Muse (Photo by Marisa Ross)

Muse (Photo by Marisa Ross)

“Apply the oxygen mask to yourself before assisting your child.” The flight attendant’s instructions never fail to unnerve me. I understand the logic, but the words smack of selfishness. We celebrate individualism. The ubiquitous devices of our time—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—begin with a letter that doubles as a personal pronoun.

Parenting should never be self-indulgent. As a father, I have assisted my children by fostering their embrace of creative muses. Whatever tools they needed, they had. Crayons. LEGOs. Cameras. My daughter knows she needn’t ask permission to borrow my laptop if her muse is demanding she write a short story. I know what that feels like, to have words pounding inside your skull in an attempt to escape.

As a toddler my daughter would occasionally awaken, alone and distressed. I would sing her troubled spirit back to sleep, and then, being already awake, enjoy her gentle breathing while releasing those skull-pounding words onto paper. I would write my pre-dawn musings—from serious examinations of the challenges of parenthood to whimsical reflections on how “why” was my daughter’s favorite word—and then put them away. At some point she began sleeping through the night. I put down my pen.

Apply the oxygen mask to yourself before assisting your child.

And now, years later, my daughter and I find ourselves on the campus of an art school for a pre-college visit. I take her hand. I’m so happy for you, I say. You’ll thrive here, surrounded by creative people just like you, passionate spirits who draw, paint, photograph, write. I share my pride, but I mask my envy. She has an artist’s observational eye, however. She sees the truth in my face, hears it in my voice, feels it in my grip. “Why don’t you write anymore, Dad?”

For sixteen years I have instructed my children to live a life of truth. But have I modeled that life? I told my muse that the demands of parenthood forced me to choose my children over her. But that is a lie. I did not have to choose, yet I took the easy path. One day not writing became two, then four, then a year, then a decade.

I hear in my daughter’s question that to her I am a fellow artist. Perhaps her artistic inspiration stemmed not solely from my provision of tools but from her witnessing my stolen moments of creative writing. She views me as having applied the mask to myself first, and she is grateful. But at some point I removed the mask. As I stand with her on that campus, I know her mask is secure. I know as well that it is time for me to return to my muse, and embrace the intake of purified air.



Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross is an award-winning journalist in northern Virginia. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and blogs about living an art-committed life at The Artist’s Road. He loves antique maps, historical biographies, and bacon.

Connect with Patrick Ross
The Artist’s Road | @PatrickRwrites

Photo by Lisa Helfert



Patrick Ross Recommends:

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, selected by Phillip Lopate

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, selected by Phillip Lopate

The Next American Essay, Edited and Introduced by John D'Agata

The Next American Essay, Edited and Introduced by John D'Agata

What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, by Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth

What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, by Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth


Please join the discussion below

13 thoughts on “Oxygen

  1. This essay hits close to home as I struggle to make sure my daughters’ “masks” are secure while at the same time figuring out how to work my own. A beautiful essay, Patrick. I’m glad to have had the chance to read it.

  2. Thank you Patrick, for the beautiful essay.
    Whether we are a parent or have been the caretaker of a parent, your post speaks so elequently to the heart.

    So often in life we lay down our own muse. Either to please someone or because we consider it more important that they find theirs.

    I think your daughter learned as much from the tools provided as she did from your own stolen moments. It reminds me of the old saying if we do not love and care for ourselves, we cannot truly be there for another.

    Bravo that you are reclaiming your muse and your daughter has hers intack.
    Great job to you both.

  3. Terre, much thanks for posting this essay. It’s fun to be a part of this great site.

    Callie, much gratitude for the kind words. In my opinion, if you’re wrestling with that “mask” balance, that suggests you’ll find that balance.

    Marta, your words mean a lot to me. Thank you for your encouragement, to me and my daughter. She took the lovely photo on this post!

    • Patrick, I am forever grateful for your contribution to Creative Flux, and for sharing such a perceptive story, thank you.

      And, please forward my admiration and thanks to your talented Muse . . . I mean, daughter, Marisa, for the splendid and fitting image.

  4. I can relate with your daughter; my mother often says I was born asking ‘why?’ LOL.

    This essay is beautifully written, Patrick, and I’m not surprised in the least with what you reveal – it’s already ‘written’ all over your work.

    How wonderful that you have made it such a priority to take the time it takes to establish a loving creative bond with your daughter. Tears sprang to my eyes when I read the part where she asked you why you had stopped writing. It’s so great how you can continue to support and encourage one another in your respective creative careers.

    I hope you don’t mind that I may, from time to time, let my thoughts wander and live a few moments vicariously through your relationship with your daughter.

    It gives me immense hope and reassurance to know there are artistic parents out there recognizing and nurturing the creativity and talent/gifts their own children have. Often I’ve observed or read that they can be narcissistic,fixated only on their own creative career and neglect to be aware,support and encourage their children in the pursuit of creative expression (the movie ‘One True Thing’ comes to mind).

    Or if a parent isn’t artistically inclined but clearly sees that their child has some creative talent, they may just try and dissuade that child’s creative tendencies towards more ‘practical’ pursuits and (pre)occupations.

  5. This topic is one that all creative people who are parents struggle with. We often feel such guilt for taking any time away from our families to do the thing we love. But you are so right about not being our best, or showing our children how to live and be happy, if we don’t make time for our passion. Like you, I wrote at night, when my children were small, and then like you, I gave it up for many years to ‘make a living’. Now I am back to writing, and my children are happy to see me creating a writing life for myself. My son is an artist, and my daughter writes for her college paper. I think seeing me ‘go for it’ helped validate them in striving toward their own dreams.
    Excellent essay, Patrick. I could relate to all of it. Best wishes to you and your children.

  6. This is a very beautiful post Patrick, and this is a topic that is often on my mind, as I am an artist and my husband and I often talk about whether or not we would like to have children and when. Both of us have the fear of having to put our personal passions on hold if we have children. I’m so happy to read this and see how no matter what happens, there are endless chances to find your way back to art.

  7. Carole Jane, what an inspiring comment. I’m happy you lived vicariously for a moment in the creative bond between my daughter and me! You know, it’s interesting, your observation of artists as narcissistic parents. I know a couple of artists who experienced that growing up. They seemed to find their way to art anyway (perhaps because that was all they knew) but they suffer from exaggerated insecurities.

    Cynthia, such parallels! I’m happy for you and for your children. Thank you for your kind words.

    Nicole, thank you for your beautiful words. It seems to me that if you and your husband are already weighing these matters before becoming parents, you are demonstrating the thoughtfulness necessary to balance your muses, your responsibilities to your children, and your responsibilities to their muses. And yes, the path is always there, so it can always be found again.

  8. Oxygen. The essence of Life.

    Passion. The Crux of Creativity.

    Patrick, my spirit is always elevated by your gift of storytelling. Your ‘mask’ metaphor—parable, really—rings true for balancing creativity with any responsibility. How wonderful to couch it in the epiphany arising from an experience with your daughter and parenting. Also, it’s an interesting take on the concept of ‘wearing a mask,’ which is oftentimes seeing as something we should remove rather than wear.

    You never fail to inspire and expose your readers to a ‘fresh’ way of seeing. And, judging by the comments, you’ve touched more than one Truth, here.

  9. What a beautiful piece, Patrick. I believe strongly in putting our interests, our marriages, and our adult lives in a place of prominence. I’ve seen what happens when kids become the center of the universe . . . it’s not good for the parents OR the kids. I love what you said here: “She views me as having applied the mask to myself first, and she is grateful.” How perfectly stated.

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