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Can a great artist—or superstar in any field—truly put family first? Or does the very nature of doing something that most people cannot do, and doing it better than anyone else, require such total immersion and egoism as to make the “family first” claim inherently false?

And why, if we mere mortals struggle and often fail to achieve work/family balance, would we expect people with untamed ambition and unparalleled artistry to succeed when they have so much more reason to fail?

I watched three celebrity interviews recently where the issue of family vs. work priorities came up.  At the risk of piling on, let’s take the case of Tiger Woods, the most celebrated golfer of all time and the Associated Press’ athlete of the decade.

When asked in a rare interview, conducted by Sky Television New Zealand just weeks before scandal broke, whether he puts family first and golf second, Woods responded “Always.”  He could have simply said “yes” or “I try to”, but instead he felt compelled to give an answer that would leave no doubt. Granted, in light of what we now know about Tiger’s personal life, such assertiveness might have been a case of “the [athlete] doth protest too much”, but the notion that he puts family above golf practice and tournaments and travel and endorsement deals and advertising stints simply strains credulity. 

But maybe it’s a matter of what it means to put family first—it’s a nebulous term, after all. Does it mean spending lots of time with the family? Or providing for them to the best of your ability, even though you may not be around much? Or keeping them in the forefront of your mind even when you’re devoting nearly all your energy to your craft or business? Or does it simply mean that ‘family’ is where your heart rests even if your mind and energy and time are elsewhere? Also, just to complicate things a bit further, does the meaning of “family first” differ for men and women?

I came across one of my favorite Inside the Actors Studio episodes, with Francis Ford Coppola.  It goes without saying that The Godfather forever assures his status as one of the most revered directors, ever.  In discussing the influence of family on career, he gently admonished the students, “Today, I hear all these guys, ‘Well, I don’t want to get married, I’m 36… I want to make it, I want to have a career before I make that thing.’ And the bottom line is: to get married and have kids and to have a family inspires your careers to blossom. And that’s what happened to me.”  Coppola romanticizes the family-art connection rather than acknowledging the inherent conflicts that arise when an artistic genius is also a husband and father.

cover art

Notes on a Life

Eleanor Coppola

(Knopf Doubleday; US: May 2008)

Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, on the other hand, brings a different perspective in her 2008 memoir, Notes on a Life: A Portrait of a Marriage. Eleanor quotes singer Tom Waits as saying, “Family and career don’t like each other… one is always trying to eat the other.” Case in point: Coppola’s notorious three-year obsessive devotion to the making of Apocalypse Now, an experience which is said to have nearly destroyed him, and which Eleanor captured in the award-winning documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

In a 2009 interview with CNN, she said, in reference to Coppola’s epic struggle to make the movie, “When you do something that’s the most extreme and hardest thing you have ever done—everything is in jeopardy; your personal life, your financial life is in jeopardy and people’s lives were literally in jeopardy.” When creating a work of art is that all consuming, it’s hard to imagine that family life doesn’t suffer. And yet, don’t the ends (eternal masterpieces) justify the means (extreme dedication to one’s vision, perhaps to the detriment of all else)?

And then there was an interview with Nicole Kidman. Kidman has always struck me as someone who’s been trained by Hollywood (and ex-husband Tom Cruise), starting when she was just 23 and in her first blockbuster, Days of Thunder, to look and act and speak “the part,” but who, at heart, is just a kick-back kind of girl. When she appeared on Oprah recently with the rest of the cast of Nine, the well-trained Kidman ultimately gave way to the real Kidman. 

After she first made it seem that she and her husband, country singer Keith Urban, have arrived at the ultimate artists/family balance solution — they’re not apart for more than a few days at a time — but then the truth came out. When Oprah asked how they managed with two busy careers that sometimes take them distant places, Kidman said she’ll turn down a movie role to go on tour with Urban and their baby. When Oprah then asked whether Urban turns down touring to be with Kidman on location (assuming the answer would be yes), Kidman answered bluntly, no. 

It was an awkward moment. Here’s one of the world’s most admired actresses, at an age (early 40s) when movie roles almost always dwindle for women, and yet she acknowledged that her husband wasn’t taking the same hits to his career that she was willing to. She even claimed she’d be okay with never acting again! Maybe Kidman’s simply lost the passion for acting. Or maybe there’s no perfect artist/family balance to be achieved, and as the woman, she’s the one more inclined to pass on career opportunities for the sake of family togetherness.

It’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions about how men and women may feel differently about these issues from just these examples, but does it really surprise anyone that it was a woman (the wife of the genius-artist) who wrote about the conflicts between work and personal life and a woman artist who is willing to sacrifice—maybe even throw away—her career at least in part for the sake of family?

Certainly, in the past, most superstars (and the vast majority were men) would not have even acknowledged that the connection between work life and family life was on their minds. And so, just that recognition is progress. But I’d rather hear artists admit to egos gone wild than insist they uphold “family first” values if family first is simply not a reality for them.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.

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