As a parent of a three-and-a-half year old, my Holy Grail has always been a job that I can do while raising my child that doesn't take me too far away from my parental responsibilities, and not only helps my child, but also makes the world a better place. I thought such an ideal was a myth, but it turns out that a hobby was my Holy Grail in disguise.
Before trying to conceive at 39, I might have said my ideal work was performing, especially Shakespeare. Communicating a story to an audience thrills me - ever since I can remember, I wanted to act. I put on plays in my Arlington, VA living room, wrote skits for my elementary school PTA, spent my childhood performing with Children’s Theatre of Arlington (now Encore Stage and Studio), Washington Lee High School, and then James Madison University. I co-founded Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in 1994 and then moved to NYC, traveling for performances around the country.
After 10 years of shows on the road and writing two full-length plays, I realized that theatre is like a Ferris wheel – you get on, rehearse, do a show, repeat, and, if you’re lucky, the wheel never stops. But if I wanted to have a child, I had to get off the wheel to make it happen. My husband had a day job, and theatre happens mostly at night; it's kind of hard to make a baby if you're not in the same room with your partner! So I hopped off the wheel with a slight amount of trepidation, but the knowledge that theatre would be there when I was ready to return.
Miracle of miracles, I finally became a parent in 2012, at age 41. After my son was born, I knew I wanted to go back to work, but I wasn’t ready for the time commitment of a theatre production, and I didn’t just want to do something that would be meaningless to me and take away from the time that I was spending with him.
During my pregnancy, I had been on bed rest for 10 weeks, and I reconnected with art. Other than watching the Summer Olympics non-stop, I painted two canvases of “Bears at the Beach” for our nursery. My mom had done paintings for me and each of my sisters when we were small, and we treasure them. I loved passing on the tradition of making images my child would see all the time, and was proud of my work, but I never connected my fun with art to a job as an illustrator – I thought my style was too “cartoony.”
When my munchkin turned one, I had another burst of creativity and painted two decorative wall murals the night before his first birthday party. I’ve always been a night owl; I have a knack for working quickly, staying up all night, and still functioning the next day (with the help of lots of chai lattes).
Out of the blue, my sister Rebecca P. Cohen, author of Fifteen Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids, asked me if I would be interested in doing an initial illustration of the main character for her children’s book concept about outdoor play and the world. It would be an experiment to see if I enjoyed illustrating and to see how we worked together. It was like a light bulb clicked on – I was drawn to illustrating something that would be a legacy for my child, the type of work played to my “cartoony” strengths, and I could do it when my son was asleep or at school. I immediately set to work, and PJ came to life.
Now, two and a half years later, it turns out that illustration has been my Holy Grail. The second book in the PJ’s Backyard Adventures series, Play at a Paris Playground was just released. Once a week, I talk or Skype with my sister. If a family obligation comes up, we easily adjust. The bonus is that the book series has helped my son recognize letters and words; he loves to turn the pages and tell me the story. He plays with PJ word cards, and loves to take a cut out of PJ on his outdoor adventures (think of PJ as Flat Stanley for outdoor play). He even wanted to dress up as PJ in his pajamas, fireman’s hat, and boots for the open house at our local fire station. The illustrations I did for the second book fueled my little guy’s obsession with the Eiffel Tower and a gleeful zest for recognizing continents and individual countries on the globe.
I have a shirt with the quote, “Don’t ever waste your days not doing what you dream to do.” It brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. That quote even inspired my sister to leave the corporate world to start her business when her children were my son’s age.
What do you dream to do?
My priority now is to show my son joy in the smallest details of life, and sharing my PJ illustrations with him helps me do just that. In March, I’ll be back in rehearsals for my first stage production in five years – since before I “got off the wheel” to make time to bring my little one into the world. I adore being with my son. I don’t like the thought of missing our bedtime routine six nights a week, but both he and I are ready for it now. When I’m at work, he’ll have PJ to keep him company, and I’m grateful for the support of my family in helping to make what I dream to do – my Holy Grail – possible.
Marni Penning Coleman is an actress and illustrator of PJ’s Backyard Adventures: Who is PJ? and Play at a Paris Playground. She recently produced and starred in Sonnet 77, a short film for the Sonnet Project NYC, and will appear March 2016 as Mae in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD.