put it: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”
Luckily, The Dadwell Podcast finds ways of making it a work. Through in-depth interviews, founder Antonio Garcia chats to a lively mix of artists, designers, filmmakers, authors and musicians. This is real talk about the challenges of mixing entrepreneurial creative practices and fatherhood. As Antonio explains: “Each episode I pull back the curtain on a different dad’s creative practice, fathering philosophy, and practical tactics for navigating the stress, fatigue, resentment, wonder, pride, and joy of raising the creative bar while simultaneously raising small humans.”
Based in Chicago, Antonio is father to Javier (5) and Amaya (1½). But the 41-year-old is also a design leader, illustrator and lecturer at at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute. He spoke to The Father Hood about the intersection of creativity and dad life.
The Father Hood: Originally you didn’t want to have kids. You’ve said you “saw children as barriers to everything I wanted to do creatively”. What in particular were you worried about in relation to your life as a designer/illustrator/storyteller and how did the reality of becoming a dad actually compare?
Antonio Garcia: Before we had our first child, I was just overwhelmed by the commitment of it all—by the idea of supporting a whole human life for the rest of my life. I saw (and still see) parenting as the most critical job within society because it decides the future of civilization one human at time. Being a parent is a role no one can adequately prepare you for. That burden really freaked me out. I also knew how much energy and effort I put into things I care about — so I think I was scared of my compulsion to love my child so completely and I didn’t want to lose myself and my identity in that.
When it comes to creativity, creating is an inherently vulnerable act: you’re exposing how you think and feel about a subject, dragging that thing into being and holding it up for judgment and validation. And that process takes time. I was used to having room and energy to make things on my terms and timelines. I worked hard to have free time to create things — to indulge in creative activities I found rewarding and stimulating and interesting to myself and others. So my life and identity as a designer/illustrator/storyteller felt like plenty. I was already manifesting new things all the time. I was expressing new ideas and concepts and didn’t feel the need to bring a whole human being into the world. I felt accomplished or complete as a person without being a parent.
And while I wasn’t wrong about a lot of these pre-kid worries (children require inestimable love, time and balance) the severity of my speculations was overblown and my fears were outsized. I also underestimated the personal transformation, growth, and refocusing it would bring about for me. It was like when Javier was born everything changed and everything stayed the same, too. Maris (Antonio’s partner) and I needed all-new strategies and support to hack parenting, but we were still who were when we fell in love and the foundation of our marriage remained strong. I gained an all-new perspective on life and humanity, but my personality and preferences largely stayed the same. And I had this demanding, beautiful new joy and struggle everyday, but my purpose and passions were still all about creating things and expressing ideas.
TFH: You quit your job six months after your second child was born. That’s a big move—particularly for someone who sounds so passionate about his creative endeavours? What motivated that decision and recalibration of priorities?
AG: Well, the job I quit wasn’t particularly creative (a realization that contributed to my mounting angst) so leaving it was an easy choice. I told people on the leadership team I was leaving when Amaya was about six months old, and ultimately stayed on another three months to tie up loose ends and help my team transition. So she was technically nine months old when I started my year-long “creative sabbatical”.
There were a lot of motivators behind the decision: we had recently had our second child, I had just turned 40, I had spent 20 years in the design industry building other peoples’ dreams for a living, I wasn’t creatively fulfilled, I was overcommitted and feeling a great deal of stress, angst, frustration and resentment. I wasn’t allowing myself any joy and I was taking it all out on the people I loved the most—which makes me sad and ashamed to say. So I felt like a big move was the best way to reset and recalibrate.
Maris and I reviewed our finances and determined we could make a year work on just her income and our savings. It was nerve-racking all the way up until the first morning I woke up a free man. I never second-guessed the decision after that.
TFH: What inspired you to start The Dadwell Podcast?
AG: I knew I didn’t want to squander a single day of the sabbatical, so I began planning several larger scale creative projects I’d work on during that year. Maris suggested I do something at the intersection of creativity and fatherhood since those two identities and passions were in constant conflict for me. I wanted to relieve that tension, too, so I could develop skills to manage my emotions better when I eventually returned to industry.
To start, I made a short list of guys I admired—both professionally and as parents—and originally thought I’d just take them to lunch or coffee and make time to learn from them. But my desire to improve as a father, a husband, and a creative professional quickly morphed into dozens of long-form interviews and a podcast about how these men balance thriving entrepreneurial creative practices and being really engaged dads and partners. On another level, the show is about artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, authors, etc. who are changing the definitions of fatherhood and masculinity and what it means to be man, or the breadwinner.
TFH: Creativity doesn’t have an on/off switch and dads with young kids tend to be incredibly time-poor. From your interviews for Dadwell, could you share any practical tips you’ve learnt about how to manage that tension between doing great work and still nailing your responsibilities as a dad.
AG: I’ve actually started on a Dadwell guidebook aimed at distilling down the first three seasons into big ideas and practical tips so I’ve been sorting through that exact question!
*A really simple one that gets overlooked is the value of communicating schedules and expectations with your partner. Make no assumptions and take nothing for granted: use 30 minutes on Sunday night to map out your work week and personal plans with your partner, making sure each other is aware and accountable for childcare, meals and everything else that has to happen to make it all work.
*Invest in tools and habit that make creativity possible outside of the studio environment. Keep sketchbooks lying around the house within arms-reach or buy an iPad Pro so all your ideas have someplace to go when you eventually carve out time.
*Involve your kids in your practice and explain how your creative process works. Even if you don’t inspire them to create, they at least their see dad in making mode and might begin to acknowledge your commitment, passion and work ethic.
*Get creative with how, where and when you work. This might be in the early morning while everyone is still asleep and the house is quiet or on your train commute to and from work or after-hours when the kids are in bed. Experiment with different environments, noise tolerances, caffeine levels, and times of day.
TFH: A lot of the men you interview are creative entrepreneurs who are juggling multiple projects / side hustles at the same time. How do these guys avoid burning out when they also have so much going on?
AG: The “Rise & Grind” mentality has created a really sad cultural epidemic in the States. Everyone’s hustling. Everyone’s an entrepreneur. Everyone’s trying to convert their passions into pay cheques. Making the show, I’ve learned how exhausting and silly it is to chase that. It’s refreshing that all the guests on Dadwell reject that way of thinking/working. They’ve show me the best antidote to burnout is taking the long view on life and career and being kind to yourself about each day in the studio — whether its productive or not; whether you achieve a breakthrough or just organise your supplies—continuously remind yourself that this shit is a marathon not a sprint.
Part of that forgiveness and self-care involves unplugging and decompressing from time to time. Taking an intentional, solitary break every six months is amazing. Not everyone is ready to take an entire year off, but I guarantee you can plan a 24- to 48-hour solo getaway. These “micro-retreats” could be a daylong hike in the woods or an overnight stay at an inspiring resort – the point is to reset, recharge, and return a better version of yourself. Be certain to make the same opportunity possible for your partner.
Most importantly, stop comparing yourself to other men. Ignore the social media highlight reels and the boastful encounters with random dads at the playground. Focus more on how you’re spending your time not how they claim to spend theirs. Compare the energy and effort you’re investing in your family (and just being a dad) against all the other ways you spend your time and keep that ratio in check.
Images: Kyle La Mere